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Turning Shop-Floor Workers into Leaders Takes Patience, Coaching and Mentoring

Oct. 25, 2023
It's important to realize that there are underlying factors contributing to a person’s readiness to learn and take on new tasks.

In this tight labor market, workforce development is required of every company. But how do you develop your team? Patience, coaching and mentoring are especially important. Let’s look at all three in action.

Patience involves not making snap judgments about your employees, but rather taking the time to observe and understand them, and realize that there are underlying factors contributing to a person’s readiness to learn and take on new tasks. Things like:

1. Family and personal situations. As leaders, we do not know what our team members are exposed to when they leave work. Are they in an abusive relationship? Do they have a seriously ill or disabled family member, or are they the caregiver for an aging family member or a child? Do they have a family member or loved one suffering from drug abuse? Do they live in an area filled with violence and crime? All of these will take priority over the demand for attention at work. And they should.

2. Previous employment. Did their previous employer(s) take advance of or fail to deliver on their promise? Sadly, our company is often placed in the same regard as previous companies and judged harshly. It takes considerable time and a series of small successes to build confidence from a team member previously mistreated.

3. Diminished self-confidence and self-esteem. The team member may never have experienced the sweet taste of success. Regardless of why, it must be dealt with, as low self-image can result in team members “giving up” quickly. When challenges arise, the team member may retreat to their comfort zone and “quit” because failure is familiar, though unpleasant.

4. Fear of success. For someone who has failed all through life, success is scary. It may cause significant anxiety.

5. Academic challenges. Not all schools prepare their students for real-world challenges. There are literacy issues, mathematical skill deficiencies and, frequently, comprehension issues to deal with.

Coaching is the step before mentoring that involves providing step-by-step instruction to your team members, followed one-on-one training with repetition for learnings to become second nature. Think of this as the basics. The coach is building a foundation, teaching the team members how to learn.

Building Trust by Coaching

“Melva” is one of our long-term employees, and someone who demonstrates many of the characteristics we look for in leadership candidates. She is reliable, determined and a self-starter, often stepping in to help others who are struggling.

Recently, we decided to evaluate and train Melva with the intention of eventually making her a second-shift supervisor. After several weeks observing her interpersonal skills, we took the first steps to see whether Melva had the potential to grow and eventually join the leadership team.

While getting to know Melva, we observed that she lacked self-confidence and was afraid of failure. (Later, we learned this was due to her experience with poor management in a previous job.) Initially, Melva was very timid and standoffish, uncomfortable with conversations about her future and didn’t understand why we would ask her opinion on topics since no one had before. A lack of communication, explanation and guidance appeared to be the root cause.

We persuaded Melva to help with a simple task that was unfamiliar to her. At first, she was clearly out of her comfort zone. We coached her by providing the instruction necessary to complete the task one step at a time, while encouraging her to take it all in.

When the task was successfully complete, we recognized and thanked Melva for her contribution. We ultimately coached her through several collaborative tasks, each more challenging than the last. As the complexity increased, we backed off on instruction, providing guidance only if she got stuck, while carefully monitoring progress and gauging her reaction.

As we expected, this took a lot of time because it was important. During coaching, a person’s self-esteem and confidence begin to grow. Embrace the coaching process; do not rush it. Everyone learns at a different rate.

When Melva succeeded, we cheered and complimented her, making certain she knew that it was her success. The few times she failed to complete a task, the coaches made sure she understood that failure is OK. It is important for people to taste the bitterness of failure. Melva’s trust in the coaches grew and she was willing to accept more responsibility because she believed and understood that we had confidence in her. Melva also had confidence in us. We (her coaches) saw things in Melva she didn’t initially see in herself.

We repeated this process until it was clear that Melva had developed self-confidence. This is critical because self-confidence is required to exercise good judgement and make decisions. We had a team member whom we could count on to complete tasks well and identify obstacles quickly without fear of failure.

Moving from Coach to Mentor

Mentoring is the act of advising someone on a more long-term basis. A mentor provides advice or counsel but not specific instruction. The mentee takes in the advice and decides on their course of action.

When Melva was ready to move from being coached to being mentored, we replaced single tasks with bigger projects that required planning. We described the results we expected and asked Melva to chart a path to success. We encouraged her to ask questions for clarity, but did not provide instruction.

Melva initially had some anxiety and apprehension about this new responsibility, but with every success she had, her confidence grew. As the successful projects increased in difficulty, Melva was rewarded with promotions and raises.  Melva became the supervisor for second shift, then she took on quality assurance for the same shift.

Today, Melva is responsible for all of production and the much larger day shift, leads our training efforts company-wide and provides leadership to the second-shift supervisor. She was most recently added to our engineering review board, because we value her perspective and advice in the development of new products and processes. Melva is now starting to coach select members of her team who show promise.  

It is common in our business to seek input from leadership team members on various topics. Melva is included in many of these discussions because like the other members of the leadership team, she asks well-thought-out questions from a unique viewpoint.

Melva started in the lowest level position on the production floor. Now she holds the highest position on the same production floor. Each time she has been promoted, her team recognizes that she has earned and demonstrated her ability for months. She immediately has their respect and is a shining example of the benefits of stepping outside one’s comfort zone.  

Good mentors are focused on challenging and growing their team members—elevating their confidence, reasoning skills and judgment. Teams built using this and similar approaches have a high level of interaction and synergy. Individuals feel confident in their abilities and trust and respect each other, knowing their fellow team members are always ready to step in.

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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