Filed under: — Doug Contreras @ 9:04 am on

I’ll bet most of us have known a person in charge who insisted his way or her way was the only way; and usually, he or she made it clear that you better not get in the way; or more simply stated - It’s my way or the highway!

Having just returned from a tour of duty as an officer in Vietnam, I unexpectedly found myself as a plant manager charged with the start-up and operation of what quickly became one of the largest container labeling facilities in the United States. Harry, a much older (WWII Vet) and an extremely wise friend and mentor, quietly observed my style of leadership during the plant’s first year of operation. One day out of the clear blue, Harry said, "Doug, you’re a dictator!" Elaborating, he explained, "While there’s a time a boss needs to be tough, you can’t be that way all the time - it’s no good for the people and no good for the company."

As I thought about what Harry told me, I recalled the "dictators", who crossed my path. Remembering how unproductive and miserable I felt, I thought I would try a different approach with an improvement project I was considering.

Analyzing our productivity, I found certain lines would consistently run better than others. Half of our equipment was purchased used and was over 20 years old, and the other half was showroom-new. Due to a series of model changes, the newer machinery came from the manufacturer in varying stages of configuration. While I knew our difference in output was a result of no two lines being similar, I wasn’t sure of the specifics and decided to learn from the people who were actually operating the equipment. After soliciting ideas and suggestions for 3 months, I met with our engineering department to design and build the perfect line.

When the prototype was ready, I set up demonstrations for each group of the 60+ operators seeking their approval and feedback. Using their responses, I went back to engineering and made corrections to the prototype. Again, I set up more demonstrations to insure our interpretation of the changes met their approval. Finally, using our revised prototype as the model, engineering applied the changes to the remainder of our production lines during our scheduled summer shutdown.

With all the lines now being the same and each incorporating the suggestions and ideas of the people who knew them the best, our productivity going forward improved by an amazing 35%.

Visit my profile on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/in/dougcontreras
I welcome your invite to connect!

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Filed under: — Doug Contreras @ 5:00 am on

On December 21st, my family and I attended the annual Christmas concert held at our church featuring the Orchestra of St. Peter by the Sea. The orchestra, which is well known in the NJ/NY metro area, consists of 40+ professional musicians, 3 vocalists and is conducted by a Catholic priest - Reverend Alphonse Stephenson. His bio goes like this:

Father Alphonse’s very first orchestra was formed in New York’s Theater District while he served at St. Malachy’s, the Actor’s Chapel. His conducting debut was with bass soloist Paul Plishka of the Metropolitan Opera. In 1980, the late Broadway director and choreographer Michael Bennett engaged him as conductor and music director of his smash hit, A Chorus Line.

A student of the late George Schick of the Metropolitan Opera and Dr. Robert Abramson of the Juilliard School, Father Alphonse has been guest conductor of the Fresno Philharmonic, Delaware Valley Philharmonic, Metro Lyric Opera, the Greater Palm Beach Symphony Orchestra and the Key West Pops Orchestra.

He is the founder and conductor of the Festival of the Atlantic in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey’s largest outdoor music festival. The Festival’s popularity has led to Father Alphonse receiving the Monmouth and Ocean Development Council’s Silver Gull Award for Tourism Development.

He is a Colonel and the Command Chaplain of the New Jersey Army and Air National Guard, Headquarters, Fort Dix, NJ.

Father Alphonse is the founder of the Cecelia Foundation, a non-profit organization funded solely through private contributions and the sale of his Christmas recordings.  This effort brings the full orchestra to Catholic schools throughout the state and awards professional quality instruments to deserving students.

In keeping with his passion to introduce young people to good music, Fr. Stephenson frequently invites a youngster to "guest conduct" the orchestra while he hides backstage. This year he selected my ten-year-old grandson, Michael, to take the baton for Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride. While Michael admitted he was nervous, he finished the piece and took his bows with Fr. Stephenson to resounding cheers and applause. What a great confidence builder for a student drummer!

Guest Conductor Michael Contreras

Guest Conductor Michael Contreras

As a student of leadership I have observed how Fr. Stephenson’s knowledge of music, his demand for excellence, his relationship with his talented musicians and the way he interacts with his audiences has produced music that has encouraged me to return for the last 20+ years.

Fr. Stephenson’s approach serves as a model for leadership in the business world. A boss can be defined as successful if he or she:

  • Knows the product line
  • Demands quality
  • Provides value
  • Engages and appreciates the workforce; and
  • Treats the customers right


Visit my profile on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/in/dougcontreras
I welcome your invite to connect!

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Filed under: — Doug Contreras @ 5:52 am on

Nick spent most of his career at GM. He quickly rose through the ranks and became second in command at a Chevrolet plant in the NY/NJ metro area. Nick was one step from a high level position in Detroit when he declined a transfer and joined our firm. Owners of our tiny company had big hopes for him, but they continually questioned his prolonged approach to problem resolution and he was frustrated with what he considered to be limited company resources. Nick left the company after six years, finally accepting GM’s open invitation to transfer to Detroit.

Fred was an engineer by education and was well known. He progressed through the ranks of one the largest companies in our trade to the position of VP of Manufacturing before moving to another big firm. After serving as VP of Operations for 10 years at that company, Fred joined us replacing Nick. As a small but key supplier to Fred’s prior firms, our company was thrilled to have someone of his stature and notoriety on board. Unfortunately, the honeymoon ended quickly. With disillusion on both sides and after eighteen months, Fred joined another big manufacturing firm in Massachusetts.

When it came to leading people in a small business environment, these guys were fish out of water: The issues:

Poor people skills
In larger firms, where there are layers of supervision separating the big boss from the hands-on workers, people skills are less important. In smaller firms failing to acknowledge and engage your people can be "the kiss of death".

Inability to motivate
One of these leaders rarely acknowledged achievements, ideas or suggestions from subordinates and frequently took credit for the contribution himself. Another viewed new ideas and suggestions as dissention and would often respond with long and demeaning written dissertations on
why the idea could never work. If you know anything about the dog-eat-dog environment in big companies, you can easily figure out why leaders feel they need to "protect" their own position.

Complicated and costly problem resolution
Larger companies can smother the problem with cash, equipment and people. In smaller companies there generally isn’t a fallback position; and to be successful, a leader needs to be creative, flexible and resourceful.

Slow reaction time
Change rarely happens quickly in large companies, nor does it need to. There are just too many levels of management and review for a plan to jump into action. In smaller companies, failing to respond quickly and accurately can mean disaster.

Ambivalence to the importance of the customer
In a big company, loss of a customer means little in the grand scheme of things. In a small firm hard-line or take-it-or-leave-it approaches become the talk of the trade, and when the competition is looking to survive - watch out!

Visit my profile on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/in/dougcontreras
I welcome your invite to connect!

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Filed under: — Doug Contreras @ 7:35 am on
As an addendum to each monthly financial statement, our CEO would issue his interpretation of the results and his projection for the upcoming months. In spite of consistently good results and positive sales forecasts, Mike’s report pointed toward the mistakes and projected gloom and doom for the future. Noticeably absent in his commentaries were his own suggestions on how to improve.

While Mike would never admit to it, I suspect he thought that focusing on the negative and ignoring the positive would embarrass or scare us into being more productive. As this continued year after year, Mike’s "motivational" approach became a joke among his partners and his senior managers. The shame of it all was that even when Mike pointed out a legitimate problem or trend; he was ignored like the boy who cried wolf.

Good leaders should:
  • Proclaim the good news with the bad news
  • Publicly recognize those responsible for the good
  • Privately talk to those who had a hand in the bad
  • Offer suggestions and support for improvement

Visit my profile on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/in/dougcontreras
I welcome your invite to connect!

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Filed under: — Doug Contreras @ 6:07 am on

Two weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a reader named Bob suggesting an essay on training. While training has been on my short list of possible topics for well over six months, it kept sinking to the bottom in favor of ideas that were prompted by more current events in my business life.

As I thought about Bob’s suggestion, I recalled a number of experiences in my career when training impacted performance. I’d like to pass along three of these instances for you to consider:

  1. Early in my career, I was promoted from a Sales Service Rep to a Plant Manager. To provide an incentive to expedite the transition process and my raise, I was awarded the responsibility for recruiting and training my replacement. Unable to find someone with technical expertise in our line of business, I hired Frank who had some sales service experience in a totally unrelated industry. While waiting for Frank to start, I began a diary and tracked my activities for a week. Falling back on my Army experience, I recalled the MOI (Methods of Instruction) course I took as an officer and wrote a lesson plan during the following week. On Frank’s first day, I gave him an overview of what I planned to present and told him I expected him to be ready to take over in 3 weeks. The process was simple. I gave Frank a chair alongside my desk while I continued to perform the job. At the beginning of each day, I quickly summarized and reviewed what was discussed the prior day. Next I previewed what we would cover for the upcoming day. As I took on each call and executed the appropriate follow-up action, I related what I was doing to the material in my lesson plan. At the end of each day, I spent ten minutes rehashing the day’s activities. After one week we swapped chairs - Frank talked to the customers while I critiqued each call and action he handled. After two weeks and a day, Frank was in the groove and I moved to my new assignment and my raise.

  2. Some years back I was recruited by a highly specialized manufacturing company to manage the day-to-day operations while the owner could focus on increasing sales. In spite of my solid management background, I was at a total loss when it came to the technical aspects of the business. I can remember sitting at the daily production meeting feeling like a foreigner unable to understand the basic terminology and the processes of the operation. Although I repeatedly begged the owner for training, he had neither the time nor the disposition. Instead he placed me on auto-pilot figuring I could learn by osmosis. I guess in way he was right - I did eventually teach myself. However, for nearly six months, I was a part-time manager and dramatically limited in my ability to contribute.

  3. Soon after joining a package printing company as VP of Operations, my new boss gave me his take on each of the key personnel who would be reporting to me. The profile for the Operations Manager, Jorge, was quite negative. Jorge was hired a year before I started and came from a container manufacturing plant in Central America. While he was bilingual, he had only a "textbook" understanding of English. Others in the company were quick to share stories about Jorge’s ineffectiveness as a manager. Fortunately a long time ago, I learned to formulate my opinions based on my own personal observation. As I got to know Jorge and began to question him on some of his management decisions, I found he was "thrown to the wolves" and had no training whatsoever. As I spent time with him, I found him to be bright and eager to learn. In addition to soaking up the management training I provided, he began to take a series of courses in night school. In one year, Jorge clearly became the most valuable person in the operation. Some viewed me as a miracle worker, yet Jorge deserves the credit for his metamorphosis - all he needed was training and a chance.

As I have sometimes done on other essays, I asked my daughter, Julianne, to look at this entry and critique it. As an accomplished high school teacher, I thought her input on this topic would be particularly appropriate. She suggested a change in the order of the examples I cited and helped me clarify some of my thoughts. Also, she thought I should add a closing paragraph to tie these instances together. On this last point I disagreed and decided to allow you to see the value in each example and draw your own conclusions. I hope you did!

Bob - Thanks for lighting the fire under me and making this a current event!


Julianne - As always, I value and appreciate your suggestions, advice, help and support!

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Filed under: — Doug Contreras @ 9:14 am on

In kindergarten Miss Schweitzer and Mrs. Mueller would line us up in our tiny chairs across the classroom. Sitting on one end, Miss Schweitzer would whisper a word to the child closest to her asking that it be passed along until it reached Mrs. Mueller on the other end of the row. As many times as we would try it, the word that was finally heard by Mrs. Mueller was never the one initiated by Miss Schweitzer.

Just mention the game "Telephone" to anyone and I’ll bet that person can tell you about similar experiences that go well beyond kindergarten. In spite of this widespread knowledge of how ineffectively people communicate, I’m always surprised when managers and supervisors verbally pass along important information or instructions "down the row."

While there’s a lot to be said for a one-on-one personal approach in business, detailed information or instructions need to be clear, concise and written.

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Filed under: — Doug Contreras @ 3:33 am on

Way back when and on more occasions than I care to remember, factory workers would complain to me that their immediate supervisors were playing favorites. Most often this issue surfaced as a result of overtime assignments or during layoffs & recalls. Until I was asked for some advice on this subject from a friend of a friend, I had forgotten how I made this a problem of the past.

As one who has managed companies in both union and non-union environments, I learned that this type of grievance was noticeably absent in union shops. In my opinion, the reason was simple - the contract generally provided a negotiated set of rules that addressed issues like the awarding of overtime or selecting personnel for layoffs and recalls. Even in instances where contracts were lopsided in the favor of the company, employees accepted the rules as long as they were uniformly applied.

So if you have a non-union shop, consider a written procedure that is published for all to understand and follow. Set up your procedure in a way that satisfies your needs and prevents the possibility of subjectivity on the part of your supervisors. Make sure the procedure is well-publicized and uniformly enforced.

For example, equitable distribution of overtime could be accomplished by using a rotating list. Such a procedure might be written up as follows:

Equitable Distribution of Overtime

  1. The VP of Operations and the Director of HR will set minimum measurable performance standards for each job category.
  2. For each job category, HR will prepare a list of workers who meet the minimum standard. Each list will be prepared in descending seniority order.
  3. As overtime is needed, the immediate supervisor will ask each person starting with the most senior and record the date and time.
  4. A decline to work counts as having worked.
  5. The supervisor will rotate down through the list giving each person a chance.
  6. After three passes through the list, the list will be returned to HR and the process will be repeated going back to step #2.

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Filed under: — Doug Contreras @ 10:37 am on
I’m always amazed to see how smaller companies fill their supervisory positions. Far too often a person migrates into a leadership role because of seniority with little regard for genuine qualifications. Even worse, a candidate is seriously considered because he or she is a warm body or what I like to refer to as “the last man standing.” Whenever I am asked what to look for when selecting a supervisor from the ranks, here’s the list I offer:
  • Is the candidate organized?
  • Can he or she remain cool under fire?
  • Does the person have the capacity to understand the technicalities of the processes being managed?
  • Is he or she a team player who can work & communicate equally well with management & subordinates?
  • Does the candidate have a strong work ethic that is recognized by others?
  • Does he or she have people-skills?
  • Can the individual openly admit to a mistake?
  • Will he or she accept criticism and help from others?
  • Can the person avoid being “one of the guys?”
A yes to each of these questions will help in your selection, but don’t forget to add the training!

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Filed under: — Doug Contreras @ 8:53 am on

Not too long ago, a friend who has a small service business asked for my recommendations on disciplining employees. Having managed people in union and non-union environments, I gave her the following approach:

  1. Clearly state the company’s rules and policies and make them available to all in a way that is easily understood.
  2. Make sure the infraction truly violates the rules and policies.
  3. Interview eye witnesses.
  4. Never judge the guilt or decide on a penalty until you hear what the employee in question has to say. Have a witness present. If you are a union shop, this interview may also require the presence of the shop steward.
  5. If the employee has given you information that causes doubt and requires more investigation, close your interview and meet again when you are satisfied you have learned the truth.
  6. Assuming you have determined that the employee is guilty, make sure he or she fully understands the rule or policy that has been violated. End the interview by telling the employee that you will review the situation and advise on the course of disciplinary action.
  7. Serious offenses like fighting, sabotage, theft, defacing company property, etc. must be addressed immediately and frequently require dismissal. Disciplinary action for lesser offenses should be done in progressive steps. This might take the form of verbal warnings, written warnings, suspensions and ultimately dismissal.
  8. Be consistent.
  9. Throughout the process, document all of the details.

While this may sound like a complicated approach, your decision and action should survive second judgments, reversals and monetary awards. More importantly, the word will get out that you are fair and you mean business; and as time goes on you will find that your need to use this process is rare.

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Filed under: — Doug Contreras @ 5:53 am on

Once upon a time, the CEO of a packaging company called a meeting of owners and key managers to discuss a dramatic rise in rejects.

The CEO began the meeting by citing the overall impact to the bottom line and followed with a litany of questions to each of the department heads as to whether procedures were being followed. For a small company, it was well endowed with procedures with over 250 in place providing elaborate and exhaustive details on work processes in Administration, Customer Service, Finance, Human Resources, Inventory, Maintenance, Manufacturing, Quality Control and Warehouse. These procedures were developed over a five year period and were the company’s attempt to smother errors and omissions resulting from its growth and increase in staff. Noticeably absent in his discussion were the details of each of the rejects.

Mistakenly, some companies attack their problems with a "shotgun approach" expecting that a barrage of action scattered over a wide area will prevent just about anything. Unfortunately this pre-emptive and non-specific approach does not address the dynamics of change and cannot be expected to serve as a long-term deterrent.

My approach to problem-solving is a six-step process:

  1. Determine the HOW and the WHY by recording and analyzing the WHO, the WHAT, the WHEN, and the WHERE.
  2. Decide which to tackle first by analyzing the FREQUENCY, the COST and the COMPLEXITY OF THE SOLUTION.
  3. Report the information collected to the people involved in the process in a format that is audience specific.
  4. Encourage feedback and solutions.
  5. Take action.
  6. Publicly acknowledge those responsible for positive results.

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Filed under: — Doug Contreras @ 3:23 am on

Here are seven steps to consider:

Thoroughly examine the job or project and understand the possibilities associated with each action. This is a forensic approach that calls for review, categorization, summary and comparison of data collected.

Set Goals
Goals or standards for completion should be set above average performance levels, yet historical information should show they are doable. Setting a goal beyond what is achievable guarantees failure and demoralizes workers.

A boss must learn to let go. It’s amazing how leaders lose sight of the big picture and get caught up in minutia. Turning over responsibility to one’s subordinates builds strength and depth in the organization. After communicating the objective, give your people space!

Gather & Record Information
It doesn’t take much - a simple production report might include: date, shift, supervisor, line #, hours, # workers, product # and amount produced. Record the data in an organized way to facilitate the next step.

Look at performance to standard making sure you’re comparing apples to apples. Display results by responsibility so it is clear where each key person stands. Chart the change. Display results by product #, to see whether the product requirements have any bearing on the results. Chart the change. Continue the comparisons by other fields of data as needed.

Provide Feedback
Get the information back to your people in a format that is neat and easily understood. Meet with your people at regular intervals to insure everyone is on the same page.

Reward Positive Results
Rewards can take many forms - public recognition within the company, a day off, a bonus or maybe a dinner for two.

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Filed under: — Doug Contreras @ 3:11 am on

Shortly before lunch today, Alex told everyone about the major mix-up on Line #37. Alex said Charlie failed to follow procedure and placed the wrong set of components on the line. Nearly one hour passed before Quality Control realized that the product was unusable.

By 2 PM the entire plant was abuzz with word of Charlie’s screw-up and soon the talk shifted to other mistakes he had made in the past. The chatter was so strong and so loud that even the big boss became involved. Like others, he too began to call for Charlie’s head.

Unfortunately, no one bothered to talk to Charlie or Charlie’s boss. When the mistake occurred, Charlie was in another building. As it turned out, it was Mike who made the mistake. In talking to Charlie’s boss, only a handful learned that the mistakes of the past were not of Charlie’s doing.

It’s amazing how many times this happens. In their desire to quickly address the issue, assign blame and throw the fear of God into others, managers rush to judgment without thoroughly investigating the details.

One thing for sure, Charlie will always be remembered as the one who screwed-up on Line #37.

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Filed under: — Doug Contreras @ 1:49 am on

In smaller companies, the HR function is often split. Typically payroll, benefit administration and personnel records are managed by accounting while the interview and hiring process is handled by the responsible manager. I offer this entry to those managers who do not have the benefit of an HR department.

First impressions are lasting. How well or how badly you conducted the interview will remain with the candidate as long as he or she works for you. Here is what has worked for me:

Dress is as important for the interviewer as it is for the interviewee - sloppy or inappropriate dress sets a poor example and creates a negative image of your company.

Be on time - lateness on your part tells the applicant that tardiness is a tolerated practice.

Be prepared - read the applicant’s resume before the interview and make notes.

Avoid interruptions - unless the building is on fire, let the call go to voicemail. Aside from being a matter of common courtesy, distractions make it difficult to maintain your line of thought.

Consider a chair to chair vs. desk to chair setting - doing so will make the candidate more comfortable and encourage dialogue. It will also give you a better chance to observe the candidate’s body language.

Start with a brief presentation on your company - include history, product or services offered, place in the market, requirements of the position and the reason for the opening.

Avoid questions and application forms that are discriminatory - a good reference on this subject entitled CONDUCTING A LAWFUL EMPLOYMENT INTERVIEW authored by the Idaho Department of Commerce and Labor can be found at http://labor.idaho.gov/lawintvw3.pdf

Ask questions that will provide specific answers - doing so will conserve time. Also if the same questions are asked of each applicant, you will have an easier time comparing the applicants to each other.

Allow the applicant to ask questions - sometimes the questions asked by the applicant tell more about the applicant than questions you ask.

Listen carefully to the comments and responses of the candidate - true communication requires the ability to present one’s thoughts as well as the ability to listen.

Keep detailed notes - but recognize they can be used for or against you in the event of a discrimination case.

In closing the interview, promise the candidate a response date - and make sure you follow through!

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