The Secret Sauce of Leadership: Creating Leaders Who Lead Cultures with Rue Patel
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CLASSIC EPISODE! (Originally Aired January 23, 2021)
Lisa Ryan: Hey, it's Lisa Ryan. Welcome to the Manufacturers' Network Podcast. I'm excited to introduce you to our guest today Rue Patel. For 15 years, Rue Patel led General Mills' largest manufacturing site. He was accountable for delivering expected quantifiable results with a focus on employee consumer and environmental responsibility.
Rue is the founder of Rue Works. He works with smaller businesses to define and implement their growth strategy, provide executive coaching to their leaders, and speak at industry conferences. Welcome to the show.
Rue Patel: They said, thank you so much. Thanks for having me.
Lisa Ryan: Well, I know that you spent most of your career at General Mills, but you share with us a little bit about your journey.
Rue Patel: Yeah, so my manufacturing journey started at PepsiCo, followed by 29 years at General Mills in various roles, mostly manufacturing, but some Research and Development roles. We had an incubator, a little business where we had a skunkworks factory and did some cool experimental things. I found that my love and passion was in building our brands through excellent manufacturing to driving people leadership, people growth, and development of great talent, driving great processes that deliver great results for General Mills.
And our $2 billion plant was an example of one that doubled in size in the last seven or eight years. And we were able to do a lot of that without capital and without adding additional headcount, so purely through improvement and some great technology.
It was the use of that technology with great planning, so it's been a lot of fun. I then kicked into Rue Works when I retired a few months ago. It's a passion to help smaller businesses - under 100 million dollars thereabouts - and help them improve themselves through the same things: strategy development, people development, and talent acquisition. In some cases, finding ways to improve their processes, streamline their systems, and drive to the bottom line. And that's been just a lot of fun.
Lisa Ryan: Yeah, and it sounds like you're able to easily translate a lot of the work that you did for such a massive company like General Mills into working with smaller organizations. Part of what we're trying to do with this podcast is to show how easily transferable some of these ideas are.
You and I have had many conversations about some of the cool things you did a General Mills. But I was hoping you could share with our listeners some of the different philosophies that you had. And some of the other things you did at General Mills that now you're translating that key the clients you're working with today.
Rue Patel: Yeah, so I'm a believer that General Mills, just a great company, is a company of people. It's a people company that happens to make food. For me, the center of this thing is people and the ability to develop people to see things differently, see themselves differently, and expand different roles.
I have done a lot of work with our minority and diversity groups, as I'm of Asian descent and a first-generation immigrant; and with women in our organization. Mentoring, supporting, leading, guiding, and sometimes pushing and kicking people to do things they didn't think they'd achieve. A third of our General Mills factory leaders who reported to me are now directors. I have worked on my teams at some point in their career. And I'm super proud of that.
So beyond the quantifiable stuff. It's the leadership of people, and then their ability to develop a strategy, make a plan and then execute that plan to drive results and do it the right way is stuff I've worked on. So that's the part that I get excited about is seeing that thing mushroom.
So I approached things without a template or canned approach. It's like observe, see, go to the data analysis, understand what's happening, talk to the folks, develop strategies that you can get your arms around and implement. We didn't want to throw around big words, nor throw about big concepts, nor throw earth-changing things that companies that are doing well but want to get better at. But just like, let's find a niche.
So you can take this thing a couple of levels higher, develop some people some talent and move that organization in a very structured and organized way that didn't seem like a template that got dropped on them.
I want to do things that fit their culture and their mold instead of force-fit an organization, so it's a very different approach than a lot of the ordinary consultants. These consultants have a program, and they're trying to force you into their program. So I stay completely away from that part of it. Now I use elements of things that have grown up with the Toyota manufacturing principles, such as work, and they work great.
So transforming those into workable components that a small manufacturer or small business can leverage takes a little bit of work and takes some finesse, but there are ways to do that. We work within the culture, technology, and maturity of an organization instead of just dumping them onto a company.
Lisa Ryan: One of the key things that stuck out in my mind is when you talked about the number of leaders who ended up working for you at General Mills. Paying attention to people within an organization who have leadership skills and then bringing them up through the ranks sounds like a great way for people to find replacements for themselves as they move up. How did you accomplish that? Like, what were you looking for, or how did you bring those leaders up.
Rue Patel: Almost 27-28 years ago, General Mills didn't have great orientation programs and weren't great development programs. So through my experiences at PepsiCo and in school, I put together a basic Excel spreadsheet with the things I would have liked to have in my development portfolio. I wanted to know what I would have needed right off the bat to be a better leader for the folks I served. We built that, and we took that template and built a boot camp. We brought our young leaders in, and through the course of 20 plus years of General Mills, I'm super happy to facilitate every one of those sessions that thousands, thousands of General Mills leaders through these sessions. We incorporated other folks and brought in other leaders and specialists who could help them with skills. But the core of this thing was building a foundation of leadership.
And so that thing has been a passion of mine because it's something I missed when I came to work. And when I was young, in my career. And I want to make sure that people had that now. Often, people follow a template in their mind in terms of by 26 I want to do this, by 36, and one of this by 40, I want to beat this - they often fail to look at their potential, and frequently when you give them some positive reinforcement, you provide them with a kick in the right direction.
I'd meet with our young leaders monthly. And so part of it is committing the time to go and do that. And then, they'd come up with a homework assignment every time, so they'd say, every time I come in here and get some work. And we do some follow-up work, and we get introspective. We look at what they want to do. We look at things that challenge them. Work on different skills and techniques that help them become better leaders. Hey, what's the problem you're having on the floor. Well, I had this person that had an issue, and we had a little bit of a conflict or conflict resolution. Let's talk about some of that. Let's work on it. Instead of doing it through a big seminar with hundreds of people, we focused one on one, and saying, based on your skills and your style and work that you're doing, how would you go about addressing that conflict? Let's work on those things.
So those folks would have homework, and they come back and say, hey, I tried it, and it worked or tried it, and it didn't work. And let's analyze that and let's figure out why it doesn't work. So paying attention to focus is essential; paying attention to individuals matters.
Lisa Ryan: So going back to that original spreadsheet. What were some of the key things that were on it that you were looking for?
Rue Patel: So for any leader, an organization, some basic financial skills. How does the cost structure at my company work? From that, more importantly, what do I control, and how do I impact? It wasn't just "here's a p&l." It was like, "Okay, here's a p&l; let's bring it down to what you do at your level." And here's three or four things you can do to impact that was one of developing your value base, and your brand is of either was critical. Early in someone's career. So how do you do that? How does it show up? What things challenge you in those environments? And how do you make sure that you stay steadfast on your values? Always stay steadfast on your leadership ability was important - things like your commitment to safety and food quality. We made a million Cheerios a minute. They had to be right, every one. No exception.
How do you commit to that, how do you bring your team and commit to those things? How do you work on nurturing the culture on your team - because that's super important. How does that communication strategy work for your team?
Well, Whether there's a small team of operators, mechanics, or it's a team of 200 people in a department that you run or a small factory that you're on a General Mills. How do you go about creating effective communication strategies? That's real. And it touches your folks to want to do something, want to be something, and drive something different.
So we focused on some fundamental elements and worked with many leaders around the country to understand more about leadership. So you can read books and watch TED talks and videos like so many resources. I buried myself in coach John Wooden's learnings from UCLA basketball and then four years plus or minus with Coach Developing Leadership Institute. I use some of those foundational things that we put together for corporations, he already had that for basketball, but this is for corporations. Guess what; it's the same.
And then we worked with coaches, generals in the Air Force, leaders in our communities and asked, "What are the three or four basic elements of leadership that we can teach our folks that take away the complications?
To be a good leader takes a bit of secret sauce. But there's a lot of simplicity to it. Through my work with Rue Works, I found that it's the same set of skills, tools that work with the CEO of this manufacturer that also works with his floor leaders. The same stuff, different game, different scale but the foundational elements of the same, so it's breaking this thing down and making it simple. Hard to do, but the concepts are simple.
Lisa Ryan: Well, and the simplicity about it is that it not only looks at the leader for his or her performance at work. It gives them personal skills that they can use in the rest of their life as well. If you are sharing your numbers with your employees and teaching them about balance sheets and all of that financial stuff appropriate for the workplace, it also helps them in their personal finances. You're working at their values. Now you're creating this family feeling of people who have values and making sure you're getting the right people on the bus. It sounds like you're taking a holistic approach where we're not only looking at, hey, this guy's a Rock Star, and he has this resume pedigree. That's going to be great but as a human being. He's just a horrible human being that's not working, where we're looking at that holistic approach.
Rue Patel: Right. So we started with values and understood the characteristics of a leader. As you might expect, it's the same thing I expect from my leaders. That my folks would expect for me. And if you generate those lists along with levels in the organization. They're not that different. They're not that different people expecting from the leaders.
So we work on those things around a specific set of core values. And we go from there. Let me skill-build around that. As opposed to dropping a template on people and saying, well, you fit in this box. Let's fit you in this box. It's like every company is a different box. And we got to find out what their box looks like and then figure out how to fill it and then overflow it, but it starts with values, and you're right to the point where great leaders are great at work. But they're great people. They do great things outside of work. They do great things with their family. They're great in their communities. And it's the same leadership traits characteristics that show up along the board, so simplicity is is an excellent place to start.
Lisa Ryan: Absolutely. Well, what are you finding with the clients you're working with as far as what is keeping manufacturers up at night?
Rue Patel: I think the lack of talent that's available is keeping people up. So the small manufacturers of work with many, many of them are family-owned businesses. They've grown. They've got a great product. They've grown, and they're kind of stuck.
They're looking at who's going to take over that company in three to five years. What's their succession plan look like? And there's a skill set that's missing. And sometimes it's generational, but it's hard for a parent owner of a CEO, for example, to address a family member about skills about work ethic, about values, right. And so we're finding that those things in the scale of companies that I want to work with. Simple things that keep people up are true or real obstacles for family businesses and keeping things from progressing further their inhibiting growth.
For example, I'm working with a $25 million company that wants to be a $50 million organization, and they've got some great tools to do that. I talked to their CEO, and I said, hey, if you've got eight people on your team, six of them need to be 100 million dollars thinkers for you to be a successful $50 million company. But if you've got a bunch of $12 million thinkers that are just struggling and by following suit, you're never going to get there. You're just not going to get there.
So how do we address that gap? How do we manage that thinking and sometimes be quite frankly have to fire them? And sometimes you have to develop it, and there's a combination.
So again, to my point. You work with the individuals and see where they can go and how they can grow, and their aspirations versus dropping in a predefined kit for that company. Each one's been different. And each one's been fun to work with an exciting. I'm not saying easy, but they're challenging, but they're great to work with once they realize that. Here's how I needed to think for us to grow as an organization. So that discovery process is real for the CEOs and the owners of these companies. Sometimes it's pretty scary for them when it says all your family members don't have the skills or they don't have the desire. They're happier sitting in the office; they're happy to drive the fancy car. Why we have the desire to do it the same way you did it.
Lisa Ryan: And so what is one way you can get somebody who is a $12 million thinker to 100 million dollar thinker? What's your approach to mindset? I realize that it varies from person to person, but is there a good rule of thumb to start that process?
Rue Patel: If there is, and I think it does vary from person to person. So, listening to them, seeing how they operate and then getting some good data on them from their team. Here's how they come across. Here's how they operate. They may not even show up to work on time and maybe really some simple foundational things where, hey, I'm the boss, this kid. I don't need to show up till ten, and I'm going to take a two-hour lunch, right. So sometimes it's just a work ethic - show you care. But when it comes to some foundational skills, say financial skills.
There are tools available to help that understanding and to build a document. But the broader part of it as well. How do you get that across, how do you build trust? How do you communicate with the team? How do you show you care? How do you show that you're capable of providing that leadership five years from now to run this company? That people can't see you now. And if there's damage done, it's even harder to undo some of that damage. How do you build trust and take it down a few levels - just having some good conversations with some people. So each case is going to be different. But we look at the leadership elements first, and then we focus on the functional skills that time with those leadership elements that go later with that. So you want a $12 million thinker, to be a better leader, a better thinker, and then be a better financial person. Right. So there's also this thing he says you know about the attitude. Sometimes you have to, to just not there. And so that's a more difficult question to deal with. And so, well, what can they do well and this figure out what that isn't this company as opposed to the role that I'm in right now. And sometimes it's ego busting, and it's hard. It's easier for me to do it than for dad to do it for mom to do it because those conversations rarely happen, and they're not effective. So, each one's different. And sometimes it's just gotta be delicate with the stuff, I mean, especially with small businesses.
Lisa Ryan: Right. So from a networking standpoint, if you were to look from both sides, What information, resources, or help would you like to gain from other manufacturing colleagues? What are some of the knowledge, skills, and expertise you can share with other manufacturers and related industries?
Rue Patel: I always have had this principle, where I want to hang out with people that are better than me. And I don't want anybody in my group that's not as good as me. I don't want to sound egotistical, but it forces your A-game when you surround yourself with people better. It forces you to learn; it forces you to pay attention, simply because I don't want to get left behind, so I have to work harder. It's easy for a retiree to be like in coast mode, yet I got this. And when I say that I'm not learning and be around people that I can learn from - whether it's around great leaders, around great tacticians, or folks who can execute a plan. Great negotiators are good as I'm looking for those skills, and I'm looking for people that I even my personal life.
I want these people to be better than me in every aspect, not maybe one person's got everything but in different things. I can look for a better communicator. Better bike rider more put more effort into, well, I could put more effort into that, but I can also put more effort into other things, right. So it's all translatable to me. And then I'm so I like to surround myself with that, and I measure that I'm always thinking to myself, I need to be around that person because I can learn from them. So learning is a great avenue. To kind of open myself up and,