How SME manufacturers are embracing a new approach to leadership

Posted on 10 Aug 2020 by Jonny Williamson

Agile leadership, flexibility, transparency, open communications and being receptive to learning from others have been vital tools for helping business leaders navigate the impact of Covid-19 and beyond.

Forced to close or reduce operations, owners and senior managers involved in the Made Smarter North West digital technology adoption pilot faced their toughest test as they figured out how to restart, reassure stakeholders and recover.

Radically changing their leadership approach to the new needs of their workforce and business has proven to be critical, and there is a deep understanding that these new approaches represent the path to recovery and future growth.

During lockdown, Lancaster University Management School has continued to work with business leaders, through the Made Smarter Leadership Programme, giving them the time and space to discuss new challenges faced at these times and highlight new opportunities to innovate and develop.

SME manufacturers = The 12 business leaders recently undertook their first site visit to Runcorn-based Hosokawa Micron – image courtesy of Made Smarter.

The inaugural cohort of 12 manufacturing business leaders at the start of their eight-month Made Smarter Leadership Programme, run in collaboration with Lancaster University Management School and the government-backed £20m Made Smarter initiative for North West manufacturers.

Dave Clark, operations director at Createc, an imaging and robotics specialist based in Cockermouth, discovered the importance of being more flexible with individuals.

He commented: “While the pandemic highlighted the value of the team that you build around you, it has also revealed how vital it is to focus on individual circumstances.

“Our employees have faced many challenges outside of work. Casual engagements face-to-face in an office are important to make it easier to spot when someone needs help but working in a virtual space means you have to force conversations to get to the core of the issue.

“The result is that I have learnt to be more agile and nuanced about the way I approach individuals with different needs.”

Chris Mayne, managing director at Forsberg Services, a Heysham-based engineering business which manufactures high-precision navigation solutions, believes agile leadership helped him navigate the most challenging periods.

He explained: “My approach varied according to the scenario. The decision to speed up the remote working plan at the early stages was an authoritative approach to map the way and set expectations. Implementing our plan to mobilise the business into remote working was a democratic approach as it was imperative that we involved everyone in the process.

“There have also been clear autocratic moments, not something I use very often, but crucial for on the spot decisions about cash flow. There was a switch to an affiliative style as we planned for those working in the business and those returning to work, as the emphasis was on ensuring our staff were safe and comfortable.”

Andrew Mooney, managing director of Actikem, a chemical manufacturer based in Warrington, said transparency through regular and open communications was a critical factor; and Dan Smith, technical director at Twinfix, a glazing and canopy manufacturer in Warrington, introduced new practices enabling people to take more control of their own workflow.

It isn’t just SME leaders who have experienced lightbulb moments during the pandemic.

Glyn Jones, chair of Made Smarter’s North West adoption steering group and BAE Systems’ delivery director for the Tempest programme, said Covid-19 has challenged long-standing paradigms in his business.

He explained: “Covid brought a huge amount of focus, energy and some amazing innovation to get the business back on its feet. Things we previously thought impossible were achieved in the space of weeks and while it was challenging, both personally and professionally, for a lot of people, we saw some amazing things happen.

“In the past 25 years, I have led many different teams and I have never experienced anything like this, but it’s often at times of great adversity that people’s leadership skills come to the fore. I am sure many of us have seen that in the past few months.

“There is no leadership book on how we deal with a situation like this, so being open to learning from each other and adjusting our approach is vital. We will continue to face challenges for a long while yet, but we must find a way to harness some of the positive changes, embrace this new attitude and new ways of working rather than simply going back to the way things used to be.”

*Header image – L to R: Andrew Mooney (Actikem), Dave Clark (Createc), Dan Smith (Twinfix), and Chris Mayne (Forsberg). All images courtesy of Made Smarter.