Connect with Steve Blue
Lisa Ryan: Hey, it's Lisa Ryan. Welcome to the Manufacturer's Network podcast. I'm excited to introduce our guest today, Steve Blue. Steve is President and CEO of Miller Ingenuity, which is a high-tech company in the transportation space. He's also the bestselling author of five books and a speaker and consultant. Steve, welcome to the show.
Steve Blue: Thank you, Lisa. It's a pleasure to be here.
Lisa Ryan: Steve, share a bit about your background and what led you to do what you're doing.
Steve Blue: I've been in manufacturing for 45 years and in senior leadership in manufacturing for the last 40. In the last 25 years, I've been the CEO of a manufacturing company, so I know the landscape of manufacturers.
I have written five books. One of them became a bestseller. I'm a professional speaker. Just in the last year, I spoke at Harvard Business School, the United Nations, and Carnegie Hall, to name a few. Now and again, I'll do some consulting, but mostly it's professional speaking, authoring books, and then running my own company, which, as anybody in your audience will know, that's a full-time job in and of itself.
Lisa Ryan: Before the show started, you and I were talking about company culture, and you said that you'd created a killer company culture in your company. I want to dive deep into that because with the workforce, with workers so hard to find these days to begin with, it's critical to create the type of workplace culture that keeps the people once you have them. So, share your philosophy regarding company cultures and some specific things you did within your company.
Steve Blue: First of all, in my view, culture is everything. It is absolutely everything. It provides a foundation for profit, employee satisfaction, and shareholder satisfaction.
And if you don't have the right culture, I can give you examples of the wrong culture. If you've ever traveled on an airplane lately, you know exactly what a wrong culture looks like. It's always amazing to me to use that example, Lisa. You get on an airplane, and the flight attendants work for the same people. They all work for the same company. They have the same benefits, working conditions, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And one will be miserable, and the other will be absolutely delightful. So it's hard. It all comes down to culture. In my company, we have several tenants of culture that we believe in.
One of them is community. Another is ethics. Another is excellence. Most companies should have foundational cultures, and then your company might have a few different than mine, but people will resonate with the kind of culture you have in a company. Now, if it's a crappy culture, and if it's a culture of, we'll do what we have to, and no more than we have to get along, that's going to attract a certain kind of employee, and it'll resonate with a specific type of employee.
But if you have a high-performance culture, you know what I always say, Lisa, is every company should strive to have a Cirque Du Soleil culture. Have you ever seen Cirque du Soleil?
Lisa Ryan: Yes, several.
Steve Blue: There you go. And I'm, I bet you everybody in your audience has, and one thing you don't see in a Cirque du Soleil show is somebody going, Hey, that's not my job.
I'm not catching you today. I don't feel like catching you today. They never grumble. They always come to work every day, all jazzed up with a mission to do better today than they did yesterday. And I don't know why you wouldn't want a culture like a Cirque Du Soleil culture. So a lot of CEOs tell me we're manufacturing.
We're not a circus show. You can't compare us to that. Actually, you can. You can create an environment that will attract the Cirque du Soleil talent. Now you have to make sure that, to your point, once they get here, see what we do, Lisa, is we're very careful in our screening.
If you let somebody that has a bad attitude or doesn't believe in the kind of things that you're trying to do, your call. Don't ever let them in. Because then they start infecting the rest of the place. And so not only do the leaders interview people before they come to work for us, but the peers and people they would work with also interview them.
And so then we get a read, is this person going to work with this culture or not? And that's how we keep them on the outside. And so once they're on the inside, you must constantly promote and continually reinforce and support that culture. So I'll give you an example: our employees pick a particular value of our culture every quarter, and they vote for an employee that illustrates and exemplifies that value. And so they all collaborate on it, and we give an award every quarter to the person who won it. And they get a hundred dollars bill, and then we put a full-page, four-color ad with them getting the award in our daily local newspaper.
I can tell you that people love to see themselves in the paper, and then when they do, they brag to their neighbors and friends. Look at this. This is the kind of company that I work for. And as an example, I don't have any trouble recruiting talent at all. Because the world around us in our community knows we have a high-performance culture. They know we take care of our people. And when they see evidence of that, like that one example in the newspaper, it attracts the kind of people I want to attract.
Lisa Ryan: So, how many employees do you have, and what exactly does your manufacturing company do?
Steve Blue: We have about 200 people, and we make everything from low-tech products that go on the bottom of a locomotive, and the bottom of a rail car is an example in passenger and freight rail. And then we have everything from the top of that locomotive to the bottom. And then we move into the high-tech space with LED highway crossing signals, where the biggest manufacturer of those in the world and our newest flagship product called zone guard.
It's a very sophisticated device that protects roadway track workers from getting killed. Believe it or not, if you see these guys working on the side of the rail, they're grinding the rail. They're clearing brush, all kinds of the stuff. A bunch of those guys get killed every year because of the train, they don't know the train's coming, and it runs them down.
They have all kinds of procedures and policies, so that's not supposed to happen. So our product zone guard makes it virtually impossible for anybody to get killed on a track worker detail. So we're high tech to low tech, and everything is in.
Lisa Ryan: And it's interesting because, when I was, when we first started the conversation, I, in my mind, was trying to figure out how many employees you have because you make it sound like a small company, you know that you can do these things and create this Cirque du Soleil culture and pick this the person of the month based on the values.
But you have good size organization. So the challenge to people is, don't make excuses that my business is too big or we have too many people to do this because no matter what size your organization is, if you bring the right people on board, that you've already talked about that screening process, and that does work.
I've had a couple of different podcast interviews as well as just my clients that I've talked to about letting your employees get involved in the interview process because otherwise, you have this person come in. He's got an excellent pedigree on paper, but as a human being, he's just an idiot.
You bring him in, and your employees are like, I am not working with him. Versus, they get into the process, and before you even make the offer, your employers are like if you hire him, I'm leaving. And then, okay. Not the right fit.
Steve Blue: Everybody looks good on paper. You never see the warts until they're inside the organization.
So your point is well taken. The thing I want to say about an organization's too large to do well, every company has, they break down. A 10,000-employee company eventually breaks down to one leader with 20 people or one leader with 30 people. So don't tell me that you can't do it in a big company.
You have to ensure that your leaders are completely on board with the culture. And then you charge them with the responsibility of carrying that.
Lisa Ryan: And it really does have to come from the upper leadership and from the C-suite who sets the tone for the organization. If they're not buying into it, it will not happen.
No matter how much a manager or HR wants to change the culture, it's got to get that buy-in from above and all the leadership.
Steve Blue: I agree with this notion. Somebody wrote a book about it once. Leadership from the bottom. That's ridiculous. Yep. You can't leave from the bottom, for crying out loud.
And I, there's another book out I think it's called Leading When You Have No Authority, that's bunk too. You have to have authority, otherwise, you can't lead. If you want to lead credibly, you have to be a good leader, but you can't lead from the bottom up, and the top has to buy into it.
I'll give an example. I took over a company once that had a lot of problems. The culture was not what it needed to be, and it started with the guys at the top. So I brought them in a room, and I laid it off for them. Here's what we're going to do, here's what we need to do, and if any of you aren't on board with it, you need to leave.
Half of them weren't on board with it, even though they said, oh yeah, sure, boss, I got that. But then they in action, they, so I just fired him. And so when I did that, the other guy said, whoa, he's serious about this. And you start at the top, and if you got you, you train them, teach them, coach them, cajole them, encourage them, support them.
But if they don't do it, you have to get rid of them. Then it resonates with the whole organization. When people see that someone was asked to leave because they didn't follow a certain value or certain trait we want for the culture, they know the boss is serious about this. So I guess I should be too.
Lisa Ryan: And you think about the commitment and loyalty that builds from the individual contributors as they're looking, because the, a lot of them don't believe that management will ever fire anybody in management, no matter how terrible the manager is. So when they see a leadership team saying, we're going to change culture, and by the way, we just got rid of these five toxic leaders, it sends a very strong message to the rest of the team.
Steve Blue: It really does, Lisa, because you made a good point. A lot of times upper management thinks they're untouchable. They are what they are, and you can't do anything about it. And that's why companies can't change because they leave the change, the people at the top that aren't going to change and don't want to change them.
You have to take them out. You know what happens is people don't become toxic overnight, Lisa, so they become toxic over decades. Usually, you can't fix that. I've tried, trust me, I've tried to fix toxic people. I've thrown everything you can imagine at it, but it just never works. So now I don't waste any time if I encounter a toxic leader or person. I just say goodbye.
Lisa Ryan: Yeah, it's funny, I just had a program this morning, and one of the company leaders asked me how do you work with companies that have toxic leadership that want to hire you. And you've probably found the same thing, Steve, that most people don't hire us because they don't see the problem and don't want to fix it. So it's somebody else's thing to do. It's the companies that are already doing things well and want to do things better are the ones that focus on things like company culture and not just the bottom line and how we're going to make the next buck.
Steve Blue: Yeah. It used to be you talk culture to a CEO, and they give you that deer-in-the-headlights look. These days more CEOs are beginning to understand the power and the absolute necessity of having a high-performance culture. And so they work at it. I had a CEO once who wanted me to come in and do a little consulting, and he had a toxic team, I could tell.
And I said, look, I really don't want to do this, but I will, but only if you pay my fee up upfront before I even start. So he said why would you want that? And I said, because I know within two or three days of mean nosing are on your organization, your team's going to come to you and say, you got to take this guy out.
He's going to destroy this whole company because they don't want anybody to upset their nice cushy positions. So I don't bother with you. I won't bother with companies like that. I just No thank you.
Lisa Ryan: Yeah. I've had the same thing where you have to fire clients because they have the intention. Or they think it's something that they should do. They've heard that employees could make more money if they are engaged. So instead of looking at it from the heart of the matter, from the actual culture, and coming at it from that, it sounds woo woo, but that heart-centered approach. If you're looking at it as just dollar signs, you will fail.
But if you go in it with that heart-centered approach that I'm doing this because it's the best thing for my employees, it's the best thing for my leadership, it's the best thing for my customers, then you know what? You're going to be more profitable. You're going to be able to keep people and you're going to be more productive and all of the good things that go along with it. But we have to do the work.
Steve Blue: Yeah. Most CEOs don't have the guts for the. Because it's ugly and it's messy, at least in the beginning. Now, when you get an organization as I have, they run like a top. I'll give you an example. One Saturday morning I drove into the office to catch up with some work, and I saw a big U-Haul trailer and truck at our loading dock.
And that's weird because we always ship by commercial carrier and we don't ship on Saturdays. So my curiosity got the best of me. So, I walked over and into the shipping department, and there were some technicians, a couple of factory workers, and one warehouse worker.
They're unloading a bunch of stuff. I said, what are you guys doing? He said we were short a couple of parts to make this certain commitment to one of our customers, and we couldn't get it. So, we called all over the country until we found them and rented a U-Haul to get them and bring them back.
I'm thinking, who gave them permission to do that? The answer is they didn't need permission, and that's the kind of culture we have. They take it upon themselves and do what has to be done, but that's the end stage. Most CEOs don't have the guts to start it at the beginning, where you have to fire people.
I've had people threaten me. I've had threats to my family. I've had bricks thrown through my window. And all of that is part of the process of restructuring. I'd call it the heart and the soul of a company.
Lisa Ryan: What did the company look like? What were the specific things you did? You were walking into a culture that was not what you wanted. And so, how did you start? How did you cause that turnaround to happen?
Steve Blue: I'll give you a few examples of mechanics. Lisa, one example, you see how people behave is rooted in language, right? And so how they talk to each other largely determines whether they can work together or not and whether they can work productively or not.
When I first took over this company, the language they used with each other was just awful. It would make a sailor blush. It was really bad. And so the first thing I did was to call everybody in the factory and say, here's the deal. We will not tolerate that kind of language.
I said, I'm not talking about hell, and I'm not talking about, damn, you guys know what I'm talking about. I said, there are no second chances. It's zero tolerance. The first time you use that kind of language, you're going to get fired. We'll be no warnings. It didn't surprise me, because I've been around a long time, Lisa. Within hours, they were testing me, and I fired three or four people in the first afternoon.
Now people started to pay attention. You can't fire people for swearing. I sure can. And once I did that, and it took a couple of days for quite a few people to get fired, then the rest of the people said, wow, I guess we better not talk like that anymore. So I've always believed that the first place you have to start in a company if you want to build a superior culture is to examine how they talk with each other and how they behave.
So that was the first thing I did. And the second major, and this is of course, over a few years, you must first find out what kind of culture you have. Then you can decide okay because you may want to retain some parts of a culture. So we did surveys that brought in an industrial psychologist and surveyed every employee.
I didn't ask the managers because they'll tell you what they think you want to hear. I wanted to hear from everybody. So then we had a good sense of what our culture was like, and there were parts of it that were, yeah, this is worth keeping. And then, we made a conscious decision, and culture is rooted in values.
We made a conscious decision. Here are the company's values now—these values we don't want anymore. Here's why we don't want them, and here are the values we want. And in part, the employees told us the kind of values they wanted. Now the inmates can't run the asylum, but I, you'd be surprised that most times employees, when you say, what kind of values do you want?
They'll say ethics, honesty, excellence. They really do because most employees want to work hard if you're giving them the chance. So that's, that was the second major thing we did. And then we threw everything we had against it. If you exhibit our values, you get promoted. If you don't, you get fired.
If you exhibit our values, you get pay raises. If you don't get the pay raises. Everything an organization has, then you have to throw it toward the values and toward reinforcing your culture.
Lisa Ryan: If I were to walk through your plants and I asked your employees about your values, is that something that they know? Like the Ritz-Carlton knows their theme?
Steve Blue: Yeah, absolutely. And a lot of companies have their values...