Plant Manager Today, CEO Tomorrow

Plant Manager Today, CEO Tomorrow

Is running a manufacturing plant a logical steppingstone to the C-suite?

Plant managers oversee hundreds or even thousands of people, deal with budgets and forecasts, and make decisions that can make or break an operation's performance.

They communicate the company's strategies, motivate the workforce and -- when the media and guests come calling -- often serve as a diplomat and spokesperson.

In some manufacturing companies, plant managers are even given titles such as "vice president," conferring executive status.

While making the transition from plant manager to an executive-level position might seem like a slam dunk, executive coach Linda Henman says it's a bit more complicated than that.

Henman believes that leaders at all levels of any type of organization need to have three characteristics: cognitive ability; a passion for achievement; and integrity.

Executive coach Linda Henman
However, in manufacturing, the cognitive abilities necessary for success at the plant level are not the same as the ones needed to be effective in the C-suite, she says.

"When you're running a manufacturing company, you have to be visionary, abstract and strategic," Henman tells IndustryWeek.

"When you're running a plant, you have to be methodical and tactical."

The tactician, Henman explains, "needs to know how to run the race."

The strategist, meanwhile, "has to know which race to get in."

"So the CEO -- the strategist -- decides to expand the product line," Henman explains. "The tactician [the plant manager] then can help with how to do that.

"The strategy is the decision that, 'We need to do it. We've run the numbers, we've evaluated the risk, and adding a new product line in this economy, in this market, in this area -- whatever it is -- makes sense.'

"The tactics are, 'How do we get this product out the door?'"

In her 30 years of working with executives, Henman has found that the tactical focus of many successful plant managers does not translate into success at the C-level.

"So what I've seen in manufacturing is that somebody will be a great tactician, and know how to run the plant, and get more product out the door than anybody else, but cap out there," she explains.

"In other words, some of the great tacticians do not have what it takes to go to the next level, and that's when I see them get fired."

On the bright side, though, it is possible for a person to have both sets of characteristics, Henman says.

"Sometimes a person can have a plant-manager job, be very systematic, process-oriented and methodical, devoted to Six Sigma and lean, knows how to organize the processes to take care of the supply chain, be very organized, and then that same person can move up the ladder and take on responsibilities that involve strategic thinking."

Paths to the C-Suite

Plant managers with higher aspirations have at least one thing going in their favor: CEOs that have climbed the corporate ladder typically started their careers in sales or operations, Henman has observed.

"I've never seen a CEO come out of IT or HR," she adds.

Sales and operations are more common paths to the executive level because they are the two key drivers of a company's business strategy, Henman says.

IT and HR, on the other hand, "are supportive of the strategy."

Plant managers also can take heart in this observation: Henman has seen more CEOs come from operations than from sales.

"Because sales can be too tactical," she tells IndustryWeek. "And often, a big mistake that many companies make is they make their top salesperson a VP of sales or something like that, and they take this great tactician and expect him to be a strategist and he's not.

"I've seen a lot of great salespeople who could not run a company."

Editor's note: Henman is an executive coach, consultant and author of "Landing in the Executive Chair: How to Excel in the Hot Seat."

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TAGS: Leadership
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