By Bridget McCrea
Making the transition into a management role isn’t easy for any employee. It can be particularly onerous for the production worker who has spent much of his or her time on the shop floor interacting with machines, equipment and product on a daily basis. Charged with completing specific tasks and meeting production goals, this shop floor employee isn’t always a natural fit to serve as a team leader, manager or supervisor.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. In fact, many precasters have successfully transitioned production employees into management roles, and many more will follow that same path in the future. In this second part of a two-part human resources article series, we’ll look at how manufacturers can help pave a clearer, easier path from the shop floor to the management ranks for their workers.
Why hire outsiders?
To Gustavo Gonzalez, president of Safe-T At Work LLC in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., it just makes sense for precasters to tap into their trained, knowledgeable pool of production personnel when filling management positions. After all, these folks are already trained, loyal and in tune with the corporate culture. They understand the ins and outs of the company’s operations and have a good handle on its inner workings. Why start from scratch by hiring outsiders?
“Why let a good prospect go to waste when you have already invested a lot of time and money in his or her training?” Gonzalez asks, noting that such promotions are often two-way streets that benefit both employer and employee. “Sometimes employees think that they are in dead-end jobs with no opportunities for advancement. When you promote from within, it sends a message to employees to improve themselves because an opportunity may be present at any given time.”
Implementing internal promotions from the shop floor and into management roles also sends the message that the precaster values its workers, and not just the equipment and machinery that churns out its products. “Most employers fail to realize that equipment, molds and machinery are not the biggest assets of a company – employees are,” says Gonzalez. “Big plants can have all of the automated equipment in the world, but for the most part labor is still a way of life.”
That’s not to say every production employee is a good candidate for management. Some lack the necessary personal and people skills, says Gonzalez, while others simply aren’t interested in taking on the added responsibilities of leading a team of people. Having to draw the fine line between friendship (with shop floor “buddies,” for example) and authority can be another obstacle to success for someone who has spent years on the production floor. “I used to tell my friends who worked for me, ‘In here I am the boss, and outside we are friends,’” remarks Gonzalez.
Assuming that the “best” production employee will naturally make the “best” manager is another area where precasters face hurdles when promoting from the shop floor and into the management ranks. “There has always been an unspoken theory in management circles that your best production employee should be the one elevated from the ranks,” Gonzalez points out. “This is not necessarily true, because there is no correlation between production skills and interpersonal skills. Just because someone is excellent at working on the plant floor does not mean that he or she can handle a crisis.”
Instilling responsibility and accountability
It’s no secret that management roles bring with them more responsibility, accountability and personnel interaction than the typical production position requires. For these reasons, it’s critical that precasters take the time to select the right candidates rather than spending time and money training and cultivating someone who simply isn’t cut out for a management role.
Greg Chase, president of Chase Consulting in West Harwich, Mass., says precasters should start the process by looking at their current shop floor “stars,” who are often ranked accordingly: A+ players, A players, B players, and so forth. “This is the top echelon, and it’s comprised of employees who need to be challenged,” says Chase. “They should be given special opportunities that keep them interested in staying and working in a precast concrete plant.”
Assuming that those star players are happy in their current roles and uninterested in advancing into other jobs and/or departments can be a costly mistake for companies, particularly in today’s expanding job market. Leave an ambitious production employee hanging, for example, and you could lose him or her to your nearest competitor, or even to an entirely different industry.
Precasters who want to avoid this problem should work to grow well-rounded employees who are cognizant of their growth opportunities. “Come up with a plan to develop those stars beyond just being one of the best hourly workers in the plant,” Chase advises. “Delegate different duties that help employees grow and become more well-rounded, and to eventually take on a management role if they so wish.”
Chase says adopting this mindset of advancement isn’t always easy for precast manufacturers – particularly those that are used to the “bucket” approach to job duties (office handles office work, managers lead, and shop floor employees make the product). Precasters who effectively bridge the gaps between those buckets are the ones who will come out winners when it comes time to fill open and/or new management positions.
“A lot of manufacturers don’t even realize that there’s a bridge that needs to be crossed from time to time,” says Chase. “The key is to stay alert and always ready to develop your star players. Otherwise they are going to go work someplace else where they are more challenged and where they can reap more rewards.”
It’s not enough for a precaster to talk about cultivating production workers into management; there are also a few key steps that need to be taken to ensure the clearest path possible has been paved for the transition to happen in a seamless manner. Chase says increasing and improving communication across the entire workforce is a good first step for any manufacturer. “Listen to your people and you’ll start to understand them better,” says Chase. “You’ll not only learn what makes them tick, but you’ll also be able to come to good promotional paths for them.”
Gonzalez says precasters should also learn to recognize employees who truly have leadership characteristics. “Knowledge can be acquired,” he says, “but leadership has to be earned.” So what are the characteristics that a precaster should be seeking? The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) outlines the following leadership skills and behaviors that contribute to superior performance:
Leading the Organization
- Managing change
- Solving problems and making decisions
- Managing politics and influencing others
- Taking risks and innovating
- Setting vision and strategy
- Managing the work
- Enhancing business skills and knowledge
- Understanding and navigating the organization
Leading the Self
- Demonstrating ethics and integrity
- Displaying drive and purpose
- Exhibiting leadership stature
- Increasing his or her capacity to learn
- Managing himself or herself
- Increasing self awareness
- Developing adaptability
- Communicating effectively
- Developing others
- Valuing diversity and difference
- Building and maintaining relationships
- Managing effective teams and work groups
“Management should be aware of the people who possess the character, responsibility, accountability and motivation to step forward,” says Gonzalez. “It’s really about knowing who the leader is and who is not.”
Once those individuals have been identified, the next step is to set up a system that will be used to evaluate candidates in an objective and fair way. Gonzalez says this can be done based on observations, past history, behavior patterns or other factors. “The best method is to create a matrix and then list the desired traits and knowledge required for the job,” says Gonzalez. “Then, rate the candidates on it.” (See the sidebar “The Management Matrix.”)
Gonzalez admits that one of the biggest challenges during the manager selection and rating exercise is that the precaster really doesn’t know with certainty whether it has picked the right candidate. “If the answer is no, then management is left with the unpleasant task of deciding if the person should go back to his previous job,” Gonzalez explains. “This could have a counter-effect among employees and with the individual worker.” One way to circumvent this issue is by being clear upfront with the candidate and letting him know what the alternatives will be if the transition doesn’t work out within a certain period of time.
Another obstacle to overcome is the transition period itself. “It should be a gradual change in which the individual is able to obtain new skills – but not have them forced upon him,” says Gonzalez, who sees the use of titles like “assistant manager” as effective ways to gradually transition production workers into leadership roles.
Finally, he says having clear job descriptions and expectations spelled out upfront can help ensure a smooth transition period for both the individual and the company. “A well-prepared job description is an important requirement that lets the candidate know what his or her line of authority and accountability is,” says Gonzalez.
And don’t forget that an effective shop floor-to-management promotion takes time and patience. “There’s no silver bullet, and it doesn’t happen overnight,” Chase says. “In fact, sometimes it takes a two-steps-forward and one-step-back effort to get it going in the right direction.” In the end, Chase says precast manufacturers that put the time and energy into cultivating managers from the production ranks will benefit from the effort.
“It could take a few months to a year to develop an excellent plant laborer into a manager,” says Chase, “but the payoff will be significant when you wind up with an excellent new team manager who is well-versed in some of the company’s most critical operational areas.”
Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers manufacturing, industry and technology. She is a winner of the Florida Magazine Association’s Gold Award for best trade-technical feature statewide.