What I’ve learned from women leaders

Alberta industry champion and commentator, Jeff Baker, talks focus, commitment, and the power of working with both your head and your heart. 

By Jeff Baker. 

When I began my career nearly 15 years ago, I was green to any sort of ‘real’ industry, having not been exposed to much in the way of manufacturing and processing in my formative days.

Since then, however, I’ve had the privilege of meeting and getting to know many of the major industrial players across Alberta, Canada, and beyond, spanning such sectors as energy, forestry, environmental and professional services, and — of course — manufacturing.

Manufacturing in particular held a certain fascination for me. Despite having the odd peek behind the proverbial curtain, there was always a ‘black box’ mystique around what happens as raw materials are transformed into finished products.

I admit that I grew up with a stereotypical view of manufacturing. I knew it as the exclusive domain of men — rough and tumble, dirty and dangerous. That’s just how it was portrayed in popular culture.

As we all know, though, that is not necessarily the case — and has not been for quite some time.

It takes a village

I was brought up in a family with parents who were individually and collaboratively strong, in a community and context where traditional gender roles or expectations weren’t strictly observed. I grew up believing that a strong work ethic and commitment are key to current and future success, regardless of who you might be or from where you come.

Throughout my career, I’ve worked with leaders — male and female — who have epitomized the definition of a leader, and who have lived the qualities so fully that it is clear they were coming from a place of authenticity and passion.

Gender was never a limiting factor or a qualifier on a person’s skills and experience. Everyone we meet offers something unique to the world, in a way that can change others for the positive. Men and women both offer valuable lessons, but I’m focusing this column on the things I’ve learned from the female leaders in my career.

Learn from the best

From my early days with the provincial government in Alberta to my latest adventure in an executive role with GO Productivity, one of Canada’s leading providers of operational excellence and continuous improvement services (with hundreds of manufacturing clients, coast-to-coast), I’ve experienced leaders of all ages, from various backgrounds, with all sorts of professional and volunteer experience. From each of them, I’ve taken with me something that sticks to this day.

I’ve spent my working life surrounded by strong women who have pushed the boundaries and limitations imposed on them by societal stereotypes. Seeing these individuals change their world in their own unique ways has, in turn, inspired me.

I’m a perpetual learner. I have a thirst for knowledge and experiences that can help me grow as an individual and push my own boundaries of what I thought possible.

That’s why it has been an honour and privilege to know these women, to work with them, and to learn from them — so I can become a better professional and team member wherever my work takes me.

Head and heart together

Intelligence isn’t a simple thing to understand or appreciate. It is an intricate concept that millions of experts around the world have dedicated reams of paper to exploring, contemplating, and offering so-called ‘solutions’ for.

It is more than being ‘subject smart’ or having mass amounts of detail crammed into one’s grey matter. And it is more than just being in-touch with one’s emotions or having them in-check for any given situation.

Women leaders, like Chris Buerger of Edmonton-based LHAS Corp., have taught me the key to success is ensuring the head and heart are working together in concert — doing so in the right way at the right time to get the best results possible.

Being ruled only by one’s head or heart can lead to decisions that appear correct at first blush, yet the effects and end results will be far from optimal. Rushing to a conclusion can lead you to miss an important alternative or perspective that may enhance the outcome.

Over the various positions I’ve held, I’ve come to understand it often helps to seek out additional heart and head ‘capacity’ from trusted colleagues and advisors. There have been many times when I couldn’t quite see around the corner of a problem or couldn’t get to that elusive best solution. But, by bringing in another perspective — and a different kind of head and heart — the solution would reveal itself.

Knowing how you make your decisions, and recognizing the balance between your head and your heart, is key. Learning what balance is needed for a specific situation is something that takes time and practice, and can feel very uncomfortable at the onset.

It’s about the people

All the leaders who have significantly impacted my life have held a common credo: It’s not about me personally; it’s about my people and my customers, and how I can serve them through my leadership.

Ensuring the ‘people factor’ is central to all decisions made in the business is critical. After all, it’s the people who are the foundation of the culture, the operations, the technology, and the relationships within and beyond your company. Your team needs to be served by the company’s leadership and equipped and empowered to deliver the desired results — not an afterthought of technically correct decisions.

It is not about keeping everyone happy all the time; rather, it is having the voice at the table to speak to the people that are affected by the decisions. This includes your team, your suppliers, and your customers.

One leader I worked for and I admire greatly, GO Productivity CEO Lori Schmidt, made a point of bringing together her employees with the customers and suppliers involved in a current product line, and who would be directly impacted by decisions resulting from a new business focus. The transparency of the process, combined with the inclusion of the people, pushed the boundaries of what was possible and led to an adjustment in the products and services that delivered higher value for both clients and the company.

Situations like that were eye-opening to me — an analytical-brained individual, who could sometimes gloss over the people factor in decisions and processes. It helped push me to better thinking and to better leverage the skills and talents of my colleagues.

Focus and commit

It is one thing to have an idea about where you are going with your career or your business; it is another thing entirely to have a laser focus on the direction, the timing, and the desired outcomes of your work.

I learned from the women leaders in my life, including Laureen Regan, founder of Calgary-based Regan Productions and president of Boom Group, that a key to success is a sharp, multi-level focus on the things that matter to your businesses. These leaders know where they’re heading; they know what success is going to look like; and they commit fully to the work and people needed to get there.

Lack of focus in one’s business can manifest as trying to be ‘all things to all people,’ or trying a bunch of new things without following through to conclusion. Having focus means, despite the current path being muddy and bumpy, you’ll be able to navigate towards your destination. It’s like when you’re skidding in your car: Steer into the skid and commit to regain control.

The women leaders with whom I’ve worked have attributed their greatest business achievements to applying the focus and commitment after deciding with both their heads and hearts on the path forward. Often stated is that, “It became easier once I focused and put my all into the work to lead in that direction.”

Change the narrative

We all have that little voice in our heads — the inner monologue that is amplified when we are heading into the new and unknown. Often, it is not giving a narrative of encouragement and positivity. Instead, it’s a voice of doom.

The women leaders in my career have told me that it is important to acknowledge the little voice, but it is equally crucial to understand the voice is yours, can be changed, and is not in charge. They have told me it continues to take work to quiet the negativity and amplify the positivity, no matter how many times you’ve done it.

The voice will often come from the part inside you that is not getting appropriate attention in the decision-making process — the head or the heart — and the volume is proportionate to how much you’re ignoring it.

Because the voice comes from within, you can control it. You can silence it or get it on-board to be the internal champion it should be.

Some folks have told me it’s not about ignoring the little voice, and just diving in the deep end at every turn. Far from it. It is more a case of aligning your internal narrative with the decisions you’ve made or are making, and in-line with the focus and commitment you’re giving to the endeavour at-hand.

As one leader told me, “If you can’t be your own biggest fan, you can’t expect anyone else to be.”

What is it all about?

The women in leadership who have impacted my career are still the voices that resonate most loudly in my head as I continue along my own path.

I’ve taken these lessons from the women leaders in my life and made them foundational to my journey as a leader. I make sure my team members understand these ideas and commit to applying them.

There are many people who will never encounter a formal female leader in their lives beyond their own mothers or wives, and still there are others who have difficulty accepting women in leadership roles. It’s unfortunate this can still be the case.

The pace of change in business has never been faster, and the up-and-down cycles have never been so dramatic. To impose or maintain limits or barriers grounded solely in gender is asinine and counterproductive.

Take these lessons from the women leaders I’ve known, and make them work for you and your business. Then, pay it forward by sharing with your own people the lessons from the leaders who have positively impacted your career.

In the end, it’s all about manufacturing our own future success.

Jeff Baker is a former managing director with GO Productivity, based in Edmonton, which specializes in lean, Six Sigma, value stream mapping, as well as plant layout advisory and training services for both manufacturing and non-manufacturing clientele.