GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. —Though many manufacturers tout leadership as one of the most important aspects of their businesses, many fail to understand the nuances of leadership, which can make the difference in an organization’s long-term success.
That was the takeaway message during the recent installment of the “Manufacturing Back-to-Basics” webinar series hosted by the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center – West and MiBiz. This fourth and final installment of the four-part webinar series brought together industry experts and manufacturing executives to discuss the finer points of leadership and how positive leadership informs a strong company culture.
Watch the webinar here.
“Leadership isn’t something that you can just send a group of your leaders out, they go away for a weekend, come back and they’re all of a sudden a leader,” said Jack Russell, president of Muskegon-based Rolar Products, who participated in the webinar. “Leadership is a process.”
While a nebulous topic at times, leadership forms the bedrock on which most of a company’s success is built, according to Ben Wood, a business development specialist with The Right Place Inc. who focuses on leadership training. During the webinar, Wood noted that effective leadership impacts everything from workplace culture and talent retention, to the company’s reputation among its industry peers and customers.
“When you have good leaders, people want to work for you and want to impress you. As opposed to the alternative which is coming in just to get a paycheck,” Wood said, noting customers can also tell the difference in worker morale when a company exhibits positive leadership.
A CULTURE OF LEADERSHIP
Developing strong leadership was key to Russel’s strategy for Rolar Products. Following a career with an international automotive manufacturer, Russell purchased the small machine shop five years ago with five workers. Since then, he and his team have grown sales by 500 percent and expanded its workforce to 25 employees.
For Russell, leaders need to be emotionally committed to their role, which includes a willingness to be vulnerable. Leaders must also genuinely want to lead. Russell noted employees are often promoted to leadership positions because they are the best at their job, not necessarily because they desire to lead their fellow workers. Additionally, prospective leaders must also believe in the company’s culture, he said.
“The people have to be willing to buy into the vision … and want to participate,” Russell said. “That’s the only way you’re going to make money or move forward – if the most important assets, the employees, are in it with you.”
Specifically, Russell encourages leaders to develop a true interest in their people. For him, that goes beyond paying mere “lip service” to the notion that people are a company’s most valuable asset. Leaders should interact with their employees in a way that shows they are genuinely interested in their lives and their family. For example, instead of asking employees how their families are doing every day, effective leaders need to remember their employee’s responses from previous conversations, take those into account, and ask new meaningful questions, he said.
“People know you're just asking the question … and aren’t really interested in the answer,” Russell said.
LEADING AT ROLAR
Russell has established several key strategies for effective leadership at Rolar Products. For one, he shares business details with employees on the shop floor, including sales prices of each part Rolar produces. Russell and his leadership staff also encourage all workers to come forward with suggestions to improve workflow, quality or other aspects of the business.
“Whether it’s your job or not, everyone is encouraged to challenge the status quo,” Russell said.
Additionally, Russell includes employees in hiring decisions. Prospective applicants are often invited to come in and work a trial shift with the rest of the team, who then determine if the individual may fit with the rest of the workforce. From there, employees share their observations with management.
Ultimately, instilling positive leadership comes down to consistency in ensuring each member of the management team shares the same vision of the company, particularly as the company grows, Russell said. For larger companies, he recommended executives continue to add managers to avoid a situation where one person may be responsible for managing some 100 employees.
“If you don’t have those people well trained and in line with what the vision is for your company, it’s going to go askew very quickly,” Russell said. “Second shift is going to want to do something differently, the third shift is going to want something different…You have to make sure … that you can keep those personal relationships.”