We hear it all the time: “You only learn by doing.” I have found this to be painfully true in my first years of “real” work experience, and I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned from two years of “doing.” As a young professional, I find that it’s not uncommon for conversations on leadership to be met with cynicism. However, if you’re entering a management role fresh out of school, especially in manufacturing, you need a leadership method that does not hinge on years of experience. Remember: You have none!
Recently, a mentor of mine pointed out something that, in retrospect, helped me succeed as a leader with significantly less experience than those working for me. My mentor commented on the sense of obligation I feel toward my employees, and went on to say he was certain I had learned this elsewhere in life (before starting my career). After some self-reflection, I realized he was right: I learned it through conducting a marching band. To lead a team, just like cueing a musician in an ensemble, you need to follow three steps:
To cue a trumpet player whose solo starts on beat 3, you would look at the musician on beat 1, prepare the cue by lifting your hand and breathing on beat 2, and gesture toward him or her on beat 3, conveying full confidence and trust that they will enter the piece with strength. It would be ridiculous to think you could just point at the trumpet player at the very moment you wanted to hear his or her sound. Without looking and preparing, that would be conceded and irresponsible. Further, musicians are heavily dependent upon their conductor to know what they’re doing. Errors have the potential to completely wreck a performance. This is where I think I developed my sense of obligation.
Translating this to leadership in business, it’s important to take time upfront to “look, prepare and deliver” before expecting results from team members. This means looking at and understanding the work taking place in each department. For me, it meant spending all kinds of hours on night and day shifts, shadowing employees, learning their personalities, and coming to understand the nuts and bolts of their work. Sure, it made things busy and chaotic for a while, but the preparation allowed me to deliver effective direction to my team, which, in turn, allowed our team to deliver strong results for our business.
I view my mentor’s comment as a compliment, as I truly have felt a heavy sense of obligation toward my employees. The people I’ve worked with over the last two years are incredible, specifically in the ways that they teach. Our industry is very technical, so the willingness of a 30-year employee to explain mechanical and chemical nuances to someone who just started is very special. I encourage you to always treasure and take advantage of on-the-job learning opportunities, especially when coming from a veteran employee or technician.
An instructor at a conducting clinic I attended once reminded us that, as conductors, we have two options: leadership or choreography. They continued, “You can truly conduct your ensemble, or you can come up with a bunch of ineffective choreography that makes you look cool. Your call.” How analogous to real leadership is that? You can either jump through a million hoops to try to look good for your boss, or you can put aside your ego, ask questions and focus on the needs of your people (which, by the way, almost always line up with the needs of your business). Doing this will foster a healthy team dynamic, allowing you to be effective even before you have years of experience.
To all leaders, I ask the following: Have you truly looked at, prepared for and delivered to your team? Or, have you been expecting Orff’s “Carmina Burana” to burst forth by just showing up and waving your arms around?
All leaders must prepare themselves for their work and take the time to thoroughly understand that of their team members. Doing so gives leaders credibility among employees. Without that, a leader is just putting together “a bunch of ineffective choreography that makes you look cool.” The ensemble will know, the team will see and the leader will lose influence. The fix? Look, prepare, deliver.
To anyone starting your real-world careers or jumping into a new management role, I hope this helps and I wish you the best of luck!
An earlier version of this story was originally published on LinkedIn on June 24, 2019.
Joseph Schneider is a manufacturing project engineer at Deltar Fasteners, a division of ITW’s Automotive Segment. His first position at ITW was a production supervisor role on the manufacturing floor. Joseph graduated in 2017 with a degree in industrial engineering, and was a drum major in the marching band at Iowa State University.