Leaders Helping Leaders, Part 1

Peer-to-Peer Exchange sessions at the American Mold Builders Association’s (AMBA) conference lets mold industry leaders share challenges and offer solutions.


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Peer-to-Peer Exchange sessions have been a consistent highlight and benefit for moldmakers who attend the American Mold Builders Association’s (AMBA) annual conference. During these sessions, attendees that share similar roles within their companies meet in small groups to discuss challenges they are facing, explore new ideas for moving their companies forward and expand their professional networks. I had the opportunity to sit in on one of the five sessions, which was for Leaders and Top Management, held at last week’s conference in Itasca, Illinois, and even had the pleasure to moderate the discussion.

Participants in our group of mold shop leaders and top management were John Hill of Midwest Mold Services (Roseville, Michigan), Jeff Schaller of Strohwig Industries, Jason Sparks of Concept Molds (Schoolcraft, Michigan), Don Dumoulin of Precise Tooling Solutions (Columbus, Indiana), Jeff Lucas of Minco Group (Dayton, Ohio), Michael Bohning of Creative Blow Mold Tooling (Lee’s Summit, Missouri), Tim Deckard of D&M Tool Corp. (Springville, Indiana), Paul Szymanski of Do-Rite Die & Engineering (S. Chicago Heights, Illinois) and John Karras of PM Mold Company (Schaumburg, Illinois). A great group!

Each participant was asked to jot down a specific question or challenge faced at his company. When the question or challenge was shared, other members of the group discussed it and offered suggestions for how to approach and hopefully solve it. Following are a few of the questions or challenges discussed and the proposed resolutions (names have been removed as a courtesy). These are focused on shop culture, leadership and related topics. I will share more next week, so stay tuned.


Challenge: How to deal with managers who lack confidence to lead.

Suggestions/What has worked:

  • Spend quality time with each team member, learning about what they were doing, how they were doing it and what their thought processes are, then gave them a bunch of responsibilities and threw them off the deep end, and it has paid dividends for us. Qualities that mattered included passion, knowledge of the shop, personality. When you get to know some of the lower-level people in the shop you see that spark; you see that potential, and then it is just a matter of follow-through.
  • When I started in the trade in 1976, we were taught how to design, how to build molds – we were taught the trade. No one really spent time teaching leadership or developing it. In 2014, we made that a priority and began conducting leadership training for every single person in the company, and when new hires came on, we would begin the process again. It took a lot of effort and time, starting with top management, with regular meetings over 12 months, each month with a different focus. It took about five years to get everyone through it, with some embracing the opportunity and others not. Some were too caught up in the day-to-day work and could not do it. Initially had a consultant, but there was a disconnect because that person was not in the shop daily, so the company took it over.


Challenge: How to deal with a valued employee who says “never” to some things but is an “A” player in other areas.

Suggestions/What has worked:

  • If you move the “middle” employees (maybe call them the “not yets”) forward, then the “nevers” would not be so far behind. So, they may never fully engage the way you want them to, but they will be less behind if others are engaged or become models for change.
  • I do find that the “nevers” do become isolated at times, and they start to realize that they are sinking and that is when they tend to take a step forward.


Challenge: What about that “lone wolf” in the shop who is valuable, who has been with the company and is in tune with everything that’s going on, but he is unwilling to follow in the new direction? There is a lot of positive all around him, but he still likes to cause discomfort and turbulence. How do you deal with that?

Suggestions/What has worked:

  • If you are seeing that, everybody else in the organization is seeing it, too, and they are probably wondering why you aren’t dealing with it. It’s hard to hold others accountable when you allow one person to be excluded. In my experience, that person was gone, and everyone else filled in where he left off and there is kind of a new excitement among the team members because a problem that was there has been dealt with.
  • We have been there and thought we could not lose the guy, so we put up with it. You can’t do that, because what if he quits? You are down a man anyway. You have to manage your culture because culture is conducive to continuity.
  • Sometimes they just have blinders on. I have an employee who exhibited similar behavior and I sat him down a few months ago and basically called him on it. I told him we have a certain culture here and if he’s not interested in fitting in, he can go work someplace else. I said this is not a threat, but we have a good culture here and you are denigrating it. It was just straight talk, but he woke up and he is doing a lot better now.


Question: How do you handle it when it is time to transition the company, whether it is turning things over to the next generation or selling it? It is challenging letting go after 40 years.

Suggestions/What has worked:

  • Just have to get a better hobby, I guess. Find something where you use your time, use your brain. The worst thing you can do is stop moving or stop thinking.


Question: I am looking for ideas on incentive compensation for management and/or rank and file. What has worked?

Suggestions/What has worked:

  • Great question. It depends on the age of the employee because money does not motivate millennials. They want to be challenged. What motivates them did not motivate me when I was young. I wanted my own car and my own home.
  • We offer a 401k and profit-sharing. They don’t have to contribute and it’s not a match. We just pay out 2% all the time, quarterly, into the 401k and we can adjust it. Right now, we are at 5%.
  • We match 2% and we give cash bonuses, annually.
  • We tie our bonus structure to our quarterly profits, and we lag a month to see what the next month will do. It can range between 3% and 7%, with adjustments at the end of the year based on the numbers.
  • Ours is discretionary, based on the year.
  • When I first bought the company, everybody wanted as much overtime as they could get, but that has changed. The same guys who wanted the overtime 10 years ago are not as interested now. So, last fall, I basically created a bonus pool to incentivize the guys to work overtime. It was based on who would work weekend hours and just overtime hours and they would basically share this chuck of money I threw out there and they could divide it up on a pro-rata basis. It worked, but it was just a temporary plan to get work we had through the pipeline faster. We used to have a culture where everyone worked 50 hours a week, but we’d have to kind of coerce them to work overtime. So, we did away with “mandatory overtime” and told them if you want overtime, we’ll let you have it; if you don’t, it’s okay, and we will schedule everything accordingly. I think it has made a big difference in terms of morale and I should have done this a long time ago. As a result, we’re more productive and we have also been able to add a few more people to make up for less overtime.


One final question that popped up at our table concerned the average age in each shop. The prevailing range was 45 to 50 years old.