The year was 2007 and I had just turned 19 and tired of depending on my mother for money. In my small universe I was ready to join the workforce that is where I met Yuri.
An Ethiopian short bald man in his early 40’s. In him lay great lessons that I was about to learn only at 19. He and his brother had started a liquor factory in Kawempe, Kampala District. And on one fateful morning I happened to stumble upon their factory in search for a beverage packaging job.
Yuri squarely looked at me, asked me a couple of questions and I started working for him a few minutes after my interview.
I enjoyed my work at the factory because it gave me monetary freedom from my mother and I met and networked with people I worked with and got to know them on a professional and personal level. Anyway it was only a month of working there, when Yuri taught me one of the most important lessons in my career life and that lesson was about leadership in the workplace.
One morning the cleaning lady had taken long to get to work and having been the first to arrive Yuri requested me to clean the space where we worked. I wore my white overalls and started doing duty on the grey factory slab.
But as I was at it one of my colleagues came in and lit a cigarette, smoked it for a while in the factory and then headed to the bathroom. Yuri came in minutes later from his office and found the factory smelling tobacco.
He then asked me; Sarah! Who smoke? I told him I don’t know.
“How old are you?!”
“I am 19”
“That’s old enough! Now tell me who smoke?”
“I don’t know”
“OK look at those tanks, all of them. All tanks 6 of them all catch fire. Gin and Waragi burn, do you know?!!
“No I didn’t know”
“When cigarette is dropped here everything burn, the boxes, you and the building they all burn. The person who smoke, murderer not your friend. The person who smoke puts your job in risk and my business at burn. Before say you don’t know who smoke hear me; when business burn, Sarah no job, Sarah no money. When business burn, Yuri go insurance, get money and make new business.
But you, if you don’t go home, you die in fire, your parents they cry, they sad and grave you. People you work with not your friend not your brother or sister they enemy if they smoke in dangerous factory, they enemy if they steal from me they selfish to me and to you. So be leader and tell me who smoke”
“I don’t know”
Yuri grabbed my right hand and pulled me along back into the factory and called out everyone.
“Excuse me, excuse me people Sarah has important for us”
Everyone turned around to face me and Yuri blankly looked at me. I scanned the room and didn’t know where to begin, I loved my job, it offered me new freedoms in fact the money I had received last month was really put to great use. I couldn’t let this take away that freedom. I looked at Yuri again this time begging him with my facials to not make me do it but he just stared at me.
So I started, Yuri says that I should tell all of you the person who smoked in the facto…”
“No Sarah, say I tell to you the person who smoke in factory this morning”
“OK I want to tell you the person who smoked in the factory this morning”
Everybody’s eyes grew wider and I knew they were all going to hate me but I loved my job and Yuri wasn’t begging me anymore. He demanded I told everyone not him alone.
“It…It’s…its Derrick (not real name)”
I managed to stealthily look his way and he was horrified, I looked like a trapped mouse in his gaze. Yuri asked me to tell Derrick what he had told me about the person who smoked.
And stupidly I started saying the person who smoked is our enemy, he is selfish, he is a murderer… and eventually asked me to fire him based on the potential risk he put the company and its employees in.
I died several times inside while I did it and come Lunch time I didn’t go out. I knew everyone would hate me but after my short prep talk about murderer, enemy and selfishness one of the ladies brought me a plate of food in the factory and thanked me for saving their lives.
That day I learned a very pertinent lesson in leadership, I learned that as an employee I am supposed to be a leader in the workplace and act like it. I have to watch out for people who are stealing from my boss or putting the company at risk because if the company is exposed to any form of danger some of it will affect me and my livelihood.
But most importantly I learned not to get emotionally involved with workplace colleagues because half the time bosses will be pinning you against each other and making you compete against each other or asking for feedback about your colleagues so to successfully do it, you’ll have to be emotionally withdrawn from your colleagues to do it professionally.
Yuri wasn’t the kind of man who took a liking to two timers and gossipers, for those he had a very kind way of helping them communicate.
It was a Friday and that meant wash day at the office, unfortunately power was off and the generator was manning the sealing machine and pumping the liquor into its bottles and sachets. Yuri came by after lunch and asked for a person to volunteer to do the washing (hand washing).
Nobody seemed to be interested so I decided to volunteer not because I love washing but because I had noticed 7 people on the team had ring worm and I didn’t want to catch it so I volunteered to wash only to be able to wash my uniform separately from the others(that was the only reason).
Unfortunately I forgot to use the gloves so the whitening detergent burnt my fingers and left them bleeding. I went and requested the Production Manager to let one person off the team but he refused. Fortunately Yuri was passing through and he let one person off the team to help me.
I had managed to hang a couple of overalls on my own but I didn’t notice some of them had gotten stained with my blood. Now the following week the Production Manager was giving me attitude, at first I didn’t know why until Yuri summoned me to his office.
On reaching there I found the Production Manager seated and Yuri asked me to seat down too. He told me the Production Manager had said I didn’t wash his uniform well and it was stained with blood. He went on to say I had washed everyone’s uniform well except his, could be I was singling him out.
I was livid that he had said something of that manner but what helped was Yuri asked me what I thought about it. And indeed I had very strong feelings about it. So I started with something like phuck you of all words!! I am not your wife and my washing shouldn’t be of your concern. Mind you I volunteered to wash your uniforms. Nobody was paying me to do it but I did it to support the team. If you feel your uniform wasn’t washed well go and wash it yourself.
I can see you angry, Yuri said.
“I am because he had no right to come and talk to you about that, I was right there in front of him in the factory. He should have said that to me”
He turned to the Production Manager and asked him why he thought reporting the matter to him and not to me would yield more results. And what outcome did he want out of reporting the matter to him.
The Production Manager sat still with head propelled between his shoulders in shame. We waited for a minute and he said he wanted me to be punished for messing up his uniform.
And I was like seriously, how evil can someone be. Yuri asked him to apologize to me and be thankful that I had saved the team from wearing dirty overalls the next week and we got back to work.
But that experience a lone taught me a lot about management, being a Manager or CEO shouldn’t expose you to office politics but rather should be a platform you use to help employees communicate well with each other. Usually the employees who spread such politics are insecure, mean or sometimes jealous or even outright bad communicators. So as a manager it is your duty to help them communicate well with each other.
Working with and for Yuri for me was such a blessing and I believe when I become a manager someday I will be doing some of the things he did at his factory. Granted his English might have been bad but his will was good, he was a managerial genius.
This story is based on my very first professional job in 2007 and I hope it will help you become better managers and employees too.