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Manufacturing / R&D

Lead by Example to Inspire Results

Mark Whitten

Mark Whitten

President & CEO at Spartanburg Steel Products

Interview with Mark Whitten Spartanburg Steel Products

At the core of a successful organization are leaders that provide strategic direction, embody essential company values, and focus on how best to leverage their teams and strategies.

Quartz Network Executive Correspondent Britt Erler sat down with Mark Whitten, President and CEO of Spartanburg Steel Products, to gain his insight on how to lead a successful organization.

Mark shares ways to:

  • Execute a leadership-led transformation
  • Be a model for change driven by mutual respect and dignity
  • Flip the org chart and focus on serving others

Quartz Network: What is leadership-led transformation?

Mark Whitten: Leadership-led transformation, in its simplest form, is leading by example.

Spartanburg Steel Products is a Tier 1 and Tier 2 supplier and stamping company to the automotive and agriculture industry with about 400 employees. We’re transforming into what we refer to as SSP 2.0. SSP 2.0 is the future while 1.0 is the past. Our focus is on being a better organization.

Ultimately, at its core, when I talk about leadership-led transformation, it’s us, the leaders, being on the floor with our people. Rolling up our sleeves and being right beside our frontline workers. We want to make sure we are leading the transformation and it’s not coming out of a corner office.

It’s not about me giving direction and everything falls into place. It’s me going out to the floor with the senior leadership team, standing with our employees, attending daily shopfloor meetings, leading by example, walking the floor, cleaning, painting the curbs in the parking lot. That’s something that we did this past summer with the management team. We went out with rollers and painted the sidewalks. It’s important that we show our people there’s not a single job I’m not willing to do to make this company successful.

Quartz Network: Based on what you’ve seen currently at your organization, why is this transformation so important and what benefits does it have for the organization as a whole?

Mark Whitten: In my experience, I use this thing called discretionary effort. You get discretionary effort from your people when you’re willing to demonstrate that everything is important in terms of what I do and what they do. They talk about the upside-down org chart. I see myself at the bottom level of the organization. I serve the others. The frontline people are our most important asset, and we work for them. It really comes down to that.

We talk a lot about dignity and respect as another piece of it. Fundamentally, the cornerstone of our leadership here is treating our people with dignity and respect, mutually. That’s really why it is so important.

In my experience, organizations that send out orders and expect people to do things without personally leading that transformation, won’t don’t get that discretionary effort from people. It’s all really about the culture, and gaining culture where people are invested in their success and in the company success. We win together, we lose together.

So that’s why it’s extremely important that we lead that transformation. When I say transformation, I’m talking about the future with SSB 2.0 and being competitive and profitable, because that’s what a business is here for.

Quartz Network: You have incredible leadership transformation values. Where did they come from?

Mark Whitten: I may have a different perspective than a typical President and CEO because I started my career as a Production Associate on the shop floor. Coming out of school I got a job and made good money in a manufacturing plant. My beliefs about leadership were formed by watching poor leaders where I started.

Going back 26 years to my time on the shop floor as an employee asking questions, what stuck with me was when I would ask a supervisor or a manager a question, they never followed up with me. I’d never get the answer.

I would see their behavior as completely counterproductive. They wouldn’t walk the talk, so to speak. They would expect the employees to do something, but they wouldn’t demonstrate that behavior themselves. So I really formed a strong belief that if you want to be a leader, 1.) You have to like people and 2.) You have to be willing to lead every minute of every day.

I write a little bit about what I call the burden of leadership, and it is a burden. It’s a burden to be a leader, because, as I tell my team here, we have to be perfect every day. As a leader, you can’t make mistakes. You need to wear your safety protection. You need to follow the rules. You can’t slip and you have to demonstrate that behavior every single day. And so it is critical that we show that behavior.

I’ll tell you a little story. In my last turnaround I went into a big organization with a plant that was just under a million square feet. They had leadership team there and I sat with the leaders in the boardroom, and we got to know each other. Then I said, “Let’s go for a walk on the shop floor. You can walk me through and show me the operation.”

And I purposely walked at the back of the of the group. I did that because I wanted to observe management’s behavior. As I walked through the plant, they broke every safety rule. They had the glasses on their head, ear plugs out, talking on their phones, cutting across aisles. And the one that got me the worst was when they walked by garbage on the floor.

So the management team continues walking and I’m the new guy, one day into the job, picking up garbage and following them. When we got back to the boardroom, I sat down and said, “I know what the problem is in this organization. I got it.”

And they all looked at me with this wonder of what I was going to say. And I said, “It’s every single one of you. You are the problem in this organization.”

And that’s why that the company had a poor safety record, poor quality, poor customer relationships and was not profitable. Because the behavior of the management team was completely unacceptable. And of course, if the leaders behavior is unacceptable, that transitions to the shop floor.

In every way shape and form I found that company was operating under those conditions. I went into the employee bathrooms, which is where I always go, because I’ll know right away how an organization feels about its people. When you go to the employee bathrooms, when the doors are ripped off the stalls, and there’s graffiti all in there, that tells me something right away. And that’s so important in terms of my personal beliefs and that’s where they were formed. You have to lead.

Quartz Network: Can you explain the SSP 2.0 a little bit more and what’s behind it?

Mark Whitten: This is a family-owned business with great culture that started 42 years ago. We retired an 81-year-old employee who was here 51 years. He was with the company prior to it becoming Spartanburg Steel Products. I’ve never seen that before, so it was pretty incredible.

When I joined the leadership team we discussed at what point in time will we transition from the past to the future. And what does that future look like? So we developed a vision that we want to become a world class manufacturing company. We know that’s the pie in the sky and we’re really aspiring to be great. But that’s okay because it’s the way we want to be.

We have a vision statement and then 2.0 is a culture strategy. It is really focused on leadership and organizational structure. We have a culture plan that we developed for the workplace environment around the manufacturing, the quality system, and lean strategy.

So 2.0 is really about how we operate this business going forward. We take the good from the past, but we really look forward to what 2.0 is in the future. It really is about growing our business, becoming a world class manufacturer, working with customers, partnering, and having satisfied employees that come here every day.

We want employees to enjoy their time here. We want them to know that they have friends at work, that they’re treated with dignity, respect, and they can go home with a sense of accomplishment. That’s super important to us and that’s my summary of what 2.0 is.

Quartz Network: How are your leaders supporting and guiding this change?

Mark Whitten: I couldn’t be happier about that. In the beginning, of course, the new guy comes in with all these ideas. They were skeptical and they weren’t sure what to expect. But the advantage I have is that I truly believe in what I’m doing. It isn’t a sales thing. It’s my core belief.

There was a little bit of pushback in the beginning. Then probably three months in, it really started to gain momentum. But a year later, our quality and profitability results have changed dramatically. We are we are much better a year later. And I attribute that entirely to the fact that this leadership team and this workforce are behind 2.0. We’re pushing forward and we’ve made tremendous improvements inside these four walls.

Quartz Network: How has your workforce received this new change?

Mark Whitten: Really well. I believe a big portion of that is because they see the changes on the shop floor. So they see the improvements, the cleaning, and organizing. COVID was terrible for the economy, but it did one good thing for Spartanburg Steel Products. During that timeframe when we were laying people off, we brought all our people back to work when we didn’t have sales.

We had them clean and paint. For example, we had a team of gentlemen and a lady that painted their own press. Guess what? When they paint their press, they take care of their press. So the benefit, too, in that time of COVID allowed us to clean and organize using our own people, which way better than me hiring a contractor to come in and do it. They recognize the company is willing to spend money, willing to do the right things, and they feel it. So zero pushback from the shop floor.

Quartz Network: What would you tell companies that are looking to do this and follow your example?  

Mark Whitten: There’s a lot of things to focus on, but culture is the secret weapon. You can have strategies and you can have talented people, but if you don’t have momentum or culture, and you don’t have the people pushing with you, it’s very difficult to transform anything.

My greatest advice would be, engage your people by leading by example. Listen to your shop floor. Listen to your people. Respond.

The worst thing you can do is ask for feedback and not act upon it. So if you’re going to do a survey, you’re all in. You have to respond. You have to follow through or you will lose the people the first time. You can do 100 great things, and one thing wrong, and the only thing that they’ll ever remember is the one thing wrong. So that’s my advice, focus on culture, lead by example, and all the other things will fall in line.

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