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Leaders can learn from those they lead

Article originally published in the American City Business Journals on September 6, 2022.

What can experienced leaders learn from those they lead? Direct reports and others within an organization may have a different perspective from their boss. They are not jaded by past failures or stuck in old paradigms. They don’t know that things can’t be done. 

Many senior leaders don’t realize they can learn not only from direct reports, but from anyone in their organization, even hourly workers on the factory floor. 

I had an important learning experience as president of my company’s industrial chemicals group. I learned the benefits of empowering employees at all levels of the organization, to use their creativity to continuously improve every aspect of our business.

Continuous improvement is the cornerstone of competitive advantage. The company that continually improves will generate savings which can be plowed back into the business to gain market share and increase revenues, compared to their competition.

On the boards of companies I have served on, I have seen where only management-initiated improvement projects is not sustainable over the long term.

Mid-level leaders within our organization convinced me to take a different approach. We pushed down the responsibility for initiating improvement projects to the staff of our operating units and the hourly workers at our unionized and non-union plants—something that was not being done in other companies. This cultural change generated millions of dollars of savings which we invested back in the company.

If an improvement project was within an employee’s authority level, they were empowered to undertake the project. Many projects were undertaken jointly with employees outside their unit. If a project exceeded their authority, the employee was empowered to seek approval from the leader with the necessary authority.

Front line managers changed their historical role as bosses and became coaches and counselors to their employees.

We trained our employees in root cause analysis to identify issues interfering with efficiency and productivity. We gave $50,000 to the operators and mechanics of production units at our plants and delegated to them the responsibility to decide where to deploy those funds to improve the operation of their production unit. These were some of the highest return investments made at our plants.

In the beginning, I had personal doubts which I could not express publicly concerning the success of this initiative. Those doubts were erased after I saw a group of hourly employees from one of our plants present their project at corporate headquarters. I was late to the presentation and as I sat in the rear of the room, I thought the presenters were our engineers. 

It was only after 15 minutes that I realized that the presenters were an operator and a mechanic from the plant. I then knew that empowering all employees to continuously improve the part of the business they worked in would be a huge competitive strength.

Many hourly workers told me that empowering them to continuously improve their production units enriched their jobs and taught them new skills. 

If it wasn’t for some very talented direct reports and mid-level leaders within our company, I would not have undertaken our continuous improvement initiative in this manner. A leader can learn from anyone in their organization.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.

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