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Even though he had a university degree, he was assigned the job of repossessing cars. We kidded him a lot about that. He eventually ended up a vice president, but his entry into the banking industry was about as low as you can get, and we never let him forget it. In similar fashion, the Enterprise car-rental firm goes to college campuses to recruit management trainees, but among the first jobs these trainees handle is washing and cleaning cars coming off rental.

When I moved from engineering to writing for a trade magazine, I was part of a staff consisting of only three editors. As the new guy, I was expected to be a jack-ofalltrades, and among my job obligations was proofing printing plates for advertising. That means I really started at the bottom, and many times while I was handling the ink roller, I figured I may have made a big mistake when I switched jobs.

The upside, as I eventually discovered, is that the staffs of large technical publications mostly sat at their desks and edited submitted manuscripts, while I actually went out and interviewed people for articles. So I learned to be quick on my feet. Along the way, I gained a good feel for what a day's work was.

Then I was hired by MACHINE DESIGN, which is a large publication by the standards of the trade press. And I was eventually made a manager. One of the first things I discovered is that at least a few staff members had firm ideas of what was and wasn't possible, and their ideas happened not to reconcile with mine. But I had been there and done that. I knew what a day's work was, and I never asked anyone to shoulder a load that I couldn't carry myself. That gave me confidence I couldn't have gained any other way.

There are other cases I know of where supervisors had moved through the ranks in an office accustomed to a leisurely pace. By a quirk of the economy, they started in the middle and quickly reached supervisory status. Although they were bosses, they didn't have a grasp of what a reasonable workload was. So people reporting to them pretty much called the shots, and the net effect was a lot of featherbedding. In my eyes, that illustrated the downside of managers not putting in enough time at the bottom.

It is possible, however, for the pendulum to swing the other way, again because of inexperience. I've seen managers come in at the top to manage technical magazines without realizing how much work is required to write and edit for a complex publication. With all their experience being with simple publications, they had totally unreasonable concepts of workloads and staffing. I am sure there are parallels in design and manufacturing with, say, a consumer products guy coming in to manage aerospace work.

In all, it brings up the question of whether or not people should serve time in the ranks before being appointed to a management position, and my opinion is that they very definitely should. People brought in at the top without getting their hands dirty are usually dangerous when it comes to managing a corporation. If you are going to run a company making cuckoo clocks, you ought to know how to build a cuckoo clock.

Where does that bring us with respect to the tens of thousands of youngsters receiving MBA degrees? Draw you own conclusions. Where have these graduates been, and what have they done? If the answer is that they haven't been anywhere and haven't done much, there is no reason they should be on a fast track to management.

-- Ronald Khol, Editor
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