Managing always involves managing certain types of risks to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the setting: risks to people and the environment, risks to equipment and infrastructure, risks to processes and product quality, and financial risks.
For the author, the setting was an industrial site, one of the largest of its kind in Canada.The complexity of processes at that site made managing even more challenging.
This work environment, coupled with the difficult economic situation at the time, resulted in a high level of pressure, which managers dealt with poorly. It was an incredible laboratory for leadership though, as the author would refer to it two decades later.
He didn't come from a family of university graduates or managers. For the first decade of his career, he felt a bit cowed. He figured he would never be a leader.
Little did he know!
He got his first job as a Maintenance Engineer in the utilities plant.
When the author first started, he could have sworn they were in an era from the past! Everything needed to be done in terms of maintenance.
The author quickly found that he had higher than average work ethic and enthusiasm for his job. For example, at the end of the day, he would browse, one by one, through thousands of documentation files at the now 110-year-old plant just so he could find his bearings faster. This came in useful in dealing with the plant’s many breakdowns.
The author was offered the position of Maintenance Superintendent at age 26. He became responsible for around 45 trades people and staff.
Although he didn't realize it at the time, the 4 years in this position allowed the author to progress through the first 3 levels of leadership. In reference here to the 5 levels of leadership from John Maxwell.
First his title, then secondly certain people skills, and, above all, in third step his productivity made him a bit of a leader after a few years.
Today we observe that most managers reach this 3rd level of leadership (productivity) naturally. So there’s nothing unusual about the author’s story so far, except perhaps the speed at which the results materialized.
But another ten years would pass before he began to understand what makes a true leader. What are the other growth steps past those first 3!
At age 29, He was considering a sideways move to Operations in order to learn something new. Coincidentally, higher management approaches him. They were looking for a Utilities Operations Manager.
He accepted the promotion, which put him in charge of about 90 operators and staff.
This was a pivotal time. He met a new senior manager who had recently joined the organization. For the first time, someone clearly exemplified the concept of managing by mandate. They needed to provide the financial justification, define the technical integration, and build a pretreatment system for their effluents that would increase their capacity. Investing a few tens of millions of dollars in this project was critical for migrating to higher purity products and secure their future. The author had 24 hours to respond, and that was enough time: He signed up for the job.
A few weeks after he accepted the role, their effluent treatment system malfunctioned. Because of this, the plant had to slow down its operations, the team conduct a cause analysis, and allow the process to recover. Internal relations at the site were difficult. The managers of five plants wanted to take advantage of their reduced capacity during recovery, which lasted a year.
At the same time, they had to continue working on the “mandate”, which was a long-term solution. The energy crisis also reared its head and natural gas prices soared. The general economic situation of the business was also deteriorating. This meant they had to juggle with results that always fell short (no matter their level!), problems with staff retention and recruiting, a whole lot of pressure and long hours.
After four years, the team stabilized the environmental processes and reduced their energy bill by quite a few millions. The author was offered the job of Maintenance Manager at age 34. In accepting, he became responsible for 210 tradesmen and staff, plus a few hundred external contractors during maintenance shutdowns.
He had to step into the position immediately. As before, he would have to wear his new hat while still acting as Operations Manager.
Pressure on the organization, by then adding its level of debt to the list, continued to increase.
Six months after accepting the maintenance position, his boss, who was a Vice President, left, and the author was asked to become General Manager, a newly created position. This involved responsibility for around 550 employees, including roughly 100 staff. His new boss, a Group president, was based in Alabama USA at the time, quite a distance from Northern Canada!.
This new position was of the highest level at the industrial site, which put the author in charge of all shared services, coordination among the 5 plants as well as human resources and labor relations for the 1200 Site employees. He now held three positions on his management team: Operation Manager, Maintenance Manager, and General Manager.
His first step was to contact corporate Human Resources to launch a staff hiring program. The answer? No hiring allowed, due to the economic situation. He would just have to deal with it, with what he had.
As if bad news on two fronts wasn’t enough, he soon received a letter from the company’s new President, saying the company could no longer support the least profitable plants. The plant, for which the author was now responsible, had been selected to undergo an in-house “Intensive Care program”. After having lost $40 millions the year prior to his arrival on the job, the plant needed to generate positive cash, otherwise the plant would be shut down for good. Deadline was 6 months.
At this point, the pressure was at its peak. Staff turnover was very high, including for Plant Managers. Working relations were difficult and conflictual. The author was part of the problem along with everyone else. Everyone was out to save their own skin, and many were holding down two or three positions.
Thanks to an incredible effort, they survived the Intensive Care program.
It is almost hard to believe, but their results turned out to be a 30 year productivity record. But soon after, given the global economic situation of 2007, product selling prices started to fall.
The author, exhausted at only 36 years old, became interested in a position with Corporate Services. The author knew the move would be temporary because he still enjoyed plant management and planned to return to it one day. He just could not continue in the current settings. For the time being, he would help the company’s plants in Canada and France correct operational or environmental problems. No employees reported to him.
Despite their many successes of the last 2 years turning the results around, the pressure was so high and the hours of work so long, that the author would sometimes imagine himself having a car accident on his way home. A few months in hospital seemed like a better option than heading back to work the next day — that’s how hard it was.
Although the people on his team had been following him, some for 12 years at that point, he couldn’t say if they had done so because he truly inspired them, or because he was the boss paying, or heck because he scared or intimidated them!
This period with Corporate projects would give him an opportunity to measure his actual ability to inspire and influence.
He got down to work with a great deal of humility. After he successfully assisted the plants a number of times across Canada and France, his goal was achieved. People in plants were seeking his participation. He realized that he found satisfaction supporting people and helping them grow by sharing his experience. He was there as much for them as for himself, and he earned their engagement.
At the time, he would not have described it that way but he was in the process of discovering the secret of leadership at its highest levels.
When he saw the site’s general results on the fall again, the group’s President decided to make changes. The author was asked to return to the site on a temporary basis in an optimization position and mentoring role.
The author was beginning to put into words what was happening. As he saw it, their organization was struggling with harmful management behaviors. In recent years, he had seen numerous signs of this but could only recently name them and recognize them.
In the 6 months following his return, the team managed to improve their external relations, the energy efficiency of the industrial site and maintenance shutdowns; they reduced expenses by over $10M.
At age 38, the author accepted one of several vacant managerial positions at the site: Technical Manager. In that capacity, he became responsible for about 40 employees, including laboratory technicians and 10 chemical and environmental engineers.
Over the three years he spent in this technical position, they all grew enormously. They spent a great deal of time talking about leadership with the entire management team so they could bring people together in collaboration.
The seasoned members of this highly technical group brought the author a lot. They really did have their own way of seeing the world. Through them, the author became acquainted with the concept of systemic thinking. He came to realize that certain aspects should be applied to the understanding of leadership.
This was the final step in the author’s 6 years of reprogramming his leadership. He benefited of a lot of influence within the management team.
The author was asked to apply for the position of General Manager, again!
By then, his mind was on leaving the company to start his own management consulting and coaching business. His interest in doing so had been growing steadily since 2007, and he felt that he had re-programmed himself well enough that he could now help others in the same way.
Taking the GM job, he couldn’t be sure that he would succeed, after all the last four incumbents had only held on to that position an average of 14 months in the 6 years the author was away.
In the end, he took the job anyway, as the ultimate opportunity to test his leadership model.
He was starting his second career as a Plant Manager at age 42, six years after his first experience, and he was determined to do things differently.
The author’s priority was to develop an in-house leadership program based on his new, and often unique, understanding of leadership themes, assisted by his management team, from whom he received transparent feedback and full cooperation. The team tackled many highly complex challenges, but they had fun and were even filled with new hope — two concepts that had been lost at the site for about a decade.
It was an almost 4 years journey. It took some time for them to deserve employee’s trust at first. Thanks to the first stones set by their leadership program, the management team of about a hundred was able to transform the culture.
The results below give you an idea of what they achieved:
The author resigned at age 46, leaving the company so he could invest in a transition to his business plan. Rumors about the company’s sale were rife and came to fruition a few months after he left. For him, this was another reason to believe that his duty had been accomplished.
The author developed his leadership model into a training program. Its applied and systemic approach permits the use of the program in a wide array of organizations. Private or Public sectors. Manufacturing, Service or Non-profit sectors, Big or small.
The model successfully applied to other organizations having sub-par results, toxic environments or even uncertain future. Each time delivering a strong growth culture based on collaboration and feedback.
At age 50, the author is still involved in management consulting, training and coaching. As well as partnering in the development of his web training business, to make his leadership model available to the masses.
He has joined the city board, in part to give back, but also to broaden his experience, to continue expand outside of his comfort zones and to possibly live new experiences that could improve even further his leadership model.