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When Your Business Is Growing but Your Leadership Culture Is Stagnant

Dec. 4, 2023
Too often, the answer to early success is having everyone work harder and longer.

As businesses transition to the next phase of maturity, their talent requirements change direction. To paraphrase Helen Keller, a bend in the road is only the end if you fail to make the turn.

During a manufacturer’s start-up phase, it is common for leaders to surround themselves with people in their image: Trusted and talented people with superior technical abilities and a strong work ethic.

As business volume increases, the solution is often for the team to work harder and longer. While this approach briefly works, the talent pool is soon fatigued and disenchanted. The result is the manufacturer’s inability to capitalize on success due to workforce constraints and the owner’s inability to scale. Uncorrected, this limits the manufacturers’ ability to expand—and worse, it inhibits sustainability.

The best technicians are often not the best leaders. The challenge is that ownership, especially those who founded the business, tend to expect the supervisors, managers, and senior leaders to also be the best mechanics, repair technicians and diagnosticians. Nothing is further from the truth. You must actively develop your leaders.

Properly trained leaders, managers and supervisors prevent many problems and mitigate the challenges caused by others. Their attention to the processes, team performance and key performance indicators provide warnings in advance of critical problems.

So how do manufacturers assure their leaders are well-prepared? Here are some tips.

 

A leader’s responsibility is to discover and bring out the very best in others. Sometimes that is harder than it should be.

Visit the shop floor often. Acknowledge everyone in a friendly way. Meet with the floor leader(s) first on every visit. In the eyes of your team, this will underscore your confidence in leadership. After visiting with leader(s), spend a few minutes with several of your strongest team members individually. Make sure they know you appreciate their efforts. Finally spend a few minutes with some of your weaker team members. Share words of encouragement with them. Let them know you see them. In all cases, recognize people and greet them by name. 

Assess trust. Does bidirectional trust exist between the team and leadership? If it does not, this must be corrected. People will not communicate openly with leaders they do not trust. Team members fear reprisal. Leaders frequently refrain from communicating with team members they do not trust because they feel it is a waste of time.

Foster healthy communication. We encourage team members to communicate directly with all levels of leadership; however, guidance must be provided so the team understands the first step in problem resolution is to communicate with the first person in the chain of command. This is not done to ignore the concern, rather to accelerate resolution. The leadership team member closest to the problem has the best chance of taking the proper corrective action quickly.

More communication is better. Share non-confidential good and bad news at all levels in the organization. Recognize individual and team performance that has been outstanding. You will be surprised how much a few kind words mean in a company meeting.

Train your leaders constantly. We have found a voluntary book club for corporate reading (leadership topics) followed by a chapter-by-chapter discussion is extremely useful. Have your leaders lead the discussion on specific chapters. This will ensure participation and the resulting discussion will build teamwork while also learning about each leader’s perspective on the topics. Note there are no right or wrong answers.

Show gratitude. Recognize a job well-done. Thank people for their contributions. Make certain people know they are appreciated. When the senior leaders demonstrate appreciation, the team will focus on the most important tasks provided you have communicated what they are.

Avoid technical tasks. When senior leaders are performing technical tasks, who is providing senior leadership? Resist the temptation to fix the problem, and opt to train others how to find a resolution. Otherwise, senior leaders will be repeatedly requested to “turn a wrench or screwdriver,” and that is not sustainable or scalable. 

Know your team members at all levels in the organization. We usually only see a glimpse of our team members. We don’t know what outside factors influence their performance. It is important to know whether something outside of work is interfering with team members’ ability to succeed. The details may be private, so don’t ask, just listen. You can learn a lot by asking whether there is anything going on outside of work that they need help with. Then just listen. If you can help while maintaining a professional and respectful distance, then help. Sometimes, people just want to know that someone cares about them enough to listen.

Work to resolve conflict. Recognize that everyone’s perspective is a little different. In a confrontation, perception matters more than facts. Sit down in a quiet setting with the parties involved and lead a discussion void of emotion. Paraphrase the facts and circumstances, then ask the parties how they feel about what occurred and what they recommend. You will find that most people are very reasonable once emotion has been removed from the discussion.

In all cases, ask the immediate supervisor or manager to address the issue in this manner first without you. If that fails, your participation as a senior leader will have a calming effect. Avoid the temptation to solve the problem; rather, ask your leadership team involved for their recommendation and follow it. Solidarity is essential to preventing people from seeking empathy from those higher in the corporate structure.

A leader’s responsibility is to discover and bring out the very best in others. Sometimes that is harder than it should be. When you invest a little more time in the early stages of the relationship, a lot of useful information emerges. Specifically, you can learn about the pressure and influences affecting your team members. The cost to offer arm’s length help, when and where you can, outweighs the costs associated with losing and replacing a potentially strong team member.    

Carl Livesay is the general manager at Mercury Plastics in Baltimore. Carl has more than 40 years of senior operational leadership and manufacturing experience as a lean practitioner. He currently serves on the BOD for the Maryland World Class Consortia and is appointed to the District Export Council.

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