If there is ever a time to discuss the similarities between plant leadership and politics, perhaps during an election year is as fitting a time as any. Some time ago I was attending a class at Columbia University, and over a conversation at lunch with a professor, we discussed what a day in the life of a plant manager was like (I was a plant manager at the time). After a bit of conversation about my typical day, the professor said, “It’s like you really are running for election as town mayor, aren’t you?”
Running for town mayor. Yes, that is a very good description of what an engaged, effective plant manager should be like. So, since that day I have built an attribute framework of how plant managers can use the town mayor concept in their daily lives. If you’re successful at either endeavor, parallels exist, and as such, practicing the similar leadership attributes can contribute to your success as a plant manager.
Those attributes, in no particular order of importance, include:
Plant Managers and Town Mayors are Effective Communicators
Communication is a fairly obvious critical success factor for not only a manufacturing manager, but also any organizational leader, and it’s certainly not isolated to the business world. Sports organizations, military organizations, political organizations -- you get the idea. In any team-based firm, good communication is probably the single greatest success skill a leader can practice.
Almost invariably, there is a direct correlation between a leader’s ability to clearly and succinctly communicate the firm’s vision, mission, and their success. So much so that a study by Watson Wyatt published in the Harvard Business Review indicated firms that practiced effective communication had a 47% higher shareholder return over a five-year period (Baldoni, 2009).
Effective communication literally pays off in business. Successful communication also means practicing the art of listening. Being a good listener is a highly regarded and masterful skill cultivated over time. Please know, the significance of communication cannot be overstated, as it is the catalyst that facilitates creating firm value, success and ultimately competitive advantage.
Plant Managers and Town Mayors are Visible Among the People They Serve
People want to have a personal connection to those who serve them. Yes, I said "serve" the people (We will get to that later). To truly know what is happening within the four walls of your manufacturing plant, you have to be on the shop floor, visible among the people, being an active participant. The shop floor is where the action is, where real value is created and frequently a leading indicator determining if a firm is winning or losing.
Additionally, since most of the resident experts (also known as employees) reside there, the shop floor can be a terrific reservoir of information about how to improve the firm dimensionally, its quality, service, cost, safety, etc. The shop floor is simply a vast resource to help the firm improve.
Plant Managers and Town Mayors Exercise Strong Self-control
We’ve all had one of those days when seemingly everything goes wrong or when a critical business situation happens that demands our full attention. We can just feel our blood pressure rise. It’s precisely in those situations that plant managers must exercise self-control and become the source of calm and reason. As leaders, the firm’s eyes are always watching us, and typically the people we lead will mimic our behavior -- so let’s be sure to make it good behavior.
Also, attitudes are contagious, good ones and bad ones, and the firm will reflect back to us what we project outwardly. Great plant managers and town mayors work hard to always have a positive attitude.
Great Leaders Must Be of Strong Ethical Character
This one is glaringly obvious but must be discussed regardless. There is no single success factor perhaps more critical than integrity. Integrity is the foundational character trait on which all other success factors are built. High integrity creates trust, and trust is essential for any successful relationship, including a business relationship.
Additionally, research indicates that in firms with a heavy investment strategy and where long-term employment is a component of the firm, like manufacturing plants, high trust firms could expect to see increased performance (Tzafrir, 2005). Clearly ethics in business or otherwise cannot be compromised; there is no exception here.
In my opinion, once it’s lost, your integrity is forever lost. Great plant managers and town mayors have excellent integrity, really beyond reproach.
Great Plant Managers and Town Mayors are Responsive and Accountable to Their Constituency
In your business dealings, has someone ever said to you, "I’ll get back to you," and then they don’t? Isn’t that frustrating? Conversely, isn’t it refreshing (although it really shouldn’t be) for people to actually do what they say they will, being responsive and accountable in their business dealings?
Sadly, and all too often in today’s dynamic work environment, is has become almost an old school novelty for people to honor their promises, but it shouldn’t be. Unquestionably, being responsive to your constituency groups is hard work, but it’s also a hallmark of great leadership and leaves a wonderful lasting impression on the people you lead.
Being responsive and accountable to your constituency groups builds trust within your team and builds confidence in your followership. Great plant manages and town mayors are responsible to the people they serve.
Great Leaders are Visionaries, Strategic Thinkers
The ability to see the see around the corner, to see into the future and plan for it accordingly is a skill that can be developed, and it should be. People want to follow a leader that has the ability to cast a compelling vision, to create a mental image of a better tomorrow, and then make it happen.
Most of us want to do noble work, but greatness demands more than our work be noble -- it demands it be significant. Most of us have an innate desire to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. We want to be relevant, to matter in our business, in our relationships and in our communities. Great visionary leaders help to create that experience for all of us.
Great plant managers and town mayors understand that vision moves people and firms into action toward success.
Great Plant Managers and Town Mayors Possess a Desire to Serve People (Servant Leadership)
Leaders, the great ones at least, have an uncanny ability to make it all about you, not all about them. Not everyone has the desire to serve others. Servant leadership is difficult and humbling, but also incredibly powerful. If we extend the concept of the team being the central focus, being part of something greater than us, servant leadership emerges as an enabler. Real firm value is created when a group of people is mobilized toward an initiative, and the humility of servant leadership can be that very catalyst that ignites the firm into action.
Consistency of Your Message Builds Trust
Few things destroy trust more so than inconsistency of your message. Great leaders minimize this whenever possible. As previously discussed, trust is the foundation on which all leadership and followership is based.
As a plant manager, listen to your team and make informed decisions, but when you make a decision, take a stand, or give direction, stay the course. Being indecisive can destroy followership and subsequently, firm value.
Remember … Everyone is Watching You at All Times
One of the more difficult things plant managers, especially new plant managers, realize is that you’re always on stage, and everyone is watching you. Town mayors have always known this. Whether at a high school football game, community event, or even a local restaurant, you represent your firm. Your conduct, even on your off time, is associated with the firm, and as a leader of your organization, you kind of have no off-time.
Unwanted character associations can be formed when you are away from the job, when you think you have earned the right to let your professional guard down just a bit. Although it may not seem fair, it’s the life we have chosen, and these are the rules that govern our profession. Remember, you really do live in a glass house.
Although it may seem like running for town mayor is strange analogy, interestingly enough, the commonalities to successfully managing a manufacturing site and leading a community (actually a manufacturing plant is really a community) are strikingly similar.
So plant managers, when presented with any situation that involves your people -- and most do -- you might ask yourself: What would the mayor do?
Darrell Edwards is Senior Vice President and Chief Supply Chain Officer at Monroe, Mich.-based La-Z-Boy Inc.
Tzafrir, S. S. (2005). The relationship between trust, HRM practices and firm performance. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 16(9), 1600-1622.
John Baldoni, New Study: How Communication Drive Performance, Harvard Business Review, November 13, 2009.