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wisdom from dirty jobs
how executives should earn street cred
by tracey l. kelley (@TraceyLKelley)

Brad was a proactive man.

There was a problem with my home’s dual phone lines. My husband and I remedied the situation before we could cancel the repair call. But Brad, a lineman from (insert major, traditionally uncaring, phone conglomerate here), said, “Well, while I’m here, let me take a look.”

I followed in my fuzzy slippers to watch while he analyzed. He decided that even though the problem was fixed, he’d make some updates to the junction box anyway.

We chatted. We discussed the horrendous customer service I encountered at the corporate office. We noted that it was indeed an abnormally warm January day in Iowa. He suggested a better phone filter I could try. We talked about the lines running to old California ranch homes like mine. He told me of his transfer from a metro to a rural area. I thanked Brad for taking the time to make the situation better and he shrugged, stating, “It’s my job. It’s what I came here to do.”

Now, when’s the last time you heard that?

There’s nothing I like more about meeting people than being surprised. I’m an intel voyeur to the core, peering between the wooden blinds of the human psyche. I asked him to elaborate.

Brad went on to say that he grew up on a farm. That he always thought his father was a miserable s.o.b. for dogging him so much about doing a job right, and not turning a nose up at hard work. It wasn’t until later, working for the phone conglomerate, that he realized his father was absolutely right. There are too many people in the world who forget the importance of every job, the way everything is interconnected.

“It’s like when they put on a tie,” Brad said, “They lose touch with what’s real. Everyone should work on a farm, just once. Everyone should get their hands dirty.”

I’m a farm kid. I understand.

I’ve known dirt. I’ve baled hay, cleaned barns, milked cows, and shoveled poo. I’ve laid sod, roofed houses, torn down buildings, and sprayed insulation. It’s amazing, but you clean right up with soap and water, and there’s no harm done.

Unless I break a nail. I hate that.

And once, as one of the top-rated jazz show radio hosts, I still didn’t make enough money to get by. So I cleaned houses. Many of the people who called in requests to me at night did so while resting in the bathtub I scrubbed for them that day. I remember the shock that registered on their faces when I said something a certain way that prompted recognition, followed by the inevitable “but… but… you’re on the radio! Why are you picking up my underwear?”

Why, indeed? Certainly, I had a special skill. But had I really wanted to build a career in the cleaning industry, there wouldn’t be anything wrong with that choice either, especially if I did it right. In retrospect, I probably could have avoided a lot of hassles with crooked station owners, sleazy salespeople, and grab-happy musicians.

Probably would have made a lot more money, too.

It’s a farm kid thing. When you’ve got to get something done, you just do it. You don’t, as Brad’s dad said, turn up your nose. It’s an attitude bookended by ideals: no matter what you do to make money, as long as you’re honest about it, treat others with respect, and put your best into it, then it’s a decent way of life.

I believe “work ethic” is a more concise term for it.

People who do dirty jobs don’t have time for competitive backstabbing, toxic office drama, and peacock posturing. If they don’t apply themselves and focus on the job at hand, someone gets hurt, or cities shut down. A life of convenience as the rest of us know it falters, simply because someone’s ego wasn’t preened? Hardly.

Championing this attitude is one of the reasons I enjoy watching “Dirty Jobs”. Okay, yeah, Mike Rowe is cute. And funny. He’s also extremely talented at ad-libbing, and able to slide through just about any pile of poo with a smile on his face, albeit a bit wry.

But what he does best is demonstrate a genuine curiosity and respect for the situation at hand and, more importantly, the workers who tackle the dirty jobs.

There’s a lesson in that.

Granted, he has a camera crew and the wonders of editing at his disposal. But there’s an authenticity about him that can’t be contrived by even the sharpest method actor. Rowe takes his gloves off to shake someone’s hand. He looks people in the eye. He doesn’t pre-empt someone’s response with his own answer.

Watch the third guy from the left in any group shot. He’s eyeballing Rowe skeptically, thinking him to be a ponce -- until Rowe throws his back into the work of, say, an oilfield roughneck. Third Guy then backs Rowe up, play-punches his shoulder, and later, probably downs a few brews with him off-camera.

Just imagine if corporate executives and mid-level managers coordinated the efforts of their teams in this manner. What if they stepped into a prairie dog cubicle and really listened to a day in the life of Melinda, the claims processor or Dale, the customer service rep? Better still, what if the execs then picked up the forms or the headset themselves?

Getting “dirty”, as it were, would provide an enlightened perspective of the process and, more importantly, the people involved in it. The basic philosophy is when everyone does the job right, everyone wins. The mutual respect exchanged between executive and worker would then radiate into positive workflow.

You can cue the unfolding lotus blossom now.

Employees would know first-hand that their efforts are appreciated, no matter how menial. And executives could roll naked on a bed of increased stock dividends and sparkling lime Jell-O.

Rowe should start a dirty job executive training program. You know, similar to those team-building exercises wherein a group of employees follow their managers to a military obstacle course, and everyone pretends to get along while climbing a knotted rope. Rowe could lead the executives into the bowels of their, oh, I don’t know, IT department and have them write code, or put them on a cash register at one of their gas stations in downtown Chicago at 3 a.m.

I’m not trying to bash the suits. I love wiggling on a hard conference room chair of high-powered rhetoric as much as the next person. But I do think there’s an illness permeating corporate America, the symptoms of which include that most employees do not need to be valued. And the deeper the position is in poo, the less important it is.

After all, you never hear of 400 executives being fired by e-mail. And we wonder why workers develop a slick hide of apathy.

After Brad left, I called the repair department and spoke to his manager. I told him how much I appreciated Brad’s attitude and the job well done. The manager was quite surprised at first. In fact, I think he hesitated before confirming that was the only reason for my call. Then he asked if I would write a letter so it could be placed in Brad’s file, so I did. I don’t expect a honeyed biscuit for doing that.

I’m just saying thanks.

It’s a farm kid thing.


Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou

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lisa r
1.31.07 @ 11:03a

Tracey, you are so right. Farm work builds a character that you don't typically see in "suits" who've never had honest dirt under their fingernails. And I think I know why--it's not just the work ethic that's instilled. I think it's because on a farm if the work doesn't get done, animals starve, plants die, equipment fails.....and there is no income. Period.

If a manager drops the ball, there's someone else to pick it up (and most likely take advantage of the situation). Not so on a farm.

I, too, have had dirt and manure under my fingernails. I've shoveled tons of "road apples". I've stacked hay in the Southern July heat and unloaded truckloads of shavings--both incredibly itchy jobs. I've slogged through Carolina red clay mud during downpours without a hat simply because the horses I was feeding and working were upset if someone with a hat approached them. And I've had to watch helplessly as a favorite mare died because there was nothing anyone, including the vet, could do to save her.

And like you I've laid sod. I like slogging through mud better. ;)

Let's face it--in the corporate world, you don't come face to face with the consequences of your failure. You see it in sterile black (and maybe red)and white on a spreadsheet. You may be demoted or lose your job, but it doesn't soil your cuffs. When you cradle a dying animal you've tried desperately to save and can do nothing else for--THAT makes a lasting impression that a number on a piece of paper simply cannot make on one's psyche.

My most rewarding jobs have been those that made a real difference. Not financially for me, perhaps, but for someone, or something, else.


ken mohnkern
1.31.07 @ 12:10p

I am not a farm kid. But I got my hands dirty working at a summer camp. A couple years as a counselor and a couple on the maintenance crew. I drove a tractor, cut down trees, cleaned latrines, got giggly-high on pool-paint fumes, fixed wagon steps and tent platforms, built bonfires, chased rabid raccoons and curious bears out of camp.

I was hungry at dinner time, dirty at shower time, and tired at night. It was the best job I've ever had.

I did this during my college summers instead of taking internships in engineering firms to enhance my resume. Best and most self-sabotaging career decision I've ever made.

(Great insights, Tracey and Lisa.)

russ carr
1.31.07 @ 12:16p

OH, Wordy McWord to this whole beautiful thing. A shame it's a pipe dream to think that anything resembling such a proposal would ever happen.

Working in a corporate environment has gotten me to understand the power of the striking worker. Of course, we're not unionized or organized or anything like that, so even that threat is nonexistent, but I can truly see the razor that labor holds to the throat of management when they threaten to shut production down.

Because management doesn't have Clue 1 on how the wheels of the machine actually turn. If something breaks, they can't fix it. If something gets depleted, they can't replenish it. All they can do, in their panic, is demand that the worker bees get in there and seal the gap, breech the tear, staunch the flow.

The lowliest worker in the smallest cubicle buried somewhere in the basement may still have it "cleaner" than the guy scraping up roadkill from molten Georgia asphalt in August, but in the long run, he's just as foreign to the suits upstairs, and the labors of his day are just as incomprehensible to them. (MBA: Management Blinders Attached)

Problem is, as long as the machine works -- and as long as the workers want a paycheck, it will -- the people pushing the button at the top will have no reason to change the status quo.

lisa r
1.31.07 @ 12:31p

Ken--I hear you on the summer camp job. I've done that as well. I worked my way up in the kitchen to head cook, and also worked as a camp equestrian. The thing about a camp job is you're never really off-duty, because when you aren't doing other things you're serving as a counselor, riding herd on pre-teens and teenagers. You're going on hikes, playing softball or Capture the Flag, keeping tabs on swimmers, dodging mosquitoes, etc. It sounds like fun, but it's hard work at the same time.

Russ is right--for the most part it is a pipe dream. There are a few CEO's out there who have a clue and a handshake that reveals calluses from years of hard work.

My theory is that you can tell a lot about a corporate exec by finding out if they own horses. If they do, watch them--those that are willing to clean up after the horses and do the dirty work involved in their daily care are the ones who will be the best stewards of their companies. Those who show up at the barn only to ride and leave the animals' care to others should be avoided as bosses. If they view animals simply as possessions or investments, then that's most likely their view of their subordinates.

tracey kelley
2.1.07 @ 12:42p

Wow, Lisa - your horse theory is incredibly insightful. I feel the same way about how people treat restaurant servers. You know - that old thing where if you're out on a date, and the date treats the server like shit, that's exactly how you'll be treated. When I'm out on business, I pay particular attention to this.

A friend of mine who is a CEO of an ag manufacturing plant LOVES to poke servers with a stick and see what they're made of. He's not being mean - he genuinely wants his dining experience to include the server, and it's a hoot to watch. Those who rise to his challenge of playfulness and knowledge are rewarded handsomely, which is very similar to how he interacts with people.

"Management Blinders Attached." Heh.

Someone sent an e-mail asking if I was against rich people. No. I'm against stupid, selfish people who take others for granted or think themselves superior based on external trappings. My converstation with Brad the Lineman was far deeper than any I had with executive row in the corporate world.

I'd like to send a hullo out to the fine folks on the Dirty Jobs website. They welcomed me right away and some popped over to read this column. Come back anytime!

I posted over there that I've picked up a copy of Patagonia's founder Yvon Chouinard's memoir, Let My People Go Surfing. I'm really intrigued by this mountain-climber turned businessman.


lisa r
2.1.07 @ 3:58p


I suppose my yardstick could apply to any pet, but I use horses because they require so much care and expense. Owning one is not cheap, and cleaning a stall takes a lot more physical effort than scooping a litter box or dog poop. It's hot, dirty, backbreaking work. So is grooming and/or washing a horse if done properly. I figure if a corporate bigwig is willing to take the regular time out of his or her schedule to care for a horse, he or she is going to be a well-liked and effective manager or owner. There's a valid reason why so many 4-H and FFA kids go on to be successful in life. They learn the value of responsibility towards others early on.

alex b
2.2.07 @ 3:58a

I'm not a farm kid, and haven't got the first clue of what a rural life would be like. However, some of my own dirty job experiences include mopping up at hostels, dishwashing and garbage duty in a cafeteria, cleaning puke in bathrooms, and washing glasses at bars and wiping it down at the end of the night. Each has been a terrific way to learn values in living, and has likewise imparted a very humble and grateful attitude of thanks.

dave lentell
2.2.07 @ 10:14a

Cool column Ms. Tracey. One thing that I found telling was at the end where you comment on how surprised Brad's manager was that you called to say that he'd done a good job.

I wonder if that's part of the problem any more these days. Sure, we're paying for these services, and expect them to be done, but does it hurt to thank a guy or gal? Especially one who's maybe gone the extra mile when it comes to customer service?

These days it seems that so many of us only call, write or e-mail a manager only to complain. I'm not saying that if we made a little more effort to recognize those that do go above and beyond that it might keep good guys like Brad from one day becoming a guy who doesn't give a dang about customer service because he's so burned out, but hey... you never know.

So, good job out of you!


steve owen
2.7.07 @ 2:48a

Yes, yes, yes! Dirty work is for everybody, especially kids (though they may hate it at the time). After living outside the US for the last 13 years, seeing people who surround themselves with hired helpers, I've seen all too clearly what happens to people who are brought up to believe that tasks like that are "beneath" them. Too many of them become squeamish, spoiled, high-maintenance wusses, who freak out at the smallest chore or mess because they can't handle cleaning it up. I've known teenagers who are on the verge of graduating high school but who have never (!) washed a dish, not one. Can you imagine?

My brother and I were raised by a single mom so we became intimately familiar with house chores, plus we spent many hardworking days helping her care for her horse, for whose board we helped to earn by working other jobs around the ranch. I wish I had a dollar for every horse apple I raked out of those stalls, me and all my generations would live like royalty unto the next millennium! ;-) Did me a lot of good, and that's no jive.



tracey kelley
2.8.07 @ 11:22a

Steve, welcome. Your insights are spot on. Also thanks to Mike Rowe for taking the time to read this column and making comments about it on the Dirty Jobs Message Boards

Dave, you bring up a very good point about thanking someone for the work they do. After all, we all like to hear it, but for some, it's so hard to do.

I'm about halfway through Chouinard's memoir, and it's very interesting. Patagonia has developed - through much trial and error, without question - many philosophies that guide every step of the company.

Surprisingly, their projected rate of growth, based on all these tenets, is 5 percent. So profit is not the driving force.

A funny: Chouinard states that when he dies, hell for him would be eternal life as a marketing manager for a cola product. HA!


jael mchenry
2.8.07 @ 2:21p

But cola products are so delicious!

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