In 1987 at the age of 22, I began my career as a maintenance engineer at a large aluminum rolling complex in Southern Indiana. The place was massive; imagine one mile by one mile of buildings and grounds. More than 2,500 employees came together to produce nearly a billion pounds of coiled aluminum sheet for the beverage and food packaging industry.
Eighteen months into my career, I began to make a small yet perceivable impact in a maintenance shop accountable for maintaining mill rolls and bearings. I worked well with the craftsmen, management, and our internal customers. A senior technical supervisor by the name of Ed Toon took notice of me. He pulled me aside in the summer of 1988 and stated, “you know Joe, you can run this place someday.” Assuming I heard wrong, I replied, “What?” Ed proceeded to tell me he expected me to be running the entire rolling complex in the future.
I thought he was just going to say the roll grind shop of 64 employees, but this crazy man was talking about the whole operation. My career goal to this point was to be an engineer and retire in 30 plus years as a senior staff engineer; a lofty pinnacle for an engineer. Ed continued by asking me to consider filling in for vacations and working weekends as a supervisor to gain leadership experience. He volunteered to coach and mentor me along the way. That nudge by Ed was a fork in the road in my career. Leadership was not even on my radar. I had studied four years to be an engineer, and I was just beginning to feel comfortable being an individual contributor on a team.
Fast forward 13 assignments and 29 years, in 2017, I was promoted to operations manager of the site just as Ed foretold. I loved my career. I have since retired to consult, write, and speak on operations management. Where would my career have gone without one seemingly insignificant nudge? Would I have never had the self-confidence to envision myself as leader without the words of a respected co-worker? “Leaders create leaders” is a sign Ed inspired me to post on my office door for decades.
As the new operations manager, one of my first tasks was to assess the talent of the team, for I had worked for corporate as the director of reliability and maintenance and as a plant manager at another site for the previous eight years. I was satisfied with my direct staff (which the organizational level called managers), but the “elephant in the room” was the massive lack of leadership at the department level (a level called superintendents). As a collective group, the incumbents reacted to events, awaited instructions from the manager level, and were given no training and development (this will be the subject of a later article). Further, we had three open positions for superintendents, and no one internal to the plant has expressed interest in the roles. I set up a meeting with my leadership team to discuss the problem and solution.
At the meeting, my team proceeded to explain to me that performance expectations have changed. These jobs are very hard and do not provide the right work-life balance; and despite our best efforts, we just cannot find anyone to hire. “We know the superintendent group is weak, but we feel lucky to have the ones we have. Engineers, technicians, and our top performers all want to remain individual contributors. Times have changed.” To my frustration, this justification went on for nearly an hour.
I then asked each one of the 12 persons in the room, to tell me their personal stories of how they jumped from an individual contributor to leadership. In the exercise, every manager identified a consequential nudge in great detail almost word for word as if it happened yesterday. Four of the 12, named me as the nudger (I made up this word). I summarized the exercise by stating that everyone here was nudged. I then asked, how many people in the plant have you personally nudged? Crickets; not a single leader had taken the time to alter a career. “Leaders create leaders,” I stated emphatically.
Everyone left the meeting with a task; in the next two weeks we were to find and nudge at least one person with proven leadership potential. Two weeks later at the follow-up meeting, we highlighted 12 enthusiastic applicants for the open positions; we went from zero to 12 because we cared enough to have a conversation.
I have worked and consulted in dozens of plants. I am a mentor and a coach to several more. What is crystal clear to me is that there is a vacuum of leadership in maintenance and reliability. I see two reasons for this:
1. Maintenance is hard, often thankless, and is dominated by negative feedback. No one thanks the technician, planner, supervisor, or manager for all the equipment running well yesterday. Even if a reliability trend is improving, yesterday’s unplanned downtime dominates the headlines. Production leadership roles tend to get the glory for productivity, quality, and revenue accomplishments leading to promotions and bonuses. Consequently, the best leaders migrate to production.
2. In maintenance, technical skills are prized over leadership skills. Management strongly prefers to hire and promote people capable of troubleshooting, root cause problem solving and executing an outage. Creating and communicating a vision, taking risks, and implementing best practices systemically, is a “nice to have.”
Great leaders can change these cultural norms. This is your call to action. The reliability and maintenance profession is desperate for leaders. Best practices have been known for decades, yet deployment eludes us resulting in plant closures, poor performance, low employee morale, and high turnover. Reliability journeys start and fail in months. We must do better, but culture change is only possible with great leaders.
Every reader of this article is asked to find one person this week to nudge. Genuinely tell them the leadership characteristics you see in them, tell them you believe in them, and inform them that you will actively coach them on the journey. You can be that fork in the road. It will make all the difference.