In today’s environment of reliability excellence, integrated maintenance/operations teams, new technologies and constant pressure to make maintenance more effective and elevate it to a prominent value-added position, the maintenance manager must become a business unit manager with equal footing with other plant functions.

Maintenance managers operate a business within a business. They have 24-hour/seven-days-a-week responsibility, a product to deliver, customers, resource allocations, planning, people development responsibilities, political acumen, accountability and drive. They also have the highest-trained workforce with a lot of untapped talent and creativity. What should this professional manager have in his backpack?

For the last 10 years of my career at the United States Postal Service, I sponsored a maintenance leadership mentoring program that was designed to improve and expand the abilities of our managers to meet the demands of today and tomorrow. We strived to first develop leaders, then business managers and finally maintenance management professionals. Each two-year class had 10 mentors matched with 10 protégés who were not from the same plant. They met together for eight weekly workshops over two years. All 20 people experienced the same training.

A full year of meetings and activities was devoted to the understanding of self and interpersonal effectiveness. Various methods were used to help the manager learn about himself and to understand diversity in others. In group discussions and by using psychologists, they discovered how they could become effective in leading, persuading and managing others as well as themselves.

At the end of the first year, they were immersed in formal classes on the business of business (marketing, accounting, economics, strategy and quantitative management). It is imperative to be able to converse with other functions in non-maintenance terms using their business lingo. When not in the classroom, workshops were held on process management, maintenance control, metrics, best maintenance practices and specific areas unique to each individual’s development needs.

They also subscribed to business magazines and attended professional society meetings and conferences. This was followed up with two weeks of reliability excellence training and with each individual taking the certified plant maintenance manager’s exam.

The awareness of self and the business of business were prescribed as foundation activities to build upon. Using this foundation and the expectations developed from the best maintenance processes, each person developed his or her own unique individual development plan to be completed in the two-year program. During the two-year program, these people also performed as operations supervisors for 90 days in their own plant and as maintenance managers for 90 days in another plant.

Probably the most controversial session was about civility or how the manager presents himself/herself in various settings. This ranged from table manners and writing thank-you notes to professional appearance and proper English. The mentors named it “the charm school session.” However, all participants were grateful they were there.

Mentors were nominated from their specific regions and received special training on mentoring. Most important was the concept that people are responsible for their own growth. While mentors fulfilled many roles, their prime efforts were to facilitate the protégé finding his or her answers. The best mentors were great storytellers and able to relate experiences from which the protégé could glean information for his or her individual decisions.

Very few managers have the privilege to participate in such a program, yet the basic tenants hold true — self, business acumen, process orientation, continuous personal growth and development of others. Industry needs the best trained and highly motivated workforce possible. Managers of today should work continuously to grow that environment in their companies. This responsibility lies with functional management; the human resources function acts to support (not own) the process.

It is within a manager’s authority to institute a learning environment. The managers at the top must set the example and truly believe in their own growth and that of their employees. They must walk the talk.