Building a Leadership Bench

The Weekly Report – June 5, 2023
Business growth consultant Abbey Hellickson shares a process for transforming top performers into company leaders.

If there’s a common concern among manufacturers these days, it’s the persistent worker shortage and its sister problem, building a leadership team for the future. In the current issue of Enterprise Minnesota magazine®, published last week, talent and leadership expert Abbey Hellickson talks with writer Robb Murray about how manufacturers can address those challenges by identifying top performers and developing them into leaders.

Tapping a great welder to become a team leader is a little like professional sports teams hiring former superstars as head coaches. Some are such talented leaders — think Steve Kerr and Jim Harbaugh – that younger sports fans often don’t even know of their award-winning years as players; they only recognize them as outstanding coaches.

Manufacturers tell us a similar leap, from skilled team member to exceptional leader, happens in the manufacturing world as well as in professional sports. It’s a jump many employees make successfully, and it fills a growing talent gap as employers look for the next generation of leaders.

In a step-by-step process Abbey shares with countless clients, she encourages companies to identify talented employees, gauge their interest in leading others, and work patiently and methodically to help them develop the skills needed to be successful.

Abbey likens the leadership pipeline to a ladder, with the worker at the bottom, doing his job and managing himself. On the next rung, the worker has to manage others as well, a transition that can be difficult because it goes beyond the scope of what the worker was hired to do.

“Typically, it’s the first time they’ve ever managed people. And in manufacturing environments, they still actually do some of the work themselves,” Abbey says. That makes time management a real challenge. Plus, they have to deal with performance issues, coaching, and holding people accountable – people who they were eating lunch with just yesterday.

Developing leaders takes time, Abbey says, and identifying potential and desire is a process in itself. She suggests giving possible leaders “stretch assignments” to see how they respond. If an employee excels at such a stretch task and demonstrates an eagerness for more responsibility, he or she might be an emerging leader.

Another approach that Abbey suggests is giving an employee a “flavor of leadership” by asking him or her to undergo training that might feel above their station at the company. It’s an exercise that can show if an employee has the desire to evolve from that bottom rung to the second.

It’s also important, Abbey says, to create an environment where employees can decline a leadership role, or step out of the leadership pipeline if they find it’s not the right fit. “If leadership doesn’t go well for them, allow them the grace to step back into an individual performer role,” she says. If the leadership experiment fails, and they’re allowed to return to their previous position with grace, the perspective they’ve gained by seeing the other side will make them a better worker.

To read more about Abbey’s insights on developing talent within companies, check out When Welding Isn’t Enough in the current issue of Enterprise Minnesota® magazine.

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