We’ve all seen movies where a leader inspires his or her team with a moving speech and a call to action. But one characteristic is usually absent.

“Have you ever seen them ask any questions? They just know what to do,” says Terence Coleman Jr., president of Tecnova Electronics Inc.

While Hollywood frequently presents leaders as all-knowing, it’s important that leaders ask questions and seek out feedback. Despite what is pictured in movies (or TED talks), Coleman says good leaders must ask questions and build rapport with their staff so they can trust that this feedback is honest. They don’t need to know everything—but good leaders must know the goals for the company.

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Leading the Way

Quality veteran Jim Smith describes the characteristics needed for a career in quality, how leaders can be developed, and why you have to be a little bit of a masochist to be a quality manager.

“Leaders know what the goal is, have a strong commitment to that goal, and work with the team to reach that goal,” Coleman says.

And based on their quality results, it seems to be working for Tecnova Electronics. The Quality Leadership 100 ranks companies based on factors such as continuous improvement programs; contribution of quality to profitability; average hours of quality training; as well as registration to various standards. Tecnova is a certified electronic contract manufacturer that frequently appears on the Quality Leadership 100 ranking (and earned the top spot in 2020).

During times of crisis good leadership is essential. Think of how important a leader is during wartime—or, similarly, a pandemic. But what makes a good leader? How do you improve your leadership skills? What should you do to develop your skills in quality?

Here we’ll discuss trends in leadership as well as advice for would-be quality leaders.

A Born Leader

After meeting a good friend and natural leader in grade school, Jim Smith would often think “What would Harold do?” He recalled an example from his friend who went on to success as an Air Force general and just recently passed away. Smith says leaders frequently exhibit leadership characteristics from a young age, and Harold was the same way. He recalled the eighth grade team meeting where the coach was explaining why only some students would be getting school letters that year. The policy was that you would only get a letter if you had played a certain number of quarters. With this rule, two students would be excluded, even though they had shown up to practice and helped the team along the way. Harold asked why this was and said that he didn’t think it was fair. He told the coach, “If those students aren’t getting a letter, I don’t want one either.” Then another student said the same. In the end, the coach agreed to give letters to all of the players.

This stuck with Smith. While leaders can be developed, he does think some characteristics are innate. Smith, a quality professional with more than 50 years of experience, has written on the subject in the past. In his article “A Recipe for Effective Leadership," he writes, “Two-way communication is critically important for leaders. After it has been developed, leaders hear suggestions, learn of complaints, are aware of problems and in all other respects know what is going on.”

Smith said during his career in management he tried to check in with his staff every day and show a real interest in them as a person. This only works when the interest in genuine, he adds. For example he might ask a parent how their child’s baseball game went the night before. In addition, he said it’s important to know how to give effective feedback. While positive feedback is easy, he said it’s important when a team member hasn’t done something exactly right. Setting an example is also critical, Smith says. “People are always watching what you do when you’re a leader,” he says. “Are you honest? Do you have integrity? Do you walk the talk?”

Better Leadership

If you’re looking to improve your leadership skills, Coleman offers this advice: look at successful leaders you’ve met and try to learn from them.

“A close family friend used to say, ‘Feedback was the best gift. Good leaders are always looking for ways to self-improve.’ I really liked that,” Coleman says. “I ask for lots of feedback ... Often when managers ask for feedback they are just told everything’s fine because nobody wants to make waves. My team knows I really appreciate their feedback. They are able to tell me when things are or aren’t working.”

Though he said it’s apparent sooner or later if things aren’t working, it’s always helpful to find out sooner. Thus, he aims to ask a lot of questions and receive honest answers. In addition, Coleman coaches his staff to find a goal and stay focused on it, no matter what hurdles may appear.

One way to get results as a leader is to get involved. Coleman says he’s been known to put on a smock and do inventory for an hour just to learn more about the process. He’ll ask, “What do you like about this process? What do you not like about this process?”

“Try to make sure that decisions made in the conference room work for the people that do the work,” Coleman says. If you’re not listening to those on the shop floor, you’re missing out.

The Next Leaders

For manufacturers that want to address leadership challenges, Coleman suggests looking to the next generation and listening to their ideas. While inexperienced staff members may be dismissed, it can also lead to new ideas as opposed to having “the same people in the same room making the decisions.”

A few months back Coleman spent a few hours with the staff member in the shipping department who packs boxes. He asked how they could make the work easier and what changes would help. If this was done across the organization, it would improve things on a larger scale.

Of course, even when things are going smoothly at your company, an unexpected hurdle may present itself. The pandemic was challenging on many levels, Coleman says. One challenge was maintaining positive team interactions in the face of a pandemic, which he said his team did a great job handling. Another difficulty was simply “the unknowns,” he says. You wouldn’t know if customers would cancel their orders or double them, he says.

In the end, the company was ultimately closed for just two days during the pandemic. While things were harder and took longer, they were able to overcome the difficulties.

And this holds true for many other companies. Manufacturers around the world were critical in fighting COVID-19. Carolyn Lee, executive director of the Manufacturing Institute, points out that along with health care, manufacturing was an important sector in getting us through the pandemic, by producing PPE as well as vaccines. That’s “proof in concept of impact of manufacturing,” Lee said. “Lean in to that.”

The Hunt For Leaders

“I’ve yet to come across a manufacturer who isn’t looking for team lead roles to fill,” says Lee. She says this can be done by diversifying the talent pool when searching for leaders. This diversity has the added benefit of improving innovation at a company, she says.

While there are various ways to improve leadership skills, Lee says that one important skill manufacturing leaders need is communication. “Manufacturing is a team sport. It is about the entirety of the team that builds these successes, the broader team. It’s not a lone wolf kind of sector here.”