Enterprise Minnesota Magazine - November 2012
HELPING MANUFACTURERS GROW PROFITABLY
Two Minnesota-based manufacturers cultivate leaders at every level to transform their cultures and strengthen their businesses from the inside out.
By Andrea Lahouze
There is no doubt that behind every great company is great leadership. Think of Apple, for example, and you can’t help but think of Steve Jobs. The words “Microsoft” and “Bill Gates” are inextricably tied. And any glimpse of the Virgin Group logo is likely to conjure up a mental image of Sir Richard Branson’s Cheshire Cat-like grin. But two Minnesota-based manufacturers have recently taken that truth one step further. Alexandria Industries and Ultra Machining Company serve as proof that developing leadership skills not only in top management but also in employees throughout a business can reap even greater rewards, from culture to quality to customer satisfaction.
For Monticello-based Ultra Machining Company, leadership development began as a strategic pursuit to formalize a fuzzy organizational structure. The company manufactures precision-machined parts for a variety of industries including medical and aerospace, and got its start in 1968 in founders’ Terry and Mary Tomann’s family garage. UMC has since grown to 160 employees and is a secondgeneration family business, owned by Don and Jenny Tomann.
UMC Director of Human Resources Mary Pettit says lack of role clarity among employees “wearing multiple hats” was a major hurdle in expanding from a small business to a large organization. Limited leadership experience among the management team presented a second hurdle, as many supervisors and managers had risen through the ranks over time.
“They started out on the floor, then they moved into the office and grew to be on a strategic team, etc. They had an understanding of the breadth and depth of the organization, and a passion for the business, but they didn’t necessarily have formal leadership education or experience in leading people,” Pettit explains.
Growth was also the catalyst for leadership development at Alexandria Industries. The business began as Alexandria Extrusion Company in 1966 and now produces custom, aluminum-extruded, components for everything from boats, docks and trailers to hospital beds and CT scan imaging equipment. In response to customer requests, it added capabilities in a series of strategic acquisitions beginning in 2003. The company now offers custom aluminum extrusions, precision machining, plastic injection and foam molding, finishing, welding and assembly services, including heat sinks, used to dissipate heat from energy sources. Renamed Alexandria Industries, the company has manufacturing facilities in Indiana, Minnesota and Texas and employs about 525 people, with approximately 415 at its three Alexandria, Minn. locations.
As Director of Organizational Development at Alexandria Industries, Lynette Kluver had long wished to create a leadership development course for company employees. She says the new acquisitions were an ideal opportunity to bring leadership development to the forefront of Alexandria Industries’ internal improvement activities, as more employees would be needed for leadership roles.
“Everyone on our executive team is about the same age, so when acquisitions began, we started thinking about what would happen to the organization if we all were to leave or retire within the next five years. We realized that we needed to be proactive in preparing the next generation of leaders, for two reasons. First, because the business need was dictating it, and second, because it is a tremendous retention tool,” Kluver says.
Both UMC and Alexandria Industries took particular care to tailor leadership training to their unique business needs, a step that Enterprise Minnesota Business Growth Consultant Yvonne Kinney-Hockert considers crucial.
“Leadership development isn’t ‘one size fits all,’” Kinney-Hockert says. “It’s really important to understand the culture and the organization.”
UMC used a tool called the Velocity Leadership program to define competencies it felt were important to develop within its three levels of management, which include executives, directors and managers. Once competencies were discussed and agreed upon, the company called upon Enterprise Minnesota Business Growth Advisors Jan Hepola and Roger Hurd to lead training sessions with each management group. Each training session focused on building a different competency, including leading change, decision-making, empowering others and managing performance.
UMC’s Pettit also worked with management to rewrite every job description throughout the business, specifying authorities, accountabilities and responsibilities. She attributes a major portion of the company’s continuing success to the role clarity that came as a result.
“The chain of command was made much more clear, and each job description includes both what we expect from each person, and what we don’t expect from them, so people can come to work and do their best,” Pettit says.
Like UMC, Alexandria Industries also defined essential leadership competencies for three different levels of leaders within the business, and then assembled a relevant curriculum to develop them. The company handpicked 15 employees based on the needs of the expanding business to participate in its first Leadership Academy beginning in July 2008.
Participants met monthly for classes, which covered topics like accountability, values, business acumen, leadership styles, conflict communication, building teams and empowering others. Kluver says each class was carefully constructed to build upon the competencies Alexandria Industries defined as necessary for successful leadership within its organization. Classes also included an element of practical application for participants to practice what they’d learned, and integrated the company’s core value of “servant leadership” – the expectation that company leaders lead with a servant heart.
Outside of Leadership Academy classes, participants also received individual leadership coaching from Enterprise Minnesota’s Kinney-Hockert. While confidentiality agreements keep session content under wraps, Kluver says coaching focused on helping each individual overcome any specific hurdles that had the potential to limit their leadership capabilities.
The success of Alexandria Industries’ first Leadership Academy, which graduated in May 2010, has since spurred two more sessions. While most participants in the second and third sessions were selected through an open application process, a few were specifically invited to participate.
“There were a few people where it was such a treat for me to approach them and say, ‘we didn’t get an application from you, but we would really like you to consider participating in this,’” Kluver says. “One young man could hardly get out of my office. His grin was so huge because he had never been thought of as a leader. He is doing amazingly well in that group. He is not in a leadership position today, but we know that if we give him the skill sets, he will be a key contributor going forward.”
The company had originally intended to lead just one more session of 15 employees, but when it received 83 applications from interested employees, it kicked off two groups of 15 instead. Because the training is corporate-wide, participants working at one of Alexandria Industries’ out-of-state locations are flown to Minnesota each month to participate in Leadership Academy classes.
In the spirit of continuous improvement, Alexandria Industries has this year introduced two additional levels of leadership development. Leadership 101 teaches foundational leadership skills, including communication and team building. Participants “may not be leaders by title, but you don’t always have to have a title to be a leader. They are people who we have our eye on for the future, and so we want to start helping them to develop very basic skill sets,” Kluver says.
The second new offering is called Leadership Masters, an invitation-only training to groom employees for future top management positions. While training at this level has not yet begun, Kluver says it will be highly customized to each individual, and will likely involve formal training from a post-secondary institution.
Benefits For All
Alexandria Industries is currently determining metrics to capture the tangible successes that have resulted from its leadership development activities. But even without hard numbers, Kluver says the company’s commitment to developing leaders has enabled it to capitalize on current and future growth opportunities.
“We now have the ability to make acquisitions at a time and in an industry where so many are shutting their doors. That speaks to the success of the leadership development program,” she says.
Rising leaders also have fostered a higher trust level among employees, something that Kluver considers essential.
“It’s a ‘servant leadership’ perspective. We need to be there for our people,” Kluver says. “The employees look to leaders every day for clarity, for trust, for confidence in their role. The more unified, civil, rewarding, tapped in and tuned in we can be as leaders, the more the business and its employees will benefit.”
Pettit would agree. She says the trust resulting from UMC’s leadership development efforts has enabled managers to delegate more tasks with confidence, in turn empowering greater productivity across the business.
“When you put people in place to do a job and you give them authority, you need to trust that they’ll do it. Before, that was not happening because the role clarity wasn’t there and when things fell through, there was blame and then people didn’t want to take the risk again. Making roles very clear helps trust to reappear, and high performance comes out of that, so it’s a definite progression,” Pettit says.
That progression has also led to a greater sense of unity among UMC employees in leadership positions at all levels.
“By going through this series of courses, I feel we are more one now. We discipline the same, we lead the same, we go after problem-solving the same, and we talk the same talk. We have a common vision of our culture, goals and mission,” Pettit says.
UMC’s shared vision is apparent to outside observers as well, including potential employees. In the past few months, the company has hired a new director of sales and a new president, both of whom had multiple job offers. Pettit says UMC’s newfound unity played a key role in attracting both.
“When we interviewed them and talked about our culture and who we are, they could see that management was truly connected,” Pettit says.
To learn more about Ultra Machining Company and Alexandria Industries, visit www.ultramc.com and www.alexandriaindustries.com.
3 Tips for Leadership Development Success
Thinking about developing the leaders and emerging leaders at your company? Consider these tips from Enterprise Minnesota’s Yvonne Kinney-Hockert:
1. Get buy-in from the top.
There must be commitment from the executive level in any company when it comes to providing resources and opportunities for their people. First, you must be willing to invest time and resources to understand leadership and what leadership means for your company. Second, you must ensure that the environment within the company is truly committed to allowing the leaders that are growing to step away from their daily tasks without feeling like there is a negative impact.
2. Support developing leaders.
The leaders that are developing want to take what they’ve learned and apply it to work situations to change the way certain things are done, whether it’s the way that they organize their team, the way they conduct meetings, or the way that they interact with other people. That in and of itself is change, and sometimes it’s embraced, but sometimes it’s not. When an organization commits to developing its leaders, an element of support should exist to support the participants by checking in and communicating with those emerging leaders to really understand what they’re learning and to encourage them to keep moving forward.
3. Customize, customize, customize.
Leadership development is not a “plug and play” pursuit. Companies should begin with a solid understanding of what leadership is for them, because the approach may look a bit different for every company based on their needs. There are a lot of similarities, too, but the differences are important. Implementing a customized leadership development program will lead to more alignment with a company’s unique values and culture.
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