Tuesday, July 1, 2008


Leadership is part of what management is all about, and managers are usually assumed to be the ones who make the decisions on how the organization will be run.

I guess my feeling is that leadership needs to have a strong element of facilitating - as opposed to merely directing – and with a consultative element as well. Let me illustrate with a couple of examples.

When I moved from consumer goods to industrial marketing, part of my job involved managing two sales reps – both 25 year veterans of the packaging industry.

When we had our first meeting together, you could feel the tension in the air as these two sales reps felt out their new “boss”.

I started out by admitting I had only a limited knowledge of the packaging industry. If people had thought bubbles like in cartoons, you probably would have seen something like “Yeah! Right!” But when I asked what I could do to help them in their jobs, the tension melted away and they both opened up.

One was our pricing manager, and he needed help getting estimates done as well as having a sounding board for pricing. The other was a non-native English speaker, and, while he was a successful rep, had problems making presentations. Both also asked for help in getting orders processed.

In return for my assistance in the areas we agreed on, one took me around to meet the customers and the other one took me under his wing and tried to teach me everything he knew about packaging. I found ways to fast track estimates and we got new business because we were able to quote within 24 hours of receiving the RFQ. We got on well and worked together well as a team.

Later, when I moved to another company, I managed to get one of these reps to join the new company because he had extensive experience in one of the vertical markets we served, and I was able to get another colleague to join as well in our sales team. While the second rep went on to another competitor, we continued to get together for lunch on a regular basis.

The other example came up at this second company.

One of my guys was somewhat stalled with a prospect. They had some samples of our product, but had never gotten around to running them so we could qualify as a supplier. We met with the customer and got assurances the samples would be tried, but things dragged on.

A major trade show was coming up, and we knew the customer would want to have some samples of their product to exhibit and distribute at the show, so we offered to run a free trial order for them. The customer responded by saying that, although they had five suppliers of our kind of product, none of them had made such an offer and therefore they wanted to go with us – on one condition. They asked us to bill them for the order – not run it free – and to consider it our first order with them.

When we got the order and the customer’s graphics, we got together with the press crew who were going to be running the job. We told them this was a promising new customer and we wanted to make a good impression, and we asked the crew how they wanted to run the job. There were some details in the graphics which could be challenging for the printing process, which were a bit of a concern. The crew suggested the best materials sources from their experience and how the graphics should be set up.

When the customer received the order, we got a phone call regarding the job. Was there something wrong with the product or the delivery, we asked. No, the customer had specified the job be printed flexographically (a very cost-effective printing technology) but we had printed the job via rotogravure (a more expensive, high-definition way of printing.) I assured the customer we had followed his instructions and the job was printed flexographically. The customer told us this was the best flexographic printing he had seen: it was so clean and clear he thought it could only have been done via the more expensive rotogravure technology.

We ended up doing a lot more work for that customer, and we had a very proud press crew. Interestingly, even though we operated in a unionized environment, we never heard any comments or experienced any interference from the union reps. I think everyone focused on doing the best job possible and, if there was any breach of the collective agreement for the way we involved the crew, we never heard about it.

I believe most workers – white or blue collar – want to do an excellent job, and part of the role of management is to help them achieve that goal. This means ensuring the employees have the information or tools they need to accomplish this. More importantly, it involves asking them what the impediments are to excellent performance and helping clear those roadblocks.

Because managers frequently are rotated through a variety of roles, they may not have the time to become technical experts in every one of these roles. Unless they have been poorly trained, experienced workers know their jobs in depth because they’re doing them every day. They’ve had the opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t, so they actually are a knowledge resource waiting to be tapped.

When we try to provide what we think is “direction”, but it runs contrary to what our employees know to be the right way to do things, we don’t come across as good managers.

When we consult our employees to get their input on processes, we are practicing delegation in a way. Delegating means assigning tasks to those most capable or experienced to complete them, and typically is used in the context of white collar workers. With shop floor employees, respecting their skills and asking for their suggestions will usually be rewarded with ideas based on successful experience, and builds respect for their managers.
Leading by following the direction or suggestions of our “subordinates” is a winning proposition.

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