Always do the right thing


He was one of those kinds of employees whom everyone loved.  Then he died.  Suddenly.  And very sadly.

I learned of Junior’s death during a recent coaching session with a group of front line manufacturing leads and supervisors. These are the kinds of guys who are kindhearted, though mostly rough around the edges. They are prone to sarcasm and can be intolerant with employees. I must say, though, they have a fantastically dry sense of humor and are extremely likable. They’ve come a long way since I began working with them almost 18 months ago.

I would categorize them as caring human beings, a bit salt of the Earth. It would be fair to say they had never been introduced to concepts like emotional intelligence, intentional leadership, making sure to give people positive feedback, having difficult conversations in a respectful manner, helping employees sort through conflict, etc.

This is an area in our country, just outside Chattanooga, Tennessee, where everyone (for some reason) has an endearing nickname. I’m adding this just to give you a sense of what it is like to be in the midst of these guys. Rob is “Utah.” Jimmy is “Bubba.” Jonathon is “Hunter.” Rob #2 is “Ripp.”    

I don’t remember how it came up, the mention of Junior’s accident. Somewhere about midway through our coaching session, one of the guys mentioned it. Maybe I do remember: We were talking about the accountability side of leadership, most specifically recovered hours and shipments of customer orders. This particular site was behind on both of these metrics for the month of April. And the month was ticking away…nearing that time where the pressure is put on employees, mandatory overtime kicks in, and everyone knows to say goodbye to their weekend plans.

One of the guys in the room said, “We didn’t hit our goal for the month because Junior died, and this entire place is devastated.” We paused there. Almost as if someone hit a switch, every guy in the room began to fight back tears. We had to just sit in silence for a long time. I didn’t want to speak first. I knew someone would say something once he gathered himself. I had no idea of this tragedy that had happened only three weeks earlier.

I knew of Junior, because his cantankerous leader, Linn, spoke so highly of him so often. Junior was the employee everyone wanted. He worked hard out in the shipping yard, often in 90- to 100-degree temperatures, always full on. He was not a time waster, not a wander around kind of guy. He was friendly and helpful; likable and positive. As he walked out the door, moments before his motorcycle hit a pothole in the road, he said, “See you tomorrow, Boss! I’ll bring the donuts!” His last words, most likely, ever spoken.

As we sat in the conference room, we spent the rest of the time talking about Junior. There just is no productivity to be had when this news is on the table. These guys still needed to talk about this and will need to for a long time.

I am working toward a point. The plant manager called the operations executives of this company at the division level and said, “I’m giving everyone Friday and Saturday off. I have to do this. Every single person will want to pay their respects to Junior at his funeral on Friday. And they need time to grieve.”

The level of appreciation that these guys shared that day toward their plant manager was off the charts. They were beyond grateful. As a matter of fact, they were all still hanging on to a similar incident that had happened 10 years earlier. They were not extended this same courtesy. The deceased individual was not important enough to leadership to pause production and goal achievement. These guys essentially said (and I paraphrase), “The way Bruce handled this has now erased our bitterness for what was done 10 years ago.”    

The final sentiments that I remember from this conversation were, “We have a long way to go to heal from this loss. We will never be the same. AND…we will never forget what Bruce did for all of us.”

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Aleta Norris is a partner and co-founder of Living As A Leader, a national leadership training, coaching and consulting firm. Living As A Leader supports the development of leaders in more than 125 organizations across the country. For several years, Aleta has been researching and speaking about the critical responsibilities organizations and leaders share related to the attraction, retention and engagement of the emerging workforce.

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