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Career Advice: Manufacturing Leaders Share the Best Advancement Tips They Received Early in Their Journeys

March 29, 2023
IndustryWeek's new Talent Advisory Board members answer our March question: What was the best piece of career advice you received during your first five years in your industry?

The IndustryWeek Talent Advisory Board offers monthly advice on how its members got to where they are in the manufacturing world. This month's question was:

What is the best piece of career advice you received within your first five years on the job in your current industry? 

Every month, we ask the group a new question about their careers or life experiences. If you have a question for the group, please send it to IndustryWeek Editor-in-Chief Robert Schoenberger.

Rick Bohan

Principal, Chagrin River Consulting LLC and an IndustryWeek Influencer

To tell the truth, I can't really remember getting any advice during the first five years of my career. For the most part, I was left to my own devices; my learning curve was based on "You're a smart guy. You'll figure it out."

The approach I developed was to get around the companies I worked for during those five years (a coal mining company and a large steelmaking firm) and get to know people. The nature of my jobs in those two firms (training miners at the coal company and supervisors at the steel maker) made that easy to do. That said, while most of my colleagues sat around in between training events, I made it a point to get out to the operations to simply observe what was going on. That "getting around" also gave me a chance to carry on the conversations that I'd started with the workers and supervisors who attended my training sessions.

That approach has served me well during my subsequent career, working in hospitality, health care, and consulting. I've found that people like talking about their jobs and the work they do. Yes, they often like to complain about those jobs and the organizations for which they work but they also like to talk about their ideas for improving the value delivered to patients and customers. I've learned that there's no substitute for face-to-face conversation when it comes to gathering information, providing information, and successfully managing change within an organization. That's something that I'm adamant about with my students at Kent State University and my clients over the years.

Audrey Van de Castle

Director of Digital Transformation - Operations Excellence, Stanley Black & Decker Inc.

Declare yourself. Declare where you want your career to go (near term and long term) to your manager, your HR partner, your friends and family, and even your manager's manager. Making sure that your leadership knows this information is a seemingly easy step but one that is often overlooked. We can't assume that our manager or HR partners know what we want to do with our career unless we tell them ourselves! This has been a really impactful way for me to re-frame my own thinking about my career, and make sure that my leadership can advocate for me when the time comes to do so. The more people around you that know your goals and aspirations, the more there are people who can help you get there and hold you accountable!

Bill Scilingo

Vice President of Operations, Penn Color Inc.

What I remember most from the first day of my professional career was being advised to not take anything personally and to take initiative to implement my ideas. Business decisions may not be consistent with your opinion or immediate career progression; however, be cognoscente that you may not have full information regarding the conclusion. Focus on the importance of providing your input, and on the priority of business success over immediate individual gain. In addition, industry is rich in creativity and ideas, but void in ownership of initiatives. Take the lead and own business opportunities to accelerate career maturation, while providing direct contribution to business return. Focus on business impact, be active in providing input into decisions and stretch yourself to provide leadership and ownership of business improvements.  

Paul Baldassari

Executive Vice President of Worldwide Operations, Flex

The best advice I received early in my career came about 15 years ago from Francois Barbier, former president of global operations at Flex. Francois said that to show leadership you need to add value to the team.

He taught me that it’s important to take a step back and look at what the team needs to succeed. Ask yourself “What is missing to achieve our mission, vision or goal?” This advice applies to both the leader of the team as well as team members, whether it’s in a large, complex organization or a small ad-hoc project team. Once you’ve identified the missing element, ask yourself “Can I contribute and fill that gap myself, or do I need to bring someone else into the team with that competency to help the team succeed?”

I’ve found that this way of thinking highlights the power of diverse teams. With more diversity, you have a broader spectrum of strategic thinking, innovative mindsets and skillsets that are needed to accomplish your goals.

Becky Morgan

President, Fulcrum ConsultingWorks Inc.

Regardless of the narrow focus of any profession in which you may choose to develop deep expertise, you will always benefit from a broad background. Every role is enhanced by familiarity with accounting, data processing (as it was called then), cash flow and understanding the business model. Concentrate on joining the right organization, not on what today looks like the best job. The right organization will help you learn, grow and prepare for your future.

Carl Livesay

General Manager, Mercury Plastics Inc.

I didn’t immediately understand the wisdom of these words, but in a few short years, they became cornerstones for hiring good people.

  1. Do not judge a person based on their physical appearance. Look at the whole person as a person.
  2. Make sure there is a balance between work, family and life. Otherwise, the person will burn out quickly.
  3. Select candidates passionate about their careers. People that really want the job. They will require guidance, but not supervision. Choose people who are promotable.
  4. Even if the person is not the most highly skilled candidate technically, hire the person that really wants to be a part of the team. They will work smarter and harder. You can teach skills, but a bad attitude will erode team morale.
  5. Ask candidates to tell you about the last thing they read and when they read it. It is important that they read, but it is not important what they read. People who read regularly are more likely to research and solve problems they encounter.
  6. Invest in training your people without reservation. Surround yourself with talented people you can trust and let them do their job.
  7. Treat people like they are your greatest asset. Because they are.

Tim Noble

President and Recruiter for Lean-Six Sigma-Industry 4.0-Operations, The Avery Point Group Inc.

I was very fortunate to start my career at GE during the Jack Welch era which at the time was an organization obsessed with talent and leadership development. I was recruited right out of engineering college into GE’s Manufacturing Management Program (GE MMP), which at the time was a 2-year rotational leadership development program that put you in 4 different roles in two different GE businesses.

The best advice I got upon joining the program was never to shy away from taking on a challenging role or roles that you might think don’t immediately align with your career goals early in your career. Too often, folks early in their careers shy away from a stretch role or a challenging role because they fear failure. Too often, new college graduates have been insulated from challenges that take them too far out of their comfort zone. But when they do so, they miss a great opportunity to grow their skills quickly.

My first job in GE’s MMP program was a third shift supervisory role in Erie, Pennsylvania, within GE’s Drive Motor and Generator business located at GE’s vast Transportation Business site. This was a heavy fabrication, machining and welding production environment. It was a gritty environment, typical of heavy industry at the time in the late '80’s. I didn’t have a choice for my first rotational role assignment. I was put in the role just a month after graduating from college where I was responsible for two large production buildings and 60 union associates spread across each plant. I was accountable for ensuring critical tasks were accomplished each night and reported the production progress each morning to two plant managers and 8-day shift supervisors. I was the only salaried resource on the 3rd shift at the time, and the day shift management expected results each night with no excuses. Each night I was tasked with motivating and making sure each of the 60 hourly associates finished and completed their critical work assignment with no support resources to fall back on. It was like being thrown into the deep end of the pool while having to learn how to swim at the same time. As a new college grad before taking the role, I had never been in a situation where I had to manage people, much less in a tough union environment. Had I been offered a choice to take this role right out of college, I likely would have shied away from the challenge or seen it as too risky so early in my career, given my lack of supervisory experience. However, upon taking the role, I soon learned valuable people leadership skills that I would not have otherwise learned so soon in my career. Yes, I faced numerous obstacles and made many mistakes, but I became a stronger leader due to the experience. The lesson learned is never to shy away from an opportunity that takes you out of your comfort zone.

Billy Ray Taylor

Founder and CEO, LinkedXL

The best career advice I received within my first five years with Goodyear was to focus on building relationships with colleagues, managers and stakeholders across the company. Building strong relationships can help you gain insights into different aspects of the business, learn from experienced professionals and ultimately create a network of supporters that can help you advance your career.

Additionally, seek out mentorship and feedback from your managers and colleagues. Use that feedback to identify areas for improvement, develop new skills and continuously improve your performance. Establishing an executive presence is also important, which involves having a clear understanding of the company's strategy and goals and being able to communicate your ideas and recommendations effectively.

Lastly, be agile and prioritize continuous learning and development. The business environment is constantly changing, so being able to adapt and learn new skills quickly is critical for success. Attend training sessions, industry conferences and seek out opportunities to learn from colleagues in other departments. By focusing on building relationships, seeking mentorship and feedback, establishing an executive presence and prioritizing continuous learning and development, you can set yourself up for a successful and fulfilling career in operations.

Kathy Perry

Manager of Human Resources, Orlando Baking Co.

Consistent is fair, even though sometimes it feels unfair….

Our job in HR is simple, create the policies/enforce the policies. Generally, this is simple until someone is caught in the proverbial grey area. It could be a termination that is a consequence of an attendance policy violation of someone that you like or who adds value to a department. You cannot turn a blind eye to the behaviors because so many others are watching and observing. Do for one as you will do for all. These behaviors build integrity and respect. In my experiences, employees don’t mind the rules when they see—and know—that all are subject to enforcement.

Tara Binn

Process Improvement Specialist, Bakelite Synthetics

Seek to understand first.

In your early career, the learning curve of experience is steep, but the people of your organization have a depth of experience to learn from to accelerate your journey. Do this by asking open-ended questions to learn how people think, what they have seen, why they do what they do, etc. The best way to learn is by experiencing something directly or interviewing someone that has. Seek out ways to maximize both of those ways of learning. 

Despina Anastasiou 

Global Business Development Director for Global Strategy, Dow

Early in my career, I had an impatience for the next step – my career orientation was advancement and adventure. I was open to taking on extra projects but did question the value of some. I was advised that regardless of how mundane the activities appeared, there was always a learning, transferable skill and networking value. I also realized early on by observing others, that as much as I wanted to share what I knew to demonstrate my knowledge, tailoring the message (written, spoken or in a formal presentation) for the audience, with a clear purpose and with confidence, had a greater impact.

Christine Coates

Human Resources Director for Drug Product Development I Pharma Services, Thermo Fisher Scientific

As people and as leaders we run into situations where someone has cheated the system or in our mind done something wrong—it might be as simple as an attendance issue. Because we were so frustrated by this behavior, we implement a change, which now feels like punishment or a burden to all those who were not “cheating.” I have also seen this in survey feedback, we can get thousands of positive comments and one negative one, and for whatever reason, we want to implement something to address that one comment when it might not be the view of the larger group. 

Saso Krystovski

Master Black Belt, Ford Motor Co.

Do not be afraid to admit you do not know and need more clarification. You are just starting a career and might feel that not asking shows you are capable. The impact of wrong assumptions can lead to a significant obstacle to overcome.

  • If you make an assumption about something, and it is incorrect, that leads to significant concern that could generate a financial impact to the organization.
  • Wrong assumptions will cause mistrust and will require significant effort and time to gain back.
  • Asking will gain support from knowledgeable individuals and create allies to support you even when not asking for help.

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