Learning the Ropes

Ever wonder about the origin of common phrases? As the son of a sailor, I have always enjoyed maritime history and nautical fiction, although some attempts at the latter grate because of misused terminology. “Learning the ropes” refers to the urgent need for new sailors to master knots before they could safely move on to climbing the rigging and tending to sails. A hundred feet above the deck was no place to be forgetting how to tie a bowline around your waist.

Perhaps it was my nautical bent that caused me to think of starting a new job as signing on to a new ship. You never know what kind of situation you are getting yourself in to; will it be Gillian’s Island or Mutiny on the Bounty? Once you set foot on the deck, you have to be prepared for anything that comes your way.

My last post covered things an employer could do to increase the odds on a successful transition for the new recruit. Here are some suggestions for the new hire:


  1. Sometimes the person who hired you does not really know what is going on within their organization. Give yourself the opportunity to observe the team in action for a few days before forming your own opinion. I once joined a company with instructions to implement the owner’s big plans for product development; my first morning I kept hearing the same name over the PA system. It was not a name on the organization chart, so I went to introduce myself to this key player; it was the lone expediter getting paged by customers looking for progress reports on their past due orders. We had lots of changes to make before “new products” became our top priority.
  2. Show interest and respect for everyone; critical people do not always get appropriate billing on organizational charts. Your new teammates have stories to share; giving them the chance to “teach” you will help build a relationship that works for both of you. No one has all the answers — especially those who do not know how to tactfully ask questions and patiently listen to the reasons why things are as they are.
  3. Diagnose before you prescribe. As noted above, the hiring authority may not have a good understanding of their actual situation. All the shiny machine tools in the world will not spit out great parts without good programmers, well-trained operators, and proper tooling. Management does not want to hear this kind of news from design engineering or process planning, so the direct approach is unlikely to be effective.
  4. Look for ways to help make the team better. No one wants to be lectured on “how we did things at company XYZ” every time a problem crops up, but there are ways to expose people to new ideas, tooling, materials, and methods. Be generous with reference materials. Let others take the credit for that new work-holding device or the change in process sequence.
  5. Be patient with yourself and the team. Set reasonable goals and resist the urge to rush ahead of the plan; a public stumble is tough to overcome if you have not built up a reservoir of good will with your colleagues.
  6. Be flexible. The job you were hired for may not exist yet, and you may have to build the team to make it viable.
About Charles D. Schultz 678 Articles
Charles D. Schultz is President of Beyta Gear Service and one of Gear Technology's technical editors.