Like a lot of kids, my first job was for my father. He was a custom residential and commercial contractor and architect, and he had me sweeping his job sites when I was just old enough to use the broom as intended and not as a sword. This continued for a few sweltering Arizona summers and I hated it. On top of being hot as hell, nothing is quite as monotonous as pushing a broom over the same surface, day in and day out.
Being the lowest man on the totem pole also meant enduring the ribbing of other contractors who knew all too well whose son I was. For me, this job was a special form of punishment with no respect and even less value – after all, the crap was just going to pile up again the next day. I may have been in my single digits, but I already had big aspirations. I never wanted to be the one in the trenches, I wanted to be the big boss in the air-conditioned office. For all my misery then, I look back on that time and can recall the moment the experience changed my outlook on life and my understanding of what comprises a great founder and leader.
But first, some context. For those not familiar with the construction process, you have little margin for error when pouring a foundation. It’s a lot of highly volatile material that needs to be poured quickly, and without error, as truck after truck arrives in tight intervals. If concrete sits or mixes in a truck for too long, the pour is ruined. If it gets spread incorrectly, or out of square or level, the foundation is ruined.
The moment a switch flipped in me was during an all important foundation pour. My broom had been replaced with a stupid little hose as my job temporarily transitioned to dust control. I stood amongst the menagerie of workers and trucks and machinery charged with keeping dust away, and had the perfect vantage point for what came next.
That day my father was on site, as he always was during big milestones like a foundation pour. In addition to the foundation, the crew was also pouring some stems for retaining walls. As the focus shifted to the wall stems, so did my dad’s tripod optical level, which is used to check that things like forms and ditches are at the height they should be. As you may have guessed, that day, they weren’t.
When he saw that the trench for the next pour was out of whack, you could hear his bellow from across the jobsite as he yelled out dimensions to the crews. When they didn’t move, I saw him run over to them and do a lot of explaining with his hands, and some choice words. A bunch of heads moved east and west, which is never a good sign. The foreman for the crew was missing, despite being the one qualified to reset the lines for the pour.
What happened next was one of the most influential moments in my life. I saw my dad sprint over to the problem area with a gaggle of workers running to keep pace behind him. He set up the level again, shot the area from a different angle, jumped down in the trench, ripped out the forms and proceeded to expertly reset them. With that change, the trench needed to be dug deeper and, with the time constraints created by impending concrete trucks, that meant ‘by hand’. I looked on in awe as my father jumped out of the trench and instructed everyone to grab a shovel. This time he and a half dozen workers jumped back into the ditch and proceeded to violently reshape the earth. In what seemed like seconds, everything was resolved and the concrete pour continued, unaffected.
As I grew older, I continued to work for my dad each summer, eventually as his project manager and superintendent before he fired me during college. I’ve also fired him several times, but that’s a story for a different time. The point is I learned that day the critical importance of never being “above” a job. Not only that, but the importance of having knowledge and understanding of the jobs others perform for you.
I’ve found that whenever possible, if you have done (or can do) the work of your teams, it provides a massive amount of context and empathy. It allows you to truly set an expectation of what good and great look like, along with realistic expectations for yourself on timelines that are reasonable. And there’s no greater motivator than seeing a leader who is willing to roll their sleeves up and get into the trenches with their team.
“I’ll never ask you to do a job that I’m not willing to do myself.”
That quote should be tattooed somewhere on my father, and it has always stuck with me as the guiding principle of good leadership.
As a founder, having both the ability, as well as desire, to jump in wherever necessary is something we look for explicitly when evaluating startups. In fact, it comes second only to the single most important trait: knowing when to get out of the trench and out of the way.