January/February 2011

the final say/Views from Automation Leaders

Leaders are obligated to the future

By Dean Ford

The automation profession has clearly suffered from a lack of leadership in the decades leading up to the 2000s. Organizations and people in charge of those organizations that should have had our profession's future in mind were only focused on the now. Consequently, we let the information technology professionals take over our domain. We did not push industry for certifications and allowed the profession to be tainted. We did not demand training and education programs from academia to create the next generation of professionals. We allowed MBAs to minimize our rolls and reduce our staffs, making things more difficult for us and hurting manufacturing in general. We did not educate the public on the importance of the work we do, and now are faced with a daunting future of scarce resources with increasing demand.

Fortunately, a recent group of leaders has recognized the profession has not reached its potential. They realize past opportunity was squandered. They realize the time has come to secure the prominence the profession deserves. It takes planning and long-term dedication. It takes a clear vision of what the future should be with the tactical planning that is required to set things in motion.

Today, it is a small, but growing, army. They fight battles internally and externally, and they trudge on. To their detriment, they do not speak as loudly as their critics do. I personally plan to change this situation.

The old adage says: "Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way." Over the last two decades as an automation professional, all three responses have been required of me. Unfortunately, I find many of my peers and colleagues tend not to be leaders. Worse yet, many consider themselves leaders because they have a title of manager. I bet we all know a few people that may be great managers but are definitely not leaders. Being a leader is exciting and very rewarding. The thrill of taking on challenges that others shy away from, doing what "can't be done," overcoming the impossible, changing the world, helping teams accomplish things they did not think they could do is unmatched.

Regrettably, many people that consider themselves leaders forget the most important part of leadership-the future. What happens to your team and efforts when you are gone? This is the essence of leadership. Are you a one-time event, or a transformational and lasting change to your team, your organization, your industry, and your circle of influence?

A true leader has the obligation to tackle today's challenges while setting their team up for success in the future. The best leaders set things in motion in fundamental ways such that, regardless of the situation, the team consistently performs at exceptional levels.

These leaders look forward, analyze the landscape, and develop a vision of what the future could be and should be. They buck the system and public opinion when they know they are right. Their vision blinds them to the detractors and the negative rhetoric. They also realize they cannot do it alone. They find like-minded individuals that have specific talents to build the vision. They set the vision in motion and staff it with a team that will get it done.

I believe the best leaders emerge when things are tough. That is one of the key differences between a leader and manager. A manager can lead through the normal and expected and even appear to be setting a path for the future. A leader can lead through abnormal and unexpected. A manager is good at following processes, policies, and filling out paperwork. A leader is good at developing the processes and policies that enable managers to be successful.

I am a firm believer in the 80/20 rule. I believe 80% of your problems are your fault. You can blame 20% on things beyond your control. This rule applies to people and businesses equally. You can try to blame the economy for the last few years of tough times, but if you really analyze it, 80% of it could have been avoided by inwardly focusing on areas of improvements. Plenty of businesses and people thrive during downturns. These people and businesses not only expected and planned for the downturn, they welcomed it. They had leaders at the helm that looked forward and made the necessary changes to weather the storm.

Are you a leader? Do you see the vision of the future? Are you ready to take back your profession? Please get all the facts, and make your own decisions about the future of our profession.


Dean Ford is an ISA Senior Member, 2011 ISA Automation Week vice-program chair, and Automation Federation Communication Committee chair. The discussion continues on Ford's blog at www.automateeng.com.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISA or the ISA leadership.