Manufacturing doesn’t need bosses. It needs leaders.


Despite the horror story headlines, there is still a manufacturing sector in this country. Granted, it’s not what it was, but we live in a world where adaptability is essential and to resist every change is to go the way of the dinosaurs. Other sectors now provide over 90% of UK jobs and manufacturing must compete for talent with high-tech industries, construction, the professions and a dynamic service sector. Today’s workforce is also more mobile than ever. The concept of a job for life is long gone, and many expect to explore opportunities in different sectors throughout their working lives or build a portfolio career.

Manufacturing, therefore, still dogged by the image of a grimy, noisy shop floor and repetitive tasks is facing a skills shortage. Adherence to ‘traditional’ values and rigid top-down management regimes will only, I believe, contribute to more people forsaking the sector. Those models are outdated, based on control and authority, and simply don’t meet the expectations of a workforce that has received a different form of education and is comfortable with the digital world of communication and collaboration.

Engaging the brightest minds

Imagine you’re a young engineer in college. You’ve been working on a project with a team from all over the world. You’ve appointed your specialists for business areas and had online meetings where you’ve been expected to participate. Teamworking and brainstorming a problem is your norm. You’ve delivered, logged your achievements and are ready to face the next challenge.

Then, when you leave college, you secure a position in a business that doesn’t trust you because of your youth. It expects you to keep quiet and do what you’re told. It expects you to toe the line even when you know there’s a better way of achieving the result. Would you retain your motivation? Would you move on?

Assuming that only ‘the management’ can contribute to an organisation’s success is a recipe for failure. Open and enquiring minds are every bit as valuable. As an example, take physicist Barry Barish who, when recruiting scientists for his research, looked for people who had the ability to ask stupid questions. That team’s research earned Barish a Nobel Prize.  Without questions, without a culture that fosters ongoing learning, there will be no growth, no progress, and no manufacturing business.

Recognising that employees have ambitions of their own is also crucial although the traditional ‘boss’ would expect those ambitions to play second fiddle to those of the business. A leader, however, would see the potential in supporting someone’s development. You never know where the great ideas are going to come from. There are brains throughout an organisation, not just in the management suite, and when you create a culture that respects everyone’s contribution you build trust, engagement and commitment. The result is a workforce that is reliable, responsible and ready to embrace change.

I’ve already said change is inevitable. The mindset of the traditional boss who ‘knows what works and what doesn’t’ won’t find it comfortable and may resist to the detriment of their operation. A true leader, however, is energised by the opportunities that change affords and can inspire others to enjoy transforming an organisation. The leader’s mind isn’t fixed on maintaining the status quo. It’s looking at growth and development. It rejects the silo mentality and seeks opportunities from alternative sources – new partnerships, products, people and directions. Leaders know that the fourth industrial revolution is here and that there will be a fifth.

There’s no room for Big Brother

Manufacturing doesn’t need bosses with the Big Brother attitude, but it still needs individuals who understand all the issues. A leader needs both vision and the personal touch. They need to be curious, bold and trustworthy. They don’t need to shout, but they must be able to communicate. They need a good brain, but their heart must always be in the job.

Some would say these are a rare set of qualities. I don’t hold with that view. I believe there’s a lot of leadership potential out there, but too often it’s held in check by outdated management styles. When you give people a chance, the ability to lead – like cream – rises to the surface.