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Leadership in Times of Crisis

The COVID-19 crisis has illuminated the need for and the value of leadership and manufacturing in our country  By Shaunna Black


In the spring of 2020, companies in the manufacturing industry were thrust into the limelight as essential businesses. In the news and across social media, the manufacturers and its people were showcased in powerful ways, with images of diverse, technical, capable people in modern glass and light-filled spaces, surrounded by robots and stainless-steel equipment. Suddenly, manufacturing looked techier and more cutting edge than ever before.

Stories of manufacturing increasing and repurposing production for healthcare, societal needs, and ordinary living produced daily examples of people working together. As 26 million people applied for unemployment, many manufacturing companies provided financial security and opportunity for their people while working hard to keep them safe and healthy.

Manufacturing employees and America at large began paying attention. Impressions of the industry were being revised and careers were being reconsidered. It is now in the hands of manufacturing leaders to take advantage of this opportunity. This article will explore how leaders in the M4.0 era can seize the opportunity, transform workplaces, and unleash the potential of multi-generational teams.

How the Gen Y and Gen Z Workforce Differ 

Beginning in 2017, five generations were employed in the American workplace with people born after 1980 making up the largest percentage. Gen Z is the youngest, born first in 1997 and are now 23 years old in 2020. Born first in 1981, the oldest Gen Y (Millennials) are now 39 years old in 2020.1

Both Gen Y and Gen Z are the most ethnically and racially diverse of any previous generation. By 2018, there were more 27-year-olds in the workforce than people of any other age, even though the most common age for white Americans was 582. Gen Y and Gen Z are digital natives, early adopters of digital and technology devices, and constantly connected. E-commerce and social media is a way of life and they understand the sharing economy. They are entrepreneurial, like to invent things, and want to have positive impact on the world. Thinking globally, they are inclusive and embrace change rapidly.


Manufacturers need the next generations (Gen Y and Gen Z) of tech savvy, creative problem solvers to power the M4.0 era.

Gen Y and Gen Z want to work for younger, more diverse leaders who look and sound like them. Work is a thing, not a place or a time. Though they work hard, they want to set their own schedule to accommodate their work-life balance. They prefer self-directed, flexible, growth assignments utilizing their gifts and talents. Typically, they find jobs through family, friends, and social media. They quickly change jobs if their expectations aren’t met and don’t expect to have a career with just one company.

Manufacturing’s Talent Challenges Prior to COVID-19 

In general, under-40 job seekers are interested in careers in technology, startups or consulting. These careers have the image of being innovative, entrepreneurial and rewarding. Pre COVID-19, manufacturing had the image of being low tech, career insecure as jobs moved offshore, and operating with old practices and cultures.3

This old school image created a skills and talent gap in manufacturing. Baby boomers are retiring, and young talent hasn’t been interested. Reports suggest there will be 3 million unfilled jobs by the year 20254 and, though the COVID-19 crisis may extend the timeline, the trajectory won’t change unless aggressive actions are taken. Manufacturers need the next generations (Gen Y and Gen Z) of tech savvy, creative problems solvers to power the M4.0 era.

Multi-Generational Teams Are Driving Manufacturing’s Transformation 

As Gen Y and Gen Z workers continue to enter the workforce, more manufacturing teams are composed of four generations. High-performing, multi-generational teams produce greater creativity, productivity, and sustainable business results. These teams are rich with a diversity of perspectives, talents, experience, and skills but require highly skilled leaders to unleash their potential.

A shared purpose – understanding why a company’s products and services make the world a better place – is the foundation for a team’s passion, collaboration, and decision making5. These teams expect ownership both in the design of their work and culture and resist others doing it for them. Out of conflict, they become more skilled in making agreements around trust, communication, and teamwork.

They operate as empowered, interdependent teams and leaders participate in decision making rather than directing it. Their diversity of experience and competencies allow them to see problems from every angle, create more innovative solutions, and eliminate potential risks.

Multi-generational teams have strengths and skills that are complementary. As trust and personal understanding grows, they share their knowledge, learn from each other, and expect continuous growth. Working together and sharing personal stories strengthens their relationships. These teams are more agile, deliver better performance, and thrive even in times of disruption.


The Need for New Leadership Competencies and Behaviors 

Many manufacturing leaders depend on technical and operational expertise to succeed. A survey from The Global Center for Digital Business Transformation shows a need for future leaders to have a much broader and richer set of skills. However, nearly 80% of the 1,000 global executives surveyed indicated they were not fully prepared for the digital age  6. The research also revealed that leadership effectiveness in disruptive environments shared the following characteristics:

  • Humility: They can accept feedback and acknowledge that others know more than they do.
  • Adaptability: They accept that change is constant and changing their minds based on new information is a strength rather than a weakness.
  • Vision: They have a clear sense of long-term direction, even in the face of short-term uncertainly.
  • Engagement: They have a willingness to listen, interact, and communicate with internal and external stakeholders combined with a strong sense of interest and curiosity in emerging trends.

These leadership qualities are key to recruiting and retaining this talent. Identifying leaders at all levels with these competencies and behaviors, who also reflect the diversity of the available workforce, is critical. Rapidly promoting and growing them with coaching and experiential learning may be the fastest route to closing the leadership gap.

Leadership On the Front Lines 

Amid the national crisis, manufacturing entered dangerous, turbulent, unchartered territory. Every moment was critical for leadership as they worked hard to keep everyone safe, healthy and the boats afloat while anticipating the next challenge around the bend. They’ve cared for their people, empowered them, removed barriers, adapted to rapid changes, celebrated small victories, and led their people to calmer waters.

From the first days of the crisis, leaders were focused on their people. Except for the people essential to operating the manufacturing line, everyone was sent home to work remotely. The top priority for everyone was serving these front line people and keeping them safe and healthy. The goal was zero illnesses, and everyone did whatever it took to ensure its success. Production goals became secondary to this new primary goal.


People are at the core of the success. Teams are committed, talented, and productive and they have delivered extraordinary results.

The news from around the country was changing daily. Never before had ̒people first’ been more important in guiding leaders’ behavior. People were scared and interactions became more vulnerable and authentic. Leaders listened with empathy to the stories of their people’s lives (risk factors, age, child care, family members as first responders and medical personnel, sick family members, etc.) so they could best serve them. Communication was transparent and constant. Seeking input from others was crucial.

Rapid decision making was critical. Sometimes it took courage when information was limited. Mistakes happened, but leaders’ ability to anticipate, respond, and correct strengthened. Quickly implementing lessons learned enabled people to grow in their competencies and confidence.

Entrepreneurial mindsets soared. Roles became very fluid and mobile. People volunteered to take on new responsibilities, solve unexpected problems, cross-train, seek creative solutions from their networks, and simplify their work.

Data analytics and technology enabled quick responses. Everyone from remote workers to front line people gained new appreciation for digital technology. Opportunities for future investments were highlighted including digital security, 5G networks, robotics, and robotic process automation (RPA).

During the crisis, leadership was personal and focused on their people. As a result, teams became more committed and engaged. Everyone was in the boat together. Together they would make it to calm water. Bonds created in the rapids would be the glue in their community long after the crisis.

The Opportunity is Now! 

Manufacturing is woven into the fabric of people’s lives. The industry and the products they provide impact how people work, live, learn, and play. The crisis has produced a shift in the image and appeal of jobs in the manufacturing industry. They are now seen as providing safety, financial security, and opportunity while other industries are struggling. Manufacturing’s image has been redefined as cool, high-tech, innovative, and rewarding.

People are at the core of the success. Teams are committed, talented, and productive and they have delivered extraordinary results. Leaders have enabled and empowered their people to express their limitless potential.

There have been many examples of leaders transforming themselves and their workplaces to meet the challenges of the crisis. Trust, communication, teamwork, and capability grew, and teams become more agile, entrepreneurial, and creative. Leaders are now leading in a way that elevates everyone and transforms workplaces. When your people look back on this season, will they say you were such a leader?   M



1   Pew Research Center, Defining Generations: Where Millennials and Generation Z Begins, Michael Dimock, 1/17/19
2   Pew Research Center, The Most Common Age Among Whites in the US is 58 – More Than Double That of Racial and Ethnic Minorities, Katherine Schaeffer, 7/30/19
3   Deloitte’s 2018 Skills Gap in Manufacturing Study
4   NAM Outlook Survey Results Q2 2019
5   Start with the Why, Simon Sinek, 2009
6   Redefining Leadership for a Digital Age, Wade, Tarling, Neubauer, Global Center for Digital Business Transformation, 3/17

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