So big mouth, I thought to myself as I looked in the mirror shaving that morning more than a year ago. I was about to face the workforce of the plant where I worked as a plant manager and tell them that the owner (a large corporate) was about to announce that they intended to stop operations at the plant. Now is the time to put into practice all the stuff on leadership you have been reading and preaching about, I thought.
At the outset let me say the inspiration for this article comes from what the +200 people of the factory taught me in this process of change. I am privileged to have had the opportunity to embark on this journey with them, to them all the kudos.
Now more than a year later I want to share with you some of the lessons I have learned along the way:
In many articles and texts on leadership you read that a leader needs to be optimistic and almost at all cost. I have to, not disagree as such but add some perspective or a dimension of reality as it were. I think a leader has to believe in the vision. And he needs to believe in what needs to be done to get there. And he needs to have a clear path to achieving that vision. In so doing he or she creates a belief that what the change is doable, possible. These are qualities that are essential if an organisation is to make headway.
Lesson learned: Don’t confuse this with mindless optimism.
The announcement fell like a thunderbolt as it was totally unexpected given the track record of the plant performance. Almost immediately I realised that people raised their heads and put their shoulders back and took on a mantle of “we are not simply going to accept this – we are going to fight for our right to survive”. In our past and future journeys we need to overcome many obstacles and challenges. Tell the truth and be open. Reality can be worked through and taken on.
Lesson learned: People are much tougher and resilient than we give them credit for. Facts are so much less damaging than rumors.
There isn’t just a plan A and a plan B. There are multiple versions of a plan. It surprises me that the alphabet only has 26 letters, as it simply isn’t enough in trying to manage all the versions and extrapolations of the plans made. You have to be agile and responsive. Having a plan cast in stone while the circumstances around you are ever-changing and fluid just isn’t going to help.
Lesson learned: It takes courage to acknowledge and tell everyone that the plan is no longer working or relevant. It’s a bit like addressing a bad decision. These are the moments of reflection when the “no confidence” risk is highest. So prepare well and make sure you have critical support from influencers and key stakeholders.
With the announcement of potential cessation came a flood of uncertainty and the rumour mill started. Everyone knew someone who knew something or had an opinion. Whether you consider yourself a manager or a leader this is a mission critical phase. You have to actively manage expectations. Fact is that with a successful carve-out of the plant from a corporate to a new owner the uncertainty doesn’t stop. It just moves you from one uncertain situation to another. And I believe this is true of most business today. Every minute, day, week you have to think what if and what next!
Lesson learned: It’s business people, you move from uncertainty to uncertainty. The key is managing expectation and keeping the communication fluid and relevant. Talk the game on the shop-floor – a notice in an email box or on the notice board is nothing more than information.
At this time of change you need all the irons you can muster in the fire. You should not rely only on the dependable, reliable and predictable team members that you traditionally have used. A change and uncertainty on the scale of this needs something more.
Lesson learned: Look for the quietest person in the room, harness the platform of the outspoken and give the loose cannon something to shoot at. Don’t exclude anyone of these stakeholders, they are invaluable in helping you move the crowd along.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
At a time of such dramatic change and uncertainty with the rumour mill working overtime you have no option but to up the ante and spend time talking, re-talking, emphasising and gathering feedback, opinions and ideas. And don’t rely on the formal organization and hierarchy. Every time you revert to this channel you effectively install a filter in both directions.
Lesson learned: If it’s written it’s information and not communication. And there is no substitute for looking a person in the eye and getting a nod of understanding to keep you going.
And the last lesson learned: You can’t falter….as a leader be prepared to feel lonely.
If you can’t do it with passion you can’t do it at all. You cannot get others to believe if you don’t believe it yourself. That is why the vision has to be clear and consistently and constantly communicated. Otherwise the mission itself won’t be clear. And if the vision itself has no integrity best to let it go. For the record, I want to categorically say that chasing of the money as the goal has no integrity about it.
It’s now more than a year after the announcement and just under six months since the new investor placed their confidence in our team. Unlike most corporate carve-outs this is more like a new start as the business has had to develop new products for new markets in a very short time period. We certainly are by no means out of the woods and there is still an immense amount of work to get through. I remain confident that we have the wherewithal to achieve what most have thought to be nigh on impossible. Why, you might ask? There is no simple answer to that. I have to believe it is because the purpose is common, the goal noble and the pride in endeavor sincere. For me personally it’s about making sure that the +200 people I’m blessed to work with get the best chance to secure a future for themselves and their families. Our value mission is:
- SATISFIED employees working in
- COLLABORATION with suppliers & service providers to
- DELIGHT our customers while
- ENGAGING with our community and providing
- ATTRACTIVE returns to our shareholders