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I sometimes find myself in situations where my subject knowledge is woefully lacking and I am under pressure to find a solution. Sound familiar? My answer is to turn to fire hydrants. Bear with me, as this will require some explanation.
Many years ago, the company I worked for was part of a large British multinational, with all the departments and support services that came with it. We had a large HR department and within that, a couple of ex-army guys who ran outward-bound type management courses. Now this was something to be avoided at all costs and generally, we managed to do just that.
Being taken off for a week to the wilds of Scotland, living in a tent was not something to be endured and we always managed to have good enough excuses to avoid it. All of us that is, apart from Phil, our London sales manager, whose name was put on the list when he was on holiday. Like the rest of us, it was the last thing he wanted to do, but by the time he found out it was too late and he was ordered to report to Edinburgh Airport on Monday morning with the rest of his course.
It was raining when he arrived and continued all week. They were picked up in an ex-army ten tonne truck and dropped off at a remote location in the Highlands. After a cold and wet night spent in one man tents, listening to the calls of wild animals and the rain beating down, they were roused early for a cold breakfast, followed by a series of tasks involving poles, barrels, rope and a river.
Phil was put in charge of a group whose job was to get the whole lot across the river, together with the group. The poles were too short to make a bridge and the rope too short to swing across and the barrel ended regularly in the river. Phil was getting increasingly frustrated and tense with the fiasco he was making of getting him and his colleagues across the river, and continually dismissed the intervention of an accountant in his team who claimed to know how to do it. What could a company accountant know about this? Eventually he rounded on him in anger only to be deflated when he replied that he had done the course before and knew the solution to the problem. Once armed with this knowledge, the team was able to accomplish the task in no time.
Fast forward three months and Phil was installing a large piece of equipment at a customer in central London. He had done the site survey and arranged delivery. It should have been fairly straight forward; down a steep slope, round a corner and along a corridor to the final site. All was going well until progress was halted by the position of a large fire hydrant half way up the corridor wall. The entry slope was too steep to retrace their steps and the customer of course had a job to get out using the new kit. The engineers, delivery men and customer’s staff all looked to Phil for guidance, but Phil was stumped. Scratching his head, his experience in Scotland came back to him and addressing the assembled group, he asked “Do any of you guys know anything about fire hydrants?” Much to his surprise one of the delivery crew stuck up his hand and said he did. This was a part time job for him and his day job was as a Fireman. He confirmed to Phil he knew how to take it off the wall and put it back after, so the installation was saved and the customer got his job out.
When they were packing up, Phil asked the Fireman why he remained silent when they were all looking at the fire hydrant. “Well, you are the boss and I am only here to do what I am told” was his response. It was a hard lesson learned but one that Phil shared with the rest of us at a sales meeting the following week and one we have all used regularly since.
There are many people around you with specialist knowledge and skills who will probably not volunteer it, even if they see the need. You are the boss and are supposed to have all the answers. So next time you are stuck with a problem, think about fire hydrants and have a quick search among you. You might be surprised where the solution eventually comes from.
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