Closing the Leadership Gap

Preparing a technical expert to become an effective line leader

On the shop floor or on the assembly line, the hourly technical expert is a valuable human resource. But successfully moving a strong technical expert into an effective line leader role is no small accomplishment. Too often the gap between what a strong individual contributor can do technically and what they need to do as an effective people leader is not realized until after some damage has been done.

At Amway's Operations facility in Ada, Michigan, the Crew Leaders -- first-line, hourly leaders -- weren't being adequately prepared to move from working as a peer on the line, to a leader of the line and people.

Development Team Diversity

When Dave Buttrick, vice president of Ada Operations at Amway, expressed concern about the leadership capabilities of his crew leaders, the Global Leadership Development Team saw this as an opportunity to develop 64 front-line leaders, who lead approximately 1500 manufacturing employees. Building an hourly leadership development program required strong collaboration between leaders in the Ada Operations division and the Global Leadership Development (GLD) team.

The project lead from GLD worked with plant managers and Buttrick, identifying three plant supervisors that became the Development Team. This team was intentionally diverse in several ways. The three supervisors were each from different plants; their time at Amway ranged from three years to thirty-two years, and their experience as supervisors also varied, one having only worked at Amway, others having transferable skills from other companies. This assignment was intended as a development opportunity for the three supervisors, which helped solidify their investment in the success of the program

Operations Support & Buy-in

From the beginning, the development team knew that their work could not be done in a vacuum. In order to get widespread support and buy-in, there would have to be structures in place to allow for frequent communication with key stakeholders; those whose understanding of the program would be critical to its success.

The first thing the Development Team did was create a consultant team that had representation from HR, Operations and GLD. These consultants were invited to meetings, included in status report updates, and frequently reviewed key decisions made by the Development Team in areas that warranted their unique perspective or expertise. HR provided a generalist who had responsibility for Ada Operations and worked very closely with the VP on a regular basis. The manager from the largest plant, with the greatest number of Crew Leaders, offered a valuable Operations perspective from a more strategic vantage point than the supervisors on the development team. The GLD Manager provided additional support and extensive experience developing this type of program in a call center at another company. These three resources were kept informed through status reports from the development team, one on one conversations, and regular email communication.

In addition to the three team consultants, Buttrick, was accessible to the team via email and would weigh in as needed. He received regular updates from the both the Mowery and the HR generalist. He also gave Mowery access to his plant managers at their regularly scheduled meetings, when it was requested. Due to his personal interest in the program, Buttrick made himself and his managers available almost upon request by the Development Team.

These two intentional structures, a consultant team and access manufacturing leadership, created early in the development process, helped ensure that there would be buy-in, support, and significant understanding about the program when it was piloted. Had this not been in place the program rollout among the supervisors and crew leaders would have been significantly more difficult.

Tasks & Tools

The Crew Leader Enhancement Program had two objectives 1) improve the performance of existing crew leaders, and 2) bring up the level of performance of all crew leaders to a consistent standard across all eight manufacturing plants. To accomplish these two objectives, the development team identified critical Tasks that all incumbent crew leaders should be able to perform and created tools and processes to train and assess the crew leaders on the tasks.

The final list of 23 critical crew leader tasks, which was narrowed down from the original list of about 45 identified during a brain storming session with the development team, were placed into seven categories: leadership, normal work, safety, lean manufacturing, training a new employee, relationships and crew performance.

There were five criteria used to hone the task list from 45 to 23:

  1. Is the Task a common issue/problem across most/all plants?
  2. Is there a significant consequence(s) if the Task is done incorrectly?
  3. Does the Task represent a skill/behavior that is critical for a Crew Leader
  4. Does the Task represent a skill/behavior that a lot of Crew Leaders do not know/have?
  5. Are there performance inconsistencies across the plants relative to the Task?

Sample Task:

Explain the value of allowing/asking crew members to correct problems on their own. And explain situations when you would/would not ask a crew member to correct a problem.

Having the supervisors train their own crew leaders on the Tasks not only helped the crew leaders learn them, but it also helped supervisors learn and created consistency across the plants on the 23 tasks and how they were achieved.

A Development Guide was created by the development team and copies given to all crew leaders and supervisors. Each of the 23 tasks had their own section in the guide, which provided a description of the task, background/contextual information, a list of relevant supporting documents, real scenarios in which the crew leader may need to perform the task, general guidelines that described specific elements of the task, and a place for training notes. The guide was used to train the crew leaders on the tasks, and in essence served as the answer key for the final assessment that the crew leaders would take at the end the program.

All supervisors were responsible to train their own crew leaders using the development guide. A smaller group of assessment supervisors was selected and trained to assess the crew leaders. Crew leaders were assessed by supervisors outside of their own plant, in order to provide some objectivity to the assessment process.

From start to finish, the Crew Leader Enhancement Program (CLEP) took five months to complete. The supervisors had four months to train and the assessments and re-assessments were completed in the fifth month. The next step for the GLD team is to create a development program for all new crew leaders and will put an even greater focus on leadership.

Evaluative Feedback

Within three weeks following the completion of all assessments, anonymous and unique evaluations were sent out to all Crew Leaders, Supervisors, and Assessors. Some of the results of the evaluations are included below.

Number of completed evaluations 36 of 64 (56%)
The CLEP content (Tasks) was relevant for my leadership needs.
Strongly or Somewhat Agree 69%
What I learned had a positive impact on my performance as a CL.
Strongly or Somewhat Agree 58%
As a result of this program my satisfaction in fulfilling my responsibilities as a Crew Leader has increased.
Strongly or Somewhat Agree 72%
As a result of this program I am better able to fulfill my responsibilities as a Crew Leader.
Strongly or Somewhat Agree 69%
As a result of this program I have a better understanding of what my responsibilities are as a Crew Leader.
Strongly or Somewhat Agree 67%


Supervisor Evaluations
Number of completed evaluations 27 of 43 (56%)
Since completing the CLEP training and assessments I have observed positive changes in the leadership behaviors of my Crew Leader(s).
Strongly or Somewhat Agree 41%
The program content was relevant for the leadership needs of my Crew Leader(s).
Strongly or Somewhat Agree 78%


Leaders at all levels need to be intentionally prepared to lead. And yet we hear many horror stories about technical experts on the shop floor who did a great job before they were promoted into a position that required more than the ability to interact with and competently run a machine. Leading people is a complex and unique skill requiring much more than a pat on the back and a "Congratulations. You're now responsible for this team and each of its members. Go and lead well." Let's do a better job at equipping leaders at all levels.


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