Milton Little | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Milton Little

Background:  

United Way of Greater Atlanta is one of the largest chapters of the nonprofit in the nation with more than $100 million in annual revenue. It invests in more than 200 programs in 13 counties.

The Mistake:

When I was in college I had a job at the old Hartsfield Airport. I was one of the guys who loaded and unloaded the airplane, drove the tug around, did all kinds of things.

One day I was assigned to unload all of the lavatories on all the United flights that were coming in. It was a job that required you to wear a raincoat and hook up the valves to the plane and dump anything that came out. This was the first night I ever had to do this assignment and I hooked up the coupling incorrectly. And everything went all over me ended up on me and on the tarmac—it was an absolute mess. Toilet paper, everything. It was just the ugliest thing. It was early in the shift so I was going to spend the next three hours covered in this stuff.

At the end of the night, you took the truck out to dump it. I dumped it correctly and drove off, but never unhooked the hose from the tank. And so I ripped the hose off the truck and all kinds of metal was just jangling until some tug driver stopped me and said, “Do you realize what you just did?” I put the whole lav system out of commission for a couple of days.

I had to go back to my supervisor, who was a prince of a person. He puts his arms on my shoulders and he looks at me and says, “Milt, you know you messed up. I could yell at you, and there is a bunch of guys in here who would rip you up and down. Let me just tell you, I hope you learned something from this. You cost us a lot of money, but it’s a more valuable lesson for you, and I trust that this will never happen again and that you will be doubly careful with every piece of equipment around here. Do I have your assurance?”

I said, "Absolutely."

He patted me on the head and he said, “Have a good evening.”

 It is possible to do your job without losing a sense of compassion and a sense of a willingness to help people grow from those mistakes. 

The Lesson:

I think I cost United Airlines $50,000 that day. He could have fired me without any hesitation. The lesson I got was, people make mistakes, people can learn from the mistakes, but as a manager and a supervisor it is possible to do your job without losing a sense of compassion and a sense of a willingness to help people grow from those mistakes.

That one man probably gave me the most valuable management lessons I ever had, and that was more than 40 years ago. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of something I learned from him.

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