Why you are never too important to get your hands a little dirty

I graduated with a degree in Civil Engineering back in 2006. After working two years for a Civil Engineering firm, I got laid off at the end of 2008 due to the housing crisis.

24026_405492651671_1190499_nSo by the summer of 09’ I was broke, newly married, and desperate for work. Fortunately I landed a dream job working for a company called Ropeworks. The company specializes in rope access which is essentially industrial rock climbing. Using rope techniques developed on the big walls of Yosemite Valley, workers are placed hundreds of feet in the air to perform a wide variety of tasks.

I was fortunate enough to get hired because of my engineering background. The original idea was that I would help the company land more bridge inspection jobs. I did do a few bridge jobs (I even got to inspect the Crescent City Connection in New Orleans), but most of my time was spent doing maintenance work on 300’ tall wind turbines. Which was an awesome gig for an adrenaline junkie like me.

So when you do this kind of work, obviously safety is a huge part of the deal. Technicians always work in pairs and there is always a team leader on the job who has at least 1500 hours of rope access experience.

On my second job ever I got sent to work on a wind farm two hours east of Portland, Oregon. There were four of us working in teams of two. Because I was the newbie, I got paired up with the team leader, a guy name Nathan Schuster. Nathan is an ex-marine, avid mountain biker, and all-around great guy who is super energetic.

1917705_135470631671_6023818_nOur job was to rappel down the wings of the wind turbines (known as blades) and inspect them for damage. There are three blades per wind turbine and before you can head down you have to “lock out” the blades with huge pins to prevent them from spinning (not something you want when you’re up there). Once we had finished inspecting the blade we would climb back up our ropes, pull the pins, rotate to the next blade, and repeat.

By the end of the day we had inspected nine blades on three separate wind turbines. We went through our safety wrap up and discussed things we could improve upon the next day. At this point Nathan asked if he could provide me with some candid feedback on my work that day. I said sure.

Our teammates inspecting their blade

Our teammates inspecting their blade

So he proceeds to tell me that all of my rope skills were excellent, and that I did a great with the inspection work. Then the critique came. He had noticed that when it was time to pull the rotor pins, I had sat back and let the technician from the windfarm do all the work. I never jumped in to help once, which communicated that I was too important for that work. He encouraged me to never let this happen again. To look for opportunities to help ANY team member with their work.

I have never forgot that day. It was one of those defining moments in life for me. I learned what it meant to be a true team player. That if there is work to be done and I am present, I need to get in there and get my hands dirty. Regardless of my rank, position, or title, I will never be so important that I can’t help a team member with the work they are doing.

Now a days I get to lead an amazing team and manage a great product line. There is a lot of “big picture” work that I have to get done. Yet, I am always on the lookout for ways I can serve my team. This has meant doing quotes, hopping on the forklift, and even mopping up the floors when the toilets have overflowed (twice).

When you help out like this it won’t necessarily be the best use of your time. That’s OK though. This has more to do with you showing your commitment to the team and less to do with you. It has a big impact on your team when they see that you are willing to get in there and do the dirty work that no one else is. They will be able to respect and follow you because they will see you as a capable and sympathetic leader who is worth following.

What are your thoughts on the matter? I would love to hear them in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “Why you are never too important to get your hands a little dirty

  1. Hi Josh,
    Nice to see your name in print and I enjoyed your essay! Glad to read some key concepts were adopted based on your time with our team, which appear to have made an impact on your career and/or as an individual walking the Earth.



    • Thank you for the comment Chris. You and the rest of the Ropeworks team have created a really special company. I greatly enjoyed my time there and am better for it. Hope all is well.


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