In this article, I switch from technical issues to management. Most water well contractors are drillers who find themselves being business people. But business savvy is not something everyone is born with.

Hiring people means managing people. As I was working on some finishing touches on this, I got my May issue of National Driller and read Jessica Alexander’s excellent piece on managing your managers (“Retain Drilling Crews with Well-Equipped Managers,” May 2020). Managing our people might just be our most important function.

Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in The Charge of the Light Brigade:

“Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why, 
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death 
Rode the six hundred.”

Some manage this way: I say it, you do it. I worked for such a boss, Steve. We were in a meeting discussing offering a new OEM design drill pipe with a new thread design. The boss told the purchasing guy to buy one so we could reverse engineer (fancy words for “copy”) the thread. I spoke up and said they should buy at least three thinking about tolerances.

He smacked down my suggestion to buy more with no attempt to learn my reasoning. Dismissed, I quit making suggestions in these meetings unless asked for my opinion. This is a problem with this type of management style. You can shut out valuable sources of information — information that might prevent making a couple hundred drill rods with bad threads.

But, on the plus side, your plan gets followed. This can be a good thing, if your plan is good. 

In 1990, I spent a few months helping my brother, Jon, a veterinarian with a large practice outside of Philadelphia. His forte was diagnosing the problem and knowing the best way to fix it. I helped standardize some procedures and worked to better organize the day-to-day activities.

Jon sometimes acted tough publicly on his employees, but other times acted too friendly. It was his management style. He might yell at you for using too many paper towels during the day, include you with other employees for after work drinks at the local bar, and then ask if you want his big screen TV because he just bought a bigger one. It created an environment with a lot of up and down conflict that went both ways.

I find it more effective to develop employees than get caught in a hire/fire cycle. Give your employees the respect they deserve.

I base my management philosophy on the concept of enabling our employees to work in easier and more efficient ways. I made the effort to know each of my 60 or so employees. While walking the shop floor, I would stop and chat, ask if everything was going OK and how their families were doing. I was not their buddy but, at the same time, not unapproachable and uncaring. I find it more effective to develop employees than get caught in a hire/fire cycle. Give your employees the respect they deserve. Never command, but ask or say, “I need you to run these subs next.” Everyone will know it is not really an “ask,” but appreciated the thought.

Every owner/manager has their own style. Does it matter? I have a theory: Managers with specific styles tend to attract employees who like to be managed in that fashion. Some people like directions to follow. They want to go to work and, when the shift is done, be done. Others want to be a part — an appreciated part.

My brother has a management style that fits with some people. My wife, Randy, worked as a vet tech at Jon’s practice. She was the one who got yelled at for using too many paper towels when she was a surgery tech. The next day, when Jon walked into the surgical suite, he saw strings stretched across the ceiling with paper towels hung on them so they could dry. Randy’s poignant joke wasn’t funny at that instant, but later had Jon laughing about it. Even with the ups and downs of his style, he has had employees with him for more than 30 years.

I do not have space to mention others in detail. Some had quirks. In 1990, I went to work for Don Thompson and Susie Givens. Your shop best had a lane through it cleared of any pallet of parts or metal turnings so, when Don came to work, he could drive his Lexus through the building to see what was going on and get an update on orders. We could not leave for the day until we got Don’s call for the end-of-day report. Don passed away four months after I started. Both Don and Susie had the same style: Here is what we need done. It was up to us supervisors to make it happen. If you did something extra, you might get a handshake with a hundred dollar bill “just between us.”

Steve passed away a few years ago. My much older (OK, 1½ years older) brother still runs Steinbach Veterinary Hospital in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. If you have a dog or cat with an issue your vet cannot figure out, Jon is the Dr. House of veterinary medicine (minus the limp). Susie has successfully run her own company for nearly 30 years.

My 20 years of manufacturing management ended around 1995. Since then, I either worked for a company or for myself with our own company. Having employees means managing employees. Think about your style. If you are losing good employees, it is not always the money. We were not the best paying shop in town, but we were the place to work.