Podcast Empower And Engage Employees With Honest Conversations And Servant Leadership

Podcast: Empower and engage employees with honest conversations and servant leadership

April 13, 2023
In this episode of The Tool Belt, Ashleigh Walters, author of Leading With Grit And Grace, shares her “coach approach” to management and the benefits of servant leadership.

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.

AW: Yeah, Tom, I have used that piece of advice all throughout my career. Even when I was interning, I would go and sit with the operators and just ask curious questions, and so that's exactly what I did when I got to Onex. I mean, I definitely had that panic moment of “I don't know what's going on. I haven't been up here in the corporate offices. I don't know how all the business functions.” And so I just started asking those curious questions to the people closest to the work. I would say, “What takes up most of your time? What kind of annoys you? What bugs you?” and when they would tell me I'd say, OK, let's work to fix that.

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.

Read the rest of the transcript

About the Author

Thomas Wilk | editor in chief

Thomas Wilk joined Plant Services as editor in chief in 2014. Previously, Wilk was content strategist / mobile media manager at Panduit. Prior to Panduit, Tom was lead editor for Battelle Memorial Institute's Environmental Restoration team, and taught business and technical writing at Ohio State University for eight years. Tom holds a BA from the University of Illinois and an MA from Ohio State University

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