Pressing On: Timeless Lessons (Part 1)

With another school year beckoning (the back-to-school sale ads started after the Fourth of July!), the time is ripe for a timeless history lesson. No matter what size shop or how many plants you’re running, print firm owners and managers are accustomed to managing their customers’ expectations. But what can you expect from your own employees? My father—a WWII veteran who possessed a classic, nose-to-the-grindstone, Midwestern work ethic—offered his wisdom and experience to me in the mid-1980s, as his only son braved the harsh, cold world of work. His “two-cents” worth of advice has proven invaluable over the years.

The first thing Joe Vruno told me was to always let my supervisor know what is going on. “She’ll let you know, in some way or another, what things are important to her,” Dad wrote me in a letter I uncovered while spring cleaning. “Always inform her of your plans and purposes. And know what authority you have,” he added. “If you have final authority, use it with prudence, but use it. Only go to your supervisor when in doubt—[which] should not be often.”

The former Army Air Corps (Air Force) sergeant also advised me never to blame my supervisor for anything that goes wrong. He then handed me a piece of paper to elaborate his loyal sentiments. “If you work for a man, in heaven’s name work for him!” it reads. “If he pays you wages that supply you your bread and butter, work for him—speak well of him, think well of him, stand by him and stand by the institution he represents … An ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness.”

 

Quoting the past

I didn’t know who wrote such inspiring prose, until recently, thanks to Google. It wasn’t my Dad, who would be 90 this year; it was Elbert Hubbard, an American writer, artist, philosopher, and, ironically perhaps, a magazine publisher. In a 1902 article entitled “Get Out or Get in Line,” the Bloomington, IL native penned his professional counsel, which transcends collar color, be it blue or white. (It was written originally in a combined military/academic context.)

Seventy-five years later, syndicated newspaper advice columnist Ann Landers quoted Hubbard further: “If you must vilify, condemn, and eternally disparage, … resign your position and, when you are outside, damn to your heart’s content. But, I pray you, so long as you are a part of an institution, do not condemn it … [for] you are loosening the tendrils that hold you to the institution, and the first high wind that comes along, you will be uprooted and blown away in the blizzard’s track—and probably you will never know why.”

I like the thinking of Hubbard, the one-time publisher, and could quote him all day. He was the guy who defined an editor as “a person employed by a newspaper, whose business it is to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to see that the chaff is printed.” He also once said, “Don’t take life too seriously. You’ll never get out of it alive.”

But business can be different from life, and successful business is about adapting to change. I prefer the cynical, humorous advice of Ring Lardner, another WWII vet and one of my favorite short-story writers from the early 20th century, who passed on last year. “Life is tough,” Lardner observed. “Three out of three people die, so shut up and deal.” Or deal with it.

I’ll publish Part 2 of this column, about what your employees can expect from their bosses, in October, once the dust from GRAPH EXPO has settled. I hope to see many of you in Chicago next month at the big show!

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