Richard Jeffers, Managing Director for RS Industria at RS, shares his experience in effective leadership and the importance of communication in achieving this

Reflecting recently on leadership and my own career growth, I found myself remembering incidents from my past: some where I showed leadership, and some where I performed less well. There is one example of the former I’m still proud of.

As a young production supervisor, I was responsible for the daily operation of a solder wire factory. The solder was cast into ingots, extruded with a flux core and passed through a series of wire drawing machines to reduce the diameter before being wound onto bobbins. Then it was packaged and dispatched. I had around 30 people in my team.

The lesson I learned during my time in that role was this: if you want to lead, you need to understand. And, if you want to understand, you need to show humility and inhabit other people’s worlds. You need to communicate with people, not just talk at them.

Leading by doing
I did my best to learn to do each of the roles on the shop floor. I started in the casting area. As a fairly naive graduate, I underestimated what they did. I could manage, at most, about 30 minutes of ladling 20kg ingots of solder into the moulds. After this, my arms were burning, I was drenched in sweat, and I could barely move for the rest of the day. I’d then stagger off, leaving the real men to keep going for the remaining 7.5 hours of their shift.

I later tried my hand at the packing area. I could manage this more easily. It was a central location and I could see most of the workstations. It was also a genuine bottleneck that needed about 1.1 operators – I think I just about contributed the 10% required. During my hour a day on this workstation, I learned that Jimmy Chung, the regular operator in this area, was an extra in martial arts films and worked a few days a month on film sets.

“I started out thinking I was there to manage people, but I realised they were teaching me how to lead”Richard Jeffers, Managing Director for RS Industria

As I moved around the workstations, asking the operators to show me how their jobs worked, I found that, as well as a film star, my team included a model (22 stone, who advertised Arsenal supporters’ kits for the larger man), a pension trustee, charity workers, school governors and a host of other amazing people. I had started out thinking I was there to manage them, but I realised they were teaching me how to lead.

After about six months working alongside the team, I had a good relationship with everyone except one man. Denis was in his mid-50s, and was often negative and sometimes rude. I realised I was starting to avoid him, and, like previous managers before me, I was marginalising him rather than helping him. I needed to find a way to tackle the issue.

Fishing for a solution
My first step was to change my routine to match his. I changed where I parked so I could walk in with him and past his workstation. I decided to make a friendly comment to him every day, regardless of his response. And I engaged him in team meetings, always drawing him in and asking for his views. Net result – abject failure. I still hadn’t found any shared ground.

After some inquiries, I found Denis spent his spare time breeding and exhibiting tropical fish. It was time to become an expert in fish-keeping. This was before the internet and Google, so I was unable to do this in front of my PC – I needed to work hard for the information. After a while, my wife started worrying. Why was I going to the library to borrow books on fish? Why was I insisting on visiting the local garden centre to look at the tanks? Why was I talking about water filters and heaters?

“If you want to help someone change, you need to understand their needs and live in their world before you try to show them yours”Richard Jeffers, Managing Director for RS Industria

It all paid off. After a few months, I went to ask Denis for some advice about what fish to buy and how to care for them. From that point onwards, we would chat for 10-15 minutes every day, and he started bringing in pictures of his fish to show me. Shortly after that, he started to contribute and integrate into the team.

As a 25-year-old, I’d learned a powerful lesson. If you want to help someone change, you need to understand their needs and live in their world before you try to show them yours. Twenty-plus years on, I still do my best to live by that lesson. Sometimes I know I’m not succeeding.

When that happens, something will remind me of Denis’s fish, and I’ll know I need to take a step back and start asking people about themselves and listening again. And, in case you’re wondering, my lessons about tropical fish were not that effective. The fish didn’t last long, and we bought some cats instead.