The truck was already loaded and ready to be delivered to an important customer when a quality issue came to light. When the operations leader found out about the problem, he quickly arranged a solution. The entire staff was called to help sort through the truck and remove the defective product. The truck left two hours late, but with all the defective product pulled out. Kathy Lyall was in her first supervisor role and she still remembers how well the operations manager handled the situation. He demonstrated great leadership in recognizing the importance of the quality team, brought all hands on deck, and got everyone involved. 

Lyall is now the quality director at RTI Surgical as well as the marketing chair of the ASQ Inspection Division. Rallying people together has always been part of her life, and this skill continued in her professional career.

Even in this era of shiny new technologies, leadership is what makes a difference. The best equipment doesn’t set a company apart—the ideas behind it are what matter.

Learn how a former FBI agent, the Japanese concept of nemawashi, and the location of your office can all help improve your leadership skills.

Leadership Today

Ron Ritter is a partner at McKinsey and author of the paper “Leadership in innovation needs innovation in leadership” and says that leaders today face new challenges. “There’s a constant push to consider and deploy digital and Industry 4.0 capabilities. This was theory four to five years ago, but now it’s a very real factor,” Ritter says.

While this can be a frightening prospect, ignoring new technologies is not the answer.

Phil Duncan, a McKinsey senior expert, says that sometimes leaders may be scared to do something because the risks are high. But not doing anything isn’t the best strategy either. “Not embracing something new can be equally dangerous and risky,” says Duncan.

Whatever challenges you face, having the right leaders can make a big difference at your company. Chandra Brown, CEO of MxD, the nation’s digital manufacturing institute, says the importance of good leaders was highlighted in a recent report.

According to the McKinsey “Delivering Through Diversity” 2018 report, “Companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21% more likely to outperform on profitability and 27% more likely to have superior value creation. The highest-performing companies on both profitability and diversity had more women in line (i.e., typically revenue-generating) roles than in staff roles on their executive teams.”

In other words, leaders matter.

“Having more women on your board and in leadership means a higher return on equity, higher profitability,” Brown notes. Increasing the diversity in leadership can yield results. And as a leader, collaborating can also help fill in the gaps in your skills.

Brown says today is an exciting but difficult time with so many changes happening at once. With so much to handle, Brown says it is important to have a vision of where the company is and where it wants to go in five to ten years. This might be more digital adoption, better collaboration, and knowing where to prioritize.

In addition, being a good leader means seeing what is happening at your company.

“There are still leaders that don’t spend time on the floor,” Duncan says. “Maybe that’s old-fashioned and old school, but that’s where the work is done.”

Ritter provided an example of an executive moving his office from the front of the building to the geographic center of the factory. This meant that he walked through the plant at least twice a day. In addition, the manufacturing facility didn’t allow scooters or bicycles. Though it was a big plant, the idea was that the executives could walk by the employees, rather than zipping by on a scooter at 10 mph. “It’s a very people centered business,” Ritter says. “It’s all about people. It still is all about people. People don’t understand how important it is.”

“At the end of the day,” Ritter says, “when you look at a highly successful company—one that stays onshore, wins on quality, has better safety—the leadership piece of it seems to be the hardest one for people to take seriously.”

Ritter offers a military analogy. A colonel is a great day to day operator. What makes a general stand out is the ability to look above, out and around in order to assess the situation. This vision, coupled with the day to day management skills, sets the general apart.

Leading Edge

Whatever your experience with leadership, be it as association chair, student council president, or quality manager, it is a skill that can shape the path of your company and your career.

For those considering going into a leadership role, there are often a few factors contributing to this decision. Money is not the best motivation, though it may be a common one. If you’re never had any kind of inclination to leadership and you’ve reached a mid-career position, this may be a sign that leadership isn’t a natural fit.

Often a leadership position may come with reviewing past experiences, such as perhaps being a manager at your high school job. Some people are just drawn to this and attracted to helping manage people.

If this applies to you, there are still concrete steps you can take to be a better leader.

Reading is one of them. Finding a mentor is another. And asking for feedback or suggestions is a third option.

Lead the Way

Lyall recommends test driving your leadership skills. She says those who are interested in leadership should talk to a manager about it, and then perhaps take on a small project to see if they are good at it and if they like the work.

The Japanese concept of nemawashi is another good place to start, she says. This is the idea of talking to colleagues in various departments in order to build a consensus before a meeting or a decision. Rather than debating throughout the meeting, it allows a company to see issues in advance. “I wish I had discovered it earlier,” Lyall says.

“In quality, one of the biggest things that I look for when I’m interviewing is you have to have courage to be a leader in quality. The courage to stop a shipment or issue a recall.”

“If people don’t have a backbone reinforced with steel, they are probably not going to enjoy a position in quality management,” Lyall says.

But there are some ways to make the management process easier.

“One thing I think that always helps me deliver bad news is: frame it in terms of how the customer will be affected,” Lyall says. Whether this is medical devices implanted in someone’s body or an automobile breaking down by the side of the road, this makes the decision easier for staff to understand.

What not to do? Saying something like “I’m the quality department and I say so” is not the way to build consensus. Instead, frame the decision as impacting the customer. “It’s always best if you can convince people it’s the right thing to do rather than telling them,” Lyall says.

Sometimes being a good leader means customizing your approach to different people. Some people want to hear encouragement daily, while others may get annoyed by it. People are motivated differently and it makes sense to respond to that, Lyall notes.

She also recommends mentorship programs in order to improve leadership skills. “Have somebody other than your boss that you can tell about certain situations,” Lyall says. “Throughout my career, I’ve had mentors from completely different areas of the business and it’s been really helpful.”

She also reads two books a month, one for pleasure and one to learn about leadership and continuous improvement. A favorite is “What Every Body Is Saying” by Joe Navarro, a former FBI agent, about how to read people.

Constant change is part of the process, Lyall says.

“I’m committed to always changing and refining my approach.” Q