Elevate From Within: Growing the Next Wave of Manufacturing Leaders

May 15, 2023

Written by: Paul Van Metre

Manufacturing is a team sport.

Successful shop owners often credit their success to having a team of great people. While that makes total sense, the people side of manufacturing continues to be a real struggle for most business owners. While most would agree that having the right people in the right seats is one of the keys to success, where do the right people come from in the first place?

I’ve written quite a lot about how manufacturers can stack the deck in their favor when it comes to building a cohesive team. If you haven’t read these prior blogs already, check out “Easing the Pain of New Employee Onboarding”, “Your Shop NEEDS a Better People Plan”, “How to Do a Better Job at Recruiting Employees”, and “5 Ways to Mitigate the Lack of Skilled Machinists”. These posts tackle the details of how to attract and set up new hires for success. The question which remains is this: how can you grow and nurture those employees over time to build and sustain a leadership team that is truly great?

Elevating employees over time.

As a business grows and changes, so do its staffing requirements. For most small shops, initial hires usually consist of skilled technicians who make contributions to the business through their knowledge and skill set. Sometimes those entry-level hires include folks who seem to be a culture fit, but lack experience and technical skills which need to be taught over time. With that basis, let’s explore how employees can be developed over time by leveraging the 5 levels of elevation from “Entry Level Employee” through to “Manufacturing Leader”:  

Level 1 – The Entry Level Employee: You hired this person because they’ve demonstrated good character and seem to align with your core values. You’ve hired based on culture fit and attitude over skills because you know how devastating a skilled-but-toxic employee can be to the organization. This employee executes on basic tasks while receiving specific technical instruction in order to become a competent technician.   

Level 2 – The Competent Technician: Competency is essential but difficult to find. You’ve developed competency through specific and structured job training. This individual now makes productive contributions based on talent, skills, and good work habits. You’ve communicated to them that their personal economic success (wages) is directly linked to the value they contribute in the business. 

Level 3 – The Contributing Technician: Competency paired with professional ambition leads to a contributing team member. Technical education along with some leadership development has moved this individual to leverage their capabilities toward the achievement of team objectives. As a result, they work effectively in a team environment and have become an invaluable resource, especially when focused on critical tasks. 

Level 4 – The Capable Manager: Continued leadership development and coaching has nurtured management qualities in the team member, transforming them into a capable manager. Capable managers are needed to focus the output of contributing technicians in the right direction. A capable manager organizes team efforts and resources toward the effective completion of overall business goals defined by the Manufacturing Leader.   

Level 5 – The Manufacturing Leader: This highest level in the system refers to those professionals who blend extreme personal humility with their ambitions to move the company forward no matter what. This would include detail-oriented operators and big-picture visionaries alike. These individuals are folks who develop, maintain, and execute on a clear and compelling vision that galvanized team members toward higher standards of performance and excellence.

Your requirement for staff at each of these levels will change over time. Your goal is to develop and elevate your team members over time so that the needs of the organization are met as various growth milestones are reached. When team members are nurtured and developed, they feel valued and trusted. Not only are the needs of the business met, but employee engagement and retention are increased. That’s a win-win. 

Knowledge Transfer and Learning
Throwing a new hire onto the shop floor and hoping that they learn by osmosis isn’t an effective strategy for employee training. With a large percentage of the workforce retiring in the coming years, it’s critical now as ever to ensure that critical tribal knowledge is transferred to the next generation and documented for future reference. You need a plan for knowledge transfer and learning to ensure continuity as things change. When employees are elevated to take on additional responsibility, leadership must do what they can to equip them for success. This requires deliberate planning and decisive action.     

What to look for
Investing in your employees can feel risky sometimes. Many of us have dealt with employees who seemed promising but didn’t stick around because they were offered $1/hr more at the shop down the road. Turnover can get expensive. That expense is magnified when you spend time and resources developing that individual. It’s frustrating to say the least.

You might not be able to eliminate turnover entirely, but you can de-risk hiring decisions by knowing what to look for in a person beyond their technical ability. Here are some qualities to look for and consider in a candidate: 

They get it. Simply put: they have the skills, understand the business, and know what goes into running a successful job. They can step back and clearly see how their role ties in directly to the overall objectives of the business. Lots of people can carry out a specific task when instructed, but not everyone “gets it”.  

They’re hungry for it. Beyond having a good work ethic, they desire to get work done. When this ability is nurtured and developed, it leads to long term success for the individual and the team they are a part of. These employees like their job, understand their role, and hold themselves to a high professional standard. They can get themselves across the finish line without extra prodding and poking from management.           

They take ownership. Ask them about past failures and how they owned them. Good hires take responsibility for their own actions when things go south. More than this, they take the necessary steps to avoid making the same mistake twice. When mistakes are made, they learn from them and take the next right step forward. They don’t point the finger, shift blame, or gossip.

They’re humble. They put the needs of others and the organization ahead of their own ego. They don’t need extra attention and recognition for a job well done. They’re ready, willing, and motivated to help the team achieve collective success.      

They’re able to do it. They have the mental, emotional, and physical bandwidth to excel in their role. Even if they don’t have all of the required technical skills, they’re able to learn and adapt as the needs of the organization change.         

They’re smart. Simply put, they use common sense. Beyond the desirable technical skills, they know what needs to be done to move the business forward. They work well with other people and strive to bring about the best possible outcome. They choose their words and actions carefully to get the best out of the people they work with. 

Identify and develop
If you’re thinking that these characteristics are hard to come by, you’d be right.. While it can be rare to see all of these qualities demonstrated in a candidate or existing employee, maybe you’ll notice two or three. Conversely, there’s nothing more expensive and frustrating than making a bad hire or putting up with a toxic employee. Regardless of technical skill level, you don’t want your best employees to leave because you placed the wrong person on the team. When you qualify candidates through criteria like this, you greatly increase your chances of long-term retention and success.

Everyone is different, and not every employee is destined to become a manufacturing leader. Manufacturing is a team sport, and a successful team needs players in all positions. It’s necessary for success. Acknowledging that, when you notice team members who naturally exhibit your core values and show leadership potential, you must seize the opportunity to elevate from within and develop the next wave of Manufacturing Leaders. Doing so is important for reasons beyond your business. The world needs great leaders.

How can ProShop help?
ProShop’s ability to define roles and responsibilities in your organization with specific training requirements makes elevating and upskilling your employees a breeze. Leveraging these features in ProShop increases the rate of learning. When newly promoted employees have access to needed information, they can build momentum quickly and contribute added value to the organization. Properly defined tasks, training, and procedures allow you to document tribal knowledge so that essential business information can be transferred to the next wave of successful manufacturing leaders. 

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