Business growth consultant Michele Neale distinguishes herself in a crowded field of talented leadership development professionals as one who very noticeably “walks the talk.” Neale is entering her seventh year helping Enterprise Minnesota clients nurture — and retain — their workforce.

While the traditional bottom-line orientation of manufacturing encourages executives to focus on improving processes and productivity, Minnesota’s chronic shortage of workers now motivates them to think seriously about keeping the ones they have. And that’s one reason why Enterprise Minnesota’s Talent and Leadership Development curriculum has become one of its hottest services.

Industry experts agree that a culture of engaged employees directly impacts a company’s productivity and profitability. Manufacturers that develop a culture of engagement outperform their competitors by 202%, have reduced turnover, and experience fewer safety incidents.

When asked for an elevator-pitch summary description of the work, Neale responds with one word: “self-awareness.”

“Most people never get an opportunity to learn about themselves,” she says. “They don’t stop and think, ‘What am I doing every day to make a difference?’”

“I really want people to become better leaders,” she says, “whether they’re employees, mid-level leaders, or upper-level leaders.

Business Growth Consultant Michele Neale.
Business Growth Consultant Michele Neale.

Along with colleagues Abbey Hellickson and Nicole Lian, Neale teaches from Enterprise Minnesota’s wide-ranging curriculum on HR and leadership development.

A key component is “Leadership Essentials,” a series about communication skills, versatility, employee engagement, leading change, and accountability. The sessions, she says, emphasize how to better engage employees and transform that engagement into team building. “What can I do to increase retention and encourage employee involvement? How do I lead my team through change, even if I disagree? What accountability do I have to take for myself, and how do I hold others accountable?”

“You could almost pick any company, and those topics would apply, which is why we package it as an essentials series,” she says. “The key is helping leaders make small behavioral changes based on what they learn about themselves and how they lead.”

Helping the sessions succeed, Neale says, is customization. “Connections are important to me. Recognizing individualization of each manufacturer I meet helps me better connect with them and build strong relationships.”

Born outside of New York City, Neale’s family immediately relocated to Pipestone Minnesota, where her father was starting a small manufacturing company.

Her talents in speech competitions at Pipestone High School encouraged an early ambition for corporate law, which evaporated after taking her first political science class at the University of Minnesota, Morris. “I hated it,” she admits today. But she maintained her love of speech, especially rhetoric. “It’s geeky, I know, but I liked learning about Aristotle and Socrates, the concepts of interpersonal relationships, and how people work with one another.” She augmented her studies at the University of Minnesota, Morris by coaching high school speech activities and judging competitions. The speech department added her as a teaching assistant for her junior and senior years.

A key professor admired Neale’s skills in the classroom and encouraged her to apply to grad school. She chose the University of North Dakota, where she could pay tuition by working as a teacher’s assistant, TA-ing for a course in public speaking. (In one memorable class required of members of UND’s heralded hockey team, three-quarters of her students produced individual “demonstration” speeches on the finer points of taping a hockey stick.) Armed with a master’s degree, she joined the faculty at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, where she spent a year before being wooed away by a more lucrative offer as a full-time corporate trainer in a telemarketing company. In an intriguing career plot point, Neale discovered that she loved training telemarketers.

She returned to Minnesota after a year, where her position at Fingerhut cemented a career in corporate training.

“I enjoy going after the sales,” she recalls, “just don’t put me out on the line to say, ‘Michele, your income depends on whether or not you get this sale.’ I’m an influencer; if I believe in something, I want to influence you.” The telemarketing gigs gave her a classroom setting where she could teach sales and presentation skills and the value of building relationships.

Neale’s clients and colleagues universally agree that her personality, skillset, and deep experience in human resources and corporate training have created high demand for her services as a tool to help manufacturers retain employees.

“Michele has an uncanny ability to understand a situation and communicate it to anybody there is, regardless of their title, background, or experience,” says Bob Kill, Enterprise Minnesota president and CEO. “She can connect, understand, and communicate with anyone… I mean anyone.”

That strength, he says, grows from respect, her ability to listen, and empathy.

“She cares,” Kill says. “She sees the value of everybody. And that’s why her clients really love her.

“Plus,” he adds, “she’s not afraid to speak her mind, even when situations are uncomfortable, which is also really good.”

He adds that Neale adapts well to diverse clients’ needs, “from sophisticated to the not-so-sophisticated. Some are larger companies with a well-defined structure for leadership development at all levels, and others don’t have much structure at all.”

“She is comfortable in her skin,” Kill adds. “Her balance of confidence and competence is perfect. That’s why she can sometimes say things that a client might not want to hear.”

Neale credits her work ethic to her home in Pipestone. “I had an awesome father,” she says, “who I lost too soon to colon cancer.”

“He was a man of connection,” she continues. “When people met him, they remembered him.

“He had a great impact on me in terms of how you treat people and how you work with people and how that relationship is so important,” she says. “When I get up every morning I ask, ‘What difference can I make in the life of somebody I meet today?’”

Return to the Spring 2024 issue of Enterprise Minnesota® magazine. 

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