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Leading on the Road Less Traveled

When my father-in-law asked me to be the General Manager of Onex, the business was in a disarray. Employees were pitted against one another fighting for survival with a “not my job” attitude. They were frustrated and scared. The previous CFO had an autocratic management style leading people through fear and intimidation. We were no longer the “family” company we had been for almost 50 years

If someone has ever betrayed your trust, you know how hard it is to repair. So, I was taking on a team who did not know me and a business that was in dire straits. What skills did I have to turn this ship around quickly? Every time I was faced with a difficult situation I knew I had to be positive and fearless so I wore a bracelet with Robert Frost’s famous line detailing how he took the road less traveled to help me stay cool, calm and collected.

The Road Less Traveled

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” ~ Robert Frost

Boy did I take the road less traveled! You see, my education was in engineering not in business management. I had no idea what the business books would have told me about turning around a failing business. However, engineering school had taught how to find solutions to problems…engineering taught me how to think.

When I began my career, my father was quick to tell me that my engineering degree did not mean I knew much…that stung after 4 years of hard work. Dad told me to go and ask questions of the people who are doing the work. Dad said employees already knew the solution to the problem but had never been asked for their input before. This was the best advice I could have received. 

My father had worked in a paper mill for 30 years and he had experienced firsthand managers that told him he was not paid to think and ask questions…just do as he was told. This archaic, control and command management style stems from the industrial revolution when mass production was invented. Autocratic leadership sucks all the creativity and innovation out of an organization. 

So, I set out to bring humanity and dignity back to the workplace allowing personnel to take responsibility for their work and have the freedom to redesign the processes. I envisioned a company where people were free to contribute their unique talents and continuously think about ways to make things better.

Ask Good Questions and Listen

Before I could decide what changes we needed to make, I had to understand the current situation. My favorite question is “What takes up most of your time and is frustrating?” After the employee replies, you say “Let’s fix it.” The goal here is to take ideas seriously and implement them right away. It is alright if the original idea does not work. Brush off and try again. Also, if you are unable to implement the idea quickly, communicate why…maybe it requires a capital expenditure or is not a process you are allowed to change. As long as you are treating everyone with respect, they will continue sharing ideas.

Even when I was not asking questions, I wanted everyone to be thinking of ways we could work differently or things we could improve so I hung up “think outside the box” signs in each plant and office. I asked for thoughts on how we could make things better. Anytime a suggestion was given that resulted in a process improvement or cost savings, I gave the employee a think outside the box trophy and a handwritten letter of gratitude. 


Our Lean journey was the next step in identifying waste and improving processes but ultimately Lean is really about growing your people. Your job as a leader is to develop your team’s skills. Since problem solving skills are required in every manufacturing job, I taught our teams Kata. Define the current state, develop a target condition and experiment until you reach your goal. We use preschool puzzles and stopwatches while working as a group to illustrate the concept. You can find all the materials you need at Mike Rother’s Kata in the Classroom.

Remember, Lean isn’t an event. It is a journey that lasts a lifetime.

Through authenticity, transparency and humility, slowly I earned the employees trust. And the more we improved and worked together, the better everyone felt. We celebrate our successes together and talk about what goal we want to tackle next.

When everyone feels like their voice is heard and their suggestions are considered, they speak more freely. You might pay personnel for their time and hands but they will give you their heart and head too if you ask.

What is the secret sauce?

“Make mistakes because you learn more from your failures than you do your successes. But don’t make the same mistake twice.”

It takes time to change a culture but transformational change is possible. Eliminating, we have “always done it this way” and asking “How can it be done?” are the first steps to making things better.

How do you lead on the road less traveled?

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