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Leadership Strategies To Get The Best From Your Manufacturing Team

by | Sep 8, 2021 | Manufacturers Make Strides' interviews | 0 comments

What would you give to be able to effortlessly gain the wisdom that others have spent decades learning? What would the guidance of an industry leader mean to you as a professional?

Jim Fairbairn is an experienced manufacturing and design expert with decades of experience, endless pearls of leadership wisdom, and a deep-seated passion for helping people and businesses grow.

Starting an apprenticeship at the young age of 16 meant that Jim was exposed to a variety of different disciplines, perspectives, and ideas. However, his strong will and unique approach to what he does are what gave him his edge and ability to reframe almost any situation or challenge into an opportunity.

According to Jim, being able to build a legacy as a leader means being able to retain the fundamentals of leadership while evolving with younger workforces who value proactiveness and innovation.

How did your journey in manufacturing start?

I left school at 16 and did a four-year wide-ranging apprenticeship. I learned how to weld, how to machine, and I did mechanical fitting and electrical installation. It was fantastic and gave me that great grounding before I went on to university and moved into design.

I’ve always been into British manufacturing and have been able to build and make things, throughout my childhood. My dad was in engineering, so it ran in the family. It’s just always been part of me, so to be able to have a career in manufacturing is fantastic.

Apart from a brief stint in oil and gas as a design engineer, my whole career and all my general management experience has been in manufacturing, working for world-class, unbelievable companies. Manufacturing has given me a gift because I’ve learned continuous improvements and gained all the tools, methodologies and mindset to take into my personal life.

How have mentors impacted your life and your career?

I am very lucky to have worked with, and under, some amazing people in the UK, Europe, and the US. I’ve taken something from all of them and also tried to develop some of my own styles to bring in different thinking. All of my mentors had attributes that impressed me. They were thoughtful, intelligent, and mostly interested in people. Long-term thinkers with tremendous problem-solving skills, who really thought around value. They were builders of companies and people, they all wanted to leave a legacy, and that really drove me.

I’ve had a number of pinnacle moments, one was about a decade ago when we bought a company in Prague that needed a lot of work. We spent the first three months putting in a system, daily management etc, trying to get the business back on track for growth. One of the top CEOs from the US came over to visit us, three or four months in. We did a business review and then went on a walk to look at all the daily management. I left it to the site managers to walk around with the CEO and halfway through I see him looking over his shoulder. He walks over to me, brings me over, grabs me in front of 30 people and says, you need to hear this, you need to be doing this every day.

That was a pinnacle moment in so far as he may be the CEO, but I’m here helping people. I’m making the company better and I’m trying to instil continuous improvement in them. I’ve had these pinnacle moments throughout my career, so being able to look at mentors and model them has just been fantastic for me.

Do you think there are key principles of good leadership and what are they?

I think for me, the key attributes would be humility, restlessness, and creativity. What you’re trying to do as a leader is to drive, and build trust and followership. I think those three attributes are what people respond to.

During my career, I’ve always looked at leadership and studied people and books and tried to offer a selection of principles. For example, giving different perspectives to people and trying to constantly develop them from a good experience to a great experience. Many people I’ve worked with have lived that experience and it’s been a big influence on me. To look at an individual’s journey, in and out of work, and to try to help them.

As a leader, you have to make sure you get the best out of your team and ensure they’re match-fit in their daily existence. A lot of the chairmen I’ve worked for are thinking in five-to-10-year visions. They think about relevance, they don’t think about what they’re going to have for dinner tomorrow. It’s a different kind of mindset.


One of the other things I’ve learned to do is to reframe. I think that’s a key leadership trait. It’s about being able to see something different that moves a situation forward. All of us get stuck at times and being able to get past that is quite important.

An example of this and another pinnacle moment was in my first ever general management role. I was in my early 30s running a £5million company and one night there was a fire that devastated the facility. Probably about a third of the facility was ok, but the offices and some of the manufacturing plant was down. It was like, ‘my God this is the end!’ I was very early on in my managing director career at that point, so I phoned the chairman. He came down to have a look and he says, ‘Jim, this is absolutely fantastic. You’ll be able to build the company that you want from here!’

It was the fact he’d turned it around that made it one of those pinnacle moments for me, So reframing is something that I’ve been able to develop over the years. If my team struggling over something, if their heads are down or there’s frustration, do I see that or do I see a team that I can fire up on neurology.

In terms of leadership, do you think things have changed over the last ten years?

I think the answer to that is yes and no. The fundamentals will always be the same for leadership. You’re working with human nature. People respond to good leadership and all the attributes and principles that I’ve mentioned are valid.

What I think has changed, is young people and their expectations. They’re completely different. I’ve got a 16-year-old daughter who is just so worldly-wise in terms of culture. With social media, young people now are very mobile. They know what they want and their expectation for development and proactiveness is so much higher. They’re into equality and diversity, and as a leader, you have to be able to respond to that as it’s only going to accelerate as the years go on.

What are your opinions on culture change in business, and what’s your strategy?

It can be challenging and it can take a long time. Leaders need to lead from the front and they need to be consistent. What they do, it’s not a one-time event. I’ve always thought of it as a triangle between three things – culture, values, and engagement. For me, focusing on these three things will set you apart. I’m absolutely convinced of that.

Many people that work for me run teams, and they have to be engaging. They have to make sure that they hit the three-month or yearly objectives, the five-year vision. It’s about developing a 360 view for these individuals, including development. We offer coaching and mentoring opportunities and many have been encouraged to actually train as coaches. This has been a game-changer for us and in my mind, developing awareness is a big part of being match-fit.

With values, we did a lot of work figuring out what the company values were. We knew we were very value-driven and had a real, meaningful purpose for what we’re about. People played for the jersey with Megger, that was obvious, so we tried to define what the values were. I think we’ve been very successful in that, and we’re still building on it.

The culture for me is about developing problem-solving skills to break down barriers so that multi-functional team working is very strong. There are many problem-solving tools, but when you combine creativity and long-term views with these tools, then you can fly. A big aspect for me was to bring in a coaching culture, which has been very important.

So I think you have to work these in isolation. It’s like a flywheel, the more you do the more that it grows on its own. I would certainly, from experience, offer that as a strategy.

Is it important to make the ‘why’ of what you’re doing really clear to everyone?

Yes absolutely. I think companies spend a lot of time doing that – looking at the purpose of the company, the why, and the mission statement. But I’m not sure they all get it right, to be honest. I think it needs to evolve. If we’re going through a transition in our company, we will evolve.

For me, the key strategic question is how do you stay relevant in five or ten years’ time? That is a very powerful question and something that we chew over every month, every quarter when we have our leadership meetings. Are we still on that track? Can I articulate why you do what you do? It’s actually very important, and if it has to evolve, then I think that’s a good thing. Being able to do it well is part of the good-to-great transformation.

Good companies go to great companies because they’re unified. and everyone understands the why within the company. Undoubtedly, my why is around people development – that’s my why. Any company that I’m involved in, that’s at the centre of the strategy. With Megger, even though it’s manufacturing, even though it’s an industrial company, it’s actually all about people. For me, seeing the response from that is absolutely fantastic.

Are there any book recommendations that have been particularly impactful for you on your journey?

One book that had an early impact on me and still does, was recommended to me in my general manager role 20 years ago. It’s a book called Leading Up by Michael Useem, all about how you communicate and how you influence. It’s about teamwork, about being a leader, looking like a leader, how you act and how you position yourself.

I’ve been able to transpose some of the ideas and thinking to my leadership journey and my style. It’s had a massive influence on me, so I’d recommend that book. It’s not a well-known book, I don’t think, but it’s a fantastic book.

Where can people find out more about you?

They can look me up on LinkedIn and connect with me through there, send me a message and I’ll certainly get back to them. 

I’m actually also writing a book on leadership based on the people that I’ve worked with and taking a view on what I thought was good and not so good. I’ve no date for that yet but I’m working on it.

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