Two Skills I Learned Working Summers In a Garment Factory

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A gorgeous beach, a cold cocktail, tasty barbecue, a good book — for many, those are elements of a quintessential summer vacation. Not a lot of people dream of spending their hard-earned time off in a steamy factory in New York’s garment district performing quality control on high-end dresses destined for stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus. But that’s precisely how I spent several summers while launching a dress manufacturing company. And, oddly enough in this digital age, getting this very analog start-up company off the ground taught me two valuable skills for success that are more vital in today’s automated world than ever before.

No, I’m not talking about cutting fabric or sewing gowns — I’m smart enough to know that those are skills I could never master. What I learned — in a lesson that has carried me through the often interminably difficult launches of four subsequent businesses — were adaptability and empathy. In management speak, those skills fall under the rubric of emotional intelligence, which, according to the World Economic Forum’s “Future of Jobs” report, ranks sixth on the top 10 skills required of workers and desired by managers to get a job in 2020.

A lawyer by training, I spent much of my career in the plush offices of a large, international law firm. I didn’t relate to our fashion business’s customers, workers, or product. But since I was designated the operations guy — my sister-in-law designed the dresses and my wife sold them — I had to learn about all three, and quickly. Trust me when I say that deciphering complex legalese is infinitely easier than detecting microscopic holes in layered Tuille, a fabric that is itself comprised of tiny holes. The only way I was going to learn what I needed to know to get the job done was to immerse myself in the factories.

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“Just figure it out and get the job done” is an unspoken mission statement at many tech startups. And figuring out how to accomplish a task for which you have no experience is a core corporate survival skill. According to a survey by best-selling business author Daniel Goleman of MBA graduates five to 19 years after they graduated, those with a faculty for adaptability — staying focused on goals, but flexible in how to achieve them — had better life and career satisfaction and career success.

Goleman also has done work on empathy, which in business means understanding your workforce and customers, what motivates them, the relationship between them, and how they experience you and the company. I had never set foot in a garment factory before, but working alongside those artisans in the New York heat, often under tight deadlines with a language barrier between us, drove home that all tasks — from the factory to the C-suite — together serve a larger purpose. And that work taught me that the experience of each person who contributes to that purpose is different.

Not to sound like an “Undercover Boss,” but if you don’t listen to the people who make, sell, and buy your product or service, you aren’t going to succeed. You are all teammates working together to achieve a common objective. Learning everything you can from everyone on your team in every context possible is the best path to success in today’s uber-competitive business environment. There is no better way to motivate your workforce than showing an authentic interest in understanding their jobs and learning how you can help make those jobs better.

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More important than growing our dress business, spending those summers in the garment factories taught me adaptability and empathy. As the future of work focuses more on machine learning, AI and automation, developing those skills will pay further dividends. They already have. Aside from making me a better person, they have made it easier for me to manage people in a more traditional office environment by approaching them the same way I approached those in the factory.

It’d be nice to take a vacation every once in a while, though.

Scott Gilly is the Founder and CEO of Pivot Management Partners and DirectDep LLC, among other companies. He previously worked as an attorney at Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP.