More than a quiver of technical competency

Aug. 15, 2014
Reliability leaders’ true power comes from vision, courage, and empathy.
SMRP Conference

Phil Beelendorf, CMRP, maintenance technology senior manager at Roquette America, will present “The Essential Characteristics of the Transformational Reliability Leader” at the Society for Maintenance & Reliability Professionals Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida, on Oct. 22 at 11 A.M. The presentation will map out the skills needed to unleash the reliability leader within you. Today’s reliability leader needs more than technical competency to produce the results that lead to sustained culture change. Soft skills such as vision, courage, and empathy are needed to create an atmosphere of greatness. Learn more about the SMRP Conference at

Early in my career, I believed technical skill development was the quickest path to becoming an effective maintenance and reliability leader. I pursued knowledge with such zeal that I left little time for building relationships. As I grew in my profession, I discovered that technical competency alone cannot produce the results that lead to sustained culture change. While technical competency is essential and is a necessary skill used to develop a reliability excellence culture, soft skills such as vision, courage, and empathy play a greater role in creating the atmosphere of greatness which ultimately ensures program success. Creating a mood of excitement and curiosity about the reliability program engages employees and creates a workplace where something truly special can take root. To be seen as trustworthy, your peers must believe you are genuine, reliable, and caring as much as they see you as competent. True transformation to a reliability excellence culture requires a leader who possesses the vision of John F. Kennedy, the courage of Winston Churchill, the patience of Job, the wisdom of Solomon, and the compassion of Mother Teresa; but do these essential characteristics really exist in one reliability leader? How can the reliability professional develop these skills in order to maximize influence? Reliability leadership has less to do with position and more to do with character and authenticity. Everyone, no matter what their position in the organization is, can become a reliability leader and will benefit from employing the practices which will nurture and develop their leadership skills.

Who’s the leader?

Before we begin discussing the essential characteristics of leadership, I would like to suggest that your position in the organization does not guarantee you are or are not a leader. In the movie Braveheart, Mel Gibson’s character William Wallace meets Robert the Bruce after a bloody battle. In a poignant moment William Wallace states, “Your title gives you claim to the throne of our country, but men don’t follow titles. They follow courage. Now our people know you. Noble and common, they respect you. And if you would just lead them to freedom, they’d follow you. And so would I.” Do people in your organization respect you so much that they are willing to follow you into the battle for improved asset health? This degree of loyalty will not come from your title alone. My title of maintenance technology senior manager does not guarantee that people will listen to or follow me. In fact, I have not updated my business card since my two most recent promotions. The email and phone number are still the same, so I see no need in throwing away the unused cards. Call it my personal contribution to the cost-reduction effort. My title describes my position; it does not define my character or guarantee that I am an effective leader. No matter what your position in the organization, you can be a champion for the reliability effort and a leader in your own right. If you passionately embrace the reliability cause and exhibit the characteristics of reliability leadership, people will follow you on the path to excellence.

Figure 1. Integrity is like the roots of a tree, not always visible above the surface, but the source of strength, growth, and stability. Intent is like the trunk, producing a base from which competencies grow to produce results.

Leadership starts first and foremost with trust. In the forward to the book, The Speed of Trust, Dr. Stephen Covey writes, “Trust is the ultimate root and source of our influence.” Trust requires four essential characteristics of leadership — integrity, intent, competency, and results. I had stated that competency and results alone will not make you a great leader. By themselves, competency and results will not build the trust required to produce sustain culture change. During an annual review of my work, in a year in which I’d produced the most significant cost savings of my career, a manager said, “I really appreciate the fact that you saved the company $2 million, but did you have to leave so many dead bodies behind?” Dead bodies — obviously I had a great deal to learn about win/win and leadership. Results at the cost of relationship have only short-term value. People must see you as a person of character and believe you genuinely care about them? Figure 1 illustrates the four essential characteristics of leadership required to build a trust relationship, depicted in the form of a tree.

Integrity is like the roots of a tree. While integrity is not always visible above the surface, it is the source of our strength, growth, and stability. Our intent is like the trunk of a tree. It produces a solid base from which our competencies, or branches, grow to produce the results, or fruits, we desire.

Integrity is sometimes confused with ethics or honesty. Ethics are legalistic; they are about compliance or following the rules. Consider ethics as the minimum requirement on the integrity scale. Integrity goes much deeper; it is about who you are. Think about someone you think is a person of high integrity. Yes, that person has high ethics and is honest, but there’s something more that makes you feel that person has integrity. That person is transparent and walks the walk. People with integrity have lives that are a mirror image of their statements. Their behaviors are consistent and aligned with their values. Integrity is often used interchangeably with character.

A cast of characters

Do not confuse character with reputation. Character is who you are; you own it entirely. Your reputation is what others think of you. Anyone can damage your reputation; no one can change your character. Abraham Lincoln had many detractors during his presidency. His reputation was tarnished; many people considered him an incompetent buffoon, totally incapable of leading the country through the crisis that was the Civil War. But his character remained steadfast, and ultimately he went down in history as one of America’s greatest presidents. People of character are courageous. Winston Churchill stood alone like a rock in defense of his nation against the Nazis in the darkest days of World War II. He once said, “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it's the quality which guarantees all others.”

People of character stand firm and steadfast to their principles, but do so without criticizing or belittling those who might not agree with them. General Robert E. Lee was once asked what he thought of one of his fellow officers in the Confederate Army. This officer had made many derogatory remarks about him, but General Lee rated him as a fine officer and good soldier. A subordinate interrupted Lee, saying, "General, this officer criticizes you every opportunity he gets."

Lee responded, "I know, but I was asked for my opinion of him, not his opinion of me."

The road to reliability excellence is marked with several potholes. You will have those who don’t believe in your vision or your leadership. They will criticize you at your first misstep; they will resist change when you turn their world upside-down and challenge the status quo. They will beat the war drums against change saying, “We have always done it this way.” Leading culture change takes courage. The truly great leaders remain steadfast and do it with dignity, never criticizing those who do not believe in the approach.

Two of the finest qualities of leadership and truest measures of integrity are respect and humility. My friend, Ricky Smith, wrote a great article on respect and humility called “Attributes for the Best Maintenance and Reliability Managers”. In it, he relates that respect and humility are attributes shared by the world’s best maintenance and reliability managers. I have struggled with humility all of my life, so the article resonated with me and has encouraged me to commit to putting these admirable qualities into practice on a more consistent basis. I remind myself to be humble in a couple of ways. The screen print of Smith’s article hangs above my desk. It reminds me daily to practice both respect and humility. I also have gotten in the habit of serving others in little ways to remind me to be humble. We have a conference room in our Maintenance Technology trailer. It seats six comfortably in those plush tilt-back chairs. But there are also several of those small hard plastic chairs to provide additional seating when we have a larger crowd. Whenever we have more than six people in attendance, I choose to sit in one of the uncomfortable plastic chairs. It reminds me to never ask anyone to do something I am not willing to do myself. I also have gotten in the habit of getting glasses of water for people in attendance at meetings. Serving others is a great way to demonstrate respect and humility.

Routinely showing courage and humility helps to develop another one of the great characteristics of leadership: wisdom. Why do I say this? It takes courage to take risks, and those who take risks will eventually fail. No one likes to fail. But great leaders are not afraid of failure. Instead, they embrace it, rise above it, and learn from it. Great leaders are not only unafraid of personal failure, they allow the people who report to them the opportunity to also fail. But they carefully select the opportunities, especially for their younger reports, protecting their people and the organization, so any failure will not produce catastrophic consequences. When their people fail, great leaders set up a constructive dialogue to discuss the steps that led to the unintended result. This ensures learning occurs. Never forget to be a source of encouragement to those you lead. An anonymous author once said, “A word of encouragement during a failure is worth more than an hour of praise after success.” It takes great humility to recognize that, as a leader, you do not have all of the answers. A truly wise leader knows there is something to be learned from everyone and enthusiastically approaches every encounter in a mood of curiosity, open to the insight that may be gained from the interaction. There is a big difference between knowledge and wisdom. People seek answers from someone they perceive as wise more often than from those they believe are knowledgeable.

The patience of job

Wisdom leads to another essential character trait of the successful reliability leader: patience. The 21st century business model is one of immediate gratification. But, just as Rome was not built in a day, sustained culture change can take years to take root. I have never been known for patience. My tendency is to be decisive and to desire immediate results. But I have learned over the years to slow down and to listen. If your tendency is to be indecisive, listening to everyone’s point of view before making a decision is quite easy. But the reliability leader is asked to lead, and indecision can be as crippling as impetuousness can be destructive. The truly great leader learns when to speak up and when to just listen, when to make a quick decision, when to practice patience, and when to show discernment.

The people you lead may think you have impeccable character, but they will not trust you if they feel you do not have good intentions. People must truly believe you care about them and have their best interests at heart. And the best way to demonstrate that you care is to be both approachable and compassionate. Mother Teresa was known for the compassion she showed for the poor people in the slums of Calcutta. She established a reputation of caring by getting down in mud with the destitute, sharing their suffering and knowing their faces and their names. She is attributed as the source of this thought: We cannot do great things, just small things with great love. Great leaders know their key people on a personal level; they seek to understand their frustrations and work hard to remove the roadblocks to success. And one of the greatest things you can do to demonstrate that you both care and understand their concerns is quite simple: just listen.

Much has been said on the topic of being a servant leader. No matter what your religious beliefs are or whether you believe His claim to be the Son of God, Jesus Christ was arguably one of the most influential leaders in the history of mankind. And the trait which best exemplified His leadership style was that of the servant leader. I have become friends with a reliability colleague named Richard Travers, who has a set of seven principles called Richard’s Rules of Reliability. Rule 7 describes the difference between power and control. It states that God is the ultimate source of power and Satan is the ultimate source of control. I was curious as to why this rule made the top seven, so I asked him. We had a great discussion on leadership, and once again I learned from the wisdom and experience of others. He stated that when Christ was on Earth he did everything for His subordinates (His disciples) and gave all of the credit to His boss (God). As I examined my own leadership style, I realized I spent too much time telling others about my own ability and not enough time serving those I was privileged to lead. You have to ask yourself this question: What are you committed to? Communicate program successes for the sake of the vision, not for self-promotion. State your accomplishments to gain credibility and only do so to gain a bigger platform for your message.

Reliability vision

Figure 2. The statements underneath our vision reminds us of our responsibility whenever we leave the trailer.

Great leaders inspire others to see what is possible by creating and sharing the vision for a better tomorrow. Does your reliability organization have a vision statement? It should be simple and easy to understand, while clearly stating what you are committed to. The vision statement is the roadmap that leads your organization to a better tomorrow. Our organization has developed a culture where we are all committed to becoming a reliable supplier to our customers. In fact we have developed a reliable supply team, and all employees are invited to be a part of it. So the maintenance and reliability vision that we have chosen, customer focused and driven towards excellence, is in alignment with our organizational strategy of becoming a reliable supplier to our customers. Figure 2 shows the sign that hangs on the doors leading out of the Maintenance Technology trailer, while Figure 3 shows the sign others read when they enter our trailer.

Figure 3. The signs on our doors are meant to serve as a constant reminder, that the quest for reliability excellence is a joint effort, and success can only be achieved if our whole organization embraces our vision.

The statements underneath our vision reminds us of our responsibility whenever we leave the trailer. Our purpose is to actively involve our internal customers in the reliability effort — the maintenance and operations team leaders, the operators, the maintenance craftsmen, our senior leaders, and the engineering team. We desire that they share our passion for equipment reliability and asset health so they may in turn serve our external customers. Our trailer is situated across a set of railroad tracks, and, at times, we jokingly refer to our happy home as being on the wrong side of the tracks. But the signs on our doors are meant to serve as a constant reminder, that the quest for reliability excellence is a joint effort, and success can only be achieved if our whole organization embraces our vision. If you want your organization to embrace your vision for reliability, make sure it is aligned with the overall organizational vision.

visionary leader should dare to dream what others consider impossible. When John F. Kennedy first committed the nation to achieving the goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth in his famous speech to Congress in May 1961, the technology to achieve this goal did not even exist. The reliability leader should be passionate about the cause, and the passion should exude from every pore, infectiously engaging all employees. I once heard that Kennedy toured NASA shortly after the “man on the moon” speech, and when he found a janitor sweeping the floor of the Kennedy Space Center, as it is now called, he asked him what he was doing. The janitor replied, “I’m helping to send a man to the moon.”

If one of your customers came into your plant and asked a mechanic what he was doing, would he say, “I am the front line defense in the battle for reliability excellence; my precision skills and attention to detail ensures that our assets run reliably so that we can deliver the highest quality product to you every time, all the time”?

Rules of engagement

Having a best-in-class reliability program might not be as extraordinary of an achievement as sending a man to the moon, but it is far from easy. If it were easy, everyone would have one. Employee engagement is essential for building a sustained culture of excellence. Engagement can occur in many ways. I meet monthly with my peers in operations senior management to talk about our reliability program. We review our successes, our challenges, and what we need to do to achieve our vision. We also have what is called open forum, where every Wednesday we invite plant employees to listen to a relevant topic, leaving ample time for an open question-and-answer session. The March topic this year was “Reliability Excellence, What Does World Class Maintenance Look Like?” Venues such as these are great for sharing a broad overview of the strategy and creating the mood of curiosity that will ultimately engage employees. One of the most effective means I have found to engage employees is in the one-on-one encounters that can be created when I venture out of my office with no other purpose than to talk to my colleagues. I routinely go out into the plant and meet craftsmen at the jobsite and operators in the control room. I prepare for the encounter by getting my mind into a state of curiosity, leaving any agenda I might have back in my office. After a brief greeting, I ask open questions such as, “What do you see as our greatest challenges to success?” And then I do something every manager should do more often: I shut up and listen. I find that the one-on-one conversations will start conversations much more easily than meeting with big groups. I find many who say nothing in group sessions but will slowly share their thoughts and opinions in these small group settings. But be careful; if you choose to engage employees using this method, be ready to follow up on their suggestions. While it is difficult to find the time or resources to address all their concerns, the worst thing you can do is to do nothing with their suggestions. You do not always have to solve their problems; just listening and providing follow-up feedback at a later date shows you understand and care. And care and understanding go a long way to gaining their buy-in.

Phil Beelendorf is maintenance technology senior manager at Roquette America. Contact him at [email protected].

My career and life experiences have taught me that leadership is more than technical competency and results. I am far from the leader I desire to be. I have so much more to learn. The road to becoming an effective maintenance and reliability leader is a journey and an evolution. And I am committed to traveling down this road. The question is: Do you want to take a road trip? If so, I encourage you to surround yourself with like-minded peers and tap into the extensive networks that exist in reliability organizations. The journey is long and hard, but the rewards are well worth the trip.

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