Jack & the 3rd-Shift Paintline

Some years ago I conducted a 360-degree assessment for the management team at a manufacturer in the “steel-bending” business. They made high-quality file cabinets, shelving, and supermarket checkout stands using rolled steel. We gathered data for about 40 managers and executives, including the supervisor of the 3rd-shift paint line, a guy we’ll call Jack. When I reviewed his feedback I saw that he was viewed as very directive decidedly not participative in his approach to his employees. At the time I believed that a highly-participative style was the best and only effective way to manage people. Jack had quite a background; his first career was as an MP in the Marines while his second career was as a sheriff’s deputy on both road patrol and county jail posts.

I expressed my concern about Jack’s style to the CEO who retained us for the assessment, and he suggested that I take a look at Jack’s team firsthand. So, I went into the plant at 11 p.m., 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. over the course of a week, and hung out with the team. I learned a lot. First of all, I learned that the 3rd shift paint line was the “dumping ground” for the rest of the plant; if a factory worker was unsuccessful in getting along with people in other units or shifts, he was often assigned to Jack’s crew as a last step before being fired. Second, I discovered that of the dozen people on this team, about two-thirds of them had criminal records and had been behavior problems in other areas of the plant. Third, I had one of Jack’s employees tell me, “hey, we can get out of hand sometimes and Jack has to take us out behind the building and smack us around a bit, but we get the job done.”

Frankly, I was confused. I expected Jack’s employees to be sullen, resentful, and unproductive. They weren’t. I had expected them to dislike Jack as a supervisor. They didn’t. More research revealed that Jack’s turnover record was substantially better than the rest of the 3rd shift, and better than most of the 1st and 2nd shift units. His productivity and quality numbers were better than 2nd shift’s and nearly as good as 1st shift.

As I considered all of this, I discovered I had learned a Lesson in Leadership. 

  • Leaders use different styles. The style that I would use and the style that you would use in the same situation may be different.
  • The style that works well in one situation may not work in every situation.
  • If the turnover on the team is not excessive, and the productivity and quality results are up to standard, then the style being used may be appropriate.

Jack turned out to be a pretty good supervisor. He might not be my cup of tea if I worked for him, but the team he led did a good job, had jelled pretty well as a team, and generally thought Jack was a pretty good guy.

 Think about your own team or business. How are you doing on those measures? Staff turnover, productivity, quality of output. Is the style you are using getting you the results you need?


  1. I like this..thanks for making this story available

    • Thanks, Lee. It’s one of my favorites too. Those early ah-ha lessons do seem to stick with us, don’t they? PMCK

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