Leadership Philosophies for a Highly Productive Workforce

Karen Norheim

President & COO at American Crane & Equipment

Learning Objectives

Karen Norheim, President & CEO, American Crane & Equipment, will share her leadership philosophies and how to develop a highly productive workforce. Karen will discuss challenges faced and tips to create a successful work/life balance.


Key Takeaways:



  • You are highly motivated, how do you maintain such energy to continue moving forward?

  • What are some tips on work/life balance that has allowed you to become successful in your career?

  • What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career? How did you overcome that challenge?

  • What's going well right now? This can be in terms of employees, workplace culture, or processes.

  • What’s one leadership lesson you’ve learned or significant barrier in your career that you have had to overcome?

  • If you could give your younger self a piece of advice, what would if be?

  • What is your favorite part of your job?

  • What do you view as the Key to ACECO Success?


"Time away from work, from devices is what helps us to recharge and refresh."

Karen Norheim

President & COO at American Crane & Equipment

Transcript

Britt Erler

Hello, everyone. Welcome to the IMPACT Operational Excellence Virtual Summit hosted on Quartz Network. My name is Britt Erler, QN Executive Correspondent. Thank you for joining us. We have a fantastic executive speaker joining us today. Please welcome Karen Norheim, President and COO of American Crane and Equipment Corporation. Welcome, Karen.


Karen Norheim

Thank you. Thanks for having me.


Britt Erler

It is a pleasure to have you here, and excited to dive into this conversation today. We’ll be discussing successful leadership strategies, and how to create a company culture that really drives a productive and engaged workforce. Before we do so, if you wouldn’t mind giving the audience some context about your current role.


Karen Norheim

Sure. As you mentioned, I’m President and COO of American Crane and Equipment Corporation. We are a manufacturer of overhead cranes and hoists. I’m actually the second generation coming into the business, I have taken it over from my father. I’ve been with the company for 18 years. So really, really exciting.


Britt Erler

That’s incredibly. Very rare that I ever hear that it’s passed down through the family, which makes it that much more personal and motivating for you, so fantastic. Obviously, as I just said, you are highly motivated. So let’s talk about that a little bit more. How do you maintain that energy and continue moving forward, especially with everything we see going on right now?


Karen Norheim

It’s a great question. It helps that I love what I do. I think the fact that I believe in our business, our people, and myself. I mean, great way to keep energy is to have fun. So I’m a big believer in laughing every day, and keep perspective. Stuff happens, you don’t have to take it personally, or me taking myself too seriously. I’ll share with you, I have a mantra that my husband and I choose to live by, which I think is a good good way of sort of summing it up. It stems from an incident. I know you’re from the Los Angeles aream so this is from the New Jersey shore, where my husband was attacked by seals. Today, I will be happier than a bird with a french fry. We’re from Pennsylvania. This hangs in my kitchen. Every time I see it, I relieve that moment, which was hilarious. I also remember to be intentional about my happiness, having gratitude, and living in the moment because happiness to me is enjoying life. Life is a journey. We might as well enjoy the ride.


Britt Erler

I completely agree with you. Even though that may seem very common sense advice, it’s not, because when there’s so much going on in the world, especially right now. You have so much on your plate, people’s roles have expanded, sometimes your happiness, and just making sure that you’re actually enjoying yourself gets put on the backburner. That’s what ends up burning people out. It makes them less productive. So I couldn’t agree with you. That is such an essential key theme when you’re actually making sure that your workforce is moving in the right direction. Now, I want to talk about the idea of work life balance, because that has obviously become very difficult for a lot of people during this time, especially in this new virtual world where people are actually bringing their work into their very own home. How do you maintain a healthy work life balance for yourself and use this to be successful in your career?


Karen Norheim

Well, it really ties into what you said before. We are no good, you are no good to your people or your company if you’re burnout. So we really have to practice and promote recharging. That means taking care of yourself, encouraging, and disconnecting. Time away from work, from devices is what helps us to recharge and refresh. It really can bring new perspectives, a creative boost, and even enhanced clarity, which really can actually improve your productivity and producing results. It seems counterintuitive, but taking a pause can actually make you more effective and get stuff done in a shorter amount of time. I think practicing self care is critical, whatever that means to you. And You need to find what works and you got to fill your cup. Happiness and passion are infectious. So if you make sure that you take care of your cup that you cannot fill other people’s cups. I will share with you one kind of a life changing thing for me that I came to realize probably about two years ago. It’s this concept of be your mind’s commander, not its soldier. So beware of multitasking. Research shows that we don’t actually multitask, we switch. Constant switching makes us prone to make mistakes. Instead, if you look to do single tasking where you focus on a focus target, you can be way more effective, you can feel less scattered and distracted. Your workforce, if you encourage that with them, I do with mine, it helps them to feel less stressed. It can contribute to a feeling of well being at work. Some of us may have noticed this already when we’re able to work at home and not have the interruptions. That’s the sense of what it feels like to be single tasking. We’re in a time now where instead of time management, it’s attention management. There’s a great author—Maura Thomas is her name—she has a book called Personal Productivity Secrets. She gives practical ways of managing your attention from not having notifications on on your phone, or not constantly checking your email, those are some of the practical things. She has a whole system for this, and I swear by it. It has been key to me being able to be my mind’s commander.


Britt Erler

I think that is fantastic advice, and some that I personally need to take myself. I look at it, and you’re so right, we do go in with this mindset, “Oh, we’re multitasking so everything will get done quicker,” but that’s not really the case. As you mentioned, we are constantly switching back and forth, which causes higher stress. Then, we forget to take that time for self care, whether it’s just grabbing a cup of coffee, maybe sitting down for five minutes and taking a break, so that when you come back, you’re refreshed and ready to go. I think that is so crucial for people because what ends up happening at the end of the day, is you have so many tasks that have been left undone because you’ve constantly been switching back and forth. Great book, I will definitely be checking that out myself. Now, you are obviously a veteran in this industry. So you have seen the shift, you have seen the change. What has been one of the biggest challenges that you’ve had to face? And what was the best way that you were able to overcome it?


Karen Norheim

The biggest challenge I feel I faced in my career is taking over leadership of our company from my father. It was a really big deal. I had to become the steward taking our company into the future. This really started happening about four years ago. At the time, we had a good culture. We’ve been successful even in tough times. But I realized that I needed to create a cultural reboot. I needed to solidify the founders legacy that my father created, as well as conveying our family’s commitment and my commitment to the business. So we had to recalibrate, make sure that we knew who we are and where we were going. That developed into grit matters, perseverance, heart, and integrity—that’s our cultural mantra. It’s been almost three years since we launched our reboot, and the results have exceeded my expectations. That being said, there’s been challenges. We’re not even close to the full potential of what that means. I like to think of the work of growing our culture, like being a gardener. The work of a gardener is never done. There are cycles, planting, growing, pruning, weeding, sometimes harvesting, and then repeating. The growing your culture, growing your people is a labor of love, and you really have to be committed to it. So overcoming this challenge really came through that reboot, and believing in myself. I learned so much and I have grown myself through our journey.


Britt Erler

That is a great analogy. I’m gonna have to let my CEO know of that. He loves analogies. That is just the perfect way to put it. You’re so right. You really have to take the time and care for the people around you and care for the business. Get to know them personally. I think a sense of humanity and transparency has become so crucial, especially during this time in this new virtual environment. Eerything that you said right there is exactly what companies and also leaders really need to take a big focus on. Now, I know last year into this year, it’s no secret that we’ve seen a lot of negative happen. A lot of changes in every industry across the board. Companies have been suffering, but we are seeing some positives now moving into this new year. I think a lot of people are trying to take a more optimistic approach. So I want to hear from you in a positive fashion, what’s been going well? What have you seen has been successful in the industry? And what are the great strides that we’re seeing moving forward?


Karen Norheim

Well, the biggest positive for me is our employees. I could not be more proud of them, of our people. They have stepped up in a time of crisis. They’re amazing. I am grateful. We’ve rebooted our culture, and thank goodness we did, because that was integral to our ability to be able to weather the storms of the last 12 months. It gave our amazing people and environment to shine. Grit is this word we keep using. The definition is raw endurance, perseverance, and passion to keep going despite obstacles. Knowing who you are, where you are headed, and keeping an eye fixed on that mark versus any obstacles that lie in the weight. So we’ve been intentional about developing our culture, and it’s not just for fun. We’re doing it because it’s good for business. My father has always said, “The most important part of our business is our people.” Our successes because of them, and they proved this in the last 12 months, as a huge positive. It really sets us apart from our competitors. I will add one other major positive. I am a tech junkie, and we were already on our digital transformation to begin with. Collectively, as an organization, we got out of our comfort zone. That almost never happens. Altogether, all at once shoved out of our comfort zone. For us, a third of our workforce went completely remote, a third were in our manufacturing facility, and a third with our service still working on customer sites. So we have this crazy time period where just a lot of people. One time, and this is the same for everyone I’m speaking I’m sure words that all of us can relate to, but this idea of one time has to be the first time. What it did was it led to an incredible speed of innovation and took us farther down our path of digital transformation than than I could have ever hoped for. I would say we’re probably 3x faster, and actually speeding up now that we’ve gotten taken advantage of some of these forced innovations we had to do.


Britt Erler

I think that is the most common theme that I’ve heard from every professional I’ve had the opportunity to interview with is that the silver lining in this pandemic, as upsetting and as quick as it came upon us, it gave everybody the opportunity to pivot, and also innovate and evolve in ways that they never thought possible. They had to do it in order to keep up with the demand, and make sure that they were moving their business forward to keep up with this new technology that we are seeing everywhere. As stressful in the time as it was, businesses are now able to connect with consumers that they were never able to before. They’re able to hire employees from all over the world that they may have never been able to.It’s really opened so many doors, as you mentioned. Now, as a leader, I want to talk about this because it’s not easy, right? There are so many challenges that you face day today, and you’re going to make mistakes. It’s not always going to be perfectly set in stone. What has been the biggest lesson learned for you in your career as a leader?


Karen Norheim

I think it’s to get out of my own way. It kind of goes back to this comfort zone question. I’ve searched out experiences outside of my comfort zone, and trying to practice my own grit and pushing the ball forward. So you really have to overcome your fear of failure, and realize that that’s part of growth. By getting comfortable being uncomfortable, that has really opened new doors and amazing opportunities for myself and for our business. I think you have to challenge yourself. Success comes from putting yourself out there, and growth only arrives when we step outside of our comfort zone. As painful as that can be, I will say the last 12 months were painful, but at least we’ve got some perks from that, right?


Britt Erler

What I think I’ve seen in the past 12 months is that we’ve seen an influx of a lot of young professionals that are coming into the industry, especially with all of this new innovation and technology that we’re seeing. For these new professionals, what’s some words of advice that you would give them that you wish you would have told your younger self?


Karen Norheim

Well, if I could talk to my younger self, I would say, “Keep it real, Karen. Life is too short to be somebody else. Be authentic.” I used to only bring 95% of myself to work. Then, I realized many years ago that it’s way more fun and I’m way more effective when I stay authentic all the time.


Britt Erler

I agree with you. It’s so easy to get lost in your career, especially when you have so many tasks to complete. You’re trying to fit into this perfect box of what you think a leader should be or or what you should do each day. I think, as you mentioned, keeping it real and really being true to yourself, it’s going to be what inspires the people around you and all of your team. So I couldn’t agree with you more. I also want to ask you, I think this is a little bit of a personal question too, because everybody is so different. But what do you believe are some of the most successful qualities of a leader?


Karen Norheim

Interesting you asked that because how I was recently listening to a friend of mine, Tony Uphoff. He’s the president of Thomasnet. He was on a podcast and they asked him, what are the characteristics of a great leader? I think he nailed it. So I’m going to share and shamelessly steal his comments because I just thought they were so good. He said, there’s five elements. First, unshakable self belief. Second, paranoia and self doubt. So they counteract each other, right? Enough self belief countered with self doubt, you get equal sides of healthy ego versus humility, and not taking yourself too seriously. Then, the third item was impulse control. Then fourth, emotional stamina, which I would call grit. Lastly, innate curiosity, which is essential for us to kind of keep having that passion and keep seeing and envisioning what the future can be. So I thought that those were a great summary of sort of five absolutely essential characteristics for a leader.


Britt Erler

I agree. I think those are really all crucial. Not always ones we think about, right? You won’t ever think you have to self doubt yourself. You want to always be right, and think that you’re moving in the right direction, but that’s not always the case. Something to touch upon there as well. I was listening to another podcast the other day, too. They mentioned something that really relates to what you said. It’s also surrounding yourself with people that may contradict your opinions or your view. And as you mentioned, creating that self doubt, because we’re not always right, as much as we like to think that we are. It’s having those people that are willing to challenge your beliefs, and really help you grow as a leader that end up making you successful. So I completely agree. I think a lot of a lot of leaders would say the exact same.


Karen Norheim

Can I add to that just for just a moment? I mean, if you think about it, the self doubt and the ego, having enough ego to be okay with the fact that you might not be right. That sort of that combination. I loved your comment of surrounding your yourself with with around people who are different than you. It is really different perspectives that allow us to have thought diversity. That’s when you get the amazing exploded power of problem solving. I think it is really important.


Britt Erler

When you’re stuck in a rut, it takes one person to come out and say, “Hey, I found a new way of doing this,” and then the entire process changes. So, exactly. I want to lead into just really a fun question, because I think this is something that people always pass up. But what is your favorite part of your job? What do you love most about what you do?


Karen Norheim

My favorite part is working with amazing peoplem, especially I do get to work with my dad, which is fabulous. He’s still involved in the business, and that’s been awesome. Then, we make really beautiful machinery. So I feel like the craftsmanship, the quality, the expertise shines through. I’m really proud of our people, of the products that we built, the customers we serve. What’s really cool about our products is all the different applications. Our equipment is used to move spent fuel and nuclear power plants, it’s used to make truck bodies, it’s used by NASA to manufacture spacecraft, and even move fish up and down river. So it’s really exciting. I find the Manufacturing industry so exciting in general, because where else can you take something from a piece of paper and bring it into physical existence?


Britt Erler

Right. The options are endless when it comes to manufacturing and what you can create. People may not realize this, that you really make differences all over the world, in every aspect, as you mentioned, from space to the environment. It’s really incredible what Manufacturing can achieve. So to wrap up our conversation today, I want to ask you, what do you believe really makes the success of your company? What advice do you have to other companies to ensure that they are doing everything that they can so that their business is always successful, it’s always productive, and it’s always moving in the right direction?


Karen Norheim

You’ll hear a common thread, I think, in my comments. I’m going to say again, our amazing people are the key to our success. That coupled with a culture that embraces innovation, continuous improvement, and the development of our grit. I really think that that is a core value for companies to work on. When the challenges of last 12 months arrived, we couldn’t direct the wind but we were able to raise ourselves and adjust as needed. So by being able to overcome the the storm and the waves and keep our ship afloat, we did this by leveraging our grit to persevere and overcome those obstacles in our path. The world has been shifting and changing at an unprecedented rate—and this was not just from the pandemic this has been going on beforehand—so we really are in a time of disrupt or be disrupted. Our culture has given us the strength to endure, our skills and our business give us a plan to fight our future business battles, but we embrace our culture and our people as our secret weapon. Now, with our experience for the last 12 months, we actually also embrace our digital transformation, combined with our ability to adapt, manage, and leverage disruptive change. This is yet another competitive advantage. These have been crucial to our survival in the last 12 months, and I think will only continue to be so in the future. So my advice to other leaders is to cultivate your culture, your people, and make sure you’re on your digital transformation journey if you aren’t already there. Also, cultivate the skill of adapting, managing, and leveraging disruptive change.


Britt Erler

Absolutely. Congratulations to you, your father, to all of the teams that you have across the board for putting together such an incredible and inspiring company, and also a workforce and a culture that, as we mentioned, drives productivity and engagement, which is so crucial right now for every single business. So, Karen, thank you so much for your advice and your insights today. It’s been such a pleasure having you here. Thank you to everyone who has tuned in today as well. I’m sure you will have further questions for Karen. With that, we will have a discussion forum underneath this presentation. Please be safe, be healthy everyone, and enjoy the rest of the Operational Excellence Summit. Thank you.


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