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10 Critical Traits of Great Leaders

April 24, 2019
Ask the Expert columnist Larry Fast enjoyed a 35-year career in manufacturing. Here's his list of the key characteristics of leaders who helped him along the way.

Shortly before I retired in 2007 from General Cable Corp. (now Prysmian Group), I reminisced about the best leaders I'd had the opportunity to work with or for over my 35-year career. It didn’t matter if they were a CEO or a first line supervisor, I wanted to capture the most critical traits of great leaders who had played a key role in my development. Of course, you may have such a list of your own. Here’s mine.

The best leaders:

1. Have a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo. If you’re truly committed to continuous improvement as the career-long driver of your mindset and behavior, then this becomes who you are. Not sometimes. All times.

2. Are relentless in their quest for continuous improvement and expect the same from everyone. This trait will sort out the doers from the pretenders. Expose the pretenders and make every effort to train them up so they’re capable of delivering to expectations. If they are incapable or unwilling, then it’s time to get them out. Naysayers, if left unattended, are a cancer to the entire CI effort. If leaders don’t do this, we’re collectively communicating to the best performers every day that CI is really not that important. Culturally the masses are likely to withdraw and lose interest in the larger goals of the company and find the work a lot less gratifying.

3. Have high expectations and hold people accountable for results. See No. 2 above. A granular set of aligned metrics at each level of the organization is also necessary. It’s like any game, really. Everyone has to understand where the goal line is and what their role is in getting there. How do we know if we’re winning or losing?

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4. Have a vision of excellence that is communicated broadly and frequently. One of my early mentors liked to say, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” All your people need to understand leadership's vision and their role in making it reality. The lack of comprehensive training and communications plans are at the root of many, many disconnects.

5. Communicate a clear priority set. There’s nothing more frustrating for our people than to have a leader who wants everything done now. This is abdication by the leader, who owes his/her team a priority set from which to assign scarce resources. Resources aren’t infinite in spite of leadership exhortations. The first thing leaders should do is decide what scarce resources will NOT work on. These are things that, when compared to the real priorities of the business, are not that important, can be handled routinely by others or simply don’t need to be done at all. This kind of prioritization by leadership clears the way to hold people accountable for doing the right things -- which will move the needle on the company’s most important business objectives.

6. Don’t pass the buck when there is bad news. If it happened on our watch as leaders, we own it. Sure, there may have been a disaster that happened a couple of levels below, and surely we’ll be addressing corrective action through the structure of organization. But make no mistake, we own it. As a constant reminder of this, I gave a 3 x 5 card to all my new plant managers coming on board that said: “The corporate organization structure is one that requires strong plant managers. Each must be a self-starter with his or her own continuous improvement agenda; with an in-depth understanding of the business such that the right structure and the right people are deployed; with an energy level and an attention to detail that delivers the expected results; with the mental discipline, persistence and confidence to be effective; and with the vision and leadership skills to achieve and sustain manufacturing excellence in our culture of continuous improvement.”

7. Run to the problems and deal with them. Notwithstanding the need for prioritization, running to problems is what leaders should train their people to do instinctively. The temptation, for some in leadership roles, is to “let it ride for now.” That is the wrong mindset. First, the best leaders don’t sweep issues under the rug or procrastinate and tell themselves, "I’ll deal with this later." If it’s a problem, but not yet a priority for scarce resources, leaders at the very least should be sure the issue is recorded so it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. The proper level of the organization should communicate these problems to the keeper of the “parking lot” for items that do not require scarce resources. It’s a great opportunity to solve problems at the lowest level in the structure capable of solving the smaller, nagging issues.

8. See opportunities others don’t. This is often why leaders are in their leadership roles and others aren’t. Of the many factories I’ve been in, there are very few where I didn’t see issues—some of them glaring issues— that others walked by simply because of their familiarity with the area, their lack of attention to detail and a basic lack of curiosity. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it’s a critical skill that leaders use to cut through to the core issues. Something as simple as training on the “5 Whys” is a great way to help people develop a sense of curiosity. Those who are innately curious can demonstrate and train their people as each opportunity presents itself. Engineers and maintenance people are often great examples to observe as well. They’re always trying to understand how things work and why. It’s in their DNA.

9. Are the ones who care the most and make everyone around them better. Leaders are always under observation. They live in a fish bowl. Are they approachable? Are they confident and comfortable in their own skin? Are they fully competent? Are they innately helpful? Are they often in “mentoring mode” and providing “the why” behind what’s being discussed or coaching others how to think about certain issues? For example, early in my career the company converted salary administration to the Hay System (a job evaluation system). There was much work to be done and it was being administered through what then was the personnel department. In a very mechanical way, the specifics of how to fill out forms and such were communicated well. However, the training was primarily intended for the clerical staff that would have the administrative responsibilities for implementing the system. Maybe more senior managers understand, but in my first department manager position I was missing the big picture. Fortunately, my boss and mentor at the time called me to his office a day or two later and explained how the whole system tied together in a one-on-one setting. As a new manager, this was invaluable counsel and insight. Understanding the thinking behind those kinds of systems, the direct linkages to position descriptions, salary administration, succession planning and how to most effectively use the processes, served me well throughout my career. My boss didn’t have to do that, but he did.

10. Know when it’s time to tell someone goodbye. Those who aren’t excelling in their roles know it. Those who supervise them know it. The best leaders deal with these situations head on but with a mindset of finding a path where both the company and the employee can win if that’s possible. Usually the disconnects can be resolved in six months or so. If it’s a successful outcome, great. There’s now a solid business and personal relationship into the future that is a win-win. Both the associate and the company have a good outcome. The employee is finally in the “right seat on the bus” according to Jim Collins, author of Good to Great. If the efforts are not successful, then the leader and, hopefully, the associate know all parties tried to make it work but it simply was not meant to be. A generous separation package and a firm handshake for good luck is a great outcome for all involved.

“If management lacks the courage to eliminate mediocrity wherever it exists in the company, it has demonstrated to its employees that they work for a company that considers mediocrity acceptable. And that should be totally unacceptable.” - Sal Marino, chairman emeritus, Penton Publishing, from a 1997 IndustryWeek article, Is “Good Enough” Good Enough?

“Vision is a dream with a deadline.” -- Source Unknown

Larry Fast is founder and president of Pathways to Manufacturing Excellence and a veteran of 35 years in the wire and cable industry. He is the author of The 12 Principles of Manufacturing Excellence, A Lean Leader's Guide to Achieving and Sustaining Excellence, 2nd. Edition.

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