My first job right out of college was working on large engineering projects. When I showed up for my first day of work I was given my assignment… my excitement quickly faded. The project I was working on was in the early stages of construction. The concrete foundation was complete and the majority of the structural steel was in place. My assignment? Make sure the structural frame was straight and plumb and then mark every column at every level so that the coming equipment could be placed properly and would align with all the other equipment to be installed in the plant. Oh, did I mention that the structural steel rose over 200 feet in the air. That’s roughly the height of a 20-story building.
Off I went, riding the construction elevator to the top of the building to begin the several week’s process of working my way down through the building marking columns as I went. Each floor was nothing more than structural steel beams, 6 to 10 inches wide depending on their location and generally 20 feet apart. Nothing else. No floors. No walls. Nothing. Just open air, empty skies, and 200 feet straight down. This was also the days before safety equipment. No nets. Not belts. No safety harnesses.
Focused on a goal
I slowly developed a technique that allowed me to walk across that 20-foot span from one column to the next, step by step on my 6” wide structural beam “sidewalk.” I would stand with my back tightly pressed against a column as I studied the column that was my goal. I would search and search my goal until I could find a visible flaw or mark in the steel where I could lock my eyes. Looking down was death. Once I spotted my goal I would begin to slow my breathing and my heart rate so that I could maintain my focus on that distant spot. When everything seemed to be under control, step one. Followed by step two, three and however many steps it took until I reached that far goal. Never looking down, just staying focused as I moved forward.
After my first couple of days, I thought I had learned a valuable lesson. Picture your goal, stay focused and move forward. But that was just the beginning.
Up in that structural steel with this rookie engineer were veteran and seasoned ironworkers. They would run around up there like they really were on sidewalks. And they were often bored while waiting for the next structural member to be lifted to them by the nearby crane. Bored people look for entertainment. I was entertainment!
Noticing that I had gained a little bit of confidence in my approach to walking steel, they decided to shake up my world a bit. One day as I had completed my routine and was about a third of the way across the beam, an ironworker slid down the column I had targeted and began walking toward me. Now I stood about halfway across the beam, facing a smiling, unshaven, cigar-chomping ironworker with my target column nowhere in sight.
Before going up in the steel I had been taught how to pass someone in these circumstances but certainly never thought I would be using the teaching. The technique required us to get toe-to-toe on the beam, lock each other’s wrists, lean back until our weights were perfectly balanced and then begin a slow swivel keeping our toes on the beam until we were now on opposite sides. In the middle of that process, each of our bodies is suspended over nothingness, 200 feet in the air.
Once we completed our maneuver, the ironworker bid me a good day and walked off laughing in the other direction. I was left with racing breath, heartbeat and a need to find a new focal point so I could make it back to the column. The wrong column because I was now facing in the opposite direction.
Trust your teammates
After I gained some confidence in the maneuver, I thought I had learned the real lesson, trust your teammate. If at any time during that maneuver either one of us had lost trust in the other and tried to take control, the result would have been death for both of us. It amazes me even more now that the ironworker put his life in my hands!
After all these years I think the real lesson is balance. It doesn’t stand alone: you must be focused on a goal and without trust, you’ll always fall short but my real goal in those situations was to maintain balance. I’m going to start a series on balance and how important it is in many aspects of teams, leadership and culture but I wanted to share my personal journey with you first.
Balance, Balance, Balance.