In Bill Flint's 38-year career in plastics, he's seen plenty of good managers — but too many poor ones.
The problem, he says, often comes down to lack of training, specifically in learning to manage and get the most out of workers.
So now Flint is helping out, consulting with manufacturing companies, and he recently published a book that spells out his ideas: The Journey to Competitive Advantage through Servant Leadership.
Flint's career in plastics started in 1972, as a buyer in purchasing with Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Co. at its injection molding plant in Bassett, Va.
After stints at polyethylene film extruder AEP Industries Inc. and the Airmold blow molding division of W.R Grace & Co., he joined Flambeau Corp. in 1991. Flint was named president of the Baraboo, Wis.-based injection molder and blow molder in 1998.
He left in 2003 to become president of EFP Corp., an Elkhart, Ind.-based shape molder and fabricator of expanded polystyrene and expanded polypropylene foam products.
In 2010 Flint started Goshen, Ind.-based consulting firm Flint Strategic Partners, and he published his book last year.
Flint talked to Plastics News editor Don Loepp about challenges that managers face, and how servant leadership can help.
Q. What issues do company presidents spend most of their time on, and why?
Flint: Sales growth, continuous improvement programs, finding and keeping good people, staying up to speed on technical improvements, finding the capital needed to expand and cash flow.
That's all necessary because it is so hard to make money today as margins continue to get squeezed by customers and competitors fighting for market share and resin prices that seem to fluctuate more today, creating problems for molders on how to get price increases in a world where customers want constant cost reductions.
Q. Where do you think company presidents should actually focus their attention?
Flint: Without a doubt on leadership development. In most companies there is very little leadership development taking place. Most training is geared to satisfying lean or ISO requirements for training. Training in many companies is about passing on information vs. bringing about transformation of the company and its people.
Leadership development is key because leadership sets the rhythm for empowerment, innovation, growth of the people, how we treat each other and our customers and the direction of the company.
Q. Have you seen poor leaders in the plastics industry?
Flint: In my 38 years I have met only a few of what I would call “bad” or “mean” leaders, but I have seen many poor leaders.
Most people are promoted their first time because of a certain skill they have. They need to be trained on how to lead people the right way. Being good at a skill doesn't guarantee a person will be a great leader.
In most companies there is a gap between a president's vision and the results they are achieving. The problem is lack of training and accountability for results, and not developing leaders and people. Very few companies develop the potential of their people.
Everything rises or falls on the shoulders of leadership.
Q. How would you define servant leadership?
Flint: It is a style of leadership that truly recognizes the importance of people and the importance of helping the people they are called to lead discover and reach their potential. Servant leaders work hard to create an environment of caring, mutual trust and respect and develop their strategies around people, the ones who perform the work each and every day and who serve their customers.
If you can accomplish this, you will have the innovation, continuous improvement, expectations and accountability needed to create a win-win for the company and its people. It is truly seeing people as the most important asset in the company and not just words on a website or mission statement. Leadership is an action word.
Q. How can a manager become a servant leader?
Flint: The hard part is the “how to.” I believe few if any people go to work to have a bad day, produce bad parts or provide bad service. We get into that “busy being busy” mode, working on tasks, and we take our eye off the important things we need to work on as leaders, which is helping the people who do the work discover and reach their potential.
When I work with clients today, the same issues keep coming up:
1. Lack of communication between the people and leadership,
2. Lack of trust between leadership and their people created by lack of communication and enforcing expectations and accountability,
3. Leadership thinks many of their people are lazy and don't care,
4. Many in the workforce think leadership doesn't care about them, and are only about themselves and their power.
Most who read the book believe it is a guide book for creating the kind of workplace we all want.
Servant leadership is a never-ending journey. You are always trying to improve the way you impact people's lives. Too often, as I mentioned earlier, businesses think if they provide a couple days a year of leadership training that is all people need. We forget the best athletes in the world receive coaching and practice almost every day to improve their performance We need to take that lesson to heart in business as we wonder why we aren't achieving the results we desire.
Q. I think managers tend to learn a lot from their own work experience. Did you have managers who you felt were pretty good servant leaders?
Flint: Most companies don't use the term servant leader, so they wouldn't know what it is or what they are other than a leader. I like the term “servant leader” and use it in all my leadership training because it is very specific as to the actions required, your role and the expectations for you as a leader.
I was blessed to have great leaders and mentors. None were perfect — and there are no perfect leaders. But I could trust them, they sacrificed themselves if they asked us to sacrifice, and most put money back into the company to keep it moving forward. I could believe what they told me and they gave me mercy when I didn't deserve it sometimes.
I also learned by watching other leaders (whom I didn't report to) who didn't lead well. I watched as people went the other way when they saw them coming, or held back important information because they didn't want to feel the fury of that leader.
Q. Are audiences receptive to the concept?
Flint: I spoke at Butler University to the MBA class a couple of months ago and I can tell you that universities and our future leaders are talking about servant leadership in the classroom. The old power model of leadership doesn't work anymore. All we have to do is watch our politicians to know that selfishness, power and my way or the highway leadership doesn't work anymore.
Q. There's a religious angle to servant leadership, and to your book. What role does faith play in your own life?
Flint: It seemed the more I grew in my faith and relationship with God, the more I understand my role in life was to serve and impact the people God places in my path, which includes the workplace.
Too often we live our lives in compartments with work being one of them. If we think about it, work is where we spend more of our awake time than anyplace else in our lives. So it should not be this dark place where people aren't happy.
It seems that when companies start servant leadership training it is almost liberating because many people are servant leaders or potential servant leaders but they somehow felt no one gave them permission to be a servant leader. I have found it is possible to be a good steward for the company and the people you are called to lead. It is not an either/or.
Q. How about for managers who aren't actively Christian, or even not at all religious — is that something that can hamstring them in the pursuit of being a servant leader?
Flint: I don't think so. Most people love serving people. I have worked with many people whose faith may be different than mine who are great people and leaders. They understood that serving brings real joy and ignoring those you lead doesn't bring real job satisfaction or joy to leaders; it actually brings more stress and frustration.
Every relationship, whether marriage, raising children or spending time with our friends, takes time, communication, effort, listening and lots of sacrifice. If we can learn to take that kind of effort to the workplace as leaders we can have the kind of company every person dreams of working for and leaders have a vision of leading.