A great lesson learned from the start-up of a Fortune 500 company
Start-ups offer many lessons to learn
Itwas in 2011 when a headhunter approached me to start up a brand new, benchmark plant in my home country, Turkey, for a well-known Fortune 500 company.
I had started up 2 other businesses successfully before for global companies, and this company was asking me to do the same, but on a bigger scale.
As someone who always liked innovation, stretching limits, starting up new things, I accepted the new job despite the outstanding job I had at that time. That was one of the best decisions I have made in my life not only because I had the chance make a huge impact in our society, but also for having a great chance to test myself and leadership skills.
I was soon going to learn a crucial lesson.
Let me first share a few of my lessons learned from the first 2 start-ups.
The last two start-ups before had taught me a lot. The 1st start-up was for a global market leader in the payment electronics industry to have a manufacturing base in Turkey.
After a middle management career in Supply Chain, for the first time, I owned the results of a small business from beginning to end as Plant Manager. It taught me how to be self-sufficient and the difference between managing and leading.
The 2nd start-up in my career was in another global market leader in military aerospace as General Manager.
The very different style of the aerospace business, heavily political nature of the military industry, the high-level expectations of the big customers, and working with a highly diverse team with a demanding company headquarters had taught me the importance of strategy beyond tactics (including studying the historical and modern art of war), the value of the business and social networking, establishing long-term social and business partnerships, finding sponsors and allies for long term-sustainability, the art of coaching, the importance of getting to know yourself as a leader, and practicing servant leadership.
The 3rd start-up experience in the automotive Fortune 500 company required me to lead the start-up of a benchmark plant in a new country, in a new culture, in a specialized industrial zone with different regulations and the use of new technologies, new processes, and new materials.
Moreover, I was asked to hire the best of the best talents in the market. The level of complexity was high, indeed.
Growth plans were so big that we all used our homes like a hotel for 2 years to make a business dream come true. We all worked more than 80 hours every week with utmost dedication and outstanding motivation to make things happen.
Every day, we had many interactions with not only the US headquarters but also with the top senior leaders of our business unit.
Furthermore, the intention to grow the Turkey operations into a campuswith plants investing from different business units of the parent company was requiring me to work also with COO and his staff. In such a big project with so many senior leaders personally involved, the tough problem was about to appear. Prioritization among conflicting priorities when you were not allowed to prioritize.
How would I do that successfully in a new company where I had a short history.
The problem description was the following. The company leaders always wanted employees to have work-life balance. Still, the demands and requests were endless due to strict timelines and the complexity level of the project.
Besides an operational start-up, we were building a state-of-the-art facility while the global architects were asking for higher-than-budget fixes along the way to make the facility an art.
Moreover, starting up a new entity was also taking so much time because the global functional leaders did not understand the legal rules and regulations in another country. Lack of global people with start-up experience in a new country was requiring so many endless meetings.
Still, we were making progress someway or the other. Furthermore, other global growth projects were also consuming the limited technical global resources. Therefore, it was not possible to get the agreed technical support all the time for technology transfer.
The project was one of the top growth initiatives in the company headquarters, so every senior leader was coming with some unique expectations and requests which were frequently not in line with the overall project plan and the key deliverables. All these requests were ending up for the team and me to work extra long hours every day.
No one was complaining, but the teams were close to burn-out. I could see it in their eyes. Culturally, no one would say they were burned out, so I had to take action.
Even the business unit vice-president, sponsoring the Turkey project, was not always able to manage the pressure coming from the top. We did not have time to work on things we could not change.
Therefore, as the FIRST action, I used a lot of coaching and mentoring, talent management, motivational tools to keep the team engaged and motivated while keeping my mindset positive too.
I was meeting one day with one of the mid-senior level leaders of the company. He was leading Europe (EMEA) at that time, and I was reporting him the progress made together with the shortcomings and the challenges.
He was happy to see we were ahead of the budget and the plan but was concerned with the pressure on the local team. Thus, he agreed to help me push back any requests from the headquarters that were not relevant to the key deliverables for the start of production.
He was one of the people supporting the project and was aware of how hard it was to push back requests coming from senior leaders. So we agreed on his role to take action while I start pushing back gradually in the meantime. That was the SECOND action.
That was not easy. At that time, the EMEA Leader and I could not push back much because of the importance of the project because senior leadership wanted everything to be 100% perfect when the plant was operational. It was irrational as if asking a baby to run right after birth.
Even some of the processes we would not need at the beginning were asked to be ready. The team had so much on their plates.
However, nature does not work this way, and evolution surpassed revolution. That is, establishing a good foundation with robust processes and then improving them according to the needs of the plant and the new culture in Turkey would be a better approach. That was the 3rd ACTION I pursued.
We completed the new facility construction, and started the operations on time, hired and trained the best people in the market, established benchmark processes.
But as seeds that need time to blossom, everything business process also needs time to mature. As the last and third action, I learned when a leader should not follow the orders.
Do not get me wrong here. I am a procedural and systematic person, and culturally we are educated in Turkey to follow senior leaders with minimal questions. But when the requests started to harm my team and did not have rational reasoning, I had to choose between burning my team or getting extra recognition.
As a leader who strives to do the right thing at all times, I decided to keep team morale up as we had no time to lose to hit the targets.
No happiness can be built on the unhappiness of others. Plus, most of these leaders have never been to the plant and were asking with direct calls to me without aligning with the business unit president responsible for our operations.
Most of the requests coming from senior leaders were due to their burning desire to earn credit. After conversations with other senior leaders, it was becoming evident that these requests were personal but not related to the short-term and mid-term strategy of the company. They all were helpful requests to become a benchmark, but they all needed time and more resources.
I did not say YES to all these requests and told we would work on them with the team. If there was anything urgent that could impact the start-of-production, I acted upon immediately.
On the other hand, I provided a long term plan for the implementation of anything important but not urgent. I used the Eisenhower Matrix to prioritize and say an implicit no to their requests.
I just made sure that, in senior leadership updates, I give credit to senior leaders for helping us to come up with long-term continuous improvement plans and presented to everyone that the efforts have started. Instead of deploying full resources to these long-term plans, we either started slowly or provided a time to start in the future.
Whatever was approved by senior leadership was my plan to execute, so that plan helped me to stay firm in front of many senior leaders with requests and kept the pressure off the shoulders of our EMEA Leader and Business unit President.
Everything was completed on time and below budget. Every senior leader was happy in the end. After the start of production, most of the senior leaders who had come up with urgent but not important requests never called again, which was proof that they wanted to get credit from this huge project.
But we still kept our promised and implemented their great ideas in the mid-term and long-term as promised.
The plant became a benchmark among more than 100 plants of the parent company and collected all awards in health, safety, and environment, quality, delivery, and cost. The importance of staying true to our values and the ability to push back, both implicitly and explicitly, proved to be the right tactics again in times of pressure.
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Fortune 500 Corporate leader, spiritual coach, published author, & futurist. Kenan Kolday is an Industrial Engineer with an MBA and is recognized as an accomplished leader with 23 years of experience in global companies. In light of his life mission to make a meaningful difference in others' lives for a better world, he published 7 books, spent 20,000+ hours in spiritual development, coached others for 2000+ hours, delivered 120+ seminars, and led 3 start-ups & 2 transitions. Read his ROBOT WITH A SOUL TRILOGY to discover future trends and the path to self-mastery. The book unites philosophy, science, and theology, including the ancient wisdom of Hindu and Buddhist sages. too. Visit https://www.kenankolday.com/shop for all his books.