How to Inspire Leadership in Maintenance and Reliability

Dr. Nathan C. Wright, Transformational Performance Solutions

In one year, companies spent $170 billion on leadership training, and to make matters worse, most of this training employed unsuccessful methods. Classroom-based training isn’t much different from what you’d see if you could go back in time to almost any early business program.

There’s one person in front of the room talking to a bunch of other people. Sure, today there would be PowerPoint slides and the seats might be more comfortable, but early school teachers would have no trouble recognizing what’s going on.

In this early training model, the instructor lays out some basic principles and then works down to specific applications. That might be great for the teacher, but it’s not the way that most human beings learn best.

Think about any baby you’ve been around. There’s not a general principle in sight. You don’t sit a baby in a chair and tell them how to do anything. The baby sees things, touches things, runs into things, tastes things and then turns all those experiences into general principles. This is how most of us learn. 

What we need is more leadership development that uses methods that are more effective than a lecture or even a lecture with PowerPoint and handouts. We need to use more methods that offer opportunities to learn from specific, relevant situations. And we need to use more methods that allow for reflection.

There are a lot of programs out there based on the principle that we must do something special to make learning fun. Other programs grow from the need for trainers and consultants to sell something “new.”

That’s why you have leadership training that isn’t training at all, at least not in leadership. Leaders can try outdoor adventure training, which can be lots of fun, or they can learn leadership by cooking, which probably helps the executive be more helpful at parties. But how do either of these make you a better leader? None of these trendy methods seem to do much to help you be a better leader.

A lot of great classroom training never finds its way back to the workplace. It never seems to make any difference in what the leader trainee does. That’s because companies spend their time and money on the training and forget about the development. That’s up to the individual, but companies usually don’t even bother to set learning expectations or check to see whether a trainee is using what he or she was taught. 

Coaching the individual is the single most critical part of leadership development. Guiding them from their transactional approach to one of transformation will ensure the long-term success of the individual and the organization.

Spend time and money developing your leaders. Help them put together a development plan that will help them learn on the job. Coaching and mentoring by someone who is a true field leader, and not just someone who read about it, will get you the most for your money.

First-line supervisors determine whether workers are engaged or not. They’re the leaders who assure that teams have both high morale and high productivity. Why not invest in them to help them do a better job?

Make sure the leadership development you choose addresses specific skills and uses effective techniques. If all it offers is a cookie-cutter workshop filled with remarkable sounding tools and processes for your leaders to practice, then you should save your money. Front-line leaders receive feedback from both sides. They do not need another tool or process; they need someone who has truly walked in their shoes and understands how they learn to coach them through their day and help them develop transformational approaches to tasks. They are already spending their time leading in most likely a transactional manner.

In so doing, the transformational leader encourages others to adopt the transformation process as their own and thus allows for the attainment of the targeted transformation. To put it simply, the success of the transformational leader is defined by their ability to offer others something that goes beyond self-interest. They provide others with an inspiring mission and vision, and give them an identity.

Differences Between Training and Development

Training blends to a norm, tests patience and focuses on the present, the problems, the content, the knowns and efficiency. Training adheres to standards, is transactional, maintains status quo, is mechanical, is finite, encourages compliance and indoctrinates.

Development occurs beyond the norm, tests courage and focuses on the people, the future, effectiveness and solutions. Development maximizes potential, is transformational, educates, is a catalyst for innovation, emphasizes performance, is intellectual, explores the unknown and is infinite.

How many times have you wished you could spend more time developing your leaders? You have taken the time to recruit or promote them for a variety of good reasons, but never seem to have the time it takes to coach and mentor them. What if you could spend 50 hours a month concentrating on their development? What would this be worth to you? Do you think there is value in this?

Another aspect to the benefits of leadership development is employee retention. Hay Group surveyed nearly 1.7 million U.S. employees within 152 organizations and found that employees who quit their jobs within the last two years noted a lack of confidence in either their manager’s ability to lead or in their organization's future overall as the top reasons. Other important issues cited were control over the direction of their work, lack of growth opportunities, supportive co-workers and fair compensation.

Transformational leadership reduces attrition. The costs to replace employees will easily reach 150 percent of the employee’s annual compensation figure. The cost will be significantly higher (200 to 250 percent of annual compensation) for managerial positions.

To put this into perspective, let's assume the average salary of employees in a given company is $50,000 per year. Taking the cost of turnover at 150 percent of salary, the cost of turnover is then $75,000 per employee who leaves the company. For a mid-sized company of 1,000 employees which has a 10-percent annual rate of turnover, the annual cost of turnover is $7.5 million!

Do you know any CEO who would not want to add $7.5 million to his revenue? By the way, most of that figure would be carried over to the profit line as well. What about the company with 10,000 employees? The cost of turnover equals $75 million!

As you can see, the costs and impact associated with an employee who leaves the company can be quite significant. This is not to say that all turnover should be eliminated. However, given the high cost and impact on running a business, a well-thought-out program designed to retain employees may easily pay for itself in a very short period of time.

Like any professional team, your organization is made up of owners, C-level officers, general managers, head coaches, and offensive and defensive coordinators (senior leadership team). All of these are charged with setting the tone and vision for the organization. However, none of these coach the skilled position players. For this, they hire position coaches who are specialists in developing these talented and high-paid players into the future hall of famers.

Matt Leinart, Johnny Manziel and Tim Tebow all won the Heisman Trophy for their ability as a college quarterback but failed when promoted to the pro ranks largely because they were not given the development time they needed to make the next level. They were tossed into their new position, and because they were good college quarterbacks, it was expected they would figure it out on the fly.

In contrast, Russell Wilson, Tom Brady and Joe Montana were all late-round draft picks. They worked their way up through the ranks, guided by coaches who were themselves quarterbacks. Imagine if they had been guided by someone from the front office or support staff, or if it was assumed that they were good in college (their existing role) and were thus thrown into the professional ranks without coaching.

Professional organizations need their position coaches to be professionals who have walked in the same shoes of the leaders they are coaching. As we discussed previously, most people learn by seeing, touching, running into and tasting things, and then turning all those experiences into general principles. While the most effective sequence is from a specific point or experience to a general principle, it can be painful. Without someone to help them interpret the learning, they may not put it to good practice or it can lead to bad habits. Effective coaching requires real-world experience — actually doing the job that those you are coaching are doing. Leadership development requires an understanding of the demands and pressures of the position, not in theory, not from a support desk, but in actual performance, because they have led in the very same environment. Leadership development is a journey to various degrees. Some have begun their journey, while others have yet to ponder the direction to take.

Following this line of reasoning, what leaders develop in themselves will surely have a bearing on their teams. You have a vast impact by what you do, what you fail to do, who you are, what you believe and how you communicate these beliefs to the team. Your teammates have needs, desires and goals which, once uncovered, can be used to encourage them to higher levels of individual potential. The best teammates are capable of doing their own job and doing it better, and they are able to persuade their leaders as needed. It is not a one-way process. At its best over time, it is give and take.

No collection of talented professionals wants the senior leadership team coaching the skill positions. Simply put, it is not on what they should be focused. Having the right person doing the right thing at the right time is critical to organizational success.

If what you desire is a robotic, static thinker, then train them. If you’re seeking innovative, critical thinkers, develop them. I have always said that it is impossible to have an enterprise that is growing and evolving if leadership is not.

Let’s do a little exercise. Think for a few minutes about the best leader/boss you have ever had. This person can come from any part of your life, not just work. Now let’s discuss what descriptive phrases or adjectives describe this leader/boss? Now let’s do this for your worst leader/boss. What are some of the phrases or adjectives of the best leaders? Transformational? What are the phrases or adjectives of the worst leaders? Transactional?

Transactional leadership is more concerned with maintaining the normal flow of operations. It can be described as "keeping the ship afloat." Transactional leaders use disciplinary power and an array of incentives to motivate followers to perform at their best. The term "transactional" refers to the fact that this type of leader essentially motivates followers by exchanging rewards for performance.

A transactional leader generally does not look ahead in strategically guiding an organization to a position of market leadership; instead, these managers are solely concerned with making sure everything flows smoothly today.

Transactional leaders are characterized by one or a combination of two styles. Management by exception is where the leader sets out rules, regulations and/or key performance indicators and then manages by waiting for someone to step outside of those parameters. This is sometimes referred to as the “gotcha” leader. The second style is contingent reward. This is where the leader manages by offering a reward for certain performance. This is sometimes called “the carrot and stick” approach.

A transformational leader goes beyond managing day-to-day operations and crafts strategies for taking his company, department or team to the next level of performance and success. Transformational leadership styles focus on team-building, motivation and collaboration with followers at different levels of an organization to accomplish change for the better. Transformational leaders set goals and incentives to push their followers to higher performance levels while providing opportunities for personal and professional growth for each follower.

Transformational leaders are characterized by one or more of four style combinations. Idealized influence is where the leader influences performance through a charismatic approach. This is sometimes called “walking the walk.” The second style is intellectual stimulation. This consists of the leader influencing performance by asking followers to assist in crafting the design. The power of utilizing all available resources is limitless, and maximizing this resource eliminates one of the seven wastes identified in lean (waste of intellect). The third style is inspirational motivation. This is where the leader inspires his followers to perform by showing them the way. It is sometimes called coaching or mentoring. The final style is individual consideration. This involves the leader taking an interest in followers as individuals and understanding their wants and needs, and then having the ability to align these with the organization’s goals.

What makes a leader transactional or transformational? To answer this question, you need to understand where leadership is learned. Our first source is our parents and family members. Forty percent of our leadership comes from this source. Next are our teachers and coaches, then our community, business and political leaders. Finally, there are professional athletes, entertainers and religious influences. If we examine these individuals, we can better understand how we got where we are.

The formative years for all of us are from birth to 5 years old. Think about how we are taught during these years. We have a coach/mentor by our sides guiding us. If we do something good, we are praised and even possibly instructed as to why we did well. If we attempt to do something harmful, we are stopped and instructed in corrective measures to prevent harm. Sometimes we are allowed to fail. Our coaches then help us understand why we failed and how to adjust to correct the approach. This coaching continues throughout our first 5 years.

What changes when we turn 5? We are sent off to school. Here, the teaching changes. In our academic environment, we are rewarded for good behavior and disciplined for bad. This is repeated by our leaders and others in leadership positions serving as examples for us. No wonder we end up leading transactionally, it is all most of us know. What can we do about this? Following are five things all leaders should immediately stop capitulating to in order to become more effective:

Best Practices

There exists no greater example of herd mentality than that of best practices. I have always believed that a so-called best practice ceases the minute it is labeled as such. By definition, best practices protect the status quo and gate innovation by ensuring people/processes follow the same methodologies. You cannot differentiate by embracing sameness. The concept of best practices is little more than blending to the norm at your own peril. Smart leaders innovate beyond best practices, always searching for next practices. If your decision to do something is born by others doing it the same way, you are doing little more than ceding advantage and opportunity to those competitors more creative than you. Don’t copy – create.

Cost Cutting

It is impossible to beat your competition to the future by spending less than they do. You get there first by investing smarter than they do. Companies who outperform their competition focus less on risk management and more on opportunity management. They are less concerned with containing expenditures and more concerned with finding new ways to create greater return on investment. I’ve often espoused that a leader’s job is not to leverage their people but to create more leverage for their people. Stop asking your people to do more with less and find ways to provide them with a resource advantage. Stop imposing hiring freezes and begin a relentless pursuit of creating a talent advantage. Leaders who complain about a lack of resources are doing nothing more than demonstrating their lack of resourcefulness.

Political Correctness

By its very nature, politically correct thinking is most often disingenuous, if not altogether intellectually dishonest. Politically correct thinking replaces individuality and authentic opinions with socially acceptable rhetoric and watered-down behavioral tendencies. I miss the days when most conversations consisted of unpredictable, highly charged and stimulating discourse where people were encouraged to openly share their true thoughts and opinions. The irony of politically correct thinking is that a society void of individual thought creates the opposite of diversity. It is in fact politically correct thinking that results in a brainwashed group of sheep that completely lacks diversity as a result of a gentrification of thoughts and actions.

The dark secret behind politically correct thinking is that it slowly dulls your senses and neuters your innate ability to be discerning. I don’t want to hear what you think I want you to say or what you think you should say, but rather I want to hear what you’re really thinking. Have you ever sat in a meeting where all parties sit around the table with a deer in the headlights look trying to figure out how to dance around an issue rather than address it head-on? It is this type of issue that pollutes our culture, stifles innovation, undermines our productivity and sentences those who embrace politically correct thinking to a life of mediocrity.

Lionizing the Few

Leadership is not a position or a title. It is not a job reserved only for a precious few presiding over the masses. Keep in mind that if you tell people long enough or loud enough that they’re not leaders, you shouldn’t be surprised when they begin to believe you. Your job is not to keep people from leadership but to create leadership ubiquity. The most successful organizations are ones in which everyone views themselves as leaders. Leadership that isn’t transferrable, repeatable, scalable and sustainable isn’t really leadership at all. Build your organization on a framework that builds into all team members regardless of where they reside on the organizational chart.

Unwillingness to Change

Examine any study on the rate of change and you’ll find we’re living in an unprecedented time. The rate of change is clearly outpacing most leaders’ ability to learn and unlearn. Many leaders struggle to remain current, much less find a way to move ahead of the curve. If leaders are stuck in the past, their organizations will be forced to travel a very rough road to the future.

The solution to the leadership training problem is to scrap it in favor of development. Don’t train leaders. Instead, coach them, mentor them, disciple them and develop them, but please don’t attempt to train them. Where training attempts to standardize by blending to a norm and acclimating to the status quo, development strives to call out the unique and differentiate by shattering the status quo. Training is something leaders dread and will try and avoid, whereas they will embrace and look forward to development. Development is nuanced, contextual, collaborative, fluid and actionable.

ow do you take all this knowledge and package it into something to improve leadership in maintenance and reliability? I have seen the decline in leadership. This has been fueled by corporations looking for a quick fix to their reliability woes, but there is no quick fix. Only through hard work and experience can any organization achieve sustainable success. I am amazed how many times I have heard organizational leaders say, “You do not have to have done maintenance to lead it.” This is the failed thought process that is driving the decline in maintenance and reliability. You cannot take an engineer, young or old, or a consultant and call them a maintenance leader to short-cut the years of experience it takes to become a maintenance and reliability professional. If you need heart surgery, you would not go to a proctologist. Leading maintenance and reliability is a specialized skill, and you need a maintenance and reliability professional to lead it.

Leadership isn’t destination-based – it’s a continuum. Great leaders think beyond the outcome. They think about what if and what’s next. They don’t get trapped in the journey to a specific destination but remain in constant search of discovery to seek new and better opportunities. Anything in business can be improved, everything can be reimagined, and many things can flat out be eliminated. The harsh reality is that leaders who embrace “what is” by failing to broaden their worldview will be replaced by those who pursue “what if” by embracing new and creative ways of thinking.

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About the Author

Nathan Wright, founder and president of Transformational Performance Solutions, LLC is one of the country's foremost experts on maintenance and reliability and transformational leadership.