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How To Take the Step From Being a Machinist to a Leader

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Written by
 14 min read
Published May 5, 2023

Starting your shop can be an overwhelming endeavor. Learn how to take the step from being a machinist to a leader here.

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There comes a time in the careers of many skilled technicians when they move into leadership positions. In some cases, they are forced into this transition while other times it is by choice. Leadership duties will often start in small ways. You might be expected to guide less experienced members, stimulate workers to want bigger tasks and organize a cohesive team. At all turns you’ll need to: teach, support, encourage, and guide your colleagues. As you advance in the company, you’ll probably find that your personal development goals angle more toward leading than doing

This article is written as a primer for those who see this path opening before them as well as those who want to aim for a leadership path. It is important to build good foundations and nurture this ambition, both in yourself and in those around you. Great leaders do not elevate themselves; they aim to uplift colleagues by giving them the opportunities and resources they need most. These management and motivational skills are what we know as leadership.

Leadership in machine shop businesses is a complex and multi-layered challenge that calls for varied skills in business, technology, team building, problem-solving, and much more. Though they may not be the main operator, many leaders are still specialists. One may be the leader in materials science issues while another focuses on team building. Both specialist and whole-team or whole-business leadership positions are critical. Relatively few people have both the skillset and the expertise to build a complete business from the ground up. If you’re in this position, you have to work as much on the business as in the business.

Experienced machinists are skilled technicians who work with machine tools to create, modify, and repair metal parts and tools. But they often also know the logistics of the supply chain, quality control, math, programming, materials science, client relations, and a host of other skills. Machinists are responsible for:

  1. Reading drawings.
  2. Selecting the right tools, processes, and materials.
  3. Programming and setting up machines.
  4. Producing high-quality parts to precise specifications.
  5. Meeting the client’s product expectations. 

However, being a machinist requires more than just technical and commercial skills; the more senior you become, the more leadership duties you’re likely to inherit. To make the jump from being an operator to a leader, you’ll need to hone some key knowledge areas and skills.

Know Your Strengths and Your Weaknesses

To lead others well, you need to know yourself. Evaluate your capabilities honestly and learn how to extend them. Examine how to compensate for your shortcomings. You want to be a more rounded leader.

Identifying your strengths and weaknesses is an important step toward achieving leadership success. The following are generally agreed upon as critical marks in your ‘strengths’ column:

  1. Take an inventory of your skills and knowledge related to the machining business sector. Ask yourself what you are good at, what you enjoy doing, and what you have experience in. Ask people whose knowledge you respect and whom you trust to speak candidly. Sometimes it’s good if they don’t get along with you particularly well since those are the folks who are more likely to give you a brutally honest 360 review.
  2. Don’t be shy about seeking feedback from colleagues, mentors, or business partners. They may be able to provide you with valuable insights into your strengths and weaknesses. Be open to constructive criticism and use it to improve your skills. This is not the time to push back if you don’t like the feedback; instead, figure out if it’s a widely held opinion. That makes it more likely to be right (though one incisive comment can still be right!). Afterward, figure out what this knowledge teaches you about yourself, your methods, and your trajectory.
  3. A SWOT analysis can be a useful tool to identify the goods and the risks. Get help from a mentor or supporter to apply this tool to yourself to identify your strengths and weaknesses in the business.
  4. Reflect on your successes and failures, both in your professional role and your relationships. Your successes are nice to analyze and will be reinforced by good thought patterns and behaviors. But your failures will teach you more. Don’t beat yourself up, but examine your missteps carefully to understand what went wrong and why it happened.
  5. Try personality and skills assessments online. When they’re well designed, they can help you identify your personality traits and skills, potentially giving insight into your strengths and weaknesses to help you build strategies for improvement.

Thoroughly and honestly identifying your strengths and weaknesses as a leader can help you develop a plan that maps your way toward short- and long-term goals. The best strategy is to use your strengths to your advantage while working on improving your weaknesses.

Develop Your Communication Skills

Effective communication skills are crucial for success in any leadership role, be it casual within a team or formal across a wider sandpit. It's important to focus on communication skills in business because that’s the only way to center all your people around a shared vision and goal. Some skills to learn, improve, and observe in others are listed below:

  1. Communicate clearly and concisely: It’s important to be clear and concise in any business setting. Minimize jargon or tailor your technical language to your audience so they’ll understand you without struggle. Use simple language and get to the point quickly. Triple repeat the critical aspects.
  2. Practice active listening: It’s an essential component of effective communication, especially in engagements with imbalances in the power dynamic. When someone is speaking to you, give them your full attention and avoid interrupting. Ask clarifying questions to ensure you understand their message. Listen between the lines for the subtle meanings and the things being left unsaid that you need to know.
  3. Improve nonverbal communication: Nonverbal communication is often more effective than verbal at communicating importance, sincerity, openness to ideas, and more. Be aware of your body language — maintain eye contact (not for prolonged periods, but regularly), nod and smile, and show that you are engaged and interested. Don’t just act the part, though; you need to BE engaged and interested.
  4. Tailor your message to your audience: Different audiences may require different approaches to communication. Consider the needs and preferences of your audience when crafting your message. For example, if you're presenting to a group of executives, you may need to focus on high-level details. By contrast, if you're speaking to a team of employees, you may need to provide more practical information.
  5. Solicit feedback: Ask for feedback from others on your communication skills, (both positive and negative). Use this to pinpoint areas where you can improve and develop strategies to address these weaknesses. Remember that communication goes in two directions — however good it sounded to you, if the listener missed the point, you need to change your approach.
  6. Use the appropriate tool: The web gives you many communication options. Consider email, instant messaging, and tools like Zoom, Whatsapp, and more. Choose the appropriate tool for the situation and use it effectively, but don’t forget the value of speaking directly. For example, if you're discussing complex ideas, it may be better to hold a face-to-face meeting rather than communicating remotely.
  7. Be calm and stoic under pressure: It can be easy to get flustered or defensive, especially if your communication strategy hasn’t worked. Don’t take your audience’s lack of understanding as an affront against you. Step back, regroup, and smile! Try to remain calm and composed, and focus on finding solutions to the problem at hand.

Using these and other tools will help you develop effective communication skills that will facilitate your leadership. Effective communication is a mental muscle that can be strengthened and developed with analysis, practice, and effort.

Learn To Delegate

The reasonable and well-targeted delegation of tasks to others is a key leadership skill. You build a team to succeed, so you must allow individuals within the team the authority to deliver and own their tasks. Effective delegation can save time, reduce stress, and increase productivity. Consider the skills of your team members. Listed below are some tips to consider:

  1. Identify the right tasks to delegate to others: Look for tasks that you can assign with confidence to an individual or a team. The higher you go in leadership, the greater the trust you must be able to place in your people. Consider the capabilities and growth opportunities you are offering your team members when assigning critical responsibilities. You want the task to fit that person’s expertise, but you can also use it as a method to expand their experience.
  2. Set and communicate your expectations: When delegating a task or responsibility, communicate your expectations clearly. Explain requirements, scheduling, expected outcomes, and above all, your confidence in their abilities. Build confidence and let them know you are there to advise or help — most people focus better when they know they have a safety net. Be available to answer questions and provide support and guidance when needed.
  3. Provide resources: Make sure each assignee has the resources they need. They must have enough understanding and connectivity to deliver on the task without needing to work around resource shortages. Their main needs might be tools, technology, training, supplier contacts, or other team members.
  4. Trust: Trust is a key component of effective delegation. You chose someone you were confident could deliver, so let them do so. Helicopter management and disempowering oversight are counterproductive. Show your people that you trust them to have the skills and knowledge to complete the task successfully.
  5. Reporting: Build reporting and support into your delegation of tasks, as appropriate to the skills of the person/people involved. Make sure you provide feedback and check in regularly without hovering and depleting their confidence. Your periodic feedback should tune their approach and offer support when they encounter challenges. Celebrate their successes and help them learn from their mistakes without coming off as judgemental.
  6. Evaluate: After the task is completed, evaluate the delegation process — both in open inquiry with the team member(s) and quietly for your own learning. Did it work effectively? Were there any opportunities for improvement in your own approach or that of others? Use this feedback to refine your delegation skills and improve the process for next time. Share what you learn so the team can see your desire for better practices.

Learning to delegate effectively takes practice and effort. Many technical people are very detail oriented and want to maintain control. Learning to ease back on these tendencies can be hard. But by mastering this skill, you can empower your team members, improve productivity, and give others a chance to gain new skills that make your job easier and more satisfying.

Build Relationships

Strong relationships are critical to your success. Solo flights are fun, so to speak, but it takes a full air force to complete a mission. As you build relationships both inside and outside your core team know that you are a key factor in others’ development and they are key to yours. Your team — including you — will sink or swim as a whole based on their ability to support one another. Listed below are some tips for building relationships:

  1. Be genuine: Authenticity is key to building meaningful relationships. Be sincere in your interactions with others. Avoid using persuasion skills when you can achieve your goals by informing others about your plan openly and honestly.
  2. Listen actively: Hear others’ contributions and questions. Let them speak freely, answer with humility, and give inclusive and thorough answers. When their input changes your view, say so. Ask and answer questions, show interest, and demonstrate that you value their perspective.
  3. Be responsive: Be responsive, informative, and timely in your communications with others, whether it's returning phone calls, answering emails, or following up on commitments. Do what you say you’ll do, and flag delays early and clearly, giving good reasons for them.
  4. Be appreciative: Show everyone how much you appreciate their contributions and efforts. Thank people and recognize their hard work and achievements. You should also recognize effort, even in defeat.
  5. Network: Network effectively by attending industry events, conferences, and other learning/sharing opportunities. Meet new people, exchange business cards, and follow up with those you meet.
  6. Be helpful: Always look for ways to help others. Don’t interfere or micromanage, but offer your expertise, make introductions, or provide resources that may be helpful.
  7. Build trust: Trust is essential to building strong relationships. Be honest, follow through on commitments, and maintain confidentiality when appropriate — everyone values a partner who doesn’t badmouth others.
  8. Collaborate: Be available to collaborate by seeking out opportunities to work with others in supportive and subordinate roles despite your official rank. Work on joint projects, share ideas and knowledge, and build mutually beneficial relationships.
  9. Be persistent: Building strong relationships takes time and effort. Be persistent in your efforts and don't give up if you don't see immediate results.

Healthy relationships are not transactional, but rather build upon trust, demonstrated value, and meaningful connections.

Develop Your Problem-Solving Skills

Problem solving is a core skill whether you’re a junior member or team leader. Polymath skills are valuable, as are deep specializations. Be a “T-shaped person” by broadening your knowledge base as well as deepening your core skill(s). When you have wider knowledge and deeper experience, you can bring a larger spectrum of resources to bear on anyproblem. Listed below are some steps in developing problem-solving skills:

  1. Define the problem: Surprisingly, many people glaze over this stage, so an inquisitive and analytical approach at the start can often pay dividends. By identifying the problem correctly, you’ll expose the specific issues that need to be addressed. Sometimes it’s okay to be the maverick and push against consensus to get people to approach the problem from new angles, but don’t do so without cause. 
  2. Gather information: Gather intel and information about the problem and potential, less obvious, underlying causes. Use data, research, and input from others to help you understand the issue. Look for specialist insights by drawing on your experience or that of others. Don’t be distracted by effects that look like causes, and don’t latch onto the first analysis — even if you’re sure it's right. Always be ready to reevaluate early conclusions if the facts change.
  3. Identify solutions: Identify possible and practical solutions by brainstorming potential approaches to the problem. Be creative and consider all options, even those that seem unconventional.
  4. Evaluation solutions: Evaluate the options among potential solutions and assess them based on testing results, apparent feasibility, projected effectiveness, and potential risks.
  5. Choose the solution: If you come up with multiple solutions, choose one based on simplicity, feasibility, and testability. Consider the resources required to implement the solution as well as any potential risks or challenges that you can foresee. 
  6. Implement the solution and monitor its effectiveness: Make adjustments as necessary to ensure that it is working as intended. If your implementation suggests you chose wrong, be ready to pivot.
  7. Evaluate the outcome: Did your solution effectively address the problem? Were there any unintended consequences? Use this information to refine your problem-solving skills for future challenges.
  8. Practice problem-solving: Practice problem-solving regularly, even on small issues. This will help you develop your skills and build confidence in your ability to solve problems. Develop a library of skills, approaches, thought experiments, and test methods so you can assess pathways quickly when a new problem approaches.
  9. Collaborate: Learn from others and seek out advice and expertise when facing challenging problems. Collaborate with others to generate new ideas and perspectives.

These methods — along with lots of experience — will help you develop effective problem-solving skills that will help you tackle even the most challenging issues without trepidation. Remember, problem-solving is a process, and with practice and perseverance, you can become an expert at finding innovative solutions to complex problems. The more you practice, the more natural this process will feel.

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Team Xometry
This article was written by various Xometry contributors. Xometry is a leading resource on manufacturing with CNC machining, sheet metal fabrication, 3D printing, injection molding, urethane casting, and more.

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