Great Leaders Series: Gary Kerr – Changing the Culture

As Simon Sinek says in his book “Start with Why, how great leaders inspire everyone to take action“: “..There are leaders and there are those that lead. Leaders hold a position of power and influence. Those who lead inspire us. Whether individuals or organisations, we follow those who lead not because we have to, but because we want to. We follow those who lead not for them but for ourselves” and further:  “..Great leaders, in contrast are able to inspire people to act. Those who are able to inspire give people a sense of purpose or belonging that has little do with any external incentive or benefit..

Today’s blog showcases Gary Kerr, an experienced operations manager with a passion for continuous improvement and operational efficiency who has shares with us today his approach to leadership.  What’s extraordinary about Gary is his approach to people, and the cultural changes that he has managed to introduce by employing simple but extremely effective strategies (like talking, like listening!!)

I am very grateful to Gary for taking the time to be interviewed. He is a wonderful example of what can be achieved with a consistent approach.  As you read, see if you can recognize some of the strategies we talked about in last week’s blog.

Tell us a bit about your time with ADI Munitions – a bit of background. What was it like when you started? 

ADI Munitions was a green-field site of 320 people however, it had around 70 “Brown-field” people from the predecessor facilities of St Mary’s, Footscray and Maribyrnong (Victoria).

These old facilities had enormous over-capacity, were very inefficient and so were closed, resulting in the retrenchment of 3000 people.

The culture the “Brown-fielders” brought with them was everything that ADI was trying to separate from.  Being an ex-government owned business, it was typically Fat, Dumb and Slow-moving.  That is not to say that they were bad people; many of the “old” ADI people were very open, dedicated and honest.  The ones that were invited to be a part of the new facility were mainly invited because of their technical knowledge and skills.  However, their cultural instincts made change difficult in the early days as the “Brown-fielders” tried to make the new business a replica of the one they had left behind.  The local folks we employed were naturally trying to figure out what cultural “music” was playing in the background so they could hum along.  It is natural that new employees should want to fit in, and the only culture that looked cohesive was the old government one.

What aspect are you most proud of during your time there?

There are many things to reflect upon, however I think there are 2 main memories.  My boss, (Bob Simpson) was a great guy to work with.  No-one’s perfect, and we didn’t agree with everything all the time but he taught me many lessons about dealing with difficult people and situations and I am grateful to him for his patience with me.  We put a lot of money and effort into education programs with our people.  This was very targeted education that supported the facility that we were trying to build and Bob drove much of this.  Without the education, our team structure would not have been as successful.

The first thing I am most proud of is the many great people who grew, developed and blossomed around me and I took such pride in seeing them perform.

We had teams of people such as the “Hot Forge” team who were improving at such a rate that they went from 10 shifts a week to 5 (dropped afternoon shift) down to 4 x 10-hour shifts while maintaining the same output.  The 10-hour shift was a proposal that they put to me to reduce the number of Start-up and Shut-down losses from 5 per week to just 4.  No one lost their employment and we redeployed those displaced into other team who were growing.

Similarly, the Machining Team (The Metal-Masters was what they called themselves) had gone from 10 shifts to 5 shifts per week while maintaining output and were vigorously chasing improvement ideas every day.  The teams of people we had throughout the facility were some of the best people I have ever worked with.

The second thing would have to be the development of the “Red Book”.  We held workshop discussions with everyone in the facility and asked about how they felt about a variety of topics, issues and situations.  No one had every asked these questions before and we were flooded with responses.  When typed up, it filled 15 pages of responses!  We used these responses to extract the people’s values and used their words in a document that took almost 12 months to finalise as everyone had input into their Values book.  Following a vote, the people wanted in to be red in colour and called “The Code of Conduct”.  It became known as the “Red Book” for obvious reasons.  The Red Book was filled with behavioral statements such as “I will say sorry if I hurt someone” and became a centre-piece that guided the behaviours of our people.  This was so powerful and different from the usual practice of simply handing people their new values when they are employed.

What challenges did you have along the way at ADI Munitions?

The biggest challenge was dealing with the trade unions and our own corporate group.  The union’s values were so different to those of our people and they were willing to say whatever it took to scare people into responding in alignment to the union’s wishes.  Lies were told and trust was occasionally harmed but we always got through it.  While negotiating a very difficult Enterprise Bargain Agreement, I asked corporate for the final pay rise figure that they thought they would be willing to agree to.  The leadership discussed what changes in work practices we would negotiate in return and all we could really come up with was that all the great things that were happening should continue.  I decided that we should be totally honest with our people and not start with a low pay rise figure and negotiate up to something acceptable after 6 months of trust-destroying negotiations – the normal process.  I had approval from Corporate and the other ADI site agreed to do the same.  I am sure that the union was surprised that we started at such a high opening pay rise offer and were unsure of how they should counter our tactic of honesty and openness.  Unfortunately one of the other facility negotiators agreed to a higher figure and Corporate resolve collapsed.  This undermined our local management as we had said that the offer was fair, final and all that could be offered.  This turned out to be untrue although we did not know it the time.  We were not happy with our corporate masters.  Another time the corporate HR people negotiated a pay rise behind the local EBA group’s back!  They did a deal directly with the union after months of local effort and at this time I said “this will be the last EBA I negotiate while this corporate group are in charge”.

What’s been the most important lesson of your career?

You want only one?  In almost any situation where you think you understand what’s going on, you are probably wrong.  When you are neck-deep in the trenches every day and someone misbehaves you can easily believe it is because they don’t care.  When you talk to them like an adult you might find they are distracted by a failing marriage, a sick child or some other serious personal issue.  When we feel hurt or disappointed by someone’s behavior, we tend to attribute the way we feel to their intent.  Therefore, if I am hurt, they meant that and they are bad people.

Often resistance is about fear and we need to learn understand this in people and help them to feel confident in us.  We need to learn to provide the courage we wish to see in our people.

What advice do you give managers who are starting off?

Your job is not to control.  Yours is to teach and grow those around you.

Listen more than you speak.

At the end of each year ask “are my people and their teams more capable now than they were this time last year?”  If the answer is “No” you have failed.

Read and internalize all you can from the thought-leaders such as Covey, Carnegie (“How to win friends ….” Is an oldie but still a goodie), Jim Collins, etc.  Ask your boss, he probably has a book cabinet full of them.

If you are working with an organization and they can only do one thing; what would you advise them to do to change their culture?

Values define behavior.  Focus on the values.  Culture is when everyone shares the same reaction to any given stimuli.  Design it, recognize it when it does or does not happen as designed, and react kindly but firmly.  As my old boss Bob taught me “Firm on the Principle, Fair on the People”

What are your tips to keeping it simple, keeping it real and keeping it sustainable?

Don’t try to manage from your office through your computer.  Go to the work place, see what is happening, ask questions, show respect for people and their issues and remember that you can only be as successful as they let you.

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Tammy Tansley
I am a coffee loving, energetic human who loves words, bright colours and spots, silly t'shirts and good champagne. Mum to two beautiful mischiefs. Long time wanderer around the world. Author. Blogger. Speaker.
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