Even as perceptions about the economy begin to brighten, manufacturing executives and managers are concerned about the possibility of turnover in the ranks of their professional staff. Peter Drucker's "knowledge worker" has grown ever smarter in 50 years -- and more mobile -- at a time when many companies have had to restrain staff development and share more of the expenses associated with employee benefits. All of this validates executives' worries about employees looking elsewhere.
Today's professionals do not lack for tools to address available opportunities. Company websites give information about open positions and make it very easy to apply online without compromising privacy. LinkedIn and Facebook allow personal networking unmatched even by the golf course and club standards of the old-boys network. General websites such as CareerBuilder, Monster and even Craigslist make posted positions highly visible and enable clear salary comparisons. Then there is instantaneous social media such as Twitter, making the grapevine as bountiful as text can be typed. In reality, the HR posting has become yesterday's news.
In his quintessential book on management, "The Effective Executive," Drucker noted: "The knowledge worker cannot be supervised closely or in detail." In fact, the challenge has grown more acute for the employer. Today's knowledge worker is undoubtedly more valuable because of the training and education invested in him to obtain ISO certifications and deal with complex supply-chain systems. And his knowledge and his potential mobility make for an unprecedented human-resource challenge.
What's a manufacturing leader to do?
One hard-bitten veteran asked if all web activity of his top professionals could be monitored so that he could see if they were looking at job sites. Another wanted to know if such sites could be blocked on his company's systems. Such things are possible given enough time and money, but they are not an efficient use of company resources. In these cases, managers block the barn door while someone else is knocking a hole in the back wall. The result proves time-consuming and ultimately ineffective.
Fortunately, a number of things can help keep a staff motivated and focused -- and less likely to look for opportunities elsewhere. Actually no more radically different than in Drucker's time, they need to be in the toolkit of every contemporary executive and manager.
Start with Vision
Tony Mayo of the Harvard Business School recently wrote, "The ability to visualize and articulate a possible future state for an organization or company has always been a vital component of successful leadership." This is even more vital for today's interconnected business environment. A competent professional wants to know where the company is going and how his efforts contribute to that journey. The secret underlying this is that professional staff, regardless of perceived self-assurance and competence, wants to be led.
The company's vision has to be far-reaching, clear and measurable. General, feel-good statements about direction don't get anyone excited, and don't allow for ongoing evaluation to clarify progress, or lack thereof. The vision at the company level has to be driven down to the individual level so that everyone knows what he or she will be measured against and how that employee contributes to the overall vision.
Communicate, Clarify, Communicate
A vision has to be articulated to be effective. Any leader who wants to be followed must have a vision worth following. In many ways, it is like coaching an athletic team: Keep saying the same things in different ways until the message is heard. This applies at a general level -- newsletters, announcement, group meetings, department level sessions and all-important individual meetings. In particular, never underestimate the power of meeting with employees one-on-one and explaining the vision in a way that is sure to be understood. Buy-in to the vision is the groundwork for good business. Individuals who want to be part of that vision are effective proselytizers for the company as a whole.
Manufacturing concerns work relentlessly at improving efficiency, and these are usually measurable goals. Progress against these must be constantly communicated to everyone in a way that relates them to the overall vision of the company. In doing so, executives and managers need to continually educate employees as to how individual goals contribute to overall success. If necessary, the leaders must continually refine goals to make them as clear and attainable as possible.
Where success occurs, executives and managers must share it boldly both within the company and to outsiders, including vendors and customers. Professional employees want to feel proud of their company and want to share that pride with others. If the company is trumpeting its success, it makes it easier for employees to feel that pride and to share it with outsiders. Enthusiasm is contagious; and a sense of "skin in the game," to quote Warren Buffett, can go viral within a business.
Once the vision is articulated, keeping professional employees engaged is a matter of keeping the corporate vision an instrument faithfully in tune. Highly educated and competent professionals tend to veer away from rah-rah kinds of activities, but that doesn't mean they don't want to be part of a successful team. They want to be involved, vital and praised. The process begins with individual goal-setting, preferably related to the overall company vision. For some staff (IT, for instance), it is harder to clarify measurable goals, but it is critical that the work they do be evaluated against an expected performance standard to ensure that they are committed to the overall success of the company. Vacuums create vacancies.
Not surprisingly, getting buy-in involves a lot of listening. Sometimes that means letting the employees decide what their goals are and how they should be measured. It makes them feel part of the process. Further, it guarantees that what is being measured and evaluated has meaning to them. It also engenders a feeling of power to influence results. This should never be underestimated: Empowered employees are always more productive and loyal.
5S programs are becoming a successful way of ensuring this happens in many manufacturing concerns. The various components are heavily employee-driven and highly measurable in operation. One of the critical components is the reliance on clear documentation of processes and responsibilities, helping to reduce finger pointing when difficulties arise. It was primarily developed for the production shop floor, but is finding applicability in the various surrounding and supporting professional areas as well.
Recognize and Respect
Professional employees take themselves seriously. Leaders should too. Like all employees, they want to know that their efforts count, and that they are therefore important. Formal recognition programs become an essential part of the company culture, and in many ways have a more motivating effect that just an increase in pay. Make no mistake, though, utilizing both is better,
In a study on 40 years of motivation surveys, Carolyn Wiley concluded in the International Journal of Manpower that "Recognition of a job well done or full appreciation for work done is often among the top motivators of employee performance and involves feedback." The last part of that conclusion is vital, because along with interesting and challenging work, feedback on a regular and thoughtful basis is highly influential. Other studies have shown that many companies feel they do a good job of recognizing employees, whereby surveys of the employees themselves do not confirm this. A phone call, a handwritten note, a personal visit -- all have highly motivational effects. Along with a financial incentive or pay increase, they make employees feel energized and want to continue to perform at a high level.
Embrace Social Media
Manufacturing CEOs are generally uncomfortable with the time and energy involved in the understanding and use of social media. For those willing to invest the time, the judicious use of e-mail along with Facebook and LinkedIn to notify employees of interesting happenings and successes are highly successful and well received. Twitter can be a drain if used constantly, but as a way of congratulating and recognizing individuals it is easy and effective. Digital messaging isn't a substitute for a note or a phone call, but when used to supplement other means they all speak of the same message: We appreciate what you are doing and want you to know that we do.
Employee use of social media for the benefit of the company should be encouraged. This shows that the company is savvy and wants its staff to be excited and supportive of what it is doing. Of course, policies need to be written, clarified and signed off of by everyone beforehand, so that staff members know what is permissible and what is not allowable, or helpful.
First and Last -- Trust
Throughout the process of defining, clarifying and communicating the vision for the company, an underlying attitude of trust is essential. And this trust has to go both ways. The CEO and the manager must trust that employees want to be part of, and to help shape, the vision and how to achieve it. Employees, in turn, must trust that the CEO and managers not only believe in a shared vision but also depend on them to execute it.
There will always be circumstances in which professional employees take their training and expertise elsewhere for higher money or a perceived better career path. With a clear understanding of where they are going and what their roles are, employees are less inclined to scan Craigslist or polish resumes. For them, the latest Internet tools are distractions, not escape routes.
Doug Magill is a former vice president and CIO with Nestl, and has been a change management and organizational consultant for a number of companies throughout the United States. Joe McKenna is a seasoned marketing-communications professional. He has been associate publisher/editor of Tooling & Production magazine, custom publishing editor for Live Publishing Company, editor of Inside Business and Ohio Business and has been a freelance writer and public relations consultant.