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Generation Now Leadership: Falling Into Manufacturing at Smucker's

May 2, 2023
Despite no manufacturing background, Will Patrick enthusiastically jumped head first after a drastic career change.
Name: Will Patrick

Age: 30

Company: The J.M. Smucker Co.

Education: Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), Marketing; Master of Business Administration (in progress)

Position: Area Leader

Will Patrick was doing fine in his sales position, but he wasn't fulfilled. Patrick wanted to coach people so they could thrive, although he didn’t expect a career in manufacturing to fulfill this aspiration.

While searching for the right role, Patrick says he lucked out when he was in his mid-20s and an opportunity arose. “I had a close friend who worked for a company called Crown Cork & Seal. … He just opened up the door slightly for me to be able to at least just get an interview.”

He joined Crown as a production supervisor in the metal packaging manufacturing division, a supervisory role more than a leadership one, but it was a start.

He found the work fascinating. “[I] was going home and talking to family about, ‘Oh, we got to make cans today, and here’s what we got to do. And here’s the dimensions.…’ They didn't care about how cans were made and how lids were made, but I did.”

Although he had no background in manufacturing, Patrick found many similarities between his previous work and his new endeavor. At its core, he describes sales to be about building relationships and achieving sales targets, and as a people manager in manufacturing, he has similar goals of building relationships through coaching and achieving production results.

Patrick also says that the techniques to learn new skills are the same in both careers, citing trial and error, reading books and going to seminars as some examples.

Patrick spent over three years at the company before deciding to seek out other leadership positions. “I had some opportunities to progress within my leadership and get promoted; it just wasn’t the right fit at the time,” he says. “I learned that there’s so much more I can be doing on the leadership side of things.”

Generation Now stories focus on challenges and opportunities facing industry as multiple generations of leaders take on responsible roles in manufacturing. The first piece ran in the spring of 2022 and won a national award for manufacturing business writing.

Stories include:

That is when he found work at The J.M. Smucker Co. in April 2022 as an area leader. He describes his position as a step up from production supervisor.

“I am in charge of all three shifts of one production line.…It’s only approximately 40 employees that I’m in charge of from first, second, third shift.… So, I’m in charge of providing resources, scheduling product, scheduling vendors to come in, scheduling training, coaching those individuals, developing high-performance work teams, developing AM models, developing training models,” he says. “It’s a lot of developing programs to lead and coach individuals.”

In his role, Patrick emphasizes the philosophy of putting the needs of individuals first. “You have to care about people, you have to have empathy.”

He adds, “There’s this divide between salary and hourly, and there’s a wall.… One of our goals is to try to break that down and try to merge those the hourly folks because we consider them leaders on the floor, but how often are we actually developing them?”

Regarding career advancement, Patrick gives credit to several mentors throughout the years. He specifically mentions a department manager from his first manufacturing job.

“We would meet on a daily/weekly basis and just talk about more than just production, more than work, it was about life. And then what I can do to be a better person. What I could do to be a better leader. And then grow from that,” he says. He also has three people he considers mentors at Smucker.

Finding the right leadership path has not always been easy, however, given his lack of an engineering or continuous improvement background, Patrick says.

Patrick’s strategy to overcome these setbacks has been exceedingly simple: He learned about manufacturing by working in manufacturing. Working with two large organizations allowed him to hone his skills and continue learning about lean manufacturing specifically. He has also learned the value of knowing who to go to for help or guidance.

Patrick also notes some challenges leading colleagues who are older than him. At his first management position in manufacturing, “our average tenure was 18 years.… Our average employees were almost there as long as I’ve been alive.”

Patrick says it takes a certain personality to be able to navigate this type of situation. He found that he had to create mutual respect; he wanted these colleagues to respect him and not just the role itself.

“If you come and say, ‘Hey, I don’t know anything. I’m here to learn from you and help us grow.’ I think that humbleness in age helps out,” he says.

Patrick concludes with two main pieces of advice for young professionals hoping to rise to a leadership position.

Be great at your current role. Regardless of the relationships and connections you build, you most likely will not be considered for the next role if you are not doing your absolute best. Take advantage of your position before being promoted to develop the skill of leadership from books and mentors. He also advises that you take time to learn how you do not want to lead in the future.

Figure out what type of leader you want to be and what that means to you.

Patrick places importance on learning from others; he recommends one-on-one meetings with people who are above you, below you and at the same level as you in your company. “I wish I would have done that earlier, give people the opportunity to just tell me, ‘Hey, well, you’re doing a great job at this. And you stink at this. These are your opportunities you need to work on.’”

Constant and genuine collaboration will help you to identify strengths, opportunities and the next steps in your career path. “Focus on what type of leader you want to be, find information out there to hone in that leadership style, and then get that feedback, both positive and negative … People don’t grow if we’re not providing that feedback,” he says.

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