Leading Operations is More About Leading Than Operations
How leadership affects every member of manufacturing, and why sharing really IS caring.
Written by: Michelle Henson
As any woman working in a flexographic printing operation knows, leading is as exciting as it is stressful. While it can seem impossible to know it all, the thrill of a cohesive team, a happy customer, or a goal well met generally overshadows the fear and doubt that sometimes creeps in as we navigate unknown territory in our careers. Successful leadership starts with knowing and respecting your team, and earning their respect while you let them get to know you too.
I recently left an operational leadership role I had been in for eight years, having been part of the larger organization for sixteen years. I knew my team well and felt very comfortable leading them. As my departure date neared, the production operators shared some of their fears about what would happen after I left. They also opened up about what they appreciated about my leadership style. They told me they felt comfortable talking to me about production challenges, the care of a sick parent, necessary process improvements, or car trouble, all while standing at the press and sharing order and run information. I hadn’t realized how important the daily time I spent connecting with my team had been until they shared this perspective with me when they knew I was leaving.
Humans First, Then Employees
At first, I wondered why they hadn’t shared this information before. Would I have made a different decision? I don’t know. I thought back on the different types of leadership training I had undergone during my decades in the workforce. I realized that the philosophy I learned as a twenty-something supervisor still held true in 2023: “Good leadership is largely a matter of caring.” I’ve shared this guiding principle many times over the years. If we care about our people while we care about our business, the rest will take care of itself. People want to believe that their leaders care about them as individuals as well as employees. In turn, they’ll care about why they come to work each day. One of the best executive leaders I ever worked with always said, “Be a good human being first.” It was inspiring to follow someone who exemplified this motto every day he was on the job.
Women care. Don’t get me wrong; men care too. I’ve definitely known male leaders who are able to connect with their team members very well. I don’t mean to disparage our male colleagues by saying this, but so many women do have an innate gift of being able to express caring naturally that when we’re leaders, we can use this gift to help drive positive change in an operation. Many times I’ve been told, “Thanks for listening…Thanks for coming in early to see how we do it on nights…Thanks for asking about my mom…Thanks for having a smile when you come to my press.” I didn’t neglect my responsibility to understand our products, our presses, our purchases, our customers, our schedule, our KPIs, or anything else while I was making these human connections. I simply and overtly cared about the people and the business simultaneously. We can all do that. And we can all do it well. It takes time, commitment, and discipline, but it pays for itself in ways you’d never expect.
Make the Effort to Connect
I’m a learner by nature, so it’s easy for me to ask questions and then process the new information. If that’s not your style, no problem. Start conversations with the team in any way that feels comfortable to you. A structured walk around the facility several times a day helps put employees at ease because then they’re not surprised or concerned to see you on the floor at any hour. If you’re introverted, this process may be difficult to start as you’re getting to know your employees. However, it gets easier and more enjoyable the more you do it. Find out about weekend and holiday plans, ask about hobbies, and remember what you talk about (even make notes later if necessary). When appropriate, share what’s happening with the company, discuss your vision, and talk through the role each individual might play in attaining it. If safety is important (and we know it is), how can you weave that into daily conversation? If you’re doing a quality walkthrough, pick up a sample and ask a question about how they know they’re conforming to the quality requirements of the job. Ask the team members their opinions about what processes can be improved or what maintenance is needed. Everyone loves to be asked to share their thoughts and to feel part of the solution. The key is to be present and engage in conversations. Get to know your team and let them get to know you. The more they hear from you personally about what’s necessary for organizational success and how they’re a part of it, the more they will engage and contribute to the mission. Mutual respect goes a long way.
Be the Leader Who Cares
Leaders can have fun, crack a smile, and exude warmth while still sharing the company’s vision, the budget, and the customer needs. Our team communicated the financial results, the quality and safety metrics, the HR initiatives and benefits updates each month in brief team/shift meetings. The effort we put into communicating directly about the business and then following up on a personal level was a conduit to lasting change in our culture. There was a shift to interest in our business, not just interest in individual needs. Committee engagement thrived, as involvement was not mandatory; participation was seen as a enjoyable endeavor and an opportunity to be a part of something. If you start each day by showing that you’re concerned for the welfare, happiness, and success of others, positivity and respect will take hold. It’s that contagious. And you don’t have to be in a new role to try this approach: Start from where you are. Invest 30 minutes a day in making connections. Then let me know how it changes your perspective, as well as that of your team. It can be truly life changing. As the old adage goes, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Be the leader who cares actively. I think you’ll soon find that it’s the best part of your day.