Don't Just Talk About Change. Show It.

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I WAS born in 1956. I should have been reading in grade school, but I'm dyslexic -- I have trouble reading, writing and spelling -- and few people knew much about the condition in those days. My mother realized that something was wrong, but she didn't know what. She advocated for me at school and told my teachers not to give up on me. I attended five grammar schools because my mother was constantly looking for something to help me. It was a lonely childhood, and I hate to think how I might have ended up if she hadn't been so supportive.

I compensated for my reading difficulty by developing superb listening skills. If a teacher explained something, I understood it. I also had excellent spatial skills and was good at designing and fixing things. Somehow I got through school, and luckily the family business, Sur-Seal, in Cincinnati, was there for me when I graduated from high school.

We design and fabricate industrial sealing solutions that include gaskets and other components. My father retired in 2004, and now my two brothers and I own the company. I'm now 56, and I have thrived here. I'm able to be creative in my own way.

I started working in building maintenance and rose to head of operations in the 1990s. In 2006, my brother Jim, our C.E.O., suggested that my title be changed to director of enterprise excellence, which reflects our efforts to operate at peak efficiency.

In 2009, as part of a strategic plan, we decided to change our factory layout, which involved moving around our work groups. Rather than simply tell our employees about the plan, I decided to show them. I brought in my children's Lego blocks and figures and arranged them into a model of our current factory floor. I even matched each Lego figure to a worker. Then I started to change the arrangement to simulate the new design.

The process had striking results. As employees stood in front of the layout, they'd make suggestions, and because the staff actually saw the proposed changes, we felt that they bought into the plan more readily. They ended up helping with the redesign.

Since then, we've also become what's called a visual workplace. We have posters in work areas with instructions on how to operate a machine, and diagrams of the product it makes. Safety instructions are posted, too.

The visual aids help everyone, but they're especially good for workers like me. I'm still not a good reader. When I've had to read work instructions -- say, if someone has a question about them -- I've told the person I might need a little time. Or, if I've been given something to read in a meeting, I've gone into the hallway and followed the text with my finger.

I became more interested in reading in the early '80s, after USA Today was born. It offered many color photographs, which got my attention, and I started reading the captions. The pictures were worth a thousand words to me, and the captions completed the story.

The iPad has changed my life. Ten years ago, I read very little. But with the iPad, I'm listening to an audiobook a week. When I need to write something, I use apps like Dragon Dictation and Speak It. I dictate what I want to write, then play it back and write from that. It's easier than sitting down and trying to write in the moment. Spell-check has been a godsend.

In October, Sur-Seal won an award from the Association for Manufacturing Excellence, in part because of the Legos project. It was a personal achievement, but it also sends a message to anyone who might be struggling because they're different: not only can they measure up in the workplace, but they can exceed expectations. After seeing our display, some vendors and suppliers have told us they're using Legos at their companies. That's very rewarding.

BECAUSE I had a difficult time when I was young, I believe in treating others as I would like to have been treated. If I go to an off-site leadership seminar, I design posters with motivational messages from the meeting, add clip art and display them on the walls to share what I've learned. I've had employees tell me -- even those no longer working for us -- that I'm the most inspirational boss they've ever had. That's nice to hear.

I give employees second chances because I know what it's like to struggle. Years ago, I gave one of our maintenance workers two or three chances to improve his work habits, and he succeeded. Now he's head of maintenance and a leader in our manufacturing initiatives. We also hire a lot of high school graduates who aren't inclined to try college because they feel that it would be too difficult. You have to find a seat on the bus for everyone. I'm a perfect example.

As told to Patricia R. Olsen.

employment

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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