Leading the way

Academy bolsters skills for new manufacturing leaders

Posted on Mar 15, 2017 :: Education and Training
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

IT WAS A CLASSIC PROMOTION conundrum Jon La Bombarb had seen happen too many times.

There is a leadership opening on the shop floor, and the leading candidate is to give a promotion to the most productive operator. It certainly seems like the logical move, except no one was ever asking the question, “were they ready to lead?” La Bombarb says.

The result was too often less leadership and unproductive frustration on all sides.

“We want to look to promote the guys from within, but we weren’t necessarily making sure they had the skills to take on those responsibilities,” La Bombarb, plant supervisor for Metals Engineering’s Green Bay plant, says. “The most productive employee is not always the best lead, especially if they don’t know how to lead yet.”

With the ongoing wave of baby boomer retirements creating senior openings across the sector, regional manufacturers needed to find a better way to move those young, productive workers into leadership positions with better results. Both morale, and the bottom line, depended on it.

As is often the case, manufacturers turned to the regional technical colleges to help develop a solution. Led by Lakeshore Technical College, the four schools in Northeast Wisconsin responded with a six-week curriculum aimed at building core leadership skills for emerging leaders.

Two years later, La Bombarb says the program is already paying dividends for his company, a metal heat treatment shop that has sent about a half-dozen employees through the program.

“The employees that go through the program really have a better understanding of people and why they do things the way they do,” he says.

While LTC initially took the lead developing the curriculum, the program is essentially the same at each of the four technical colleges serving Northeast Wisconsin, says Dean Stewart, dean of Corporate Training & Economic Development at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. Developed as a manufacturing-specific program, the curriculum concentrates on six skill areas critical for new team leaders.

Those core skills include: conflict resolution, critical thinking and problem solving, working as a high-performance team, peer leadership, behavioral-based safety and a lean overview. The academy is comprised of six, four-hour sessions.

“These are really the things they need to know to move up, but may not have had a chance to learn on the job,” Stewart says. “What was happening was that as one generation retired, companies were pulling new leaders who had not been in leadership positions before. If you take your best functional guy, make him a leader and it doesn’t go well, you’ve created an even bigger problem.”

For the most part, the courses are delivered on the campus of one of the local technical schools and feature a cross-section of new leaders from multiple companies. There have been a few occasions where a single manufacturer had enough new leaders to deliver the course at an employer site.

Stewart sees a lot of value, though, in the classes where there is a mix of companies and experiences.

“There is a lot of peer-to-peer learning that takes place,” Stewart says. “They can learn a lot from working with others who have faced similar problems.”

Now that several groups have gone through the academy, Stewart says there are some opportunities to adjust and improve the curriculum. A recent group at NWTC included a large group of new leaders who work on the business side instead of the production floor.

As the program moves forward, Stewart says there’s an opportunity to enhance the offering by splitting the tracks and focusing on topics that are unique to those different functions.

In October, a “mini version” of the leadership academy will be offered at Manufacturing First to promote the program and expose more manufacturers to the resources available to help the next generation of leaders succeed.

For La Bombarb, the program has helped his company and its new leaders not only succeed on the business side, but also on the personal side.

“The biggest thing I’ve heard from the guys we have sent through is how much it helped them overall, particularly outside of work,” he says. “It’s really a growth opportunity.”