May 16, 2022

In many companies, they are solely focused on the KPIs within the four walls of their plant.

Tom Conroy

Plant managers are the grease that makes manufacturing companies run well. They need not only planning and process skills, but people skills at a high level. They also need strong business minds, not just manufacturing experience.

Here’s what I consider the top three characteristics of successful plant managers. These can be useful for hiring a new plant manager, or in some cases for allowing the plant manager(s) you do have to flourish.

  1. They Know How the Other Departments Operate

Plant managers should have a thorough understanding of how their organization works and be allowed to see the big picture of how business is run outside pure operations or production metrics.

In many companies, plant managers are solely focused on the KPIs within the four walls of their plant, and their career trajectory too often takes them up the corporate ladder within a single department. They’ll start at one position—let’s say, in many instances, at mechanical engineer—then move to another position, like manufacturing supervisor, overseeing a production line throughout various shifts.

Unfortunately, they’re appointed managers without first understanding all the challenges confronting the other parts of the business—the commercial side, the sales side, marketing, even procurement. They have not yet had the opportunity to work firsthand within these other business functions, and this can cause conflict with other departments that depend on a holistic business strategy to ensure everything runs smoothly upstream and down.

The good news is these managers are more than sharp enough to dip their toes in other departments and quickly soak in a wealth of knowledge. They just need a chance to do it.

Numerous large manufacturers have taken significant steps to address this well-rounded experience shortfall, enrolling new hires, especially younger ones, in rotational programs that give workers extra experience in all business sectors. This strategy benefits not only the career trajectory of the employee but also gives the manager a deeper talent pool that thoroughly understands firsthand how each division of the company operates.

  1. Their Shortcomings Are in Trainable Areas

Several years ago, we had a prominent industrial client in the middle of the country who made a specific chemical. Thus, when a vacancy opened, they immediately wanted a manager with extensive experience making that chemical. And not just any chemical, but the same kind of chemical they made.

You can imagine how much that shrunk their potential candidate pool, hindering the client’s ability to fill the critical position quickly and efficiently. Instead, we suggested an alternate method: Don’t focus too narrowly on specific requirements that limit your access to the talent universe.

Instead, look for talent with a wider-angled lens—more specifically, look for candidates with important transferable skills.

In this client’s case, there are several chemical engineers and other managers with similar backgrounds who understand heat treating, water purification and compression processes who can go into a different chemical facility and improve it. Of the 20 or so abilities the client wanted in its next hire, 15 were trainable skills

The best person for the job may not have the specific industrial experience you want, but if they have a higher degree of learning, they will be able to come in, pick up on everything fast and jump over to the operational side.

Consider asking the following questions about your plant manager candidate—or your existing plant manager:

  • How well do they communicate?
  • Are they positive?
  • Are they good people leaders?
  • Are they continuous learners?
  • Are they curious?
  • Are they humbling enough to be servant leaders when they need to be?

They Are Creative, Flexible Thinkers

Sometimes organizations get stuck in a rut. “This is how we’ve always done it.” It happens in all professions throughout a plant—engineers, technicians, inspectors, even quality control inspectors.

The engineering mindset—really, the mindset of many in the manufacturing supply chain—tends to be very process-oriented and regimented because that’s the process orientation and regimen they’ve built their business and careers on.

That’s understandable. It works. But could it work better? A lot of times, plant managers forget about the continuous improvement side of the business, about how to improve a process, how to be more creative.

If you’re searching for a new plant manager, try this: Look outside your specific sector.

If you bring in leaders from outside your industry, they may in turn bring in ideas and best practices from those sectors. Companies that look only to hire from their sector have fallen further behind on key elements such as technology, processes and workplace culture, compared to competitors who have brought in talent from other areas of the business world.

Where to start?

Look for someone with a creative mindset—a person who will always ask, “Why?”   You want to be asked that question.

Otherwise, if you bring in someone that has always done work the same way you have—in the same line of work, no less—they might not have the creative thought process or improvement mindset your plant needs to innovate.

They’ll just go with the flow.

But if you bring in inquisitive people, they’ll do everything you need a manager to do—learn other departments, see how all the parts of a company operate and look for improvements in internal processes.