Generative HSE
Safety beliefs, standards, leadership & performance


Leadership Sets Culture; Culture Drives Performance


-Jim Nielson

In this article I will tell you a story where a change in leadership style created a much happier and more harmonius workplace, and therefore a moreproductive workplace.

Early in 2016 I attended a talk by Daryl Gibson, ex-All Black and current head coach of the NSW Waratahs.

In 2012 the NSW Waratahs were often booed by their own supporters, and their administrators publicly spoke about the “alarming drop” in attendance at their home games. I know, because, despite having missed only ten of their home games in the previous twenty years, my mate and I had discussed turning in our memberships. We didn’t want to pay good money to watch a team that had no heart. In 2013 a new coach, Michael Cheika, was appointed, and he installed Dave Dennis as captain. The Waratahs made the semis that year. The following year, 2014, they won the competition and backed that up with a strong third place finish in 2015, going down to the eventual champions in the semis.

Durring his talk Daryl asked the audience for a show of hands. His question was: “What is most important - leadership, performance or culture?”

From where I was standing about 60% of those present voted for performance, 30% culture and 10% leadership.

Daryl then explained why he believed leadership to be most important. He credited Michael Cheika and Dave Dennis with changing the culture of the team. He believed the work ethic of the team was derived from the culture and that work ethic determined their performance on the field. 

It’s exactly the same in the work place. Leadership sets culture; culture drives performance.

If you are negative, cranky or unresponsive, then your people will see those traits and behave in a similar fashion. Make sure your place of work is an enjoyable place to be, and treat your people with respect.

Thomas S. Monson, in his publication Pathways to Perfection, writes: “When we treat people merely as they are, they will remain as they are. When we treat them as if they are what they should be, they will become what they should be.”

The story I’m going to relate goes back over thirty years, but it shows how a change in leadership style and approach can have a resounding impact on culture.

In the early 1980s I was employed as a Machine Foreman at the Slab Caster at Port Kembla Steelworks, but I was probably spending more than half my time working as a Shift General Foreman, covering that position when others were on leave etc.

At that time the Slab Caster was a hot bed of industrial trouble. It seemed that rarely a fortnight went by without at least one strike. One particular crew were the worst - let’s call them Shift X. They had a reputation of going on strike every fourth Thursday (first afternoon shift and payday). Regularly at about 18:00 , they’d invent some excuse to walk off the job. The reasons varied, but by far the most popular was “foreman’s attitude”.

I remember on one occasion when I was relieving the regular General Foreman, the Machine Foreman on the shift performed a two-minute task that was part of the operator’s job. At the time the operators were all in the lunch room, and had been for quite some time, as there was a problem with the supply chain further up the line. The Machine Foreman could easily have asked one of them to perform the task, but he was walking past and thought it would probably be less irksome to do it himself than to interrupt their card game. He’d done the same sort of thing many times before. But this time was different. It was about 17:30 on a Thursday afternoon shift. Shift X went on strike. Staff performing wages work!

As individuals, I didn’t think they were bad people, but when they grouped together they seemed to develop some sort of pack mentality that created poor behaviour. Because of the way this crew behaved, supervisors on all shifts, including their own, openly spoke of them in disparaging terms and spoke to them disrespectfully, especially in a group situation.

Their attitude and behaviour became the norm; it was what was expected of them. There was no reason for them to behave any differently.

There is no doubt in my mind that Shift X wasn’t a happy crew. The operators knew the supervisors didn’t like working on their shift and that they themselves were not liked in any way, shape or form. I know that when I was asked to perform relief work on Shift X, I looked forward to the day I finished the secondment and returned to my normal shift.

In hindsight, to a certain extent I don’t think many of the operators liked what they’d become either.

One day when I was working on my normal shift I was called into the Assistant Superintendent’s office. He told me they had decided to promote the incumbent General Foreman on Shift X to a day shift position, and I would be promoted to General Foreman to take his place. The Assistant Superintendent said he was sorry to do this to me because Shift X were “a pack of animals and no-one can control them” (his exact words if I recall correctly). He further said they had considered moving one of the more experienced General Foremen onto that shift and giving me a less troublesome shift but thought that wouldn’t be fair to anyone they moved. So I was stuck with it and would have to do the best I could. I got the impression he expected me to fail.

Getting this promotion was something I had worked hard for over a number of years. I should have walked out of the Assistant Superintendent’s office feeling proud and happy. Instead I walked out feeling deflated.

I had about a fortnight’s notice before I had to change shifts and start in the new role. I remember thinking, “What am I going to do to change them? How can I get them on side?”

One thing I knew for certain was that I couldn’t allow the supervisors and operators on the shift to keep speaking to each other in the confrontational manner that currently existed.

I was of the opinion that the behaviour of the staff (supervisors) on the shift was borne out of frustration and that they copied the incumbent General Foreman to a certain extent. I thought they would be amenable to change and I could lead by example and mentor them in treating people respectfully. The operators were a different kettle of fish. I wasn’t sure what to do with them.

It was around the time that Indoor Cricket was all the rage. Some of the Slab Caster shift crews had formed teams and played against other shifts or their compatriots in other departments of the steelworks in social games. I’d played in some of those games. I don’t know why I chose that avenue, but I decided that my new crew should get involved and form an Indoor Cricket team.

Obviously everyone on Shift X knew me as I had worked on the shift many times as both a Machine Foreman and in the General Foreman’s role. The first day on the job I told the staff (supervisors) I wanted to try and improve the relationship between staff and wages on the shift and of my idea of forming a shift Indoor Cricket team. They thought it was worth a go and were willing to support the concept.

So early on in the shift I went to the main crib room and suggested to the operators that we form this team and challenge some of the other shifts. My suggestion was we split the crew in half (floor vs rest) and have a game amongst ourselves, then pick a shift team to challenge the other crews. The floor operators were interested and said if I could sell it to the rest of the crew, they’d come up with a team. I told them to pick a captain of the floor team. I also told them all the staff were willing to play if selected.

Later on in the shift, I went around the other sections of the plant to sell it to the operators working there, only to find the floor operators had already spoken to them before I arrived and they were in. The operators selected two teams, and I booked a court for the game to be played after our last day shift (three weeks away). In the ensuing weeks there was a lot of talk amongst the crew about who would win and their cricketing abilties, all in good jest. The supervisors on the shift were scattered between the two teams.

When I turned up at the Indoor Cricket Centre to play I was surprised to see that a few of the players had brought their wives and young kids along to watch. The wives all wanted to meet me and talk with me and the other supervisors present. I suspect they were a bit surprised about how we conducted ourselves after so many strikes over the “foreman’s attitude”.

There were also a few of the non-playing crew members present to watch.

Thegame, whilst not a great exhibition of cricket skill, was a great success, with lots of friendly banter, joking and laughter. After the game most of us adjourned to a local hotel for a couple of drinks before heading home.

As the game was on our last day shift, it was five days later and our first night shift before I saw everyone again. When I went into the crib room to check on everyone at the start of the shift, it was very apparent the game was the only topic of conversation. Those who had been present were telling everyone else about it and joking about each other’s cricketing ability.

Everyone wanted to do it again, so we organised a rematch for our last day shift and played again four weeks after the first game. This time more of the operators and some of the staff brought their wives along to watch and socialise after the game. It was fairly obvious the wives enjoyed the social atmosphere as well as meeting some of their husbands’ workmates and their wives.

We played a couple more times before they picked a shift team and challenged another crew. This became a regular event with at least one game a month.

A few weeks after our first game against another crew, we had tee-shirts printed. One of the cartoonists on shift had designed them for us. It was a representation of a caster with a big gear stick that had a cricket ball as a knob sticking out of the casting floor and the logo “X Shifton the Floor” written under it. Nearly everyone on the shift bought at least one - not just the players. They proudly wore them to and from work - not just at the games.

It was a little over a year after I took over the crew when I was again called in to the Assistant Superintendent’s office. It was performance appraisal time. The first thing he said to me was, “Do you know Shift X hasn’t been on strike for over a year? I don’t know what you’ve done or how you’ve done it, but you’ve succeeded.”

I knew we’d well and truly turned the corner about six months before that.

The General Foreman always tried to be present on the floor at the start of a cast, just in case of trouble. I had a habit where about once a week at a start of cast I would say to one of the operators, “You be General Foreman and stand back. I’ll take the lever”. I would then perform the operator’s job at start up while he watched.

I did this one day when there was an operator from another shift present on overtime. He watched me do the operator’s job at start up. He then went to speak to the “leader” of the operators, not the union delegate, but the bloke who told the union delegate what to do. I heard him say something like, “That’s staff doing wages work. We have to go on strike.” The leader looked him straight back in the eye and said something a little like, “Get lost. That’s Jim”. I knew right then and there that we had a team.

I wanted to punch the air and scream “YES”, but I pretended I didn’t hear it.

The cricket didn’t stop there. A few of the better players joined a team in a regular competition. Some of them and their wives formed a team and played in a mixed competition.

I often ponder what was the key to the change? Like most things I think there were a number of relevant factors.

·       The change in General Foreman gave them a chance for a fresh start.

·       The cricket gave them something that they enjoyed and could all talk about during down time. It was the start of making work a fun place to be.

·       I did not try to be their friend. In fact, I demanded higher standards and got more from them than the previous General Foreman. However, I did try to get to know them – their wives’ names, the number and ages of their kids, their interests outside of work etc.

·       I took the opportunity to interact with their wives and families and showed them the staff were normal human beings.

I think all of the above were part of the change. However, if the other staff on shift and I had continued to speak about them and treat them in the disrespectful manner they had grown accustomed to, all that would have been for nought.

I can’t ever recall talking to the crew about all the strikes and their previous behaviour. This wasn’t deliberate - it just never came up and it wasn’t relevant to what I was trying to do.

I probably didn’t fully understand what I was doing because we didn’t use words like “root cause” and “culture” back then. But when I look back at what we did, we worked on the root cause and solved the culture issue of the crew. As a result, most of the other issues became redundant.

Remember Thomas Monson’s words: “When we treat people merely as they are, they will remain as they are. When we treat them as if they are what they should be, they will become what they should be.”

Remember: Leadership sets culture, and culture drives performance.

Treat your people with respect, and make your work place an enjoyable place to be.

My name is Jim Neilson, and I provide a mentoring service to company managers and frontline leaders. The expertise I provide is based on the learnings I gained from my experiences and safety journey as an Operations Supervisor and Manager at BlueScope Steel’s Port Kembla works.


ArticlesKristy McGrathComment