At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, when many businesses were bracing themselves against what was, SRC Holdings Corp. was envisioning what could be.
The Springfield-based remanufacturer, which comprises 10 companies, launched its first six-month Leading Edge Leadership Academy in 2019 – just the right time, it turned out, to address some of the unique challenges on the horizon. A cohort of 38 company leaders, collectively responsible for more than 800 associates, spent over 100 hours learning leadership practices and SRC culture while also gaining financial acumen through The Great Game of Business, the SRC-owned open-book management training program.
Krisi Schell, executive vice president of human resources, said the company saw staffing challenges coming down the pike, so they began looking ahead to the needs of the workplace of the future.
“We knew there were going to be worker shortages in the future based on sheer math – the number of people leaving the workforce, the lack of people in generations following them,” she said. Schell said SRC employs about 1,900 people companywide.
At the end of 2020 and the start of 2021, a large number of SRC associates retired, part of the “Great Resignation” experienced nationally, but they did so in part to take advantage of the value of the stocks they earned as employee owners, Schell said.
Other workers left to pursue higher pay elsewhere, according to Schell – and that was an important factor in establishing the Leading Edge program. Part of the training is educating frontline leaders so they can tell the story of SRC compensation and benefits. The company also raised its wages to stay competitive. Schell said SRC increased starting wages in each of its companies with most starting at $15 or more per hour.
Ensuring present and future leaders have the knowledge they need to do their jobs well and to lead others is what the Leading Edge program is about, Schell said.
“The best way that we can assure that is the experience is to spend time with frontline leaders to make sure they have that understanding,” she said.
While many companies struggle to find workers, SRC is hiring at a fast clip.
“Despite the war for talent, SRC has been able to hire and onboard 808 people in 2021,” said Michele Delcoure, marketing manager for The Great Game of Business. “We feel we have made huge strides even though we are still just over 100 people shy of having a full workforce.”
Jack Stack, founder, president and CEO of SRC Holdings Corp. and author of the book “The Great Game of Business,” said SRC had 200 people retire in the third and fourth quarters of 2018.
“We saw a tribal knowledge that was leaving the company – people that had been here 38 years were leaving,” he said. “There was a tremendous gap on one side, a tremendous opportunity on the other.”
Stack said SRC leadership listened to the people on the frontlines.
“They told us the people that are leaving aren’t the same as the people coming in. There was a whole new behavior,” he said. “The people who were leaving were here for careers; the people coming, it’s hard to tell a 20-something that there’s such a thing as a career, and get them to look out 10, 20 years.”
The employee owner concept is a principle that Stack constantly emphasizes. He said if associates develop the company – if they own it – they need to know its tools.
Stack said he has been impressed at the pace of learning of Leading Edge participants.
“I love throwing people in the deep end,” he said. “I was amazed at how fast the young people learned and are learning to this day. It’s been one of the most enlightening experiences in our company the last 40 years.”
A program overview for the Leading Edge Leadership Academy shows a mix of in-person and virtual instruction. Lessons from The Great Game of Business are peppered in with lessons on leadership styles and conflict management, as well as networking opportunities.
Leaders weigh in
Eric Coulter, production manager at SRC Heavy Duty, agrees with Stack: Younger workers are different.
“With the younger folks coming in, you see the difference between the work ethic and how things were in what we call the good old days,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out how to make those two work together to meet company goals.”
Stack put it more bluntly.
“I think the Leading Edge saved our butt during the COVID period, too,” he said. “It’s a change when Zs and millennials are coming in. It’s a hell of a change when you get COVID.”
Ty Teague, a 12-year employee and production assembly supervisor at SRC’s NewStream Enterprises, felt the pressure of trying to lead the mix of workers.
“I come from a background of pretty harsh leaders – a lead-with-the-fist kind of a mentality,” he said. “I probably came into leadership thinking that’s how I need to be – be assertive, be strong, basically don’t take no crap.”
Teague said SRC’s culture was a shock for him.
“You’re told you’re an employee owner; you add value to this company,” he said. “Until you live it, they’re just words.
“The Leading Edge was finally just that breaking point for me. Man, everything we should be doing – it’s like my name was tagged on there: ‘You’re doing it all wrong.’”
Teague came to understand that he needed to change.
“We expect employees to change with the times. I can’t expect my people to change without me changing as well,” he said.
Kim O’Neill, facility director at SRC Automotive, said through the Leading Edge program, she sees a chance to make a difference, and to help others make a difference, too.
“I want everyone to feel like they truly belong somewhere,” she said.
O’Neill started as a temp worker and rose to a factory director.
“There is nothing in your way. If you want it, you’ve got it,” she said.
Leland Dull, production manager at SRC Automotive, is a current Leading Edge participant. Though he is only a few classes in, he says the program has been an eye-opener.
Dull said he believes the Leading Edge program is a sign that the company is invested in its workers.
“I guess it’s nice to work for a company that’s willing to see the value in a person and pour into that value, more than looking at a textbook of their past and what they’ve got and determining where they go from that,” he said.
People are more than their pasts, according to Dull; there’s also a future to look forward to.
“One of the big things that I see in the leadership program is trying to make sure people know how to do it right before they do it wrong,” he said. “I’m getting a lot of knowledge in how to give people good guidance.
“Life’s about learning. Good guidance goes a long way.”
Research firm Mordor Intelligence reports the worldwide corrugated board packaging market was valued at nearly $173 billion in 2021, and it’s expected to reach $212 billion in 2027.