Bridging Leadership Lessons from the Workplace and Those Experiences Shaping Today's Youth and Tomorrow's Leaders
We have all seen the diagrams depicting leadership styles and a group of people rowing a boat. Everyone needs to work together to get to their destination efficiently and effectively. A happy crew, working together, in cadence and rhythm, all doing their part. It makes sense.
But when you think of empowering people in that setting, what could happen? What if someone decides to row faster because they feel a sense of urgency? What if someone stops rowing because they want to discuss in more detail where they are going? Many leaders want to empower people, but by doing so, they fear it will create an environment of chaos, where nobody is in charge and the situation will spin out of control.
Merriam-Webster defines Empower as
1: To give power to
2: To give official authority
3: To promote the self-actualization or influence of
While the first two definitions technically match what happens when a person is empowered, it is the third definition that really gets to the heart of the matter. Self-actualization. In 1943, Abraham Mazlow first published what became known as Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Since then, management and leadership gurus like John Maxwell, Stephen Covey and Peter Drucker have referenced and used his concepts in their teachings.
When we were initiating our journey at work towards Operational Excellence, empowering the teams to act and own the situation was absolutely critical. But “giving power or authority” wasn’t enough. It was refining the shared vision together so that the destination was clear in the minds of those embarking on the journey and the process to get there is understood.
We explained that they were in charge of their area and had the power to control the change. We also helped to make sure the boundaries were understood by the teams. If they saw something that needed improved AND if they validated/verified the impact with all the stakeholders, they can make the change without seeking management approval with two caveats:
Wow! Did they respond!
Processes were immediately improved, driving efficiencies within the work team and how the work team engaged those outside the work teams that helped break down silos across the company. We established a grass roots Waste Watchers program that celebrated the elimination of waste in our working environment. Besides the 8 wastes that are typical in the Lean Kaizen activities, they targeted two other wastes, Overspending and Not Being Green. We adopted our own two second lean videos program that encouraged fun and humor to show that even the smallest improvement could have an impact.
When you see yourself as the owner, then you also feel ownership of the problems and challenges that arise. You also view yourself as the owner of the solutions. It wasn’t about giving or granting authority, it was about expecting them to own the solutions. They appreciated the high standards and expectations of excellence (the 2nd Pillar of Impact) and when they realized that they were supported, encouraged, and celebrated for moving things forward, they realized that they did own the process.
In the rare situation, where we were facing a potential issue with a customer, there was no waiting for management or for someone to tell them what to do. They owned the situation, put in the time, requested help when needed and in turn showed the courage to challenge (the 1st Pillar of Impact) those outside of the organization to make sure a solution was identified and acceptable to satisfy the customer. This is evident in winning the prestigious Intel Preferred Quality Supplier award.
During the Covid 19 pandemic, our company, like companies across the globe, was faced with the difficult challenge of managing work while sending employees home to work. We were fortunate that our production force and support staff were essential employees and were able to continue working at the facility. Around 80% of our employees moved to a working from home schedule including management. Without an executive or director level presence, the production crew performed exceptionally, owning the situation, and ensuring that their fellow employees and our customers were supported during the pandemic. They continued to drive their Gemba Walks and kept the same pace in the Waste Watchers program driving efficiency and improving productivity. The only difference was that we reviewed the processes and celebrated the successes virtually.
It was an easy transition because the employees were empowered to make decisions. The employees were empowered to take control of the situation because they are closest to the process. The employees were empowered to lead because that is what leaders do. Empowering people is the difference between surviving and excelling and in today’s world, that is truly the Essential Employee you need if you are to be successful Beyond Today.
As Thanksgiving draws closer, our social media feeds will be inundated with pictures of Thanksgiving feasts, family gatherings and heartfelt posts about the blessing of family and friends. As the naive optimist I am, I absolutely love this time of year!
It’s also a good reminder to take the time to reflect on the year and what you have accomplished at work, school or within your organization. Too often we are caught up in the day-to-day activities and pushing onward towards the next project or deadline. We are so busy keeping our heads down and grinding, that we fail to recognize how far we have come and how much progress we have made.
This is a great time to reflect on the impact you and your teams have had on others and on those who have impacted you. It’s a great time to not just think about those people, but to reach out and thank them for being part of your growth.
I’m thankful for 28 years at Brewer Science working with incredibly talented people who willingly step into the fire with you and because of their commitment and dedication, they make sure everyone comes out of the fire stronger. It has been a company that has not only helped to foster my growth but has allowed me the opportunity to expand the ways I can impact others that do not naturally align with my position and job description. A company that gives me the freedom to share, through my writings, a part of me in hopes that it will make a difference.
I’m thankful for the wonderful feedback and support I have received from you, the readers. Your willingness to share your own stories and experiences and how they connect to what I share fuels my desire to find more ways to expand how and where I can provide impact.
I used to be worried about the scope of my impact. How I can maximize the amount of impact I can have on the company, people, and organizations. Then I realized that the scope is not nearly as important as the impact itself. Impacting a single person at a single moment in time may be extremely important to that individual. That moment, however fleeting, may be of immense value to that individual and to the lives that they touch.
So be thankful for those moments. Don’t just post those thanks on social media but reach out to those for whom you are thankful. Let them know that they are appreciated. That they have made an impact on your life and the lives of others. Be thankful for those who impact you Beyond Today.
UPDATE 11/15/23: I was reviewing old blog posts and this one jumped out to me as it was exactly 2 years ago today that I published it. I had forgotten this post but it tied wonderfully into a recent post, 2 Tips to Refresh Your Outlook, where I talk about this same son, who just recently turned 16, who blessed me with a tremendous gift of the reminder to Soak it In and Dare to Dream.
Today, it hits even more personally, as I am in the midst of my own life change. After working 30 years for the same company, I am no longer dreaming about a pathway that I hope to travel, I am now fully committed to that journey. That Dream is now AND Beyond Today.
It was the morning of my youngest son’s 14th birthday and being the loving father that I am, I was working on the perfect Facebook post that would combine thoughtful wisdom with enough personal and funny comments to accomplish my mission of showing love and embarrassing him thoroughly all at the same time.
I wrote to Ethan, “keep pushing and grinding so you don’t have to chase your dreams, but you live those dreams.” I felt good about this as it connected with my latest post about the 2nd Pillar of Impact: Expect Excellence and how the pursuit of the goal is more important than a finite goal.
Later that morning my daughter plays a Cody Johnson song titled ‘Till You Can’t. I had never heard this song and it is definitely a song that will make you reflect. A line in the chorus stood out to me, “If you got a dream, chase it, ‘cause a dream won’t chase you back.” Immediately, I was thinking “Wow! That’s a good way of looking at it.” But then I remembered my Facebook post from a couple of hours earlier and I started running it through my head.
While I enjoy the sentiment, and Cody Johnson isn’t wrong, I prefer my way of looking at the dreams. If you are chasing a dream, then your focus is always on that moment in the future, and you could mistakenly fail to enjoy the journey and the appreciation of the effort it took to grow and to reach your dreams. Like I said in the previous post, it’s not about reaching a destination but the journey and experiences that help shape you as you move forward in life.
So let the chase itself - those activities and experiences, the good times, and the bad times - be part of that dream. Let the excitement of the pursuit be equal to if not greater than accomplishing your goal. Choose to Live Your Dream so that your dream will take you Beyond Today.
In a previous post, I introduced the 1st Pillar of Impact, the Courage to Challenge. These pillars are key principles that I feel are critical to success and are traits that I look for in future teammates. I refer to these as Pillars of Impact as they are foundational to move from making yourself better to helping others get better as well.
The 2nd Pillar of Impact is Expect Excellence. This can be tricky for some as they confuse it with seeking perfection. But it’s not about being perfect but a mindset that focuses on the journey and the approach more than the outcome.
Don’t Confuse the Goal with the Process
Excellence is not about the Goal. As James Clear points out in Atomic Habits, the Goal focuses on a short-term outcome at a point in time versus the system or process that leads to recurring success. Achievement versus sustained excellence. Getting a fish versus knowing how to fish.
The pursuit of excellence is a mindset, a culture, a pattern of behaviors that seeks improvement. I disagree with the concept of “Never be Satisfied.” I understand the intent to motivate and strive for continued growth, but this approach is empty and not sustainable. You can take satisfaction in what you have accomplished and your effort. Take time to celebrate and recognize achievements because everyone likes to win. But don’t stop. Let it drive you to seek continued satisfaction through growth, improvement and your continued pursuit of excellence.
Expect Excellence in Yourself AND Others
When you talk about the journey of excellence, I try to distinguish between seeking & pursuing excellence, and I try to make sure the team understands this as well. Seeking comes across that you are looking for an end state or some definition of what it means to be excellent. While pursuing seems to insinuate a journey or a chase that moves you further down the road. Your definition of what is excellent will change and be refined as your journey continues.
This is important to distinguish so that as you expect excellence in others, they are working with the same definition and are playing by the same rules. If you allow them to seek and end state and then they stop in belief that they have achieved their goal, you will experience frustration as their path is different from the one you are traveling.
In some cases, expecting excellence in others is not popular and can lead to conflict. Therefore the 1st Pillar of Impact, Courage to Challenge, needs to be established first. If you already have positional power, then the organizational authority can help somewhat with how you work and set expectations, but that alone is not enough if you are to move your organization forward. We will discuss more on this topic when we touch on the 3rd Pillar of Impact.
As you raise the bar and expect excellence in others, you will get push back. People can get defensive, jealous, or even resistant. “Who do you think you are?” will start to be asked and you will see the organizational silos start to be reinforced and they will find ways to deflect and change the focus.
That is why you must successfully paint the picture of what Excellence means to you and how they not only fit into the picture but can help paint that picture. With a shared vision that you create together, they understand the excellence you are pursuing and are willing to identify the processes and pathways to move in that direction.
Creating the Shared Vision
When we started our Operations organization on the journey towards World Class Manufacturing, we met with key members of the organization at many levels to define what that picture looked like, to define what it meant to be World Class. What resulted was a future state in which we described what a World Class manufacturing company would be doing - not KPI’s or specific goals, but the behaviors and activities that are embraced by World Class Manufacturing companies.
At our group meetings, I would read verbatim, from the slides that we used to describe the Excellence we were moving to in the future. When I present, I never read from the slides. I use a free-flowing approach where I talk with the audience in a casual and connected style. I would stress to the team that I am going to read each sentence because it is that important to understand the picture of where we are heading, so that we can pursue Excellence together.
Over the years at our monthly meetings, I would then read the future state line-by-line and ask the employees if they feel we are living that specific description. If their response was no, I would then ask if they felt we were moving in that direction. If yes, great, we celebrate. If not, then we talk about why not. Do we need to change how we are pursuing, keep pursuing or does that specific picture of excellence no longer make sense?
Expect Excellence in the Beginning
Creating that shared vision is a great way to align people on the journey. But what about new people joining the team? When we hire an employee into our group, I have a quick phone call or a Teams video to reinforce expectations. I bluntly and energetically explain about how I expect excellence from them, not perfection, but excellence. They should expect excellence from themselves as well AND from those they work with. I then explain if they cannot find the Courage to Challenge or are not willing to come along on our journey for excellence, then they need to turn down the job as they are not a fit for our team.
The journey of Excellence is not easy and is not for everyone. It is not about achieving a goal or hitting a deadline. It is about the process of growth and being better today than you were yesterday. It is the pursuit of the Expectation of Excellence that creates impact Beyond Today.
This is an adage that has been around for some time and referenced when people give sermons or talk about health. It has taken on new life recently as people try to cling onto positivity in a world that seems to be fueled by negativity.
During the covid lock down, I turned to Audiobook as a way to increase my ability to digest information while staying active and getting steps. Following the lead of leadership and positivity gurus like Jon Gordon, I focused on audiobooks that reinforced the positive strength that is inside all of us as well as the potential to serve others and share that positivity with the world around you. I was listening to a couple of books a month, sprinkling in regular books as well as some podcasts.
I built up a routine of waking in the morning and reading the bible. Something I had never done for longer than a week. I would head out for a walk, and I put in my AirPods and start to soak in the positive vibes, and I had to be careful not to let my mind wander as it would when reading a book. Flipping back a page or rescanning a paragraph is a lot easier than constantly rewinding your audiobook while walking. As an avid highlighter and notetaker when reading, audiobooks were an adjustment to me, I had to make sure that I was walking in areas without hazards or traffic as I learned to take notes while walking or on a treadmill. (I know, our Safety team at work is freaking out right now!) But I got better and have been able to capture all my notes on my audiobooks and have even spent time reviewing them and referencing them as I write my various posts.
All this positivity and learning was feeding my soul and creating positive energy. I was thriving, even if my family was getting a little tired of all that I was sharing with them. I went on a trip to Indiana alone and decided that I did not want to listen to an educational book as I would not be able to take notes while driving, so I downloaded a “fun” book, a novel like I used to read back when we traveled on airplanes for business… you remember those times. Wow did time fly.
I read some new Ludlum sponsored books. I discovered Will Wight and his free audiobooks that had narrators that made you feel like you were watching a movie. I ran through 20 of these books in 7 months. I also sprinkled in some learning books for good measure, but I found myself waiting for the next book in a series.
During this, I noticed that some of my habits had changed. Despite the increased steps I was getting in walking, my weight was not coming off and I was putting it back on. My writing wasn’t as urgent. The positive habits I had been creating were starting to fade away. I was getting quieter in the evenings as stress started to creep back into my life and frustrations were mounting at work and in my view of society.
I noticed that I was finishing off my morning readings with journaling as much and documenting why I was grateful. I began to reflect on what had changed. I started to return to work instead of being 100% work from home. My middle son started college. Traveled with my family for my nephew's wedding. No, none of that really added up.
Then it dawned on me, I had limited the amount of positivity I was bringing into my life. I was still trying to be positive in my writing, in my leading, in my engagement with others but without that positive influx of positivity and energy, I didn’t have the fuel I needed. I was not creating the fuel I needed to be impactful. It was clear to me that the external input, leadership audiobooks, that I was using to help fuel my positivity had been replaced by books with empty calories if you will. It’s like wood that burns hot but does not last through the night.
At my son’s 19th birthday dinner, I decided to share this revelation with my family as a conversation turned to demeanor and attitudes being shaped by an environment. This is always risky in my family as not all of them appreciate my deep philosophical perspectives on self and how that affects others. Surprisingly, my wife looked at me and said she agreed. She had noticed the change in me as well and her reference period aligned perfectly with when I changed out what I was reading.
While this was not a scientific study that was peer reviewed by the greatest thinkers in an area of expertise, it makes sense to me and to those I care about. It makes enough sense that I at once jumped into Atomic Habits with a fresh new perspective and a ton of zeal. I can feel the energy burning once again inside of me to be impactful for others. So, what are you reading? What are you taking in? Because if it isn’t positive, how will you be positive for others? Control what goes in so you can control what goes out Beyond Today.
Tom Brown - a husband and a father who is simply trying to make a difference. Using my experience as a Manufacturing Executive to connect leadership from the boardroom to the hardwood to help teams grow and develop to make a difference in the lives of others.