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How innovative leadership is helping Cheshire and Warrington SME manufacturers take on their toughest test

Business News

SME manufacturers in Cheshire and Warrington, supported by Made Smarter, have 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.

Business leaders from Actikem and Twinfix, based in Warrington, and Abbey England, based in Knutsford, have 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.

Andrew Mooney, Managing Director of Actikem, a chemical manufacturer, said transparency through regular and open communications was a critical factor.

“We focused on getting the communication right across the business, keeping in regular contact when employees work from home, so they do not feel isolated,” he said. “We have been very open with personnel about COVID-19 impacts on the business and they have appreciated that.”

Mooney is part of the second cohort on the Made Smarter Leadership Programme, which had to switch online with virtual tutorials to give leaders a strategic view to support the adoption of hi-tech and digitally-based manufacturing techniques into their own production processes.

“COVID-19 has also made me think more about what our strategy should be as we come out of this pandemic,” he said. “It has cemented my thoughts of moving our IT infrastructure to a completely cloud based solution. The benefits of home working deliver improvements in productivity, better utilisation of office space and value improvements to staff in time and money in the pocket. It also gives us challenges about hardware at home, IT security, mental health and communication and collaboration.”

Peter Phillips, managing director for Abbey England, a Knutsford-based manufacturer of leather and brassware for the equestrian and leather goods market, was on the first Made Smarter Leadership Programme, an eight month programme in conjunction with Lancaster University designed for business leaders of manufacturing SMEs wanting to improve their productivity through the adoption of new industrial digital technologies.

“The Leadership Programme connected me with some like-minded people who have similar challenges,” he said. “That relationship has intensified. I have relied on them for support and advice during the pandemic.”

Dan Smith, technical director at Twinfix, a glazing and canopy manufacturer, introduced new practices enabling people to take more control of their own workflow.

He is in the second cohort of the Made Smarter Leadership Programme, which quickly switched to delivering its workshops online, and has benefited from the peer-to-peer network.

“SMEs tend to operate in an isolated bubble, and as a leader, you can often feel like you have no one to turn to,” he said. “The fantastic thing about the Leadership Programme was that it forged an impressive bond of trust between the cohort early on, which meant I felt I could talk about the company and our challenges openly. I believe that during the crisis we stayed in touch more than I suspected we would, talking about the challenges and sharing ideas about how to navigate it.”

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.

Find out more about the Made Smarter Leadership Programme here

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