Mike Rowe: San Francisco Sewers Offer a Lesson in Job Appreciation

Mike Rowe spotlights unglamorous jobs; Alan Mulally emphasized the importance of trust

By Dana Wilkie Jun 19, 2016
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2016 Annual Conference & Exposition
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Using the sewers of San Francisco to illustrate his point, “Dirty Jobs” TV host Mike Rowe urged HR professionals at the Society for Human Resource Management 2016 Annual Conference & Exposition to consider and appreciate workers who perform seemingly thankless jobs that are critical to the day-to-day lives of millions of Americans.

And using his own experiences as former president and CEO of Ford Motor Company, Alan Mulally told conference attendees that companies can’t tackle financial challenges or other problems unless they let workers know that it’s safe to admit mistakes and point out issues in an organization.

Both men spoke June 19 at the opening general session of the conference, which is being held in Washington, D.C. More than 15,000 attendees are here for the June 19-22 event.

In a hilarious recounting of a TV reporting assignment that was the brainchild for “Dirty Jobs”—a show on which he served as an apprentice for more than 300 unglamorous jobs—Rowe told of being escorted through the sewers of San Francisco by Gene Cruz, a city worker who replaced rotting bricks in the sewer walls.

Rowe and his cameraman donned thick rubber suits and descended through a manhole into the sewers, where they endured horrific smells, got hit by flying excrement when city residents flushed their toilets and encountered “hundreds of thousands” of roaches lining the sewer walls, not to mention a rat that crawled up Rowe’s shoulder and found its way inside his rubber suit.

“Somewhere in your companies is a Gene Cruz,” said Rowe, who is now host of the TV show “Somebody’s Gotta Do It.” “He might not be a plumber or knocking bricks out of a literal sewer, but metaphorically, you know this guy. You know this woman. They’re underappreciated, unknown, probably invisible.”

CEO of the mikeroweWORKS Foundation, Rowe spoke about the nation’s dysfunctional relationship with work, highlighting the widening skills gap and challenging the belief that a four-year college degree is the best way to launch a career. Even at the height of the recession, he said, when millions of people were out of work, “help wanted” signs were up at workplaces where people did seemingly undesirable jobs.

“I can’t take the country through the sewers of San Francisco, but I do believe that we need to figure out a way to reconnect to the miracle that happens when you flip the switch and the lights go on, or when you flush the toilet and the poop goes away,” Rowe said. “Once we lose our sense of wonder and appreciation, we’re in trouble. We’re not doing it right as a country; we’re not valuing work equally.”

Mulally told of his first few months as CEO at Ford. At the time—in 2006—the organization no longer had a competitive product line; it was competing with foreign car companies and struggling financially. 

During Thursday morning meetings, he said, he and his team would go through hundreds of charts with colors reflecting progress on various projects—with “red” meaning progress was lagging and “green” meaning things were going smoothly. When he saw that nearly all the charts were coded in green, despite how poorly the company was doing financially, Mulally said that he knew his colleagues “were scared” of him. 

So he drew out one colleague, Mark, and encouraged him to come to the next meeting with charts honestly reflecting the progress of his projects. When Mark showed his charts, coded red, at the next meeting, Mulally clapped and said, “Mark, that’s great. As a team, what can we do to help Mark out?”

They “realized that, with their new CEO, it was safe to be honest about progress,” said Mulally, who is currently director at Carbon3D Inc., a 3-D printing company, and a member of Google’s board of directors.

The next week, he said, his team’s charts “looked like a rainbow, and everybody knew—and I knew—why we were losing” money. It was, he said, a “defining moment of dealing with reality and having a plan to fix it.

“I knew no matter what happened to us … if we worked together this way and included and respected everybody, that we could handle anything that came at us.”

HR professionals are “the most important competitive advantage of any company in the world today,” he said. “I think HR professionals rock.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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