In my early 20s, I worked in a piston ring foundry. If you've ever toured a foundry, you know it's not exactly like working in a clean room. The guys who worked there were good sized, muscular, tough and very hard working. It turns out, melting iron in a huge furnace, pouring it into smaller vessels, molding it, shaking out and finishing piston rings for automotive customers is very challenging and precise work.
As an "office person," I worked in employee relations, the precursor to human resources. Females were definitely in the minority in our 300-plus employee plant. I remember walking into the lunchroom and being greeted with sneers, jeers and comments like, "Hello, libber."
Since most wives were not working in those days, I must have seemed particularly odd to them, and apparently they were suspicious of my motives. Perhaps I was there to take their job? Yeah, right, like I could. I would grab my Hostess Twinkie out of the machine and make a beeline back to the office. How could guys who knew absolutely nothing about me and my circumstances label me, and otherwise disrespect me? I fumed. Lesson number one.
The "libber" label was bad enough, but another lunchroom greeting got me even more riled up. "Here comes overhead," they would say as I ducked in and out to get my coffee. I had no idea what "overhead" meant, but I knew it was not a compliment.
After a few mornings of being called overhead, I'd had it! I stomped back into the cinder-block office and pulled out the office dictionary. I looked up "overhead" and found this: "Resource consumed or lost in completing a process that does not contribute to the end product. Also called burden cost." Lesson number two.
Storming back into the lunchroom, I took them by surprise. I found myself in front of 30 or so frightful foundry fellows and proceeded to let them have it. I informed them of two things. First, I did not want their job. And second, my wages did not represent that much overhead. In my firmest voice and with my tallest 5-foot stance, I recommended that they just relax, enjoy their break and knock it off. Lesson number three.
After that, the foundry fellows seemed to become a bit more respectful of me. And over the many years of working together, I would venture to say that most, if not all, became my friends and would have done anything for me, and vice versa.
Apparently lesson number two left a large impression on me. I have not the slightest idea why. But when I read that definition in the dictionary that day, I made a decision that would impact the course of my work forever, and it was simply this: I would strive to add more value than I cost, and I would strive to help others do the same. That just made good business sense to me.
I am forever grateful to The Foundry Fellows School of Business class of 1973 for that particular lesson and so many more. As hundreds of young people, including my nieces and nephews, have checked in with me for a bit of coaching about their careers over the years, I pass the lesson along — Don't be overhead! Add value!