Episode 15

Published on:

7th Mar 2022

The Role of Garbage, Bathrooms, and Leaders on Employee Engagement with Mark Whitten

Contact Mark Whitten

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mark-whitten-61790119/

Lisa Ryan: Hey, it's Lisa Ryan. Welcome to the Manufacturers' Network Podcast. Our guest today is Mark Whitten. Mark is the President and CEO of Spartanburg Steel Products. Spartanburg specializes in designing, developing, and manufacturing high-quality complex metal stamping and welded assemblies, serving the automotive, heavy truck, power, lawn and garden, construction, utility, and off-road vehicle manufacturing industries.

A passionate leader with 25 years of manufacturing experience leadership and strategic direction, Mark has achieved business success and transformation through engagement and collaboration. Mark, welcome to the show.

Mark Whitten: Thank you for having me, Lisa. I'm glad to be here.

Lisa Ryan: Mark, please share with us your background and what led you to do what you're doing right now with Spartanburg.

Mark Whitten: Sure. I'm Canadian. I worked in Canada for many years before I came to Atlanta. I went to Mexico first. I started my career with General Motors Academy, a Suzuki joint venture GM plant. I did several different roles there. This was after Freightliner. Then I ended up Magna or National, a tier-one automotive supplier. I worked for Magna was seven years, and then I had the opportunity to go to Mexico as an assistant plant manager. So I moved my wife and children, and we went to Mexico. We were there for six years before returning to Canada again as a general manager for Magna. Then we came to the US in 2015. I did a short stint as a plant manager in the Cleveland area. Then I was recruited to Martin read, another Canadian automotive supplier for their Kentucky plant in Shelbyville.

A few years later, I had a director of OPS role. I had the four plants under me at the time. I then had an opportunity to come to Spartanburg Steel Products as President CEO in March of 2020. It was while Covid landed - literally within weeks as I got here. We started the protocols for Covid.

Lisa Ryan: Wow, isn't it funny that from now until the end of time, those of us in the know will know that anytime somebody says March of 2020, we will all go ooooh.

Mark Whitten: yeah.

Lisa Ryan: Absolutely. When you joined Spartanburg, what was the culture like? What were some of the things that you noticed and started to change?

Mark Whitten: Well, Spartanburg is a privately held company family-owned business. They've owned the business for 40 plus years. It's a good company with good people. I think that, over time, the performance had eroded. The culture is affected when you have those situations where the company's not making money. You've got customer issues and quality issues. The culture also takes an impact there that people feel at leadership levels.

My task coming in here was to grow the business back to what it once was, as a prominent BMW supplier. We're 12 miles from plant 10 Spartanburg, which is building all the X-model BMWs. We had a couple of things we needed to do to build a relationship back with customers. First, we needed to focus on the company's culture and make sure we were doing the right things to engage people. I always talk about how hearts and minds ultimately drive performance. Business results, good quality, profitability, and these things are crucial.

The last two years have been a journey of doing exactly what we've coined at SSP 2.0 -Spartanburg Steel Products 2.0. And the 2.0 is, I wanted to honor 1.0. We're a company that's been around 40 years and a BMW supplier. We've had success. I didn't want to take anything away from the people that have been here for 25 plus years; I wanted to honor 1.0 as the foundation. But we ultimately focused on 2.0, which has to be the future.

The world's changing, and you and I both know, Lisa, it's changing exponentially since March of 2020. Things continuously change, focusing on engaging people, giving cause and purpose, and clarity around goals. We need to provide the tools and training to the people that need it. These kinds of things have been our focus. 2.0 is all about performance. It's about engagements, about culture. It's about quality. We're building the business back. That's been the journey of the last two years.

Lisa Ryan: And a lot of it is paying attention to those little things. We think that we're going to start this engagement initiative and that it's going to take all kinds of time and tons of money to do all these different surveys. But it comes down to some of the little things of just noticing trash and bathrooms, for example. What are some of the things you noticed along those lines and some of the other little things?

Mark Whitten: Well, let me share a story. In my previous assignment before Spartanburg, I went to another underperforming business. It was a large million square foot plan with UAW and a thousand employees. It was in a tough spot I went there. I set up a task to focus on improving the performance and results. In my first week, I think day two, I met the leadership team. They came into the boardroom and welcomed me. The team went around the table got to know the team.

I said, Let's go for a walk on the floor. Let's walk through the plant, but I intended to observe their behavior. I wanted to see how this leadership ran the bus. They are the ones I wanted to watch. I wanted to see how they behave as they walk through the facility.

What I observed was that they broke every safety rule. You're supposed to have your plugs, eyeglasses, follow the walkways, cross at proper walkways, and these kinds of things. They broke all that. They were talking on our phones, cutting across aisles your plugs, their earplugs were hanging out.

But the worst thing for me was that they were walking by the garbage on the floor. As we walked down the aisle, there was a pop can on the floor. They all proceeded to walk by that garbage can as I watched in horror. As I followed them, I always wanted the back. My point was to observe behavior. So, I picked up the pop can, and I continued to pick up the garbage as we walked through the plant.

I didn't see them engage any employees as they walked by. There was no engagement, no high fives, and how are you? No, Hello, how's your day. Nothing. We got back to the boardroom, and we came in, and I said, you know I understand the problem in this company. They looked at me with a surprised look, like I had some ultimate wisdom. I said it's you. It's every single one of you. You are the problem. You are the reason that this business is the way it is. You allow it. You model the incorrect behavior, but you expect employees to follow the rules. You punish them for not following the Rules, yet you don't.

You don't lead by example in any way, shape, or form. Even the little things - if I knew they weren't doing the little things, I was guaranteed they weren't focused on the right things and the big things. Of those 10, eight of them left the organization in short order. Two of them were passionate people who cared. They were overshadowed by the other eight. They stayed with me, and we built a new leadership team. We got great results after that. But it's the little things, as you point out, Lisa.

I think a lot of your listeners and leaders have not missed this, but maybe don't give this behavior as much credit, as let's do simple things like picking up garbage and leading by example in your behavior. Every single day, how you engage people are talking to people. Listening to people, respect and dignity, walking through your shop floor - those people are out there doing the complex jobs. They're doing the tough jobs and listening to them, respecting them, hearing them out, and making sure that we're doing the things to help them be successful is critical.

Things like coffee chats, one-on-ones, employee meetings, ask the President box. We used all kinds of different methods in which our employees can reach out and bring forth issues, ask questions and make sure that they've got clarity. These little things matter.

And if I could just go one more point, that's the bathrooms you mentioned. As I walked through the plant in my last assignment, I went to the furthest bathroom I could find, which was an employee bathroom. I was horrified with what I saw - the door stalls were ripped off, there were no stall doors in the room where the toilets were. And there's graffiti written all over there about how much of this company sucks and things like that. So I just knew right now that the culture is what it is, but it's that because of management's behavior, bottom line.

So, bathrooms matter. It's a sign of respect. You have 400 people working in your facility. You want them to come to work and be safe. You want them to be engaged. You want them to perform well. So, you have to create an environment that allows that to happen. And that's an organization focused on cleanliness with bright lights, clean bathrooms, proper facilities for lunch and eating, and things like that. That matters tremendously if you want to engage people truly.

Lisa Ryan: And culture does start at the top. So, when you're walking through the plant and engaging, do you know your employees by name? Do they look at you and smile and wave? Do you give everybody a high five or at least an air high five? Or, when they're walking by, are your employees avoiding your glance because they don't know what you're going to say to them, or they don't feel seen anyway. So that level of respect of looking at your forward-facing areas in the plant - where your customers come in, or vendors come in. Do those areas have the same level of cleanliness and brightness as the employee lounge, lunchroom, and bathroom. So, a coat of paint can make a huge difference and again, you know, a couple of hundred bucks for a couple of gallons of paint, and you've just made the place brighter and shown your employees that you appreciate them.

Mark Whitten: I agree. It's the broken windows theory. The broken windows theory is an interesting philosophy. For example, when you have the disorder, pick any city where you go into an area where they've got broken windows. Maybe some poverty and other things that the environment creates or allows that disorder is acceptable. The opposite is also true. When you go to a very organized, clean, safe place, people fall in line. People's behavior is dictated by the environment in which they work or live. For example, we put a tremendous amount of effort into cleaning the facility - polishing floors, putting all new LED lights in, proper walkways. We gave the operators tools because we wanted to create an environment of expectation.

Here's a funny story. When we started this journey two years ago, the management team and I would go on the floor twice a week for an hour and clean. We cleaned. We got filthy, sweaty – we'd pick up garbage because I wanted the employees to see how important this truly was. I would lead that. The management team created it because we allowed it. So we're going to fix it. We would go out every week, and I tell you, you wouldn't believe the stuff we threw out. It was incredible. There was garbage that had been there for years. There was filth everywhere. We lead that transformation.

One of the things that bothered me was the chairs on the floor. This is a manufacturing operation where you've got welding, stamping, and assembly. There's no place for having a chair, like a cafeteria chair out in a weld cell or those kinds of things. So I threw out 30 of them. I threw them into dumpsters, and my point was that we want our people to rest in, but we have areas that are conditioned where employees go and sit down for lunch and rest areas and breaks and the thing.

But out on the shop floor, we didn't want to have chairs. What that told me is the culture of the company. For example, people were sitting around all the time. Sitting in chairs and I didn't, that's not the message you want to have for your employees or your customers. We corrected that we cleaned up where I'm driving at is. If you walk through our plan at any point in time, you won't find garbage on the floor, and you won't find chairs and floor. That's not because I'm asking for it. It's because our employees know that's the environment in which we work. They pick up the garbage. Because they know it's an expectation now and so by us leading that transformation, we still do it we go out there, we clean we do these things it's our people have 

changed their behavior in line with the expectations and what are the leaders have done in this business.

Lisa Ryan: Now, let's back up just a little bit because you said you had when you were doing that initial walk-through, and ten leaders were walking with you and eight of them left almost immediately, and that is part of the culture, obviously part of a very toxic culture that they were not able to reduce themselves or stoop to that level to clean up garbage or whatever it was but that experience because know in an in a Market where Labor is hard enough to find the thought of losing ten managers can be terrifying but then on the tail end it also helped you to achieve your goal of what you need you need to remove those toxic people so walk us through the thought processes that they were unwilling to move ahead with and how that all transpired.

Mark Whitten: Yes, so if we back up to my previous assignment, this happened in 2016. With the eight managers that left the business. I genuinely believe that you know I'm a people person and a servant leader. I put my leaders on a pedestal. I truly work to serve them to help them, but I never allow one thing. I'll never support what you use the word toxic, which is precisely that. Managers who treat people poorly and then have the foundation of dignity and respect. When you're not respectful to employees, when you talk down to employees, when you can't, when you can't model proper behavior as a leader following safety rules or engaging people.

From a functional or tactical perspective, I don't care how good you are at your job. You can be great at your tactical job, but you treat people horribly. I don't care you won't work with me because those people will never gain the people's trust, and you have to have people's hearts and minds. If you want to have a culture of engagement and performance, you can browbeat people down. You can beat people down for a short time, but it never last and never works for a long time, so to your point, yes, it isn't easy. It was not something I wanted to do, but I had to do it because those leaders were toxic in the organization. And they were doing improper and incorrect things, and I couldn't allow that to go on, and that's why they had belief, and yes, you're right, especially today. It's terrifying to lead to losing leaders. Here's the difference between that toxic environment and those eight liters left. Yes, it was difficult for quite some time. You know we struggled. We had to find people, bring people up to speed, but in the end, after that hardship that we went through.

The results that we got were fantastic, and we changed things with the Union. The relationship with the UAW was improved dramatically with the employees and significantly enhanced. We did employee surveys that improved. Leaders lead by example and respect people. That was the difference coming to Spartanburg. I didn't change any leaders here, so what when the difference in Spartanburg when it came in, as the senior leaders here were engaged. They cared; they just worked, maybe, didn't weren't working in the right things, per se, but they had the right DNA. They had the DNA of leadership and respect and dignity; we added we added one, moved one around, and made some minor changes, but nobody left the company, and no senior leader left the company.

Lisa Ryan: If an owner or leader is considering and thinking about their management teams, and I know part of it is a gut feeling, but what are some of the ways that you determine that that manager has that DNA that if they if they're not perfect, now that at least you see the opportunity to work with them to bring out those skills to an increase their level of connection with their employees.

Mark Whitten: it's a couple of things you know for me it's it's more gut, more observation, more questions, and getting to know them. You know, get there, get to know who they truly are as a person. We've used tools like disk and other assessments and things that can give us a predictor of someone's behavior as a leader, so we have some indication of their typical way or styles. But I depend far more on the person and getting to know them.

Spending time with them getting even you know I go as far as getting to know their spouse in them, you know we will set up some off-sites and different things to meet the families. We can get to know each other as people and truly understand who they are, but observing how they interact with their people is one big one. Listening to how they engage with their peers listening to how they work with their employees, and observing them in their work environment so when they're in their element, and they're working and observing and seeing how they do, they listen.

Do they actively participate? Do they ask questions? Do they follow up? That's a simple thing like it's going back to the simple things like following up on unemployment questions or concerns. One of the things I think it's missed so often here's my perspective: I wasn't an hourly shop floor employee as a young man. As an hourly employee, I started my first job at sterling or Freightliner trucks on the shop floor. So my perspective of leadership was to observe poor and great leaders, but I got a wide variety of leaders in my life, and both were truly valuable. I got to see all the things that you should never do and all the things that you should do. As a leader, so as an hourly employee, one of the simple things I would always ask a lot of questions just that I just that was my personality.

My supervisor recombined and said, hey, you know what about this, or can you follow up and find out this for me? Oh yeah, no problem. I never got a response. He'd see me the next day. I'd wait, and when I questioned him two or three days. Oh yeah, I'll get back with you, nothing, and this went on and on and on. It drove me crazy because I thought I was here, I am an employee, and I just asked a simple question I can't get an answer to. As I progressed through my career, I realized that it's important to them when employees have a question. It's important to them that they're trying to understand as a leader, you own that when you accept a question from your employees, whatever it is. You have to follow up. As I tell my leaders, you don't have to say yes. We can say no, but you have to explain. You still owe them an explanation. We don't have to agree. We can agree to disagree. But at the end of the day, the dignity and respect foundation is following up and going back to your employees. That's another one. It gets missed often, but anyway, back to your question, observation, listening.

 Observing the DNA is evident if they've got the right intentions and are doing the right thing. Maybe they're struggling in some areas. They need some help. But you know, they've got the right DNA to be a leader deep down.


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About your host

Profile picture for Lisa Ryan

Lisa Ryan

As a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), an award-winning speaker and author of ten books, Lisa Ryan, CSP, works with her clients to develop employee and client engagement initiatives and strategies that keep their top talent and best clients from becoming someone else’s.
Lisa’s expertise includes: strengthening workplace culture, improving employee engagement, increasing customer retention, and initiating gratitude strategies (“Grategies”) for personal and professional benefit. Lisa’s participants enjoy her high energy, enthusiastic delivery and quick wit and they leave the session with ideas they are committed to acting on immediately to make positive workplace culture changes.
Lisa costars in two films with other experts including Jack Canfield of “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” She is the Past-President of the National Speakers Association, Ohio Chapter and holds an MBA from Cleveland State University.

Relevant Experience

• Keynote, breakout or workshop speaker at more than 100 national and international conferences
• Thirteen years of industrial marketing and sales experience, including seven years in the welding industry – and yes, she does weld
• Host of “Elevate Your Engagement Levels: What You Need to Know” on the Elite Expert Network and the C-Suite Network
• Creator of “The Seven Mistakes Managers Make to Crush Company Culture” video series
• Best-selling author of ten books, including “Manufacturing Engagement: 98 Proven Strategies to Attract and Retain Your Industry’s Top Talent”
• Award-winning speaker