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Remaining Union Free through Strong Leadership!


Corporate management [US] determined that this large ‘greenfield’   operation was to remain union-free and function similar to Toyota’s Kaizen model of problem-solving and team-orientation.


As a new plant it had already employed 1200 people, the word ‘greenfield’ obviously had many interpretations. Their HR Department had 6 professionals and the required support staff. 

After one-on-one interviews with each of the Department Leaders and HR Professionals, a number of issues surfaced: no leader had respect for the General Manager’s style of leadership - especially his decision-making ability; and their union avoidance strategy was to employee college graduates for all production-line positions - hence, paid monthly with no overtime. With approval, I had a 3rd party conduct reference checks completed on all the individuals that I interviewed. The results followed a standard deviation: 2 out-standing performers, 3 who never should have been employed, and the balance were ‘average’ with no outstanding positive or negative characteristics. 

Discreetly I made arrangements for a confidential meeting at Head Office. I suggested that the President/CEO, senior V.P. Manufacturing and the senior V.P. HR should be present and any other senior leaders they felt were required. For this project I was recruited and approved by the 2 senior V.P., and I had not met the President and any other leaders at their Corporate Office. After the usual introductions, we began. I explained the process used to-date and the results of my interviews and reference checks. The key was to get feedback on how to work with the 3 on-site leaders ‘who never should be hired’. Two of these individuals where the General Manager and the Director of HR. - arguable my most important on-site clients. What was originally scheduled as a 2 hour meeting quickly became a 2 day meeting. The final outcome was that the President asked if Performance House might be able to coach the G.M. and Director of HR to determine their willingness and ability to ‘move up the ladder’. The V.P. Manufacturing visits the plant every 2 weeks for a ‘progress meeting’. [It was through his presence and influence over the General Manager we were going to continuously move forward.] 

Over the next 18 months we worked with the Plant Leadership Team to re-define the recruiting requirements for production positions. Three key issues eventual changed: a] high school graduation and not college graduation became the educational recruitment; b] a behavioral profile was developed for recruiting and Assessment purposes; c] a level of management was removed from their structure.



As the employee population continued to grow and based on more than a 1000 college graduates in the Production Dept. [read potential bargaining unit], the Director of HR had convinced the Plant Leadership Team to incorporate a ‘Coordinator’s position’ into the hierarchy. This was her answer to the employees’ frequent questions about promotion. So now Team Leaders reported to Coordinators and this level to Department Managers. The outcome meant that Coordinators had to create a job for themselves. To facilitate this Team Leaders delegated up those items they were uncomfortable addressing and the Department Managers now had new assistants. The losers were the Team Members [production employees] who said some [or a lot] of their decision-making authority moved up the organization. The Team Leaders felt the same consequence. In effect there was no value-added to the organization; and there many more problems on the horizon. 

The next task was highly politicalized. We had to convince the HR Director and the General Manager that the Coordinators position was a poor idea. Though the schedule allowed 6-8 weeks for turning this around, the inflexibility of the two principals lead the senior V.P. and ourselves to appreciate that there was no justifiable idea being put forward to support this additional level of management. The coaching efforts gave some appearance of moving forward, but as soon as the organization’s hierarchy was mentioned everything closed down especially the openness for dialogue. To move this forward we had no alternative but to place this on the agenda for the next progress meeting. At this time, the senior V.P. became involved and his persuasion was not successful. Two weeks later he mandated the removal of the Coordinator’s role. ‘Mandated’ is a polite way of describing his impatient and autocratic behavior. 

For the next stage in the project I recommended a replacement candidate for the General Manager. The candidate was presently one of the Coordinators. The two senior V.P.s interviewed the candidate and decided he was a good fit for the position. The General Manager was retained but moved to a more administrative function - same compensation package. A week later the new General Manager was promoted and it was seen by most Department Managers as a positive move. Two weeks later the new General Manager, my colleague and I flew to the Head Office and worked out a strategy to move forward. As consultants, we left the scene for 3-4 months but worked weekly, off site, with the new General Manager. When the new General Manager and I began working together - action was always taken. Over the next quarter he accepted the resignation of the Director of HR and established a working group to define the relationships between Department Managers, Team Leaders and Team Members. They met twice weekly for 3 weeks [total of 12 hours] and the new structure was defined and put in writing. A draft was submitted to the senior V.P.s for their approval and then to all the employees for their input. The employee input, though low [about 20%] was all favourable. The General Manager then implemented the new plan at am all employee meeting; and met again 2 weeks later to respond to any feedback. Small issues were discussed, nothing of consequence. 

Now my colleague and I returned to the ‘greenfield’ plant and began the next phase of the project. We were now to discuss and implement a Positive Employee Relations™ [PER] program. The first item on the agenda was the 20% feedback regarding the new structure. In place of any other options, at hand, we speculated that a union was already in the organizing phase but were not visible to management. 

The [PER] steps included a number of workshops to clarify and record the company’s Vision and Mission statements; and then we completed a Values and Guiding behaviors workshop. Once completed, by a working/task group of Department Managers, Team Leaders and Team Members, the General Manager presented these documents at an all employees meeting. Also, he distributed a new and up-dated Employee Handbook. Feedback was requested. This time the feedback amounted to about 30% of the population. 10% of the feedback was ‘somewhat negative’ to ‘very negative’. The HR Department then met with small groups of employees to review the Handbook, explain the changes and respond to questions. 

To complete the new Employee Handbook, my colleague had worked with the HR staff to ensure that each Policy and Procedure was consistent with their PER program and the Values and Guiding behaviors that the company had adopted. 

The next part of our agenda was to customize a Team Building/Team Leadership development program. To achieve this we worked with some materials from their Head Office plus some of our training resources. We developed a program designed around their Values and Guiding behaviors. We delivered the workshop - over 3 days - to the General Manager and all the Department Leaders. Many of the sessions were video-taped [eg: interviewing, giving feedback and recognition, etc.] and the group gave feedback to the Leader who made the tape. It became a great trust-builder among the group as well as demonstrating strengths and weakness. To quote the new General Manager “a group of people went into the workshop and a team came out.” 

We then recommended a ‘train-the-trainer’ program. Each of the Department Leaders thankfully bought in; and over the next two months we ran a number of workshops that included each of the Department Leaders, the General Manager and a number of professional from HR. When we finished this series of ‘train-the trainer’ workshops, I believe the ‘penny dropped’ and the connection between: Values and Guiding behaviors, Positive Employee Relations and Team Leadership made sense to everyone. They began valuing the Team Members as they valued customers. 

By this point the Leadership Team was influencing the culture based on the Values, employees were being treated as adults, the new hiring criteria was implemented, those who wished to leave [i.e.: the college graduates] were provided with third party counselling if they wished. 

Five years after completion of our work [yes, there were annual visits to the plant], the plant staff rose to 1550 employees and they were non- union. The unions had tried a number of times to get an organizing campaign going but they never had enough cards signed. The senior V.P. of Manufacturing had retired and the General Manager [of this plant] was offered a Corporate position a V.P. of Manufacturing. He accepted. The Director of HR [who had resigned] connected with us about 2 years ago: we then helped him defeat a union drive; implement a PER program; etc.

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