Preparing Yourself to Lead
Role Model Leading and Leadership
When I am asked about role model leadership in some of the companies I am involved with now and by students at the university where I teach, my mind ills with faces and experiences, not concepts.
Especially, I remember the people at the beginning, the early adopters of the developmental leadership model at DuPont Canada. For example, I remember the manufacturing operators who readily accepted the idea of Everyone a Leader and who were inspired by the idea that they could learn to become change agents and who were encouraged to do so: my twenty-year-old administrative assistant, who developed enthusiastically over the years to become one of the company's best sales managers; and especially our engineers and scientists, in the engineering department and the R&D laboratories and other places, who developed themselves into leader-engineers and leader-scientists.
These engineers and scientists demonstrated their role model leadership in many ways. They approached their problem-solving assignments in different ways according to the task at hand by deining their objectives in terms of customer needs and the challenges the problem gave them.
For example, if the engineering problem they faced was to improve the eficiency of a steam-producing boiler, they always made sure that they understood the broad range of success criteria as deined by both the internal customers and the external ones. It was not enough for them simply to increase thermal energy from the boiler. They also wanted to know how solving the problem would strengthen the viability of the plant and the plant manager (for whom the boiler was being improved), the business unit, and the company as a whole. As they developed their leadership capabilities, their interests and competencies changed and expanded: they were no longer “merely” engineers who solved technical challenges; they
had come to view their technical expertise and the demands of the business as part of one package.
Decades ago, just as DuPont Canada was beginning to transform itself, I hired an engineer who accepted the idea that she could learn the processes and competencies of leading and who was encouraged by our emphasis on “changing things” to make us a better company. She developed into a role model leader and contributed greatly to our work of sustainable growth in a number of business units. Her willingness to master individual leadership skills was instrumental to her success. She became widely admired for inluencing a number of people to learn process-mapping techniques that reduced wasteful costs everywhere and that improved the quality of our products. She was constantly coaching others and inspiring them to learn and perform – to develop and grow. She had a passion for all of that.
My own understanding of the power of Everyone a Leader came before the concept existed in my mind or in our company. Early in my career at DuPont Canada, I was transferred from the research division to the nylon manufacturing technical department and given the job of polymer technology supervisor that involved heading a group of about ifteen people, all of them engineers and scientists with a considerable amount of experience. The group's mandate was to develop a mathematical model of the nylon polymerization process. This would allow more effective process improvement work and process innovation. It was a challenging assignment.
The technical department was an important part of the Kingston Manufacturing Plant, which manufactured nylon polymer and, from that, varieties of nylon ibre. The nylon ibre had a variety of end uses, such as in textiles and carpets. The nylon polymer was also sold for automotive and other industrial uses. The Kingston nylon plant was one of a number of nylon manufacturing sites that DuPont had around the world and arguably one of the very best.
My manager in the technical department there was Kalev Pugi. Kalev is the central igure in this story. He was about forty-ive years old, a graduate chemical engineer, and he had a reputation as an ideas person who also got things done. He had emigrated from Estonia and worked in northern Ontario as a lumberjack before he went to university. He often told us he could cut more trees than anyone else in the bush. Once you knew Kalev, you knew this was true. He was an extremely driven worker who had more energy than three people and who was both humble and extremely assertive. He was humble socially but very assertive when it came to achieving his goals at work. Kalev had a vision, and he told us about it in a meeting about two months after I arrived in the department. I had been told that Kalev often had visions about how to make things better – some of them more visionary than others. His idea this time – the substance of this story – was to create a continuous polymerization reactor for nylon that would result in the lowest (in the world) capital cost to build and the lowest cost to operate and that would produce the highest-quality polymer for producing carpet ibre. This quality goal was important because carpet ibre has to be dyed and you need very high-quality polymer so that the ibre will dye uniformly. The higher the quality, the more proit to the polymer manufacturer because the customers need this quality in order to participate at the high end of the market. That's the other thing Kalev often talked about – customers. He was very customer oriented.
Kalev envisioned a form of wiped-ilm, high-pressure reactor. The idea had merit in terms of theoretical heat and mass transfer, but from a wide range of perspectives – mechanical, physical, and chemical – it was dificult to see how we could make one work. Put simply, it was a long shot for all of us highly trained engineers. Kalev said, “OK, let's get to work – let's form a team – let's accomplish the impossible.”
There was a group at DuPont's international headquarters in Delaware – the New Venture Group – and Kalev told us he had already scheduled a meeting with them to tell them what we were planning and to ask for their inancial backing. All of this was quite exciting, but it was also worrisome because I did not know much about the technology. I had been involved in polymerization, but in polyethylene not nylon technology, which involved chemistry that was quite different. Kalev reassured me when I told him of my concern. His answer was typical: “You can do it – just get to work and learn.” Another concern was my lack of experience as a supervisor, given that my Polymer Technology Group was large and experienced. Again, Kalev was supportive: “You can do it – we can get together and discuss what leaders need to know. We can do that on weekends.”
Kalev formed his team. Then he went to the meeting in Delaware. He told them his team had the capability to develop this new reactor technology in two years: “We will deliver the report before Christmas day two years from now.” The New Venture Group was persuaded and gave us the funding to do six months of preliminary work; they told us they would provide more support if the data justiied it. This outcome surprised all of us on the team: Kalev had actually convinced DuPont world headquarters to fund us – not fully, but enough for us to start. The surprising aspect of this was that the idea was no more than a concept and had no supporting
data. Even more surprising, the New Venture Group received many requests for funds. There was not enough money for all of them, but somehow it was there for us.
Our team consisted of a small group of technology-competent people, a marketing person to ensure that we stayed focused on customer-oriented solutions, and, of course, Kalev, the leader. He called our team CR-8 (Canadian Research, eight-blade reactor). It had a nice ring to it. We had T-shirts made. This was the core team, and Kalev made it clear that we would be free to decide how we would organize our human resources to support the development work, but that everyone would be involved in the highest-priority endeavour – the CR-8.
This was Kalev's way of telling us we would be accountable for our work on the CR-8. All of us would need to give our “real jobs” a lower priority, though those “secondary” assignments would still have to be carried out on time and on budget. My “real job” involved mathematical modelling. As an aside, all of us on the CR-8 team were able to accomplish our original goals – including my group's work on the mathematical model. We accomplished this while dedicating considerable effort to the project that Kalev had launched.
At the outset, Kalev participated on the CR-8 team as an engineer, but very soon after, he shifted his focus to the following:
• Driving us with encouragement. He reminded us repeatedly that we were great technical people and leaders and that we could accomplish anything we truly wanted to do.
• Inspiring us with his vision of the future. He assured us that we would personally be recognized in the company and ultimately beyond as having created a great breakthrough; also, he assured us that our customers would prosper and become loyal to the company because of the higher-quality nylon ibre.
• Securing ongoing management support. He described our progress to management and returned with more support, more money, and more time. Eventually he secured the two years we said we needed.
The result of all the work on the CR-8:
• We had many small victories as well as many setbacks technically and emotionally. Overall we progressed steadily, inventing and implementing. • At the very end of the two years, Kalev took our inal report from the research and pilot plant work to the New Venture Group in Delaware and declared victory. They agreed that we had succeeded.
• The CR-8 came to be seen as a revolutionary means of producing high-
quality nylon polymer.
Kalev Pugi was an extraordinarily capable leader-engineer. First and foremost he believed at his very core in making all things better, all the time, and that the best way to accomplish this was by inluencing others to utilize technology to change things. And he believed that all of us could and should learn to become competent agents of change, which for him meant developing ourselves into better engineers and preparing ourselves to lead others.
All of us associated with this effort remember it many years later as one of the best experiences of our careers, if not the best. His example taught me a lot about competent leaders. It also convinced me that people who are suficiently inspired and competent can accomplish anything they choose… I sound like Kalev.
This experience opened my mind to the potential of role model leadership. It also launched me on what would be a long career of thinking and doing and of learning to be a better leader of myself and ultimately of organizations.