Uptime: Growing Future Leaders

Bob Williamson | December 20, 2016


Leadership is not management. Although these terms often are used interchangeably, they reflect two entirely different, but necessary, behaviors in successful businesses.

Take, for example, the fact that organizations striving to establish proven reliability-improvement best practices often struggle—and not because of an inability to manage. Rather, it’s because of their limited ability to lead people to adopt new practices and tools. Consider the following points:

Management. As small businesses grow from a handful of people to departments and cost centers they shift from entrepreneurial teamwork to an organization that requires a management hierarchy. Chaos would soon reign and business would fail without management structures.

Management is about organizing, planning, defining jobs, hiring, preparing and monitoring budgets, setting policy, and defining procedures, all aimed at running an efficient and effective business. Managers tend to be very directing of others in their organizations—to the point they can delegate
with confidence.

Leadership. Well-managed businesses can, no doubt, achieve staggering results. Still, as businesses come under significant fire from new competition, market changes, or other threats, management skills can come up short.

In such cases, leadership skills are required to set a new direction, inspire and motivate people to achieve new results toward a new vision, and to engage them as they create new work processes. Leaders tend to shift their styles beyond management to support and coach those in their organizations. They also tend to adapt their behaviors to the needs of the individuals or groups they are leading.

Lessons learned

In the 1980s, when I worked with a team to instill new leadership behaviors in a large, multi-national construction and maintenance business, we quickly learned that old management and supervision habits were hard to break. Many of our superintendents, supervisors, general foremen, and foremen on the jobs had learned their own leadership styles early in their careers. It was clear that some had exceptional role models, while others . . .well, let’s just say it was their way or the highway.

Learning from other leaders.  One of the most important things we learned was how influential leaders were to the up-and-coming leaders. Leaders modeled the way—good, bad, or indifferent. Quite often the first supervisor of a potential leader is the most influential. I touched on this in last month’s Uptime column regarding the use of mentors, sponsors, and first coaches (see “Vision, Passion and Talent Management.”).

Suggestion: Choose a new leader’s first coach, i.e., role model, wisely. Make sure a new leader spends time with a skilled and knowledgeable mentor to help diffuse undesirable methods and instill the desired ones. Assign a higher-level sponsor to the new leader to help nurture a vision for the future of the business and for the new leader.

Setting leadership expectations. We also discovered that many of our managers and supervisors weren’t cut out to be leaders in the first place. Sure, they may have been highly skilled in their craft, but that often worked against their leadership effectiveness. We discovered that when these skilled people were promoted, we often lost a craftsperson and gained a terrible leader.

Referring again to last month’s Uptime column, I discussed the importance of establishing a clear definition of “who” you need in terms of technical and soft skills to be successful on the job and in the company’s culture. It’s important to select potential leaders with the blend of technical abilities and interpersonal traits.

Suggestion: Select for success. Look for future leaders who have a “right fit” for the job role and elicit desirable types of behaviors when working with others. Specific assessment instruments and carefully defined role-play exercises may be helpful here.

Creating individual leadership-development plans. We discovered that many of our leaders learned how to lead on the job through trial and error. That type of on-the-job training led to a huge disparity of styles in what was to have been common leadership methods. Their idea of a leadership-development plan was a weekly debrief with a supervisor and a discussion of the good, bad, and ugly for the week.

An individual leadership-development plan should be based on a common set of leadership expectations tailored to the unique needs of the new leader and the specific job role he or she expects to be filling.

Suggestion: Start with a solid definition of the skills needed to be successful in future leadership roles, i.e., technical skills, behavioral (or interpersonal) skills. Having clear definitions of the knowledge requirements also helps flesh out the job-performance requirements for your leadership-development plans. Think of these as job-based duties and tasks—clear, observable, and measurable.

Promoting ‘off the street’ or from within. Where your future leaders come from will have an impact on the workplace. In our case, we found that most of our front-line leaders (foremen and supervisors) and middle leaders (general foremen and superintendents) were promoted from within the company. Those brought in from outside had a triple challenge: Learn the job, the work processes (how work gets done), and the company policies. Since the front-line and mid-level leaders were the communication link to the company and the work schedule, they often grasped at straws for the right answer. This was obvious to their work groups.

Suggestion: Look for future leaders within your business and your company. They already have an invaluable jump-start over others off the street.

Providing formal education and experiential learning. Bringing new leaders up to speed requires a blend of formal leadership education and “shop floor” experiential learning. For maximum effectiveness, these two types of methods should reinforce each other.

We were fortunate, in the 1980s, to have had the staff and the talents to develop our own internal leadership-education programs. They included day-long workshops, team-taught by our facilitators/instructors, with a combination of practical theory and role plays.

Suggestion: Work with a local community college or university to develop a leadership education program that aligns with your organization’s leadership expectations and development plans.

Leadership and technical skills

Managers and leaders must know what they are talking about and what they are responsible for accomplishing in their organizations. Leaders, though, have an extra need for credibility to be trusted as they move people toward new goals.

In that regard, leaders have two options: building their own level of equipment and process-reliability expertise and/or building a committed team of knowledgeable people. Both approaches can be highly effective. That said, regardless of his or her approach to gaining credibility, a new leader must lead—not manage the path and the organization change to improved equipment and process reliability.

Manager or leader?

As one CEO told me in my early days as a manager, “You manage assets, projects, timelines, and budgets, but you lead people to accomplish the goals.” Solid management and effective leadership are both needed as an organization embarks on a new, or renewed, quest to improve performance.

Consider some of today’s top sports-team coaches: They are inspiring leaders. Assistant coaches are managers. 





Bob Williamson

Bob Williamson

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