Three leadership imperatives

'Human Capital' columnist Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP, says don't lose sight of a trio that applies to every tier in the corporate hierarchy.

By Tom Moriarty, PE, CMRP

Every organization has multiple levels of leadership that are needed so the organization can be managed efficiently. Depending on what books or articles you’ve read on the subject, the authors normally argue there are between five and seven general levels of management. A typical hierarchy is:

  1. Individual — craftsman, operator or engineer
  2. Line supervisor — manages individuals
  3. Subfunction manager — a shift supervisor who manages multiple line supervisors
  4. Function manager — overall responsibility for managing multiple subfunctions (operations, maintenance, procurement, etc.)
  5. Facility or plant manager — overall charge of multiple functions
  6. Business manager — in charge of multiple facilities or plants
  7. Corporate manager — the person who appears on CNN when something big happens

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The majority of books about leadership written by Jack Welch, Larry Bossidy, Colin Powell and other notable authors focus on the uppermost levels. These are interesting authors who have demonstrated that they had what it took to reach high performance levels, and they have compelling messages. Leadership advice for people aspiring to levels six and seven are important and influence countless mid-level to upper-level managers. Those are the people who aspire to earn an MBA and want to go after the top positions in their corporations.

There is nothing wrong with studying what notable authors have to say (there are some wonderful concepts), but well under 1% of employees will ever reach such lofty positions. The majority are located at or below level five. Levels two through five are the levels of the organization where success or failure happens for the largest portion of facilities and plants. This is where I believe the most value can be gained by improving the leadership culture and skills in most facilities and plants.

In my work among diverse industries — from pharmaceuticals to open-pit mining and from municipal wastewater treatment facilities to military organizations, union and non-union — there are three things that foster a great leadership environment. I refer to these as leadership imperatives.

The first leadership imperative is trust. Without it, there’s suspicion and guarded behaviors that weaken interpersonal conduct and restrict how well an organization can perform. Every day, in every organization, something will go wrong. When it does, everyone gets to see the manager’s true nature. It might be the result of miscommunication, someone doing the best they could with the circumstances, or something outside the workplace (such as a serious illness distracting a key employee). In an environment where there’s trust, mistakes are viewed as an opportunity to improve and people involved are not simply trying to deflect blame. In a trusting environment, we can make improvements and avoid future occurrences because we can get the real answers about why the problem occurred.

The second leadership imperative is a culture that supports leadership development. This means having an expectation that each leader is provided with specific guidance on what is expected of them at their current level and at the level above them. These people are expected to develop their leadership potential. They get feedback based on those expectations. Standards should be identified in several areas:

  • Leadership performance (setting directions and goals, maintaining standards, developing people)
  • Customer satisfaction (internal and external customers)
  • Operating results (meeting performance goals for your responsibilities)
  • Management performance (getting things done on time, on budget, with high quality)
  • Working relationships (teamwork among peers, increasing ultimate performance)
  • Social responsibility (fulfilling the intent of environmental and community programs)
  • Individual technical capability (expertise in your field)

The third leadership imperative is providing people who haven’t yet achieved full leadership performance with training or improvement opportunities. This training doesn’t necessarily have to be formal classes or workshops. More often, closing these gaps is best done through an empowering leadership style and some coaching from the person’s supervisor. Where there are trust and clear standards (expectations), people are more open to responding to constructive feedback.

Tom Moriarty, PE, CMRP, is president of Alidade MER Inc. E-mail him at tjmpe@alidade-mer.com.

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