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MY COMPANY
By Kevin Kelly

12.22.98  
You Can't Make Leaders
I tried, with disastrous results. Now I pick out people who already have that quality — and foster them

"Train Anyone to Become a Leader," shouted the brochure's big, bold headline. Another seminar for middle managers, I sighed as I tossed it into the wastebasket a few months back. But the headline kept popping into my mind at unexpected moments. Now I know why it bothered me: It's simply not true. Not everyone is meant for leadership.

In our family business making plastic bags, we have tried to make leaders out of some of our best employees -- with disastrous results. They may be tops when it comes to fixing machinery, but when it's people and organizational skills, forget it. And no amount of training seminars or mentoring has worked. I know I shouldn't feel this way. After all, management gurus preach that senior managers like me should transform every person we hire into a leader. "Each of us contains the capacity for leadership," writes Warren G. Bennis in his book On Becoming a Leader. Maybe so. But given my limited resources -- and the drag on morale a poor leader can impose on our small business -- I can't waste time as someone gropes for his inner self.

DISILLUSIONED. I didn't always believe this. When I came into my family business 2 1/2 years ago, I had a more democratic vision of leadership that counted on everyone leading and everyone taking responsibility for their work. I was gradually disabused of such notions. One veteran supervisor provided the final push. We wanted him to pay more attention to production targets and enforce discipline. I had several reviews with him and sent him to a variety of seminars on supervision. But he didn't change, in part, I think, because he believed seniority protected him. It didn't; we moved him out of his management job.

Indeed, evidence keeps mounting that true leaders are rare beings. We recently promoted a longtime employee who had proven himself adept with machinery and at teaching others his skill. We knew he was less effective when it came time to discipline employees or provide direction. Still, when a management slot came open, we decided to give him a chance.

Lord knows, he tried. He logged long hours. But he wasn't able to develop production procedures in either our press or bag departments -- goals we put high on his priority list. We sent him to classes on how to supervise and gave him books about getting organized. But when the going got tough, he fell into old patterns.

By contrast, take Evelyn Martin. For most of her 25 years here, Martin, 53, had simply packed bags into boxes. But she had always been a de facto leader. Managers sought her advice on handling personality conflicts. She trained new hires and prodded laggards to pick up output. When I came on board, I asked her for input, and she wasn't shy about telling me what she thought would improve her department. She was right.

So when sagging production and poor morale called for a leadership change, Martin got the job as production foreman. With no formal training, she has turned her unit around. Production has risen 25%, and absenteeism on her shift has plummeted. She has succeeded, in part, because she has a vision of how she wants her department to run. She's committed to increasing productivity and quality, she expects her people to work together, and she lets them know it. If crew members don't follow through, she holds them accountable, telling them clearly where they failed. She also rewards her crew for success. Whenever her team produces more than 1 million bags in a day, for instance, it's always doughnuts or pizza for everyone the next day.

Since I can't clone Evelyn, I try to stay close to employees, as she does. I talk to them, soliciting their ideas. I look over daily reports and attend meetings to see who's vocal. It's an imperfect method for identifying leaders, but it has helped me find some promising candidates. I pull these folks aside and pepper them with questions about their jobs. By encouraging them to take more responsibility, I think I'll do better grooming leaders than if I had plucked people from the shop floor and sent them to one of those fancy seminars.

This article was originally published in the Dec. 7, 1998 print edition of Business Week's Enterprise.

Kevin Kelly, a Business Week journalist from 1987 to 1996, left the magazine to work at Emerald Packaging, Inc., a manufacturing company his father had founded over three decades ago. At Emerald Packaging, his focus has been human resources and operations. He has shared his experiences in Business Week frontier since September 1996.

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