Donny the Roofer was old-school. He was in his sixties, with “durn-near five decades working on jobs just like this.” He was once probably 5’ 10” but after a lifetime of roofing, he was closer to 5’ 6”. Despite his size, we learned quickly that it’s best to keep Donny happy.
Keeping Donny happy was simple: have his roof ready when the schedule said it would be ready.
One afternoon I spied Donny snarling on his Nextel (this was many years ago… when Nextel was helpful). I approached him cautiously, triple-checking my schedule. As I got within ten feet of Donny, I paused, instantly confused at the auditory paradox.
“Is Donny speaking…. Spanish?”
No – Couldn’t be.
While Donny wasn’t necessarily racist, he was certainly not a shining beacon of cultural acceptance.
His men were on the roof, right on schedule. Donny nodded as I approached. As I listened to him wrap up his conversación, it was confirmed. Old-school Donny was speaking Spanish.
“Oye Donny, hablas Español? Dónde aprendiste el –”
(Hey Donny, you speak Spanish? Where did you learn the -)
He cut me off.
“Nah, nah, nah. Knock that off. I don’t speak Spanish.”
“Whaddya mean you don’t speak Spanish? I just heard you –”
He cut me off. Again.
“I don’t speak Spanish. What is so hard to understand about that?”
Silence seemed the only plausible response. Was I hearing this right?
“I speak Roofing Spanish. That’s it. Just enough Spanish to make sure my men busting their asses up there get it done safely and get it done right. So whatever you said, I don’t know, nor do I care….”
Donny, while not quite ready for an ambassadorship to México, gets it.
“Years ago I saw one of my guys fall off a 30 foot roof, right in front of me. He wasn’t tied off and I started yellin’ at him. He couldn’t understand me and I couldn’t yell any louder, so he started to walk down the roof closer to me…. He trips and falls…. what felt like forever…. right in front of me. He didn’t die, but he was messed up real good. I made my mind up right there – if I want to do this anymore, I need to communicate with the guys on my team – whoever they are.”
I asked him how his guys – all of them Hispanic – responded to his new language skills.
“They know my Spanish aint real good and they joke to me about it, but they appreciate it. They know I am trying and we meet in the middle. Yeah, it would be nice if they spoke English, but I can direct the actions of ten guys with a few simple words in Spanish. Otherwise I gotta trust someone else to relay my message perfectly while I sit on my ass and hope it gets done right. And that… aint how I operate.”
Over the course of his career, Donny saw the world changing around him. He adapted to it. Donny chose to stay relevant in a world, in a job, that was committed to making him an outdated model. Only speak English in a trade employing Hispanic labor? ¡Adiós!
Had he not recognized the shift to Español and adapted, Donny’s expertise, leadership, and livelihood would have been diminished significantly.
But with some task-specific Spanish, he not only kept his job – he became more valuable.
Bradley Hartmann is founder and el presidente at Red Angle (www.redanglespanish.com), a Spanish language training firm focused on the construction industry.
Categories: Jobsite Leadership