We’ve come a long way since the days when leadership meant being the “Big Boss” in the corner office, sipping bourbon à la Mad Men while anonymous employees labored away on the other side of the door.
Oh, but the times, they are a’changin’.
Today’s leaders use words like “empathy,” “transparency,” and “diversity.” And what may have started as lip service has slowly solidified as the new language of leadership—one that is establishing new expectations, setting higher standards, and modifying the manufacturing landscape for good.
“Manufacturing Chose Me”
Though our industry is navigating global changes and challenges, the future of US manufacturing is rich with promise. Nowhere is that promise more evident than in the talented emerging leaders who are transforming yesterday’s factory floor into today’s modern machine shop.
Ashleigh Wehrle is one such leader. “Manufacturing chose me,” says Ashleigh, who stepped into her current leadership role after her father’s sudden passing, accepting both his title and responsibilities. Ready or not, she became President of Area Tool & Manufacturing, Inc., and the business has grown by leaps and bounds under her guidance.
“Manufacturing encompasses every aspect of our daily lives,” states Ashleigh. “For anyone looking for a fast-paced career that has a direct impact on the quality of products at our fingertips, boots-on-the-ground manufacturing is where it all starts.”
Halfway across the country from Ashleigh’s Pennsylvania-based shop, you’ll find Christina Collette working the floor at Reata Engineering in Colorado. “Once I moved into this position, I spent a lot of time on the floor being hands-on,” says Christina, Reata’s Director of Operations and former Supply Chain Manager. “As a manager, it’s easy to say, ‘We’re focused on the team; we want a good culture.’ It’s much harder to put action behind it.”
But action is the brand message leaders like Ashleigh and Christina bring to the table.
Understanding the Stakes
Zac Overton, Co-Owner and Division Manager at Overton Industries in Indiana, shares Ashleigh and Christina’s vision for manufacturing leadership. He starts each work day by walking the shop floor with his division teams.
“We go through our machine build department and talk through what happened the day before, what the plan is for today, and what stumbling blocks there might be that could keep us from getting our work done,” Zac explains. “Then, we do the same thing on the machining side.”
This engagement-centric approach to leadership provides team members with unprecedented access to the companies’ managers, which enables fast problem-solving and heightened customer satisfaction.
Committed to leading by example, Christina refuses to make requests of her Reata Engineering team until she fully understands the stakes. “If I’m working with the shipping department and I’m asking them to reduce time [spent] on packaging, I spend half a day back there working alongside our team to figure out the solution.”
Zac embraces like-minded values at Overton Industries, saying, “Too many owners and senior managers want to be the hub, the center of the wheel, and everything runs through them. But then the problem is that the business is that person. And without them, there is no business. I don’t want to be that person, and I don’t want to employ that person, either. I want everyone to have ownership over their role. And when we work as a team, it’s a well-oiled machine.”
Since 1976, when Ashleigh’s father co-founded Area Tool & Manufacturing, Inc., the company has valued their employees as the driving force behind the shop’s success, and Ashleigh upholds that belief. “These are highly skilled, highly technical individuals [who] bring their passion and drive for excellence to every part they machine,” Ashleigh states. “For me, being able to provide an environment where these individuals can thrive and excel in a [critical] trade. . . is the biggest contribution I can make.”
When a shop’s team members feel supported, everyone wins. Through the hard work of centering their employees’ needs, leaders gain the freedom to decenter themselves, acting less like the proverbial hub in Zac’s wheel analogy and more like the tire and rim, softening bumps in the road and supporting each spoke in its place.
The Sum Strength of Its Parts
If modern machine shop leaders are tires and rims, the team members themselves are the spokes, and customers are the hubs, with each wheel’s success dependent on the sum strength of its parts. One such exemplary leader is Grady Cope, Owner of Reata Engineering. “He treats his team as a family,” Christina describes. “Every person in this building knows that he cares and would do anything for them.”
That kind of support flows inward toward the organization’s hub and core purpose: customers.
Ashleigh adopts this big-picture strategy at Area Tool & Manufacturing, Inc., as well. “Humility, empathy, and adaptability are characteristics that can make a great leader in manufacturing,” she asserts. “Humility allows one to lean on the expertise of those around them and cultivate a teamwork environment. Empathy allows one to relate to customers’ needs and, in return, creates problem-solving skills. Adaptability allows one to move swiftly with the constant changes in manufacturing. All three together [enable shops to] make modifications that honor the foundations of manufacturing while incorporating new technologies.”
With leaders like Ashleigh, Christina, and Zac driving the trajectory of manufacturing, even the biggest hurdles seem surmountable. “We are the group that will really make or break this industry,” says Zac. “It’s so important that we have the tools we need to run the businesses and to grow and sustain and promote the industry to make it stronger and better.”
Influencing the Future for Good
“Partnering with the NTMA community both nationally and locally” is a goal in and of itself for Ashleigh, who served as her NTMA chapter president for a few years before yielding the role to the next emerging leader.
Christina—a Rocky Mountain NTMA chapter board member and repeat guest at NTMA’s annual Emerging Leaders conference—describes, “NTMA is like a club—but one where everybody is focused on helping each other be successful.”
Praise from these modern machine shop leaders inspires NTMA, and each successive Emerging Leaders conference strives to influence the future of the industry with purpose, poise, and drive.
Speaking impactfully about his own business, Zac expresses the passion and purpose shared by US manufacturers from coast to coast: “I think it’s important to set a vision, to provide something that people can be excited about and want to be a part of,” he says. “If we can do that, there’s really no limit for us.”