Developing strong leaders for stronger results

By Ron Koslowsky. 

During the rapid rise of the Canadian dollar against the U.S. greenback in 2003-04, I carried out a research project to answer the question of how manufacturers in Canada could overcome an at-par loonie through productivity improvement. I interviewed close to 100 business leaders in the sector and concluded the number one need to compete was improving leadership capacity, both at the top as well as cascading throughout organizations.

Leadership starts with establishing core values, such as integrity or respect, that act as a foundation to all in the organization around how things are done. Leadership also requires vision to direct plans and actions in achieving the desired results. While values and vision are determined primarily by the top executive, leadership can and should be exercised by all those in the organization who are in a supervisory role and who lead on an informal basis.

The fable of the traveller, wind, and sun has resonated with me since childhood. As the story goes, the sun and wind were debating one day which of the two were stronger, when they came upon a traveller walking down a winding road. To settle the dispute, they agreed that whoever could cause the traveller to remove his coat would be the more powerful. The wind blew as hard as it could until it could blow no more. But the stronger the gusts, the more closely the traveller bundled himself. The sun, instead, came out, shone brightly, and the traveller soon removed his coat, finding it was not needed.

This fable shaped my own philosophy on leadership. The most effective leaders today realize you accomplish more with people if you create a positive, engaging environment. Leaders understand the culture they create determines the outcomes — from productivity, quality, and safety, to staff turnover, and, ultimately, the bottom line.

Leadership best practices

Over the course of my career, I have been fortunate to work alongside many exceptional leaders. And, in that time, several principles and strategies have emerged as common approach and best practice amongst those who lead most effectively. Here are the lessons that have stuck most prominently with me:

Lead by example: Your actions speak louder than words, so set the tone in your area. Don’t ask people to do something you would not be prepared to do.

Servant leadership: Support your team realizing they are the ones who add the value for the customer. As you delegate and empower people, your capacity to grow the organization increases.

Develop your reports: Coach and mentor those who report to you. As you build other leaders, you free up your own time. Spend less time fighting fires and allow time to work on your business instead of in your business.

Hire the best: Don’t be afraid to hire or promote talent even though it may mean someone could rise beyond you in the organization. Discouraging talent may leave you feeling ‘safe’ temporarily, but a weaker team eventually leads to weaker results. Attract the best talent to show you are to be trusted with more.

Communicate and celebrate: Help your team know what is expected. Share information and appropriate tools, and raise everyone’s ability to accomplish goals. Recognize good behavior and results. Praise for good effort is incredibly motivating.

Lead with questions: The natural tendency for leaders is to ‘solve the problem’ and provide answers to issues based on experience and knowledge. This approach may feel good in the moment, but will tend to bring other issues to your doorstep. Take the time to ask questions and let your team arrive at the solutions. Not only will you create stronger problem solvers, you will often arrive at even better solutions. Toyota leaders are very good at this development method. Their results have demonstrated the value of questions.

Lead with lean: Leaders know that improving cost, quality, and on-time delivery is not optional today. When fully adopted, lean has served manufacturers well. The biggest barrier in achieving bottom-line success with lean is a leader who neither visibly supports nor personally engages in improvement efforts.

Critique the process, not the person: There are seldom bad people — just bad processes. Focus on improving processes to allow people to drop their defences, open up, and create more effective workflow.

Encourage doing — learn from mistakes: Where employees focus on avoiding mistakes of any kind, a ‘paralysis by analysis’ develops and progress stalls. Encourage incremental action even if mistakes will occur. Your team will be more productive and more responsive to the customer. Where mistakes happen, encourage people to share them and see them as an opportunity to further improve processes and initiatives. Model this approach yourself. Openly admit your mistakes, as this will empower your team.

Focus on the customer: Place customer requirements and satisfaction at the heart of any process or initiative. Identify and help overcome internal silos. Unless employees understand the customer, they won’t intrinsically make the best decisions.

Continue to learn: Manufacturing is changing every day. Lead by setting an example of continuous learning. Show you are willing to learn and support learning for your team. Good employees stay with organizations where development is encouraged and they believe they have a better future.

Develop a discipline of leadership for yourself, including a routine you follow every day. World-class organizations, large or small, understand the value of a standardized company-wide approach and system to leading people for best results. While serving as vice president of human resources at Palliser Furniture some years ago, I saw the positive results of a standard leadership training program.

At CME, meanwhile, we have recognized this need and have developed our leadership training program for first- and second-level leaders within manufacturers to incorporate lean thinking and connect best practices to mentorship. In addition, our Training Within Industry (TWI) program provides standardized job instruction and relations.

What about smaller companies that don’t have many formal leaders? Arguably, leadership is even more critical, as poor leaders can sink a company quickly. To address this, we have established executive councils for top leaders of small and mid-sized firms, facilitating regular meetings to allow executive leaders to deal confidentially with strategic issues and opportunities among trusted peers. It is like having an advisory board of directors without the hassle.

The bottom line

Companies differentiate themselves from the rest through the talent of their people. How well that talent is utilized depends on leadership.

The best leaders understand it is not just about getting things done. Equally as important, it is about the way things get done.

Leaders create the environment, and the business success, by how they act or what they ignore. Remember, the number one reason good employees stay with a company or leave it is the quality of their leader.

It pays to carefully choose and deliberately develop your leaders for the best results.

Ron Koslowsky is the Manitoba-based vice president of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters — Canada’s largest trade and industry association.