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How innovative leadership is helping a Cumbrian SME manufacturer take on its toughest test

Dave Clark (Createc)

An SME manufacturer in Cumbria, supported by Made Smarter, has embraced a new approach to leadership during the coronavirus crisis.

Forced to close or reduce operations in factories and offices, owners and senior managers involved in the North West digital technology adoption pilot faced their toughest test as they figured out how to restart, reassure their uncertain workforce and customers, and recover.

Createc, an imaging and robotics specialist based in Cockermouth, has revealed that changing their approach to the new needs of their workforce and business is helping them navigate the impact of the pandemic.

Agile leadership, flexibility, transparency, open communications and being receptive to learning from others have proved vital new tools for the future.

There is also a rallying call not to return to the old ways, as manufacturers look to recover and cultivate new paths to growth.

Donna Edwards said: “From the start of the pandemic Made Smarter has been in regular contact with leaders across the region offering support and advice. Our conversations revealed some striking changes in the traditional norms, attitudes and behaviours that guide leaders.

“They have demonstrated agility and adapted to an unprecedented and emerging situation to ensure people and companies have remained functional. New flexible approaches have helped individuals and teams cope with the intense challenges to their daily and working lives. In many cases they have used this experience to change longstanding practices and find better ways of doing things. At the heart of this need for change is technology, which has proved invaluable in allowing manufacturers to work remotely to maintain operations and communications and prompted SMEs to accelerate and broaden their adoption of digital tools.”

During the COVID-19 lockdown Lancaster University Management School has continued to work with business leaders, through the Made Smarter Leadership Programme, giving them the time and space to discuss new challenges faced at these times and highlight new opportunities to innovate and develop.

Dave Clark, Operations Director at Createc, discovered the importance of being more flexible with individuals.

He is part of the second cohort on the Leadership Programme, which quickly switched to delivering its workshops online to give leaders a strategic view to support the adoption of hi-tech and digitally-based manufacturing techniques into their own production processes.

Clark said: “People management and ensuring that the workforce understood our purpose for any proposed changes has been an important learning from the Leadership Programme.

“While the pandemic highlighted the value of the team that you build around you, it has also revealed how vital it is to focus on individual circumstances.

“Our employees have faced many challenges outside of work. Casual engagements face-to-face in an office are important to make it easier to spot when someone needs help but working in a virtual space means you have to force conversations to get to the core of the issue. The result is that I have learnt to be more agile and nuanced about the way I approach individuals with different needs.”

Clark also found transparency through regular and open communications was a critical factor.

“Because of the uncertainty, the leadership team wanted to become more visible and explain the decisions we were taking,” he said. “We shared summaries of our management meetings so people could understand our rationale for the decisions we were taking. We also used those briefings to celebrate the good things going on in the business.”

Createc was also able to capitalise on the use of video conferencing to demonstrate its latest products when an event at its plant for 20 international visitors was cancelled.

“Instead of postponing we staged a virtual demo using video conferencing which was watched by 50 people all over the world,” he said. “Being forced to adapt resulted in a greater reach and produced assets we can repurpose for marketing material. It has changed the way we approach future demonstrations.”

It isn’t just SME leaders who have experienced lightbulb moments during the pandemic.

Glyn Jones, chair of Made Smarter’s North West adoption steering group and BAE Systems’ delivery director for the Tempest programme, said COVID-19 challenged long-standing paradigms in his business.

He said: “COVID brought a huge amount of focus, energy and some amazing innovation to get the business back on its feet.

“Things we previously thought impossible were achieved in the space of weeks and whilst it was challenging both personally and professionally for a lot of people, we saw some amazing things happen.

“In the past 25 years I have led many different teams and I have never experienced anything like this, but it is often at times of great adversity that people’s leadership skills come to the fore. I am sure many of us have seen that in the past few months.

“There is no leadership book on how we deal with a situation like this, so being open to learning from each other adjusting our approach is vital.

“We will continue to face challenges for a long while yet, but we must find a way to harness some of positive changes, embrace this new attitude and new ways of working rather than simply going back to the way things used to be.”

Registration for the next Leadership Programme, delivered by Lancaster University Management School, starting in October is now open.

For more information or to apply for your place visit www.lancaster.ac.uk/lums/madesmarter or alternatively: email [email protected] or call 01524 593 881.

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