Leadership is influence in order to achieve a vision or goal. In a recent article we described the advantages of leading up, down, and sideways. Carrying that idea further, the following article describes an experience of leading sideways.
In the early days of my career I spent a short time as a manufacturing engineer for a struggling producer of construction equipment. I was able to establish influence throughout most of the organization based on intelligence, common sense, and interpersonal skills. The operations function however was run based on toughness. The foremen were tough; the department superintendents were rough and tough; the plant superintendent, Rex, was the roughest and toughest of them all. He had little use for what I had to offer. Therefore, I was struggling to establish my influence on plant floor activities.
There was a certain operation in the fabrication department that the hourly workers hated. It required a lot of climbing and movement that was difficult and exhausting. No doubt the way the operation was designed led to quality and consistency problems.
I developed a redesign of this process that required some major changes in tooling and in the plant itself. I most likely could have built the case for investing in the changes to improve the process and gained approval for the investment with some effort. Instead I decided another route would provide additional benefits. In a casual conversation with Rex I planted the idea for improving this operation. Within the week people in the plant were at work implementing “Rex’s idea.” The welders loved the improvements in the process and everybody in the plant thought it was a great idea that “Rex had suggested.”
I don’t believe that anyone other than Rex knew that I was the actual source of the idea but it accomplished both of my objectives. The investment was made to improve the process with little effort on my part. But more importantly, from that point on I had a new relationship with Rex. I had earned his respect and his ear by giving him that idea. My improved relationship with the plant superintendent seemed to flow down into improved relationships with the departmental superintendents and the foremen.
For the price of one idea, I gained substantial respect and influence across the plant floor. This increased influence allowed many more ideas to be accepted and adopted with the cooperation of the operations staff rather than resistance. One idea bought the benefit of greater leadership equity.