Saving Manufacturing: The Return of the Apprentice


Just about every time I peruse a manufacturing industry article or website it seems the topic of skilled labor shortage in US manufacturing comes up.  The problem is simple and stark.  We have roughly 600,000 too few skilled laborers for the trades (Business Week).  Combine this with the fact that the skilled workforce that exists is comprised of many nearing retirement age.  The math shakes out to a stark reality. Either manufacturing jobs cannot stay in the US at the clip of the past. Or, we need to reform our education system and motivate more young people to study manufacturing trades.

Companies today may be wise to study the apprenticeship programs of long past.  I have seem a superb example of this on the floor.  A cross training method to take less skilled workers and rotate them during down time through lathe, mill, assembly and other skilled aspects of machining and manufacturing.  I have also seen a trade program that partners with at risk high school students to introduce them to a trade. After all, a skilled machinist can earn a very respectable incomes that easily doubles or triples minimum wage. If we can do a better job of changing the perception young people have about manufacturing, we can bring a lot more good jobs back.

Perhaps the picture in this post is not just nostalgic old school America.  Perhaps, with a little investment in training and development and our American workers, this can become the new face of American manufacturing.



Picture By Wmpearl (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia

Smart Succession Planning… It’s for far more than your Top Jobs!

Succession plans are utterly critical to business success. They are indeed different by person.  The higher potential person needs significant challenge to be motivated, grow and become a future leader.  The mid level person, perhaps content in their role without career promotion, needs to have job enrichment activities to further engage them in their existing role.

An author I recently read likens a company with a solid succession plan to a successful sports team (Hill, 2012).  I really love this analogy.  You see, the team (or company) can remain a top tier team (or company) because of the systems and structure and training in place.  Players (or employees) come and go. So, if a company has a solid succession and training plan in place, they can rest assured that even as employees come and go, they will remain solid and performance strong.

A very practical methodology to place high and even mid performers in the right path and  plan is to start with the discipline of the nine-box grid (Noe, 2013, p. 400-402). Here one can identify who all the players are and where they fit organizationally. If you are not familiar with this nine box concept, it is essentially a set of boxes laid out like a graph.  On one axis is the performance output of the person. On the other axis is their potential.  So, in the bottom left you have a person with little ability and little interest in performing; in other words a person to weed out.  In the top right is the opposite–your superstar.  However, the notion is that a company is a blend.  Yes you must weed out the ill performing.  Yes you need to promote, retain and focus on the top stars.  But what about the rest?  You see, the “middle of the road” is in fact the heart and soul of the core business.  We need to have a plan for those jobs same as the more critical high level ones. Without this a company cannot stay market strong, agile and able to flex and move as retention ebbs and flows.

Now let’s dive a little deeper into the idea of creating a succession plan for all roles; again the activity that lets a company be an A-player team.  Succession planning is stereotypically seen as a way to fill key roles.  The reality, however, is that all people are replaceable and when that retirement hits, promotion comes, etc, the company needs to be agile and ready to act.  The idea extended further is that while the company can recruit from the outside, it’s better to have the knowledge on the inside from the get go to avoid the toil of bringing in new employees and getting them up to speed.

Here is a proposed method to develop the varying levels.  To keep this simple I’ve proposed three layers here:  the mid performance track, the high performance track and the leadership track. The plans will be unique to the type of role, but in the end the totality of them all is what keeps that company strong and prepared for turnover and change.  The degree of weight placed on individual learning opportunities will simply depend on the need of the individuals in each of these plans.

The Mid Performance Track. The mid performance track employees are the core.  They need to be developed to take on lateral moves when others leave.  And, they need to have succession plans in place to back fill their jobs when they leave.  So, the approach here is more of a cross training approach.  An example of this might be a factory environment with various pieces of equipment. One worker runs one piece of machinery, while another is trained in a slightly different piece of machinery operation.  Yet another worker assembles while another boxes and ships.  Left in their individual silos, the company is weak.  However, it’s entirely possible to cross train and flex workers so as to enhance the skill set.  And the same can be applied to an office environment.  Office workers can be trained in multiple software programs, different aspects of customer service and administrative work, and so forth. This not only helps build bench strength for the time a person retires/leaves, but it also helps build interest and respect for fellow workers, and it breaks the monotony of one task all the time.  Point being, for the core jobs that are held by workers who are content there for the long haul, simply focus on cross training and skill broadening.  And, lastly, be sure to be bringing in the new and current technological and other training to remain agile.

The High Performance Track (could be more technical/not leadership management. These are the employees who are technically highly skilled but won’t become managers.  For example, engineers or accountants.  The same approach as listed in the mid performance section above applies in terms of cross training to create job enrichment and the ability for employees to cover when a person leaves.  However, this group possesses more complex and critical skills.  For example, a high performing engineer may be a critical contributor to patents for the company.  If he/she leaves the company will suffer great loss.  As such, there need to be more rich and in depth coach and shadowing partnerships to cross train. There should also be investment in outside curriculum.  This might be patent writing classes for engineers, accounting continuing ed for accountants, PHR classes for HR generalists, and so forth.  Finally, there needs to be compensation to reward the employees for their extra strides.  So, on the whole, more time, care, attention and money will be paid to this group than the mid performers.

The Leadership Track. This group of employees are your current and future leaders.  They require everything listed above to develop a strong core of skills. However, they need special mentoring, coaching and leadership development to boot.  The most money will likely go into this group.  Every high performer on this track should have a job coach (likely an outside consultant) and a formal development plan.  The plan should be a partnership where the employee owns his/her development and actions/commitments, but the company also commits.  There should be special projects assigned to grow the leadership and management skills.  There should be entry level management opportunities to pave the way.  This might start with project management.  Then perhaps intern management. And, in time, these employees should be given staff in small to greater quantities.  They should be very involved in directly shadowing key executives at the top level to learn from them as well.  These are internally mentors.  And, there are many outside seminars and leadership institutes to also get involved with. Last but not least, compensation is key.  The company needs to reward this group well so as to not lose them to outside competition after all the investment.

Hopefully the above gives you a small sampling of the ways to blend and deviate paths to tailor as role appropriate.  Every person needs to be touched here.  Let me repeat.  No company can thrive if they are not planning to develop and have succession paths for every role.  That is because strength lies in numbers, in the totality, and in the whole team.


Noe, Raymond. (2013). Employee Training and Development. New York,

         NY: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Hill, Scott. (2012). Creating a Dynasty. Grant Rapids Business Journal.

          Vol. 30 Issue 31, p11-11

Disengagement = The Employee Who Quit But Didn’t Tell You


i quit

By, Cari Desiderio

In my years doing what I do, I’ve seen way too many cases of employees who quit and don’t tell management about it. They just stick around and do as little as possible, draining the company of dollars and ensuring little competitive advantage can be had. There are a number of ways to ensure that your employees quit on the job, leading to this low engagement and low productivity. Here’s what you need to do to ensure your employees quit without telling you:

1. Micromanage them
2. When they have great ideas, don’t recognize them (and worse yet steal them)
3. Belittle them and criticize them more than you praise them
4. Enjoy the power you have over them
5. Apply looser rules to leadership than line level employees
6. Fail to pay for performance and let lower performers earn same as higher performers
7. Don’t communicate properly and then chastise employees when they don’t know what to do
8. Have a negative view of humankind and assume punishment is regularly required (eg assume lots of write ups and firing must happen to scare employees into submission)
9. Be apathetic to the warning signs of high turnover
10. Punish and challenge employees when they question you or point out your weaknesses
11. Simply ignore them (this actually speaks volumes)
12. Be insecure and afraid they could outshine you, thereby reinforcing your motivation to do the above listed items

All of the above may sound terrible when bunched up together in one unpleasant to do list, but the reality is that this can be the natural state of management when we let our ego get in the way. Ego leads to a lot of blind spots that reign and what we might call the classic “command and control” style of leadership. The reality is that to engage employees managers need to be on the watch out for their ego, step back, and invest a lot of care and attention into their staff. They must lead by example and lead a culture that starts with accountability at the top. There should always be a higher calling of accountability to leaders than followers. Then, the accountability atmosphere will cascade down from here.

I’m not say that the older fashioned command and control style never worked. It sadly did when times were more abundant and rich for America in the post World War II era and into the later portion of last century. However, we are not living in the past in corporate America. You see, ultimately the command and control style is unable to grow with the complexities of business and the more metrics based system that modern industries command. This is because command and control assumes people are mostly unintelligent/ignorant, and cannot contribute to lead in a flatter organizational style. The issue is that in a more complex industry environment where quality and metrics are becoming key, the command and control style will eventually fail to fully engage the line level folks who must lead the organization to the next level alongside management. So, in time, this old fashioned style of management will be swallowed up by the more modern organizations where work teams and democratic-like cultures thrive because they produce more effective work contributors.

The more effective work contribution piece is where the engagement kicks in. This is old school Theory X and Theory Y stuff, developed by Douglas McGregor in the 1960s at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Anyone who took a psychology class learned this stuff. In a nutshell, Theory X says that you believe people to be inherently lazy and in need of discipline and punishment to perform. This becomes a self fulfilling prophesy. Theory Y on the other hand is the polar opposite. Theory Y suggests that people inherently will embrace and step up to responsibility, and enjoy achievements. I’ve seen both X and Y managers in my years in HR. Theory X folks adopt all of my rules stated above. Theory Y, well, they are magnificent and lead the greatest achieving teams.

Know Thyself… And Fill Up That Cup!

IMG_20131215_210140I was reading a very simple but spot on article on leadership this past weekend. In it, the author discusses some basic elements of leadership. One of the key elements really revolves around understanding oneself (Langhorne, 2013). How simple I thought. But, how true.

This is the well know old adage: know thyself. I think of a reference question I pose to individuals I am interviewing to assess potential new hires. I ask quite a few questions, but one in particular that strikes many as kind of unusual at first. I ask the interviewee if the applicant handles stress well. I then explain that my definition of stress is unique. It means to really understand self, one’s weaknesses and strengths, and to be able to own mistakes and manage one’s environment accordingly in a state of awareness around said understanding of self.  I usually get very honest answers when I ask this question because I think people pause and really think about it. You see, a person who knows himself and manages his environment around that can manage stress well. Explained another way, I think of the pep talks I have with my teenage son. He (like his mother) is naturally just a wee bit absent minded and forgetful. Head in the clouds. Conjuring up cool ideas (or perhaps new blog ideas!) while meanwhile forgetting about regular time and space, and things like deadlines and to do lists. I coach him to understand this personal management weakness and arrange systems (organizers, alarm reminders for appointments, etc) to manage himself. This is all about knowing thyself and setting self up for success by applying said knowledge.

Another part of knowing yourself as relates to being successful in the workplace is setting up a structure that keeps you in balance as a human being.  This means that you don’t let the corporate urgent crowd out what will make you a balanced and grounded person.  Again this is very simple stuff.  Certainly a person whose cup is empty cannot be prepared to overflow and serve and lead others.  Good leaders tend to their inner self first, and set up boundaries to protect the sacred things in their life.  This is certainly about knowing not only yourself but the human condition.  So carve out uninterrupted time for things like your faith activities, family, non-profit volunteer work or projects that are meaningful to you, and even just quiet time for self and refreshment. I guess this is not rocket science, but it’s so critical. You see, if your cup isn’t full, it cannot overflow to others. So, fill it up!


Langhorne, J (2013). Leadership and leading a meaningful life. Corridor Business Journal 10 (11), 18-21


Have You Looked Back Recently To Make Sure They Are Following?

Nine box models. Four box models.  Forced ranking.  Up or out campaigns.  Mentoring and coaching.  Training and development.  Engagement surveys.  Action plans of every shape and size to retain talent.  Having led Human Resources in three different types of industries for thirteen years now I can say I’ve done them all. Well, maybe not every one of the nine boxes.  But close.  And  truth be told it is critical to have a solid succession plan. I’ve developed succession plans for executive management and line level roles.  And, it’s critical to have solid individual development plans with rich content for every single employee.  I’ve developed hourly wage housekeepers and corporate directors alike with clear cut programs combining LMS and coaching and kinesthetic hands on training.   Point being, tools matter.  Tools like strong performance management systems, content rich training programs, formal leadership development programs, a firm and communicated pay-for-performance culture, and all that goes into the HR formula are a must to have a shot at developing and retaining your human capital.

I would assert, however, that all of the above activities will be entirely in vain if one critical ingredient is missing.

No system to retain and develop talent, leading to strong performance output, will work without the right leader at the helm. Bad leaders corrupt good systems. I’ve seen engagement scores skyrocket on the heels of removing a bad leader.  I’ve seen productivity more than double when a superior leader was instituted.  In my profession I have the chance to interview individuals when they leave.  I think the number one reason I’ve seen people leave, other than a rock star job they just couldn’t decline, is that they didn’t respect the leadership.  Top reasons cited have been inauthentic ways, autocratic ways, hypocrisy, love of power and greed, punitive and not positive ways, control and micro management, poor communication, not caring and ignoring the staff, failure to coach and develop staff, failure to solve problems and remove bottlenecks, and simply lack of intelligence in leading the department/team in the right direction.

Conversely I’ve seen people flock to follow good leaders, leaving jobs to accompany the boss they like to a new corporate home.  I can think of one leader I know who merely has to post a job opening and suddenly employees from a prior company start popping out of the wood work.  Truth be told, if it weren’t for my deep roots in Chicago, I’d have followed my “work dad” who used to be a director over me but now as the CHRO over a small university is blessing many others.  Funny thing is that I only worked for him for four months.  I grew more in those four months than all my corporate years working. That’s because he led well and took keen interest in me and all those working for him.  He grew us with tough love.  But he grew us.

So, the message of today’s blog is pretty simple.  Pay attention to who is allowed to lead.  Take warning signs seriously when the followers stop following.  And, when you find a person with leadership talents, develop them.  I don’t care if it’s a new college grad that  is ten years away from that VP job.  If they have inspiration genes and a good mind, invest, invest, invest.

Check this out too.  It’s a Forbes article about the top seven things great leaders do, which range from igniting enthusiam in others to encouraging their potential.  It’s a simple list but a good one:

“Every leader needs to look back once in a while to make sure he has followers.” – Anonymous

“A leader is not an administrator who loves to run others, but someone who carries water for his people so that they can get on with their jobs.” — Robert Townsend

Management Breakthrough: Respect and Harmony

doveMy husband was out chatting with our neighbor the other day about some car issues we’ve been having with our newest vehicle.  He pondered how unusual it is that this vehicle is acting up while our older Honda vehicles with lots of miles on them keep plugging along, with hardly a hiccup on the maintenance Richter scale.  Our neighbor suggested this isn’t so odd.  He started talking about the way that Honda vehicles are made.  He said, in their factories, it’s a lot different from the standard American factory.  In their factories, the managers and the workers talk to each other.  They go out after work and discuss ways to improve and apply those changes at work.  They through this exchange of ideas, and working together, make a different kind of product.  That’s what we are seeing reflected in the performance of our cars.

This simple conversation got the wheels really spinning in my head.  How sad, I first thought, that my neighbor thinks so lowly of our American corporate way. I’ve been working in Corporate America for over fifteen years now and I am proud to be part of it.  But is there truth in some of the lessons he suggest we learn?  How is it that we’ve come to have such a “us and them” mentality between the leadership and the workers in America?  I think of a PBS documentary on Henry Ford I recently watched. The documentary recounted the rise and later decline of this great automobile manufacturing leader.  The rise included his absolutely world changing invention that led to the creation of automobiles accessible to the entire population.  The eventual decline, however, came on the heels of power and pride.  Henry hired a very militant and aggressive man to run his factories and there were horrible stories that followed about abuses and battles between worker and manager.  As the documentary puts it this regime ruled with “terror and fear.” Henry refused to listen to his son Edsel’s  council to broaden his mind to think beyond the “Model T Days” and to embrace new market demands. These power and pride based struggles were later in Mr. Ford’s life. Eventually, age and politics of the era led to him succumbing to the modern day and more progressive way to a certain extent.  All said, however, the story of the struggle is worth pondering.   If this great man, the author and inventor of the modern car, could succomb, couldn’t we all?  Perhaps the lesson to glean is that we should be intentionally on the watch out for letting bad practices seep into how we as leaders lead.

Now, back to my husband’s discourse with our neighbor. What my neighbor was reflecting on in fact is the Japanese methodology of Lean.  Toyota is probably the most famous auto manufacturer that is an emblem of this way of thinking.  Honda too has adopted similar approaches.  The philosophy at the core is one wrapped around the notion of having harmony in all things.  Harmony would propose that managers and workers can work together, without disputes and infighting.  All can, if their internal philosophy is aligned, work their hardest for the betterment of the entire organization.  The “us and them” mentality is a choice that does not have to be embraced. This leads to team wide brainstorming (in the lean world known as “Kaizen”), a culture of continous improvement and all hands on deck, and methods of order and excellence in all work standards.  Some people say that the measure of whether this system is working is to visit the bathrooms of the workers and the executives.  If both bathrooms are equally clean and equally nice, the system is likely in place.   This is because even the little things matter.  If I as your leader care about the environment where you go to use the bathroom facility, I probably care about other things too. If you as my employee care enough about the facility to keep it clean and orderly, you probably care about the overall well being of the company. Point being, boundaries are broken down and all work together, in harmony.

Automobile manufacturing aside, I think these stories and neighborhood conversation all speak to a simple human principle. Respect.  If you lead with care for all, intrigue for the opinions of all, and truly believe all are equal, you are likely to have more engaged teams.  Corporate powerhouses aside, I think this is at its core a very American tenet. All men and women are created equal.   Period.

So, keep yourself in check.  Don’t lead with power.  Lead with heart. Listen, engage and apply because multiple minds are always better than one. There is no team in one leader! There is a mighty team when hearts and minds, across the teams, are all engaged and marching in one common direction.

How to Turn a Problem into a Prize


The difference between a true leader and a misfit manager is this.  The former knows how to take a troubled producer and coach them up or out; nothing in between. The latter fears this confrontation and either lets the pseudo performer coast; or, if challenged in their leadership, they may quickly show the struggling employee the door.

Good leaders are good leaders because they can take talented but problem employees and quite often coach the employee to success.  The little “up or out” box on the four box grid is the bottom right.  This is the employee’s who has got potential but either has to attitudinally change, or leave.  Sometimes leave is the only option, and good leaders recognize when this sadly is the case.  Good leaders, however, more often than not can work to turn the ship around.  There are a few key steps I’ve seen that can lead to this success.

Speak the truth. Not too long ago I had a very, very tough phone conversation with my child’s basketball coach.  It went something like this.  “Ms. Desiderio, your son is not very social.  He’s not very athletic.  But he really has a big heart and I see leadership potential in him.”  My mind was so fixated on the first two statements that I didn’t linger very long on the latter until later in the conversation.  I didn’t know whether to hang up at the rude introduction the first two statements presented, or to stay on the phone and listen.  I chose to stay on.  After some time on the phone I decided that this coach was just the thing my son needed.  Fast forward a few weeks past that dialogue and this man is my son’s favorite coach. He’s also the toughest coach my son has ever had.  But still the favorite, and the best.  I believe that my son is in a place where he’s going to grow.  I believe my son’s weak points will be refined and improve, and his strengths nurtured and grown. What the coach did was be blunt with me about what he saw as the challenge.  But then he was very detailed and encouraging about what he saw as the potential, and the solutions.  He continued into the areas I mention below.  But it began with one critical ingredient in the coaching formula.  Truth.

It’s no different in the workplace. We need to be just as frank with our employees.  We can’t sit around and pretend the rainbow colored elephant doing cartwheels on our desk isn’t there.  It is.  Whether it’s hearing, “Cari, you talk over me and need to stop doing that.” Or, “Cari, you need to slow down and think things through more.” Or any other insult to my pride that a good coach told me.  They all stuck.  They all changed me. They all challenged me to step up and conquer my weaknesses.

Show them the way. If you stop at the above you leave a hurt puppy to sulk in the corner and, probably, fail.  You can’t just toss insults out there to dangle and walk away thinking this may invoke change.  No way.  Good leaders only introduce truth when it is followed next by offering up guidance and the right path.  I can think of various times I’ve sat with managers who had employees failing to perform.  We didn’t just say – start performing!  Rather, we said, you need to follow work instructions, partner with a person a step ahead, attend training, start showing up on time to get back proper attendance patterns, and so forth.  There was a formula.  There was a suggested path of rectifying the shortfall. This is showing the employee the way.

Have frequent touch points and hold them accountable. Taking things a step further, a good leader (who is in fact a good coach) needs follow up to insure follow through.  I’ve seen way too many managers let fear of confrontation and also just sheer laziness in follow-up create an environment that invites and nearly guarantee the employee’s failure.  If your employee is on a learning and behavior path to improvement, set targets, meet weekly, check how they are doing and hold them accountable.  Don’t expect change if communication and real management like this is not happening.

Care. This is probably the most critical part of the formula if you want to really see the drive from problem employee to prize employee happen. This is the secret sauce that gets intensive engagement.  The reason why my son has grown so fond of his coach is really simple.  He knows the coach is tough, super tough.  He knows the coach is going to work him hard and it won’t always be fun.  But, in my son’s own words, this coach really cares more than the other coaches.  Not that the other’s don’t care.  But this guy is special.  He’s led his teams to win state and compete nationally year after year.  He’s got alumni that come back to visit decades later.  He has bonds with the very boys he grilled out there on the court.  And, it’s the same for us as leaders.  If we lead with heart and really, truly, care, we can inspire greatness in others.  When a person feels cared for, a spark inside ignites.  This is the secret sauce of engagement and performance. Plain, simple, old fashioned interest and compassion for the hard working employees on our team.

So, step up and lead.

Then, step out of the way and let them shine!

“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” — John C. Maxwell