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Follow the Leader

Leadership is widely misunderstood, as Sarah Spivey, managing director at Modulift, explains. 

Frank was the company's best forklift truck driver. Not only did he take the most product from A to B every day but he never logged an accident or near miss, was never late, and only called in sick once when he had food poisoning. He reported for duty again the same afternoon. Frank's lift truck was kept in immaculate condition; it passed periodic inspections with flying colours every time, despite covering more yard and warehouse miles than anyone else's vehicle. When the supervisor asked for volunteers to stay late to take an extra delivery or cover a backlog at the weekend, he was the first to raise his hand. Frank was a brilliant forklift operator and a great employee. 

When the long-serving supervisor retired, the company's management got together to discuss a replacement. Who can manage the forklift drivers, oversee upkeep of the fleet, and ensure the production team stays up to speed on the shop floor, they wondered? The solution was obvious to them; we'll give Frank a deserved promotion and reward him for years of loyal service with extra responsibility and a pay rise to match. 

He ran home that night to give his wife the good news and reported for duty even earlier than usual the following morning. Some of his old driver colleagues teased him for having a new, shiny pair of shoes on. Where he used to turn left, he turned right to his new office. While there was no steering wheel to turn or aisles to navigate, Frank took to fleet management and other administrative tasks quite well. However, he had no clue how to manage his team and it wasn't long before throughput was suffering as a result. 

The board of directors couldn't understand it. Frank should have known the operation inside out, they thought. Trouble was, leadership isn't something you can just hand to someone and expect them to, first, lead; and, second, others to follow. In fact, anyone who worked with him before the promotion already knew that he was obsessed with his own performance—that's why he was the best driver—and would sooner withhold information that would help a young operator than he would pass it on. In fact, there were very few hallmarks of a good leader that Frank shared. 

Leadership is a gift, not a reward 

Frank's story was made up for the purposes of this blog, but the same scenario is repeated in business all over the world every day. Leadership is too frequently given to people as a reward for performance or years of service, not because someone has been identified as having the character and skills to inspire others. When leadership is right, a workforce follows with passion and loyalty; they adopt a siege mentality and fight for each other. They do so because the leader prioritises his or her team members' success before their own. It takes a special person to do that, not just the best in terms of output or experience. 

Here at Modulift, we've been mindful of what effective leadership looks like as we've put new structures in place and appointed new managers. John Baker is now sales and marketing director, for example, moving from his previous role as business development manager. John isn't like Frank (apart from his shoes!); he'll create an environment where his team comes first and they'll work together to achieve collective goals for the good of the company. Good leaders get cooperation, respect, honesty, positivity and proactivity. 

As Frank proves, it isn't always possible to grow organically. It's rewarding to give existing staff opportunity but sometimes a fresh face from outside the business is the best option. Sue Spencer, our technical director, and I have made three observations that help with this process. First, we've noted the characteristics we're looking for; second, we've identified common character traits among those who have left us in the past; and, finally, we look for leadership quality beyond skill sets in a particular role. An engineer might be a wizard on CAD, but could they lead a bunch of lemmings off a cliff? 

Devolution is a big part of successful leadership. Many make the mistake of thinking that the busier a CEO or director, the better they are. It's a myth that the more areas of responsibility they have the closer they can keep a check on the progress of the business. It's entirely positive that I've handed my sales and marketing leadership role to John, for example, just as other company leaders should feel comfortable putting others in control. As I'm sure John will demonstrate, an individual with a clear focus on a specific area will achieve far more than a chief executive who has to juggle different departments at the same time.

Thought leaders 

It was David Ogilvy, regarded by some as the founder of modern advertising, who said: ''If you ever find a man who is better than you are—hire him." He is also credited for quipping: "If you always hire people who are smaller than you, we shall become a company of dwarfs. If, on the other hand, you always hire people who are bigger than you, we shall become a company of giants.'' There are different versions of another observation I like, along the lines of, 'a genius surrounds him or herself with people who are smarter than them'. 

What Ogilvy and other thought leaders are contesting is the ignorance of managing executives who feel threatened by anyone who knows more than them. At a healthy company, the CFO should know more about finance than the managing director, while the marketing boss must have a greater knowledge of the sciences involved in their sector than the CEO. Good leaders welcome people into their companies and teams who are wiser than they are in their specialist fields. 

While we're on the subject of thought leadership, it's timely to reference the work of Australian leadership guru Richard Maloney, founder of a business coaching business called Engage & Grow. His 'six steps to success' and '12 engagement keys' reference a number of buzzwords that resonate with me. He's worked with some of his country's top sportspeople, which gives his theories mileage given that at the core of a good company is a great team. His work goes beyond leadership but he's worth typing into Google. 

Toppled crown 

In conclusion, don't look at leadership like a royal line to a thrown.

I opened with an anecdote and I'll close with another; this one is true. I was having dinner recently with a lady in a senior position at a rope company. Early in her career she was a dynamic, driven operations professional, keen to impress. She had a KPI to get jobs out the door and she stopped at nothing to get a tick in that box. Regardless of profit or the hours it took, she ensured finished product was shipped on time. Nothing could stop her. One day, in a management shake-up, she was asked to team up with an engineer. She was against it from the start; he worked in a different department and they had nothing in common. She protested to senior management many times: what is the point of this exercise, she asked? Over time, however, it became apparent what the company was doing. Yes, the engineer was different but he was an incredibly good leader. The initiative was never about matching skills, it was about teaching her how to empathise and make decisions for the good of the company, not just herself. She admits now her first impressions of the engineer were wrong and acknowledges that her career is much better for the experience. 

At first glance it made far more sense to promote Frank the forklift driver, but leadership quality isn't always found in the person next in line to lead. 

Sarah Spivey 

Managing Director 


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