The Chimney Sweep and the Sewer Cleaner:
The Importance of Attitude

Only the owner of an “older home” can fully appreciate having “everything” go wrong at once. This time “everything” included sewer and chimney problems. Tree roots had once again plugged the lateral sewer. Besides a good cleaning, the fireplace chimney needed a screened cap to keep out the squirrels. (The last bushy-tailed visitor dropped onto the hearth shortly after we started a fire, sped to the dining room, and frantically jumped onto the windowsill. We opened the front door and, after taking one lap around the dining room table, the squirrel ran outside to freedom. That was enough!)

The chimney sweep and the sewer cleaner were scheduled for the same day. The chimney sweep arrived, strode directly to the front door, and rang the bell. Somewhat to my wife’s surprise, he was formally attired—top hat, white shirt, bow tie, and black coat with tails. He politely introduced himself and responded to my wife’s curiosity by explaining the history of chimney sweeps and, in particular, their garb. Chimney sweeps were of the poorest class in Europe. They depended on castoffs for their clothing and often acquired the discarded formal attire of the undertakers. After excusing himself, the chimney sweep began his initial inspection of our chimney.

As the chimney sweep walked away from the front door, the sewer cleaner drove his truck into the driveway. He trudged around the house to the back door. My wife answered the doorbell and noticed that the sewer cleaner’s clothing, in contrast to the chimney sweep’s, was strictly functional—green work clothes and heavy boots. He didn’t bother to introduce himself, but instead mumbled something about the “weirdo” at the front door, and then went down into the basement to begin his work.

The chimney sweep completed his initial assessment and returned several days later with a tall ladder and special cleaning equipment. He was up and down the ladder, in and out of the house, and then back up the ladder as he went about cleaning the chimney and installing the cap. Because our home was on a busy street, the chimney sweep attracted considerable attention and many passing motorists sounded their horns. During one of his trips into the house, the chimney sweep explained that the proper response to greetings from the passers-by was a tip of the hat and bow from his position at the top of the ladder. However, he was frustrated because the traffic was so heavy and the horn blowing so persistent that he simply could not take the time to give the traditional tip of the hat and bow. Therefore, he compromised and simply waved. After completing his work, the chimney sweep presented his bill, and politely said good-bye.

Chimney work is probably no more or no less important than sewer work. In terms of desirability and prestige, both trades would probably rank low. And yet, there was something special about the way our chimney was cleaned compared to the way our sewer was unplugged. I suspect that the cheery, enthusiastic chimney sweep felt better about cleaning the chimney than did the glum sewer cleaner about unplugging the sewer. While both the chimney sweep and the sewer cleaner provided valuable services to us, the chimney sweep did it in such a way so as to bring smiles to us and to the many passersby.

The preceding illustrates an important point. Although the work we do is important and usually done well, the manner in which we do it significantly affects the way our efforts are received and appreciated by others. Think of your favorite restaurant, hardware store, or hair stylist. While the quality and price of products or services help to define “favorite,” I suspect that the attitude of employees, combined with the physical setting, enters into the equation.

The same attitude principle applies to engineers whether we are in businesses providing services to clients or customers, government entities assisting citizens, or universities working with students. Attitude enhances how what we do is perceived by those we serve -- it’s the frosting on the cake or the bow on the package. As we seek new clients, customers, and stakeholders, and strive to improve service to existing ones, let’s explicitly include consideration of attitude in the effort. Exude enthusiasm, be polite, listen carefully, speak clearly, explain thoughtfully, assist positively, dress appropriately, walk tall, and smile! As noted by British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, “Every production of genius must be the production of enthusiasm.”

If you are interested in improving attitudes and other ways to enhance the effectiveness of your business, government, or other organization, please contact me at 219-464-1704 or at stuwalesh@comcast.net. Some ways in which I have assisted various various organizations, are summarized here.

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