Ashleigh Walters earned a chemical engineering degree from Auburn University. Several years later, she found herself taking on the challenge of reviving Onex, a 50-year-old industrial furnace service business based in Erie, PA, which was owned by her husband's family. After she succeeded at Onex, she wrote a book about the experience called Leading With Grit And Grace, that recounts her journey and the lessons she learned along the way. Plant Services editor in chief Thomas Wilk met Ashleigh at the 2023 MARCON Conference, which is run by University of Tennessee, Knoxville's Reliability and Maintainability Center, where she shared her story,. Thomas and Plant Services managing editor Anna Townshend recently spoke with Ashleigh about her experiences in the industrial sector and her unique style of leadership.
PS: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and career path, starting with your training as an engineer and then how you made the move up to Erie?
AW: Yeah, as you said, I am a chemical engineer from Auburn University, but what's a little bit different is my background is pulp and paper, and the focus that I had was pulp and paper. My father and his father worked out of a paper mill locally in my small town in Tennessee called Bowater Southern at the time, and I always tell people I was hooked from day one after that plant tour, right? You just go from like an office setting where it's pretty quiet through these double swinging doors and all of a sudden it's loud and lights are flashing and things are flying by, and manufacturing has been in my blood ever since.
Unfortunately I never ended up working in the pulp and paper industry because 9/11 had just happened my senior year (I'm dating myself now) but nuclear power had kind of forgotten to hire ever since they built the plants, so they were in this situation where they're like, “oh, no, we have people retiring, but we haven't hired in the last 20 years.” So I actually started out in nuclear power and then Onex, the family company, lost their technical salesperson who passed away unexpectedly, so I was able to get the job of technical sales for pulp and paper for the family business.
Then Drew and I had two babies, and the first one came early, he was six weeks early so he spent some time in the NICU and he couldn't be in a daycare situation. I went from what I thought was going to be working mom to a stay at home mom, literally overnight. Then one day in 2013, the boys were two and three years old, and my father-in-law called and he said, “hey, the CFO has left the company. I just generally need you to lead and take a look at the financials for me.” The family and I were living in Charlotte, NC at the time, and the manufacturing was in Erie, PA, so it was quite an undertaking to start in that GM role from miles and miles apart from the plant. We did eventually move to Erie, but yeah, that was my journey.
PS: That's a huge journey, especially with little ones, my goodness.
AW: Yes, it was quite the challenge with the two year old and three year old, you know, and we moved away from our family – our support network – to be able to help with the family business.
PS: Ah, well, in the detail about your family being in pulp and paper, that was one that I had I had forgotten since we last talked to each other in in Tennessee. In your book you lead with a piece of advice from your father, which I found really fascinating and I'm sure it's going to resonate with a lot of our listeners today. He always said to ask the people on the front lines doing the actual work when it comes to solving problems, because they probably know the answer, but either they seldom or never have been asked. It sounded like that really grounded you when you got to Onex and started the process of rebuilding and reimagining the company.
That's how we really started rebuilding that relationship. If you've ever been in a relationship where somebody's broken your trust, you know how hard it is to repair it, if it can ever be repaired. And I knew that I had fifty families depending upon me to get this right, and I didn't know, and I didn't necessarily have all the schooling or the tools or the skills to do it, and I needed their help. So I was just really humble about it and said, you know, basically if you can help me, I’ll help you.
PS: There's a lot of powerful ones like that in the book where you learn on the fly and you immediately apply what works. I know Anna's got some questions about some more of those changes.
PS: Yeah, I like how you talked about how trust and rapport can only be built with honest conversation. It's so hard to be honest sometimes, and it just takes a big culture behind that. But I also really liked the thoughts you had and how you organized your process for annual employee reviews. Generally none of us like that process on either side of it, I think managers or employees. But for me, you really pinpointed what I personally struggle with and it's this whole idea of this subjective rating process and assigning numbers to the work that people do. It's not always the best measurement of success. Can you talk about how you reestablish that review process, and what's the best approach for that?
AW: I'll start out and tell you, Anna, that we didn't have a review process of any kind really in place. And one of our board members who came from a larger corporation was like, “you absolutely have to do this.” And so we did implement this review process and we did the typical “pick a goal at the top, cascade it through the company, make sure everybody's aligned.” But what you'll find with those annual reviews is, 2020 is the perfect example. Anything that I could have written in January was irrelevant by March, right? And so now you've just got kind of this chaos and mess, and you spend all this time trying to rewrite goals or just stick to the ones that you had that are now irrelevant. So what happened to me was my board of directors gave me a 1 – 1 being the worst out of 5. I don't know if you've noticed, but I'm an overachiever. 1 doesn't sit well with me at all on anything, unless it's getting to be #1.
What happened was he said, “you didn't write a manufacturing plan.” But I had moved the entire manufacturing plant across town in that year because we had realized how much overhead we were spending on the building that we were in. We just dramatically reduced the operating costs of the whole business, and it was successful and we didn't miss production, and all these things. But I didn't write a plan. I just implemented it and so that's why I got dinged.
These performance reviews are very powerful. Anytime I talk about them, everybody's like, yes, please get rid of them. One gentleman told me “I got a 1 because I was in sales and I crushed my sales goals” and his leader was like, well, you already get paid on commission, so I'm going to give you one so I don't have to give you any of the pool of money that I have so that I can spread it to other people. It just made him feel terrible, and he remembers that to this day.
So I think a couple things: (1) if you have to do performance appraisals, please don't tie them to money, right? Just tie them to somebody's work, because you get these tricky things like when happened to him going on behind the scenes and it doesn't feel good. But it also doesn't feel good to rate somebody, and it doesn't feel good to be rated and even no matter how much training you will do, I can tell you right now if you ask me to do performance reviews for people, you're getting a 3. If you did your job and you did it well, you're getting a 3. But then others would come in, and if you did your job and you did it well, you're getting a 5, right? There's just that subjectivity between people and that bias and rating that, just to me, it doesn't feel good
And (2) it's a rear-view look. What I did in March, I cannot change by December when I'm being reviewed, so for me, it was more about, OK, how can we look forward so everything we're trying to do as a company is about continuously improving. That performance review process didn't help us continuously improve in my opinion, so we just took more of a coach approach and we said, hey, if somebody does something that annoys us, a behavior that's bad, let's talk about it in the moment in which it's happening and get it stopped. We're not going to sweep it under the rug. We're not going to put it in a file from March and talk about it again in December and open up old wounds. We're just going to address it and move on, and that coach approach has been great.
The other thing I did was I got rid of all those cascading goals. I had set one Wildly Important Goal for the organization, and I know people are going to think, how can you do that? There's so many things to do. But what it was, was we're a small company, we had to focus on one thing that we could do that was really going to change the trajectory of the company. When we did that, we actually accomplished the goal. But when we had too many goals, we actually did none of them, or at least none of them well. But it truly is thinking differently because we were all brought up on performance reviews and do them annually and cascade those goals, right?
PS: Did that Wildly Important Goal tie back into the mission statement that you eventually ended up setting for the company, which was “Make Things Better”?
AW: I think everything that we did tied back into “Make Things Better” and it took us a long time to even get to that mission statement. Like we had the one that's like, “High Quality, All For Our Customers, Safety First,” the standard one that you hear from most companies but none of that really ignites a fire in anybody. When we finally thought, who are we really as a company, we had this continuous improvement mindset, we were using it not only within our own facilities, but because we were service provider too for these industrial furnaces, most of the time we're in somebody else's plant. I said to my personnel, “hey, if you keep preparing the same thing over and over and over, then stop, let's look at this, let’s get somebody else involved, let's think of a better way because we want to keep those manufacturers in business because they're so important to our small town. You know, our communities are built on these businesses being there so we want to make sure they're competitive too.
PS: If I could follow up on a something you mentioned previously, the “coach approach” to management, that was something which stuck out to me throughout the book. It's a theme that runs through, and in the book you're skeptical of what you refer to as “command and control” leadership, preferring either the coach approach or that combined with servant leadership. Now the problems you were facing in Onex included siloed business units, a lack of trust between teams. You mentioned that people have felt they had been betrayed to a certain degree by previous managers. Could you talk about the way the coach approach and servant leadership helped you achieve the goals you wanted to achieve at Onex?
AW: Servant leadership is not something that we hear as much in manufacturing, right. It's definitely command and control, and that is rooted in the history of the Industrial Revolution. But now we have so much that we have as business leaders, we have to be agile and I cannot simply think of every task that I need everyone to do and communicate that to them. I have to empower them and engage them in a way that they are making those decisions that they can in their space, with the guideline of, “Is it a part of our mission and is it within our core values?” To me that's your map, and giving them autonomy to make those decisions like quickly that they know that they can make, they know will make things better, and I may never even know that they've made that decision and just move forward. But when you can have that, when you can release that control, then your company is able to grow more. A lot of times founders can't release that control; that company is their baby, they have grown it up but the company can't grow if people can't have the autonomy to make those decisions.
I think the other piece of that is we've never thought as leaders that we should be serving. We've always felt like we should be served, right? And when you flip that around and you start serving others, they do serve you, they serve you more because they respect you and they trust you. It's a two-way street, respect and trust, and when they feel that, they know it's OK to make a mistake. You can't ask somebody to try something new to experiment and not allow for failure. I mean, think about all the experiments you've done in your life, right? Most of them were likely unsuccessful. But what you need is for people to learn and grow and they want to be on that journey.
It feels really good to accomplish a goal that you've set for yourself, right? It feels better to accomplish a goal you set for yourself, then one that somebody set for you that doesn't feel like your own goal. So when you can allow people's autonomy in their own work to make some of these decisions, the whole organization just feels better.
PS: I love your line that says “do not impede them with nonsense restrictions.”
AW: How many HR manuals are out there with crazy restrictions in them, right? Because one person did one thing one time. Now it's a rule for everybody.
PS: Yeah, I love this idea of servant leadership. And I just think so many managers would just be turned off by the very idea of it. Because if you said they've worked their way up the ladder so that they're in charge, and like Tom, I’ve got to point to a few things from your book that I just thought were really great. Instead of that, you say servant leadership is about helping others to grow, and one of the most important aspects is to listen closely to the answers to the questions you ask. I just thought that was so profound.
I think it's good parenting advice too, you're obviously a mom, but I think that's all great and where I want to turn the conversation then to is something else you mentioned in terms of failure. And I'm going to paraphrase you again here a little bit, but you said failures should be seen as not trying rather than trying something and being unsuccessful. Again, super profound I think. But why do you think it's important to leave room for failure? And how does freedom from failure lead to success?
AW: Yeah. If you think about it, we've done this command control thing to everybody and we've told them every decision to make and now they can't problem-solve for themselves. You've spent years of not allowing them to problem-solve. So very first thing is you have to create that psychological safety to where you say, “it's OK, I know that you're going to have failures, but this is how you're going to learn.”
You learn by doing, when you create that psychological safety for them, and with every approach, right, you have to be the same. Like, my team now will come to me and they already know the questions I'm going to ask: “How did we get here? What have we done? What have we tried? What would you like to try next?” You can't be having that day where everything's crazy and then you just say, I'm just going to handle it for you today, right? Because that shuts them down from trying ever again. That was something I had to learn early on in my career. One of my production managers came to me and she said, “Ashleigh, we don't need you to solve every problem for us. We actually want to give it a go ourselves. We're just communicating with you now that we have this issue and we're working through it, and we'll come and get you if we need you” And I think that was a huge growing spot for us in the organization because early on I was having to make those decisions, and I was having to make them pretty quickly. But as I grew the people then they were ready to take over and make those decisions themselves.
PS: Maybe we can close with a question looking forward, what's your current or next challenge on the horizon? Are you still advising Onex or are you pursuing some different things too?
AW: Yeah, absolutely, I have five companies I’m working for on their board of directors, Onex being one of them. But Onex is a little more special because we're going through the transition from my husband and I being the leaders into our new leaders and growing and developing them too. So I'm a little more engaged still at Onex than I would be from a normal board perspective.
One of my really super exciting things that I'm working on now is the University of Tennessee, their Center for Industrial Services. We're working together to form a peer group of manufacturers in the local area, in Knoxville, and we'll be launching that come August of this year. So just really excited to get involved in the local manufacturing community and with those leaders.
PS: Ashleigh, we appreciate you so much for coming on the podcast today and talking with Anna and myself about your experience. It's super inspiring to hear the changes that you implemented. For anybody who wants to get in touch with the person who doesn't believe in really firm employee reviews and who believes in the servant leadership and empowering people, where can people reach you?
AW: LinkedIn is a really easy place to find me. And then I also have a website, it’s www.ashleighwalters.co, and there are some individual exercises out there as well as exercises for your team that I found really useful in my career. They're free for you to hop out there and get, and you can shoot me an e-mail anytime at [email protected].