The Drop Kick Heard 'Round the Plant

May 5, 2017
Do you really need an MBA to be an effective leader?

I had worked in my factory’s purchasing department for about a decade when I got my first job managing a functional area, i.e., in middle-level management. I was put in charge of 23 professionals who made up the Strategic Supply Management section. This group’s primary job responsibilities were to evaluate the performance (quality/price/delivery) of current sources; prospect for potential new sources; make all sourcing decisions; and act as an intermediary between Product Engineering and Suppliers on reengineering design and/or manufacturing processes to achieve lower cost. I had great people and believe we did a pretty good job. I reported to the factory Materials Manager.

In fact, the next logical step up for me would be to move into the Materials Manager position, which represented a jump up to executive management. The Materials Manager that had put me in the Strategic Supply Management job was a graduate of the Hard Knocks University. He didn’t have a college degree. Instead, he was one of those old-timers who really understood manufacturing as well as the ways-of-the-world. Shortly after moving into my new job this guy got promoted to become a Factory Manager at another company location. This move represented recognition for both his abilities and the importance of purchasing in general, i.e., how many times have you heard of a Materials Manager moving up to become a Factory Manager? I really liked working for him and he taught me a lot.

The new Materials Manager was also a top-notch guy, having both relative and absolute capability. On the relative side his father had been an Engineering Vice-President in our corporation! On the absolute side, he had a degree in Mechanical Engineering and an MBA in Economics from the University of Chicago. I need to downplay the relative ability “dig” a bit by explaining that coming out of college he did NOT go to work for his father’s employer. His initial job was in engineering at a well-known large corporation. It was only after working there awhile and then getting his advanced degree that he applied for a job at our company, i.e., his hiring and advancement weren’t based on his father’s former position in the corporation.

My new boss was especially good at peeling-the-onion to understand the root cause of a problem and in that area I learned a lot from him. For the above reasons it was clear to me that this Materials Manager position would likely be just another step-up-the-ladder for him and that he’d probably be moving on to bigger-and-better things in short order. This did, in fact, occur within two years. His career continued to progress upward and towards the end of his career he became the Officer of the company—a Fortune 100 corporation. I felt really fortunate to have had reported to these two Materials Managers who represented two ends of the spectrum regarding hands-on experience and analytical skills.

Another development that was occurring in our company about this same time was an increasing level of visibility for the procurement function. This initially took form in raising the top corporate purchasing position from the level of Director to Vice-President and then raiding a big-name purchasing executive away from another major OEM. The first thing the new VP did was bring in a lot of guys from the outside, which was a new approach at a company that had historically promoted from within. I wasn’t initially affected by this development but was later that year when my second Materials Manager boss was promoted. To align with the recent trend established by our new Purchasing VP our General Manager decided to bring in someone from another corporation to fill the open Materials Manager position.

I, of course, was disappointed. This would be my third Materials Manager in three years! I had spent over 20 years working my way up within the corporation—the last 12 in purchasing at this factory—and had hoped to someday move into the role of Materials Manager, an important job within the company, i.e., our factory had the third largest spend out of the over three dozen factories the company operated (at that time) worldwide. But I had been disappointed before and knew I would likely be disappointed again, so I tried to push my emotions out of the way and continue to perform as best I could.

There must have been concern about how I would react to not getting the position. A week after the position was filled the factory’s General Manager invited me into his office for a discussion. The first words out of his mouth were, “it’s your nickel” which to people not familiar with public pay telephones might seem a bit strange, i.e., a nickel was the price of making a call when phone booths first came out. Anyway, I knew better than to complain. I said that I was sure there were reasons why the new guy had been brought in. I went on to say that I knew that the best way for me to position myself for a future move into the Materials Manager position was to support my new boss by continuing to work as hard as I could in my current position. Even though this seemed to please the GM there still must have been concern about how I would work with my new boss since a week later I was told we were both being sent to a multi-day touchy/feely-type bonding session at some resort in Yosemite Park, which I’m sure cost the company a bundle.

It soon became clear that the latest Materials Manager was out of his depth. It probably hadn’t been fair to put him in the position in the first place since his previous management experience was over a small group of Buyers. But did I mention he had an MBA? So he at least passed that muster! Anyway over the next six months or so it became clear to everyone around him—as well as himself, I’m sure—that things weren’t working out. I would occasionally get called in by the General Manager who would ask how things were going. I didn’t want anything I might say appear to be sour grapes so I usually gave him an update on some recent successes people in my section had achieved. As time went on and things continued to go downhill, however, the Materials Manager reacted by becoming more controlling. I could handle this, too, and tried my best to shield my people from its negative impact.

I already related that I had a good group of people. One of them—let’s call him Craig (since that’s his real name!)—was one of the best project managers that I have ever worked with. In fact because of this he had previously played a primary role in two major factory expansion projects, one of which was construction of a new $25 million powder paint facility (30 years ago this was considered a major capital investment), with the other being the construction of a several million dollar environmentally-controlled coordinate measurement machine inspection building that featured a large gantry-style CMM big enough to accept our assembled product being driven right up onto the inspection area. Anyway, he seemed to be following my career progression a bit and had actually back-filled me as I was promoted out of a couple of previous positions.

Craig had a tremendous dedication to his job. He was one of those guys that wanted to arrive at work in the morning before everyone else and tried to not leave at the end of the day until he was the last one out. He was a “Just the facts, ma’am” type guy (like Sgt. Joe Friday on “Dragnet”), and was never one to get emotional about things—that is, until several months into the tenure of our latest Materials Manager.

I got called into my boss’s office one day and he was pretty upset. He wanted to know where Craig was. I turned around and looked out the office window and saw he was not at his desk so I replied that I suspected he was out visiting a supplier. Our department had a sign-out sheet and I offered to go and verify this. My boss said he had already checked it and found out that this was indeed the case. He then asked me, “What specifically was the business need that required an actual supplier visit?” I responded that I didn’t know but I trusted my people to make good decisions and that as far as I was concerned, if Craig thought he needed to make an on-site trip to a supplier I would back his decision. My boss said he didn’t consider supplier visits an effective use of time and responded that if I wasn’t going to effectively manage my people he would step in and do it for me! Hmmm. He then told me that when Craig returned the next day he wanted to see him in his office right away.

I called Craig and told him what had happened. He was agape. I told him upon his return (this was the second day of a two-day trip) he needed to meet with the Materials Manager to justify the supplier visit. Craig started to explain the need for the visit to me and I interrupted him saying, “You don’t owe me an explanation—I know you do what is needed to effectively manage your suppliers.” I did tell him, though, that he’d better be able to lay out a pretty good justification to the Materials Manager. The next day as soon as the Materials Manager got to work I saw Craig walk into his office.

I had a workstation that had a view through my boss’s office window and though his door was closed I could see the meeting didn’t appear to be going very well. I need to mention that our General Manager’s office was at the end of the aisle and while he didn’t have a view into the Materials Manager’s office, he could see the comings and goings into and out of it.

At the time Franklin Planners (a three-ring binder based tool for managing time and documenting activities) were a popular tool in our factory. Craig religiously used one and always carried it with him. When the meeting was over and the door to my boss’s office opened I could see Craig’s face and it was beet red. That surprised me since I had never seen it like that before. I figured he was really upset (duh!). The next thing that happened surprised me even more. Craig dropped his Franklin Planner to the floor in front of him and when it bounced up a bit he kicked it. The impact of this drop-kick sprang the notebook’s retaining rings and its papers were strewn in all directions. Whoa! By the end of the day the tension in the department associated with this incident seemed to have dispersed a bit but nonetheless a lot of people were still wondering “what the heck had happened?” including the factory’s General Manager who had witnessed the drop-kick from his office.

As I was leaving for the day (that day I was the last one to exit the department), the GM called me into his office. He asked me what had happened. Because of the fear I had of being perceived having “sour grapes” I suggested he ask either Craig, the Materials Manager or both. He replied by looking at me with a stern face and said, “I’m asking you.”

I explained about me being called into my boss’s office the previous day and my follow-up discussion with Craig. I went on to say I had observed the meeting through the office window and it hadn’t seemed to have gone well. He nodded, then thanked me for the information. I am pretty sure that due to the respect that people within the factory had for Craig this was a turning point relative to my boss’s tenure. A little over six months later the Materials’ Manager was laterally transferred to our corporate offices and a couple of years after that he was separated from the company.

What happened as a result of this incident? As I indicated above, no one blamed Craig since they knew both his work record and reputation for not getting emotional. Later, he was promoted to Manager of the Strategic Supply Management section. Second, I think the General Manager started having serious second thoughts about having brought the current Materials Manager from the outside to put into such an important slot.

One impact related to this move was that a couple of months after my former boss had been transferred to Corporate I was named Factory Materials Manager! These types of jobs are usually filled right away so I suspected there had been resistance from someone, somewhere up the organization to putting me in that position. Later on that year I found out where that resistance had probably originated from. One day while walking through our corporate office I was approached by an HR director who stopped and pretty much confronted me. He said that I should know that I will be the last person in the corporation to reach the executive level without having an executive MBA. I guess I didn’t mention previously that I only held a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering, i.e., no advanced degree. I guess that making me Materials Manager had broken some sort of HR policy. This guy was probably even more upset several years later when I was named Chief Procurement Officer at another large corporation.

I need to say that although I had been offered corporate sponsorship several times to every-weekend-for-two-years type MBA programs I had always made the decision that with my standard 60-hour work week and growing family I really couldn’t afford to punch that ticket. I also have to say that promoting me ended up being good for the company as the corporate strategies and processes I introduced yielded pretty healthy financial returns. As far as I know, though, since my promotion no one has ever reached the executive level in that corporation without an advanced degree. I guess I’m a bit perplexed by that.

This column reviewed the circumstances around how I got my first executive-level job. The next will tell how I lost it.

About the Author

Paul Ericksen | Executive Level Consultant; IndustryWeek Supply Chain Advisor

Paul D. Ericksen has 40 years of experience in industry, primarily in supply management at two large original equipment manufacturers. At the second he was chief procurement officer. He then went on to head up a large multi-year supply chain flexibility initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. He presently is an executive level consultant in both manufacturing and supply chain, counting Fortune 100 companies among his clientele. His articles on supply management issues have been published in Industrial Engineering, APICS, Purchasing Today, Target and other periodicals. 

Read Paul's articles

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