If you’ve worked in the quality profession for any period of time, you probably know the name Spencer Hutchens, Jr.. Spencer is a Past President of The American Society for Quality (ASQ,) a Past Chairman of the International Academy of Quality (IAQ,) and the namesake of the ASQ Spencer Hutchens, Jr. Medal for Social Responsibility. But to me Spencer is a long-time close friend, mentor, and personal and professional role model.
I first met Spencer 30 years ago. Spencer worked for a company, Intertek, that was a supplier to my employer, Hughes Aircraft Company. We had some interactions as customer and supplier. When I started my own consulting practice in 1983 I began working with Spencer as a contract trainer and consultant for Intertek’s clients. We did a fair amount of work together in that relationship.
Lessons in Leadership
I learned a great deal from watching Spencer’s leadership style. I attended a meeting while working with Spencer in Hong Kong with a disgruntled supplier to the client Spencer and represented. The meeting was quite intense. I was focused on the technical content of what was being said by the supplier. On a break Spencer took me aside and commented that some of the supplier’s people were sitting quietly and that different people were playing different roles in the meeting. One fellow, “Bill”, was doing most of the talking. He complained about the relationship, pushed for price increases, and made demands of our client (and his customer.) However, Bill’s boss said very little. Instead she would observe others at the meeting and if client personnel seemed to be getting upset with Bill she would interject comments designed to smooth ruffled feathers and she would sometimes take the meeting in a new direction. Spencer was able to create a dialog with her and through this dialog he was able to achieve the goals of our client. Without Spencer I would not have recognized this dimension of the meeting, but it taught me the value of understanding more than just the words being said or the facts being presented.
Of course, the above example is a great illustration of mentoring. But Spencer taught me to be more than just a “facts and data” person. Instead you must try to look at things from the other person’s point of view. What challenges do they face? What are they actually trying to achieve? This helped me see that the other person’s reaction was more than thick-headed resistance to reality, it was a natural response to the situation they faced. The ability to do this has helped me in my personal as well as in my business life.
Working with Spencer
As mentioned earlier, Spencer is a Past President of ASQ. I have been very active in ASQ activities for many years and Spencer’s insights into the people and activities at ASQ have helped me be more effective in working with ASQ to promote the cause of quality and the quality profession. Spencer’s membership in the IAQ gives him a global perspective of quality that is reflected in his discussions of quality related topics. Spencer is an ambassador who builds bridges of cooperation among various quality constituencies and makes it easier for them to work together. I often call Spencer and catch him in distant corners of the world. I’ve traveled with him on some of these trips and learned that he knows how to relax and enjoy life as he sees new places and meets new people.
Some years ago I hiked up Tanque Verde Canyon in Southern Arizona. The hike involved navigating some boulders and scrambling up some desert trails that I considered to be at least a little challenging. About the time I was feeling fairly smug a group of very elderly people came walking down the trail from the opposite direction. I knew that they had walked the trail I was on because Tanque Verde Canyon ends at a 100-foot high waterfall surrounded by smooth cliffs. I was considerably less smug as I stepped aside to let them pass. The tee shirt on the last person, a small white-haired lady who looked to be 80-ish, destroyed the last remnants of my smugness. It said “I trekked Nepal.”
Spencer, 87 as of this writing, told me a story of hiking with a group of young people in Nepal. He was, I believe, in his late 70s at the time. The group was setting a brisk pace in the thin mountain air. Spencer makes his home at sea level in Los Angeles so he couldn’t have been acclimated, but he kept up with the youngsters until finally one of the ladies on the hike insisted that they stop for a break. “I was very glad they stopped,” Spencer told me. “But I wasn’t going to be the one to say so!”
Spencer and I have frequent conversations about personal topics, the quality profession, technical subjects, baseball and anything else that friends talk about. It’s great knowing that Spencer is a phone call away to help me with the challenges. Spencer is a gentleman of the old school. My wife keeps hoping that some of his savoir faire will rub off on me but alas, after 3 decades, it isn’t likely that my Nebraska roots will ever stop showing. On the other hand it’s nice to see what true class looks like! Spencer is a real credit to the quality profession.
Update and Memoriam
Spencer passed away on October 12, 2010. He suffered no pain (that he’d admit to) during his final months and died after spending 10 days in what appeared to be a peaceful coma. With his passing I have lost a longtime friend and we have all lost a great man. His memorial ceremony was attended by a large number–but a small percentage–of his friends and family. Spencer was known throughout the world as someone who was there to lend a helping hand, as well as an expert in and ambassador for quality. I will miss him. I am better for having known him.