When I was a junior in college, I got into a discussion with my dad about the role of large companies in America. I remember the conversation like it was yesterday. We were standing in the kitchen at my parents’ home and I told him I believed that one of the primary responsibilities of large companies was to provide employment for individuals. He looked at me like I was a two headed creature from outer space and said, “You’re not going to get anywhere in life with that attitude.”
When I started to defend my position, he cut me off and said: “As an employee, your job is to make a profit for the owners of the company you work for. They didn’t start a business so they could hand out jobs to people. They started a business to make money. What are they teaching you at that college anyway?”
As I stood there thinking about what he said, he added: “And let me tell you something else. Don’t ever forget that when you’re working for a company, you can be replaced in a heartbeat. You’re replaceable. I’m replaceable. Everyone is replaceable. You should always be thinking of ways to make yourself more valuable to the company so it’s harder for them to replace you. If you can position yourself as a key employee, there’s a good chance that when times get tough, you’ll stay onboard while others are laid off. It’s your responsibility to figure out how you can provide more value to the company – over and above what you have been asked to do.”
I had nothing to say in response to my dad’s comments. He was right. He knew what he was talking about. In his early 20’s, he had gone through the carpenter apprenticeship program and became a member of the carpenters union. By the time he was in his 30’s, he was supervising the construction of hospitals and schools in the Central Illinois area. When he was in his 40’s, he started and built his own successful construction company with his brother. He later sold his interest in that company (to his brother), and then started and ran his own construction company for several years. After the recession of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, he decided to close his business and then went to work for another commercial construction company in Central Illinois.
About 10 years after our conversation in the kitchen, the company my dad was working for put him in charge of supervising the construction of a multi-million dollar commercial high-rise in Pekin, IL. When the building was close to completion, my dad called the vice president of the company (the person he reported to) and asked him to send a laborer out to the job site to cut some concrete (with a hand-held concrete saw). It was anticipated that the job of cutting the concrete would take 1½ to 2 days to complete.
In response to my dad’s request, the vice president said, “Carl, I don’t have any laborers I can send you. Why don’t you go ahead and cut the concrete yourself.” (My dad was aware of the fact that the company had an agreement with the unions to employ only union workers and to use and assign the appropriate union workers to the jobs that needed to be done. He also knew that it would be a violation of union rules for him to step in and do the job of a laborer. He wasn’t willing to go against the union in order to accommodate his boss.)
In response to the suggestion that he cut the concrete himself, my dad replied, “Jim (not his real name), if you don’t have a laborer to send out, just call the hall (Laborer’s Local 165) and have them send a guy out.” Jim had made up his mind as to what he wanted to do and said, “Carl, you’re the only superintendent we have who refuses to do that type of work. You’re going to have to do what I tell you to do and cut the concrete yourself”
My dad responded, “I’m not like your other superintendents. You either need to call the hall and ask them to send out a laborer or I can call them myself. Do you want me to make the phone call?” Jim shot back: “If you’re not willing to cut the concrete yourself, then you’re done with this company. You can stop by my office in the morning and pick up your check.” In a calm voice my dad responded, “I don’t need to pick up the check, Jim. You can go ahead and just mail it to me.” Then he hung up the phone.
Five minutes after my dad hung up on his boss, the telephone rang. When my dad answered the phone, the first thing he heard (in a long whiney voice) was: “Come on Caaaarrrrrrlllll?” “COME ON WHAT!” my dad shouted. In an apologetic tone, Jim said, “We both need to calm down and get this worked out.” They ended up working it out by Jim calling the laborer’s hall and hiring a union laborer to cut the concrete. My dad continued to work for the company for several years after that (until he retired). Jim left him alone for the remaining years that he was employed by the company.
Jim was a bully who was accustomed to using intimidation and threats to get what he wanted from his employees. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t realize that Carl Williams didn’t let bullies push him around. What changed Jim’s mind so quickly? He was a minority shareholder in the company and realized that the majority owners would be angry when they found out my dad had quit over such a minor issue.
Although my dad was replaceable, he had become a valuable employee who consistently completed his building projects ahead of schedule and under budget. In fact, it was not unusual for my dad to save the company in the mid six figures on a multi-million dollar construction project.
Jim’s attitude about his employees was that they were all commodities. A “commodity” can best be described as a good or service that is so widely available within a market that it can be easily exchanged for a minimal price that has been established by the market. A commodity has historically been defined as a product that comes out of the ground or is picked off of a plant, such as gold, oil, corn, beans, and wheat. Generally, as long as a commodity meets a minimum standard of quality, its price is the same as all of the other commodities in its category.
So a bushel of corn is like any other bushel of corn and can easily be purchased (or replaced) for the same price as any other bushel. The same goes for a pound of coffee, a barrel of oil, or an ounce of gold. Unfortunately, a lot of employees are viewed by their employers as commodities – easily replaceable for the same cost.
We were all created in the image and likeness of God as unique individuals with unique personalities. We were not meant to be interchangeable commodities to be bought and sold in the marketplace like corn and beans. God’s plan for every one of us has always been for us to strive for (and reach) perfection – perfection of our souls, perfection of our hearts, perfection of our love for others, perfection of our service to others.
So the final fundamental lesson you should teach your son* before he can be expected to excel as an employee is: (1) he can easily be replaced by the next person in a long line of people who are anxiously waiting to take his job; (2) he is not just another worker (commodity) with a price tag stamped on his forehead. He is a unique and special individual who was created in the image and likeness of God; therefore, he should strive for perfection in not only the type of person he is to become, but also in the way he serves his employer; and (3) the “job” his employer has asked him to perform is only the starting point. It’s up to your son to figure out (and follow through on) additional ways he can be of greater service to his employer. The more service he provides, the more valuable he becomes. The more valuable he becomes, the harder it is for his employer to replace him.
If St. Joseph were living today and had a son who was about to enter the modern-day workforce, I’m convinced that he would teach his son the fundamentals and lessons I’ve outlined in these articles. Do you agree with me? If you don’t agree, what lessons do you think the foster father of the Son of God would teach his son?
You now have the 3-part formula for success in the workplace. 95% of the population doesn’t know anything about this formula. Are you willing to take the time and effort to pass the formula on to your son? Do you have the courage to accept and embrace your role as a leader (and coach) regardless of the resistance you may encounter from your son and/or his mother? I challenge you to become a father who is committed to passing these great life-lessons on to your son.
*All of the fundamental lessons I’ve been discussing apply to daughters as well as sons; however, my focus in the current series of articles has been on how to transform boys into responsible men. Therefore, I have consistently used “son” or “sons” when discussing the lessons. I’ll have additional comments about this in a future article.