A Management Generation Gap

A management mentor of mine (let's call him Gary) contacted me the other day. This contact brought back many memories. Most of what I know about managing people I learned from him. Gary is near retirement now and he is the best example I know of an "old school" engineering manager. Today, engineering teams are composed of both men and women. Back in Gary's day, women engineers were rare but starting to become more common. During my first days under Gary, I worked as a two-person team with a very good female engineer -- let's call her Sue.

Back in the 1980s, we were supporting US Navy contracts on three coasts: East, West, and Gulf. Since I live in Minnesota, I spent much of my time flying across the country. The work Gary assigned to me was absolutely miserable! I would get calls late in the evening and he would tell me things like, "there is a problem in Seattle -- get your ass out there first thing tomorrow morning." This happened all the time. I put 200,000 air miles on my first year -- most of the trips were 2 to 3 days. I was always traveling at night and going out to some dock in a nasty part of a large city. I would load electronic equipment onto a research vessel and then get my tail out to some ocean test site. Sue, on the other hand, always had the office duty. This entailed writing reports, giving presentations, and other office functions. Both Sue and I noticed the difference in how we were treated.

One day, Sue had reached her limit and she started to yell at Gary, "You treat Mark like dirt and me like a princess -- this has got to stop." Of course, I am no more than 10 feet away and I am thinking to myself, "You go girl! -- let him have it." Sue was fully capable of doing everything I did and I was darn tired -- I have a family with two kids myself. She beat him up for at least ten minutes and then walked away. Gary had little to say while she was berating to him. Sue clearly had made the point that she was not getting the kind of experience that I was getting and her career would suffer because of it.

After Sue left the area, Gary came over to me and said, "I am the father of daughters -- I could not live with myself if one of the women was hurt while working." To be fair to Gary, the job did have its hazards (I will relate those tales some other time). Gary stood up, looked at me with a big grin and said, "fortunately, I have no guilt about how I treat you" and he walked away. He never did change.

Today, things are very different. I work hard to ensure that every engineer receives equal treatment. I will agree with Gary on one thing. Being a parent has made a difference in how I manage -- particularly for young folks. I now understand the importance of mentoring and providing a role model. Gary was my mentor -- I hope I do as good a job with my young engineers as he did with me.

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