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Building and Sustaining Technical Leadership in Quality

September 15, 2022

Setting the Stage

Stop me if you’ve heard this story before. You finally get to a point in your organization where everything seems to be humming along. Everyone knows their roles, products are being made without delays, and operations are where you want them to be. Then, you get the notice that your Quality Manager is leaving. You have two weeks before they depart, and you look down the bench to see who can step into this role. What you see does not impress you, so you are forced to open the position to external candidates. A few months pass by, and you’re lucky enough to find someone who works in a related field but will require some technical onboarding. It will be another 6-12 months before you have that comfy feeling that you had before and are hopeful this feeling will last. But will it?

If you can relate, then this topic is for you. My goal is to share how an organization can create a sustaining technical leadership program, which will provide business continuity and increase the overall capabilities of the quality organization. This topic is geared toward the quality organization, but these concepts transcend into other functions and roles.

What are the desired qualities?

In the wise words of Dr. Stephen Covey, “Let’s first begin with the end in mind”. So, what are the attributes that make a strong technical leader within a quality organization? I interviewed several people at my company who are strong leaders or have held broader leadership roles and recognize first-hand those desirable qualities. I found the most common themes to be leadership, accountability, communication, and curiosity. Let’s unpack these themes some more; because by themselves, it’s not very instructive and too nebulous to measure performance over time.

Leadership. Let’s look for individuals who are not only self-starters, but they look to insert themselves into the narrative on a given situation. Leadership is more than being a part of a command hierarchy; it is being willing to jump into a situation to move it in a positive direction. It also goes without saying that great leaders know when to lead and when to be led. The analogy I used is that leaders know when they are the director of the movie and when they are part of the cast. You can be both, just not at the same time. The other critical element of leadership is confidence. This can only come from experience, typically by immersion, within the field they lead. This means you need to really understand what you are asking of others and (ideally) have done it yourself at one time. Therefore, one of the most consistent comments I received was that good quality leaders understand the entire production process – from farm to fork. In this case the bare minimum is understanding the milling process, but great leaders go well beyond their own walls.

Accountability. You can almost always find someone above you to pass the accountability buck; however, those who take ownership of situations are real gems. First, they recognize that they have a direct impact on what’s at hand, whether it be a quality issue, productivity concerns, or personnel performance matters. The way they collaborate (or don’t) with others to gather all the information, or how they demonstrate a Food Safety mindset. But more importantly they aren’t afraid to make mistakes, own up to them, and learn from them. It is the demonstration of these attributes that build a strong culture.

Communication. Although sometimes referred to as a soft skill, the ability to effectively communicate may be the largest hurdle for an individual’s growth. This is much more than an introvert/extrovert component; it is having the ability to first listen to understand (another Stephen Covey reference) in order to properly diagnose the situation and then prescribe an action. I have found that the best communicators intentionally speak fewer words rooted in foundational understanding of the situation. These skills aren’t taught in school, and we don’t spend adequate time building them despite the existence of good training materials. Clearly another element is an understanding of the different forms of communication, e.g., the proper use of texts, e-mails, and voice mails, which can be a separate topic on its own.

Curiosity. The final component is a curiosity to know and do more. We have a family saying, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard”. It really doesn’t need explaining. That said, what we have found is individuals who seek to understand more typically become future leaders. This can be anything from why a certain instrument is used to how we conduct a root cause analysis. Individuals who ask ‘why, how, and what’ are the ones I want to lead my organization. And these people can easily be identified during an interview and when you walk them through a facility.

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Building and Sustaining Technical Leadership in Quality