When coaching business leaders about concepts like talent development and growing an operation from the ground up, Elizabeth Rolinski has the professional experience that commands credibility. Rolinski spent more than a decade working in lithium-ion battery operations at Johnson Controls International PLC and later for Clarios, a former subsidiary that spun out of the international conglomerate and is now a subsidiary of Brookfield Business Partners.
She trotted the globe to establish new plants and help grow an industry in the United States that was met with significant skepticism on whether it could be sustainable. After retiring from that professional role in August 2020, Rolinski joined Leading By Design Founder Rodger Price as a partner at the Zeeland-based leadership training firm. She spoke with MiBiz about her new professional pursuits to create strong leaders within West Michigan-based businesses.
The lithium-ion battery industry was one in which you and your teams were blazing new trails and building something from the ground up. Does that perspective seem to resonate with the leaders?
I think part of that maybe is on the side of risk taking — leaders need to be able to take some level of risk. There are a lot of factors to how much may or may not be acceptable, but for leaders, it is applicable to so many. Uncertainty is part of great innovation and we do spend quite a bit of time talking about innovation in Leading by Design. That’s where a lot of those stories about cutting-edge technology like lithium ion (come up). Later, I headed up our Industry 4.0 journey — that’s another example. It’s very applicable to that chapter when we talk about innovation. People may have different levels of risk that they’re taking but they’re still taking risks.
Leading by Design is striving to make West Michigan a hub of sorts for leadership. Is there anything inherently unique about the area and its culture that helps achieve this dynamic?
We all agree that West Michigan is poised to become this portal of the best leaders in the country because we already have tremendous leaders and tremendous companies and organizations. Just a lot of good momentum already. It’s not people coming into this course because they don’t know how to lead at all or because they’re broken. They come to this course because they are good leaders and they want to take it as far as they can go and leverage those strengths.
Leading by Design sees leaders from all different industries. Do they share any general characteristics? Is leadership industry agnostic?
They have a lot in common. The leadership principles do apply anywhere. These are things like being able to build a team on strong trust and each team member being authentic and feeling included and strong communication. Being able to lean into conflict and being able to give feedback to each other but in a positive, loving way that is selfless. It doesn’t matter if it’s a church organization, school administrator or CEOs at a large Fortune 500 company — those same concepts apply.
Do you think the COVID-19 pandemic was the ultimate test of the caliber of leadership for area businesses?
When things are going smoothly, it is easier to be a leader. And I have to say that I’m so impressed with the companies that I have seen in how adaptable they have been and how supportive of each other and how innovative (they have been). Whether it’s (finding) different ways of working from home or going after different products and using their capital equipment and resources differently.
I have just been amazed at the strength that has come out at this time. I’m sure there are companies where maybe they weren’t situated well even before COVID and it was a heck of a lot harder. But I’m certainly seeing a lot of impressive things when leaders were faced with adversity. There will be some great leadership stories that I think will be shared throughout years to come.
What sort of specific challenges are leaders across the industry spectrum facing during the pandemic?
Keeping teams collaborating has been a big one. Most companies have faced a good part of their group working from home. And it’s gone really better than I anticipated.
The one area I think leaders had to really be creative is attendance — it has been a struggle because of people who were potentially exposed and told to stay home. Everybody is critical in manufacturing and you can’t call that one in — the people who are putting the parts together and running the shop floor. (Manufacturing leaders) are the ones who have had to really get creative. I feel for them because I know that has definitely been a challenge.