2019, Volume 3, Issue 4 - Spring 2019

It’s lonely at the top

By John Graham

It’s often said ‘it’s lonely at the top.’ Studies indicate up to 40 per cent of all employees claim they feel lonely at work, and none more so than the individuals responsible for leading our manufacturing companies.

Most people believe life at the top of an organization is relatively glamourous and easy.  Senior business leaders, however, must keep their focus on all aspects of their companies.  They often feel they have few, if any, trusted advisors. Larger organizations may have a board of directors, from whom regular input, feedback, and mentoring is obtained. But what about smaller manufacturers? Who can help them? What can they do? Where do they go? 

Today’s marketplace is extremely competitive. In most cases, Canadian manufacturers must export abroad to find new customer markets and grow their businesses. This requirement to be competitive on the global stage means manufacturers must strive to continually learn more about the industry, customers, and competition; constantly invest in and improve their day-to-day operations; attract, train, and grow the very best people; and, maintain the highest level of business flexibility to adapt to the constantly changing landscape in which they compete.

In addition to facing increased competition, manufacturers must adapt to changes in government legislation related to environment and sustainability, labour, trade agreements, and financial reporting. Changing social trends also affect a company’s ability to attract and retain talent in a work environment, where employees can and will vote with their feet. To do all of this, and maintain profit margins, requires a never-ending focus on the key business aspects needed to ensure their success. 

Most importantly, manufacturers need a fully engaged workforce, which uses shared decision-making, and remains flexible and agile in the face of any change thrust upon them.  People want to know they work for innovative, ethical companies doing work to benefit consumers and society. In addition, a keen focus is required to enable the culture needed to maintain this workforce. The evolution of continuous improvement thinking and lean manufacturing methods has helped, but this maniacal focus must be ingrained within every employee. Sustainability is very important. Without the people’s understanding and shared commitment to continual improvement, an organization runs the risk of falling and staying behind competitors.

Many senior executives such as owners, presidents, CEOs, entrepreneurs, and general managers realize they may need some help. They may lack some of the necessary expertise and they may have little or no access to like-minded business leaders willing to help them.

Having access to peer groups can assist with the discussion of business and manufacturing issues. Unless senior leaders have one or more people on whom they can rely for candid feedback on strategy, direction, and next steps, they essentially act alone. If the manufacturer has a board of directors or advisors, then much better discussion and debate will occur. But, without that formal organizational support, with whom does the executive discuss new ideas, business strategies, key employee moves, and other related business issues?

Many senior leaders may not have trusted relationships or business colleagues with whom they can share important business and personal issues. Many leaders will seek outside assistance through family members, other business leaders, mentors, coaches, and consultants, each providing its own set of benefits and possible concerns. Another effective method of addressing both the executive’s business isolation and their personal sense of loneliness is to join a peer group of similar executives with whom to share their experiences and challenges.

Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME) created several peer groups of non-competing senior manufacturing executives to serve that exact need. Dubbed Manufacturers’ Executive Councils, or MECs, these groups of 8–10 senior manufacturing leaders gather monthly to interact with like-minded leaders, discuss manufacturing-related business issues, and obtain peer-mentoring support. 

Trust and confidentiality are paramount. Through non-disclosure agreements, the privacy and confidentiality of all MEC discussions is maintained. Ensuring a safe MEC meeting environment for all members to speak openly and honestly is critical in creating value for all. CME provides an experienced business executive to facilitate the discussion (I am one of those facilitators). Initially, new MEC members may be cautious; but, after listening to the business discussions from existing MEC members, they become comfortable and are then willing to open up.

This ‘rawness’ builds a willingness to share business problems. It follows a ‘from my experience’ response approach. As members share their business experiences and perspectives, the requesting MEC member often may find a suitable path to their issue resolution. In addition, members revisit the requester’s issue at future meetings to see what happened or, if required, to offer additional feedback. 

No one is obligated to follow any specific advice. The group member feedback helps the requesting member realize others are interested in their mutual success, and knows they are trying to help. Members understand it is in their best interest to help, as next month it may be their issue which calls for member feedback. Thus, a mature, professional, experience-based body of knowledge is shared, and the participating executive appreciates the peer-mentoring.

All successful business leaders are learners. Lifelong learning in our rapidly changing, technology-driven business world means leaders must stay current on the latest trends and market influences. The MEC represents a community of leader learners, who often point each other to relevant reference materials, books and articles, external resources, market developments, and financial information. This framework, coupled with the flexibility to dive deeper into any relevant topic that month, provides both formal learning opportunities and ad-hoc business insights for all.

If joining a MEC is of interest to you, you owe it to yourself to learn more. Participating with a dynamic cohort of successful manufacturing business leaders has proven many things: No businessperson is an island; many minds are better than one; and, we are capable of learning something new each day. If a MEC is right for you, please reach out to CME for more information and to get your name on a MEC waiting list.

John Graham is an experienced manufacturing executive, with an extensive background in leadership, management, and strategic planning. He currently facilitates Manufacturers’ Executive Councils, as well as the Leadership Development Program, for Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters in Manitoba.