Industrial Training / Workforce Development / Changing Workforce / Leadership Skills

Help your plant's future leaders fly

Don’t keep ’em grounded. Here’s how to let emerging talent soar.

By Phil Beelendorf, CRL, CMRP, Roquette America Inc.

When I was entering the workforce back in the mid-1970s, I recall members of the so-called “greatest generation” bemoaning the fact that the country was going to “hell in a handbasket.” The younger generation, with its loose morals and lax work ethic, lacked the skills necessary to lead the country and would quickly run America into ruin when they were put in charge of things. Fast-forward 40 years to today, and my generation is now saying the same thing about young people entering the workforce.

It does seem like every generation talks about the “good old days” when hard work and thrift were the norm, but still, qualities such as personal accountability, civility, self-sacrifice, integrity, humility, and a willingness to forego personal short-term gain for the long-term common good of others seem to be in increasingly short supply. In this world of instant gratification in which we live, people seem more interested in enriching themselves than in nurturing tomorrow’s leaders.

As we rapidly approach retirement, we baby boomers feel frustrated by the lack of motivation we sometimes perceive among those who are about ready to assume the mantle of leadership from us. Some might be tempted to mistakenly feel that it’s impossible to develop tomorrow’s leaders because they assume the younger generation is just not willing to make the personal sacrifice necessary to take on leadership roles.

I agree that those who desire to become leaders must be self-motivated and willing to work hard. But I just as firmly believe that those of us who are willing to develop tomorrow’s leaders have a responsibility to work even harder. If you are committed to training tomorrow’s leaders, you must first assume the mantle of leadership yourself. But what is leadership?

At the IMC 2018 keynote address in December, Ron Moore defined leadership as “the ability to inspire ordinary people to consistently perform at an extraordinary level.” I really like that definition. We often think of leaders only those people who supervise others, but that is too narrow of a definition. Anyone who champions a cause and can inspire others to join them in doing so is a leader – especially when the people in question do not report to them. I would challenge you to name a great leader who did not demonstrate the ability to inspire people beyond those they directly supervised.

I believe developing a culture where you can cultivate and grow tomorrow’s leaders is a four-step process.

  1. Understand your motivation.
  2. Create the right environment/spend your time and energy on the right things.
  3. Find and select the right candidates.
  4. Nurture and develop the selected individuals.

Understand your motivation


This may sound silly, but asking yourself why you want to focus your time and energy developing tomorrow’s leaders is an important question. John C. Maxwell said, “Leading well is not about enriching yourself; it is about empowering others.”

Where you are in your career journey will help you understand your motivation for taking on this all-important role. I enjoy my current role in our organization. While I have direct reports, I am much more of a teacher, preacher, and mentor than I am a manager – most people would tell you I am more preacher than anything else. If I did change professions, my sermon would go something like this: “For the wages of reactive maintenance are death to your assets, but the free gift of a proactive maintenance strategy is eternal asset health.”

I have had a long and rewarding career and am at a place in my life where my primary motivation is to give back to the organization and the profession that have made these blessings possible. I receive my greatest fulfillment in helping others reach their career goals.

If you desire to embark on the journey of growing tomorrow’s leaders, look into the proverbial mirror and ask yourself what your motivation is. Are you more interested in your next promotion or in the well-being of those who will lead the organization into the future? I would suggest you have a better chance of succeeding if your answer is the latter.

Create the right environment /spend energy on the right things


Senior leaders are continually searching for the organizational “Holy Grail” where an engaged workforce will lead them to the promised land of best-in-class performance. When performance does not immediately meet short-term targets, leaders are quick to reorganize in the hope of finding that magic formula which will produce the desired results. Employee engagement is one of those buzz terms that managers come back to time and time again like a bee to a flower in search of life-sustaining nectar. Research indicates the vast majority of American workers are not fully engaged. One 2009 study I read found that 59% of highly engaged employees planned to stay with their employer versus 24% of disengaged employees who planned to do so. And most likely, the 24% of disengaged employees who planned to stay were the ones their employer would rather have leave!

Accountability is another one of those buzzwords that organizations often use. We all strive to hold our employees accountable. But how we go about it determines how successful we will eventually be.

There is a great deal of difference between managing and leading people. Leaders do not spend much of their time trying to fix problem employees. They create a compelling vision and then spend the majority of their time empowering and instilling a sense of ownership in those who are most likely to follow their lead.

When I was younger, I devoted a great deal of time and energy to trying to fix people. You know the employees I’m referring to: those who do just enough work not to get themselves fired and who seem to spend the remainder of their time complaining about management and the poor decisions they make.

I used to think that if I just reasoned with them, I could get the problem employees on board with my program, and if not, I would document their performance until I had a mountain of evidence to present to HR. I would either get them on board, get them fired, or die trying. They say leaders learn best from the mistakes they make. If this is the case, then I had plenty of chances to become a pretty good leader because I have made every mistake in the leadership playbook at least once. Have you also tried in vain to fix your problem employees? How did that work for you? If you are tired of chasing problem employees, may I suggest that it is time to take a different approach.

Think about the workforce like a teeter-totter, comprising three groups of employees: those who are motivated and aligned with the organization’s goals, the naysayers who will never agree with anything management does, and the majority, who are sitting on the fence and are able to be moved either way. The trick is to get the fence-sitters on your side, because if they stay on the fence or slide to the right, a culture of engagement will never take root.

Disengaged employees are usually the most vocal and therefore are the ones whose voices are most likely to be heard by the fence-sitters. If you spend your time and effort trying to drown out their voices, you will lose the battle. Quite simply, you are outnumbered. Instead, spend some of your time finding and then cultivating tomorrow’s leaders so they can act as a counter-balance to the disengaged employees’ negative influence. Use the remainder of your time to engage the fence-sitters. Both activities neutralize the disengaged employees’ negative influence and can ultimately slide the fence-sitters to the left so that a culture of engagement can flourish.

We live in a world where the speed of change is mind-numbing. But some things take time to take root and grow. And one of the things that can’t be hurried is creating a culture of excellence. Think of it this way: The average apple tree takes three to four years to bear fruit. You cannot hurry nature’s process, but you can certainly delay it. If you do not cultivate the soil and feed it the proper nutrients, the apple tree may not produce a bountiful crop or even bear fruit at all. 

Find the right candidates


While you need to bring new blood into your organization from time to time to cross-pollinate your culture with fresh ideas, looking within the organization for future leaders is a worthwhile endeavor. Finding leaders from inside your organization has built-in advantages. Internal candidates are familiar with the people, processes, organizational structure, and work culture already in place. They are also aware of the organization’s strengths – and, of more importance, its weaknesses. And if they’re well-respected, they have instant credibility. Do you remember what it was like when you landed at your current company and were the new kid on the block? Remember those certain individuals who seemed to do nothing but test your mettle? They challenged each and every one of your ideas and made your life difficult until you went through their personal baptism by fire. Internal candidates who have gained the respect of the workforce have already been similarly baptized. 

I like to think that an organization increases the likelihood it can develop future leaders from its internal pool of candidates if it properly identifies and then develops potential talent. I believe there are five key ingredients necessary for growing tomorrow’s leaders; together, these form the links of a chain, as shown above.

Those circled on the left are characteristics you should consider essential when searching for tomorrow’s leaders. When I am screening potential candidates for a given role, passion or enthusiasm is something I am always searching for. You cannot teach enthusiasm, and when someone possesses this personality trait, it can spread infectiously throughout the organization. Most of the truly successful people in life are passionate about their work or the cause to which they seem to dedicate their lives.

Great leaders take pride and ownership in their work and also possess the ability to get others to take ownership in their work as well. If someone always tries to play the victim and explain away failures or blame others for them, that person will never become a great leader. Leaders are not afraid of failure. Instead, they embrace failure, rise above it, and of most importance, learn from their mistakes. If the fear of failure overrides the ability to take calculated risks, then the employee is more suited to be a follower. This does not mean the employee cannot make great contributions to the organization; it just means the employee will ultimately make those contributions as a team member and not a change agent. 

This leads me to the third character trait I look for in a future leader: potential. I used to value technical competency more than I did potential. And while technical competency is an important aspect of leadership, it will not get you to the summit all by itself. Leadership skills can be developed more fully over time, but as with a gifted athlete or artist, there is some aspect of innate potential to leadership. When observing potential candidates, pay careful attention to whether they are catalysts for change or they sit and watch from the sidelines.

When you are evaluating potential, don’t be afraid to follow your gut instincts. When I was interviewing candidates for the most recent planner position to open up in our department, at first I was tempted to pass over a young man named Luke because of his lack of experience. But there was something that drew me to Luke. I asked him whether he would consider working overtime to learn more about the position; he readily agreed. He was a shift maintenance worker – one member of a two-man team working rotating swing shifts and taking care of the plant’s emergency maintenance needs on the second and third shifts. Not only was Luke a quick study, but also he soon was asking me whether he could plan work on the night shift when there were no emergencies. This was the deciding factor in my decision to hire him. His commitment, strong sense of ownership, and potential far outweighed his lack of experience, and he is well on his way to becoming one of our best planners. 

Finally, leaders have great communication skills. They can clearly articulate their vision, and they can explain to all levels of the organization in easy-to-understand terms the steps needed to reach best-in-class performance. They are great listeners, too. Recently, I wanted to share a teaching moment with a young night-shift foreman named Sara concerning the use of SAP, our computerized maintenance management system. On the way to her office, I made small talk asking her to tell me a little about herself. I had probably spent about 30 minutes in conversation with her since she joined our organization nine months prior. Her answers intrigued me, so I asked her where her passions lie. Forty-five minutes later I had forgotten about my agenda and invited her to be part of my network, taking on the role of helping me engage the night-shift foreman in our reliability excellence strategy. This would never have been possible had I not taken the time to listen.

Nurture and develop leaders


Once you have selected potential candidates, your chances of producing great leaders will be greatly enhanced if you fully develop their skills. If potential leaders are not empowered to exercise their fledgling leadership muscles, they will leave to seek opportunities elsewhere. The key as you develop their decision-making skills is to give them opportunities equal to their experience level. Leaders create opportunities for their protégés to take “measured” risks, so that when mistakes are made, they will not have major consequences – consequences that might crush the young leader’s spirit and create a situation in which they develop an aversion to risk-taking. Mentors allow employees to make their own decisions even when they believe they know a better way to solve the problem. In this way, learning opportunities are created. And they take personal responsibility for the outcomes, never criticizing the employee in front of their peers or senior management.

A few years back, I had a young reliability engineer who overlooked a key detail on a project. The oversight resulted in a failed startup, which caused production downtime. The incident received negative publicity, but I absorbed the criticism by taking the blame, thus sheltering the individual from the public embarrassment. The all-important discussion took place in my office, where I asked the employee what he learned from the incident. He took ownership and listed a number of things he had learned. As he left the office, he said, “Thanks for being the type of leader who it is OK to make a mistake with.” That comment has stuck with me, and when someone who works for me makes a mistake and it’s my rear on the line and I am tempted to be quick to criticize, I try to remember this before I speak.
So contrary to what a baby boomer just about ready to retire might tell you, our world is not going to “hell in a handbasket.” But if we want to grow tomorrow’s leaders and help them lead our organizations into the future, we must be committed to do our part. If you desire to be seen more as a leader than a manager, look into the proverbial mirror and ask yourself this question: “What am I committed to?”