When I first saw the July topic was “Best Advice for New Leaders”, I couldn’t help but think back 25 years ago when I was fresh out of college, diploma clinched tightly in my hand, and off to the races for my first job. My field of study was industrial engineering (IE), and had spent summers as an IE intern at Big Brown, otherwise known as United Parcel Service. Working at UPS is not what I would categorize as the typical work environment, but the nature of industry, and the size and scope of UPS created opportunities to learn and grow right at the very beginning of my career. Since then, throughout my career, I have been able to apply many of the lessons learned from UPS on recent projects and client engagements, as well as pass them to others along the way.
Before sharing some of my personal lessons learned from UPS, here are a few background facts about UPS in 1989:
- UPS had a strong “promote from within” policy for management – all managers started their UPS career as delivery drivers before working their way up and into the office.
- 1989 was the first year that the Teamsters had a national contract with UPS – prior to that, the contracts were regional, and strikes, while disruptive to local UPS operations, did not cripple the company. Tension between union and management employees began to increase the year leading into the contract.
- In 1989, overnight package delivery, which we completely take for granted today, was still in its infancy. FedEx had taken a commanding lead in the industry as the first to market, and UPS was working very hard to close the gap in market share.
The summer before my senior year, one of the main responsibilities as an IE intern was to ride with drivers and measure their work for a given day. We wore the same brown uniforms, and walked stride for stride with the driver in an effort to measure how far they walked, the number of customers they dealt with, and the number of parcels they carried, as well as many other metrics (how many of you remember what a COD package was, or signed for a package on paper and clipboards?). The results of these measurements were compared with a company standard for a given geographic territory to see how the driver was performing. Urban areas had less driving, and more walking, whereas more rural had more driving and less walking. If I wasn’t in shape when I started the summer internship, I certainly was when I went back to school in the fall.
When we were not on the road with drivers, we were in the office working on reviewing and summarizing recent studies. Additionally, in this tense contract year, every once in a while there was be a day where more drivers were absent than expected. The operations team would call other district offices to request someone to backfill for the day. The manager I reported to as an intern seemed to be a popular candidate to backfill for drivers. During one particular week, he had been called three days in a row to help the operations team. On that third day, as he was packing up his things to head out of the office, I started to pack up my things and offered to help him for the day. Despite a late start, between the two of us we managed to finish the route before the end of the workday.
At the end of that summer, our district manager pulled me aside and offered me a full time job after I graduated. He had a number of interns working in the office, but I was the only one to whom he had extended an offer. As we talked, he explained that one of the reasons I received the offer was my willingness to help out with deliveries that particular afternoon. In his opinion, the foundation of UPS’s success was its commitment to customer service. Managers are pulled from their desk jobs to backfill for drivers because no job in the company is more important than meeting the needs of their customers. As leaders in the company, they were fully aware of how critical it was to put customers and overall company goals (market share, customer retention) ahead of their personal or even departmental goals. Since then, as a consultant, and especially over the past ten years as an independent contractor, I always reflect back on that summer and remind myself of the importance of customers first.
After I graduated, I returned as a full time employee. However, as mentioned earlier, all managers, even if you are recruited out of college and hired as manager, still had to serve as a driver first. I started in July, and was behind the wheel until the first of the year, including the busy holiday season. I got to experience the job first hand, day in and day out, for nearly 6 months. In 25 years, it was certainly the most physically taxing job I’ve ever had. However, the experience was also one of the most rewarding. In hindsight, it was the best training for my longer term role that I could have asked for. I truly understood the “bread and butter” of the business. I learned how to do it well, and I regularly engaged with customers, both happy and angry. For that period of time, I was the face of UPS to those customers – the driver that they dealt with, and as a result, the recipient of either their praise or complaint. When I moved back to the office that January, some of my responsibilities overlapped those from my summer internship. However, I realized that my approach to the work during that summer was very “textbook” – it made sense on paper, but perhaps didn’t have that flavor of practical sprinkled on top. When I did the same stop-watch efficiency studies after driving, I had an entirely new appreciation for the job. It truly was the best corporate training I’ve had in my career.
My take away from that experience, and have applied time and again as a consultant, was to make sure you really understand the jobs of those you are consulting to and/or advising. Too often we get caught up in what looks good on paper without understanding the practicality of a recommendation or decision. Projects are successful not only because you finished on time and on budget, but because what you implement works. Good leaders will be sounding boards in this process to make sure that changes that impact their team make sense and are actually achievable. You cannot effectively do this if you do not really have a grasp on the work that your team does day in and day out.
Many years have passed since my time at Big Brown, but I consider myself a proud alumnus and my career greatly benefited from having worked there. I don’t think the brown uniform would fit me anymore, but the lessons learned and memories will last my entire career.