Flint: Bolster leadership through service

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Plastics News photo by thegallerystudios.com Bill Flint: "when I started listening to them I became a better leader."

TAMPA, FLA. — Plastics veteran Bill Flint admits he was selfish when he got promoted from salesman to regional sales manager at age 28.

"It was all about me — my title, bragging to my buddies and telling people what to do," he said.

He thought ordering people around would be a lot of fun, but he soon found it doesn't work.

Fast-forward to 2011, and Flint, now a management consultant in Goshen, Ind., published a book, The Journey to Competitive Advantage Through Servant Leadership. He outlined the management style during a speech March 6 at the Plastics News Executive Forum in Tampa.

"Servant leadership" is not a new idea. Flint said he first heard about it in church. The term was coined by an essay in 1970 by Robert Greenleaf. Now the idea is catching on in management circles. Flint said some executives think the word "servant" sounds kind of wimpy.

"A lot of people get hung up on that term. For me, it doesn't matter what you call it as long as you're treating your employees the right way. If you're leading for the sake of others, is what I'd call it," he said.

Flint started his firm, Flint Strategic Partners, in 2010 after a 38-year career in plastics manufacturing. That career included serving as president at custom injection and blow molder Flambeau Corp. in Baraboo, Wis., and EFP Corp., an Elkhart, Ind.-based shapes molder and fabricator of foamed plastic products.

Flint said he began to change when he became Flambeau's vice president of operations. "We had 10 plants at the time. And I learned how smart people were in the plant, in the trenches. And when I started listening to them I became a better leader. And it took me a long time to get there, because I thought I was the smartest person in the room. That's what a leader does. We're supposed to have all the answers and be able to tell people what to do," he said.

But management has to evolve. Flint flashed PowerPoint slides showing a disillusioned U.S. workforce. A Gallup poll of more than a million workers found that the number one reason people quit their jobs is a bad immediate supervisor. "The Boss."

Poorly managed work groups are 50 percent less productive and 44 percent less profitable than those that are well-managed. Flint said Forbes magazine reported that 65 percent of workers would choose a better boss over a raise, and that only 35 percent of people are happy in their job.

And Flint said he was surprised to learn in the Harvard Business Review that most people said they trust a stranger more than their boss. Well, maybe that's not too shocking. Flint cited the reality television show Undercover Boss, where the top executive, in disguise, goes undercover to get a first-hand look at the workplace, posing as a new employee. Front-line workers vent, they tell all.

"What I like is, these people are so starved for attention, so starved for somebody to talk to, they will talk to somebody they think is a complete stranger. Lay out their whole life. Tell them things that are wrong with the company," Flint said.

He addressed one reason why many managers are poor. As a top plastics executive, Flint said he would promote someone with skills who he feared was going to leave the company. But then that person does not get trained in leadership skills, and might not even have wanted the promotion.

And many business leaders are simply out of touch, Flint said.

"I've seen great teachable moments take place on the factory floor. That's probably where most of them should take place, when people are struggling. And we're in the office sending them emails on how to get it solved, when we should be in the trenches with them, showing them how to solve it," Flint said. "Great leaders are in the trenches. Email has made us lazy, myself included."

Servant leadership is the opposite of a "power leader," Flint said. A power leader says greed is OK. The servant leader says to sacrifice for others.

Flint said there's nothing wrong with personal goals, for yourself or to help your family. "But greed says I'm going to run over everybody, do everything I can to reach my goals. I don't care who I hurt."

Leaders first need to teach themselves how to lead and listen to employees. Get lots of feedback. "Your people walk through the door every day with tons of potential," he said. "And yet most companies never tap into the potential that walks in the door each and every day."

And just as telling your own teenage children what to do seldom works, Flint said the same principle applies to the factory floor.

"Leaders, you are teachers. And we teach by our own behavior. We can tell people all kinds of stuff, but they're watching us, just like our kids watch us."