With baby boomer leaders retiring in droves, precasters are realizing the need to develop the next generation of industry leadership.
By Bridget McCrea
When Aaron Ausen signed up for Leadership NPCA, he wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the experience. The year-long program promised an opportunity to advance his career in the precast concrete industry, but what did that entail? And, what new skills and strengths would he take away from the experience?
Once the coursework and hands-on learning began, Ausen received the answers to his questions… and more. One of the most valuable takeaways was something we all take for granted: the ability to truly listen to others. In today’s busy, tech-centric world, that means being present, engaged and interested in what others have to say – and then taking those insights to heart.
“In the past, I struggled to really listen to people,” said Ausen, a business consultant and manufacturing expert at Rosetta Hardscapes in Petoskey, Mich. “I was basically thinking about what I was going to say next instead of hearing what they were saying and engaging with them. That was my biggest issue.”
The LNPCA instructors showed Ausen, who has/had years of experience running a precast plant under his belt, how to stop “thinking ahead” while having conversations, and to instead listen to the conversation taking place in front of him. He said the experience opened his eyes to the fact that leaders really need to listen, and it helped him improve in that area.
The educational experience also helped him see and understand his strengths and weaknesses as a leader, and gave him the tools he needed to fill in some of those gaps. He views leadership as a life journey, and said soft skills like empathy, good communication and integrity all help leaders succeed.
“The LNPCA program helped me understand what I struggled with and what I needed to do to succeed as a leader,” said Ausen, who today is using those skills and tools in his role as a consultant. “The instructor and the program itself works by really unlocking some deep-down thoughts and feelings that you may not have even known were there, and that’s a good thing.”
Building emotional intelligence
In a tight labor market where national unemployment rates are hovering at historic lows (3.6% at press time), finding great leaders is a challenge. To help members, NPCA launched LNPCA in 2017. The program is based on the teachings of Jeff Patnaude of The Patnaude Group. It offers precast concrete professionals basic foundational tools for leadership and management in addition to inspirational and aspirational direction for self-development.
Instructor Mike Renquist of The Patnaude Group said as the labor market has tightened over the last two years, and the baby boomer generation continues to retire, identifying and developing new leaders has become more difficult.
“Right now, there just aren’t enough potential leaders in the precast industry or in any industry for that matter,” said Renquist.
Marti Harrell, NPCA’s vice president of technical services and professional development, said many LNPCA students come to the experience not really knowing what they’re going to learn or take away from it. By the time they graduate from the program, the lessons are crystal clear.
“We repeatedly hear from people who say it’s a life-changing experience, both professionally and personally,” said Harrell, who adds that the program forces them to take stock of how to merge their professional and personal lives. “Mike helps people understand the totality of leadership.”
Identifying and cultivating leaders
Randy Lindsay-Brisbin, vice president of Lindsay Precast, said his company has sent several employees through the LNPCA program. With a focus on leadership and management, the program has helped the organization identify, support and cultivate several emerging leaders.
“That’s an ongoing challenge that we face as a company,” said Lindsay-Brisbin. “We saw the leadership program as a great opportunity to provide some of our key leaders – all of whom were identified by their general managers – with the chance to learn more about leadership.”
Lindsay-Brisbin said he was particularly interested in LNPCA’s focus on emotional intelligence, or being aware that emotions can drive behavior and impact people both positively and negatively. It’s also about learning how to manage those emotions – both the leader’s and the people he or she is working with – especially when that leader is under pressure.
“To me, that means thinking about leadership in terms of knowing yourself, what makes you tick, what pushes your buttons and how you react when those buttons get pushed,” Lindsay-Brisbin explained. “From there, it’s about leading yourself first, and knowing what your values are, how you make decisions throughout the course of the day, and understanding what things you can and can’t control.”
With those foundational elements in place, Lindsay-Brisbin said future leaders can start thinking about how to lead others to greatness.
This step-by-step process is invaluable in a world where many leaders and managers are put into positions by default, and without any formal training or support.
“There just aren’t many opportunities in our society for people to really get a good understanding of leadership in a thoughtful way, and in the presence of their peers,” said Lindsay-Brisbin. “That’s just one of the gaps that LNPCA helps to close.”
Key leadership traits
Leaders today face an interesting array of pressures and challenges that their counterparts probably weren’t dealing with 10 or 15 years ago. Asked to do more with less while also grappling with a persistent labor shortage, leaders have to be able to balance their own capabilities with those of their workforces – and all while also keeping everyone happy, productive and in place.
“Aspiring leaders really need to have confidence in themselves, and that confidence has to extend to what they do and don’t know,” Renquist said.
For example, let’s say the company decides to start using a new manufacturing process or a new pouring technique. In this case, the leader has to ask questions and make sure he or she has the process down to a science before trying to teach it to others.
“They have to have confidence in what they don’t know in order to have the courage to get out there and lead others down that path,” Renquist said.
He sees the LNPCA as a good foundation for such thinking, namely because it shows students how to experiment with different communication tools, listening techniques and coaching methods.
The best leaders are also results-oriented, able to delegate and operate with high levels of honesty and integrity. At the end of the day, they’re the ones who are tasked with delivering results, accomplishing big goals and knowing what it takes to get customers coming back for more. Strategically focused, the best leaders can also look at the big picture, break it down into digestible chunks and then convey it to their teams.
Teamwork drives success
According to Ausen, being a great leader also means being able to relate well to other people, and getting out on the floor is mandatory.
“In the precast industry, we tend to get tied to the numbers, and to hitting those numbers, to the point where we get tunnel vision,” he explained.
Instead, Ausen said leaders need to think about the business from a “team” perspective, and be involved with the group on a one-to-one level.
“Empathetic leaders who can put themselves in other people’s shoes realize this, and understand that they’re also part of the team,” said Ausen, who adds that today’s leaders also need to “show up first and leave last.”
They also have to be ready to take most of the blame when things go wrong, and work to solve those problems. “It’s about being human and talking and interacting with others instead of just tracking numbers and submitting reports,” Ausen said.
Lindsay-Brisbin concurred, and said communication is a key leadership trait that isn’t always easy to develop. He also sees integrity and consistency as two key signs that someone might be a good leader. Finally, he said the best leaders are both self-aware and introspective even when things aren’t going their way. LNPCA helps to unlock these and other leadership qualities, allows students to identify their strengths and weaknesses, and helps them learn in an environment with other professionals who are dealing with the same struggles.
“To someone who wants to learn how to be a leader, LNPCA will help you understand whether you’re cut out for it (or not),” Ausen said. “It will also help you unlock some traits you didn’t even know were there, cultivate a constant state of learning and never settle for just being adequate.”
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.