Before setting up my consultancy business, I held the position of Production Manager for a UK based technology company. They were a company of 90 employees. I worked with five peers to manage the day-to-day operational activity, I led a team of 16 shop-floor operatives who held technical skills in software development and technology integration.
The pace of operations in the factory was fast and the type of work varied each day. This brought the challenge of ensuring that workloads were evenly distributed amongst the whole team.
Tactical decision making
In the early days in my role, I leaned heavily towards the second-order leadership skill of assertive communication to deliver the Production plan, letting each team member know what was expected of us to meet sales demand. I held stand-up meetings with each team leader in their respective area of the shop floor. Throughout the working day, I was reliant on my team for updates on emerging pressure points and empowered them to suggest resourcing strategies to solve issues. I used this leadership style as a device to stave off potential shop-floor flashpoints where the very busy members of the team may react strongly to perceived displays of idling and poor productivity in others. In time I discovered that being able to subtly influence others and avoid conflict situations is an effective use of second-order Leadership skills. The combination of these approaches to managing in a challenging environment enabled me to keep manufacturing output at a sustainable level that was not detrimental to the wellbeing of individual staff members.
As a leader, one’s role is to manage by exception and not to monitor every move that staff make. They need and deserve space to execute the agreed plan without fear that the boss is breathing down their neck.
I learnt from other managers whom successfully created the vision and the environment for their staff to use best endeavours to complete their tasks. This type of productive environment is self-fulfilling, so once the activities of the day had begun, I remained free to look at the operations from a strategic level. This is a second-order Leadership skill that empowers the team and allows them to perpetuate their own degree of effort in their daily activities.
“Transformational leaders see their role as inspiring and motivating others to go beyond compliance and to perform and unexpectedly high levels” (LD textbook, 2009, p33)
Remaining close to the team
The Chairman of the business made a point of being available at all times to his middle management team and I too learnt to keep my office door open. I felt that these overt displays of openness, or non-verbal behaviours, created a positive environment for collaboration, discussion and operational collectivism to flourish – another a demonstration of first-order leadership. For these types of discussion, I encouraged the team members to take a seat – even if it was for just a minute. I felt it was important to give them ample time to discuss the pressing matter that brought them to me in the first place. There were times of course when my door was firmly closed but these were rare and where possible I held closed-door meetings in one of the general use meeting rooms. There is nothing more grating on the nerves of a production operative than the manager that says ‘my door is always open’, but spends the majority of their day locked away behind spreadsheets and conference calls.
The production team received an appraisal every six months – I took a great deal of time preparing, delivering and reflecting on these individual meetings. Appraisals are hugely important events in a business and remain the best opportunity for all parties to give and receive feedback on their work experiences. A good leader uses the first-order leadership skill of active listening to gain a deeper insight into their true motivations and feelings. As a manager of people, one’s duty is to ensure that the experience is positive and objectively driven.
Good feedback is critical, critical feedback is not
The first-order Leadership skill of giving appropriate and well-intentioned feedback is something that I need to work on. I recall an experience at one of my first an appraisal meetings where I was offering a piece of feedback related to quality. I could see that the individual was tense and thought that it would lighten the atmosphere if I made a little joke about the issue in question. It was taken the wrong way, I had incorrectly read the situation and the other party felt it was a cheap dig at their professionalism. I had misread the situation ignoring the interpersonal intelligence, the ability to understand others, what motivates them, and how to work cooperatively with them. This showed a lack of emotional intelligence on my part, creating a chain reaction of emotion that I could not immediately recover. This situation damaged our professional relations and took many months to put right. In hindsight, I would have used constructive feedback as a means to look at building a training development plan that might have addressed the issue in an objective manner and enabled both parties to claim the win.
Leaders are adaptable
As a leader of people in a business setting, one must remain willing to adapt one’s style continually and learn from any situation both good and bad. To take time to reflect on what works best for the team, to seek to influence situations using this experience, is a sign that your leadership style is on an evolutionary journey. In my professional life, the journey never really ends – you just keep refining your style.
I recall this quote from a Leadership Development book from my MBA days;‘True leaders are not born but made, and usually self-made…leaders invent themselves.’ This passage has stuck with me and I always remind myself of the fact that if you truly believe that you have the makings of a great leader then remain humble, stay adaptable and always, always stay attuned to the needs of your team.
Leadership Development (2009), BPP Learning Media