A new training program to help high-potential line workers transition to team leaders and supervisors has been expanded at Hennepin Technical College.

The "Line to Leadership" program, which includes a class targeted at existing supervisors, was developed with industry partners such as E.J. Ajax & Sons Inc., St. Jude Medical Inc. and Toro Co.

"Our industry partners told us that they wanted this training because they are anticipating a skills gap and a leadership gap and they didn't have a way to effectively move people from operations to team leader," according to Mike Colestock, an industry veteran who is Hennepin Tech's director of outreach and customized training. "It started out as a four-hour class, we expanded it to eight hours and ... now we've developed a 32-hour classs.''

Colestock said students include cops, firefighters, medics and factory workers.

"A major stress in people's lives is their immediate supervisor, even more than marital difficulties or financial stress,'' Colestock said. "If we can 'desuckify' the boss corps, make the experience better for the front-line workers, we can have even more impact. So, this new class is for people going into supervision or who want to be supervisors.''

'More art than science'

The best bosses tend to be people who are good with people and communicate the vision of the organization "in such a way that people can buy in ... and understand their piece," he added.

"Leadership is more of an art than a science, however, it is a skill that can be taught and developed," explained Colestock. "There is very little training that gives individuals transitioning from a line worker to a first-time supervisor position a chance to learn new skills and try them out in a safe, low-risk setting."

Colestock said leadership takes skillful listening, a genuine concern for workers and an ability to do more than issue orders.

Kelly Pearson, Toro's director of operations, agrees.

"This course offered a hands-on approach, giving our supervisors an opportunity to try these newly learned skills with peers in a classroom setting," Pearson said. "Those participating also were able to learn from leaders in similar production operations at other companies."

Erick Ajax, a vice president with Fridley manufacturer E.J. Ajax, said several company employees have benefitted from the new training program. It provides important skill development for Ajax's increasingly age- and background-diverse workforce of about 50 people, including veterans and immigrants.

"We try to promote from within," Ajax said. "We target people with leadership potential ... but it's difficult for someone to make the transition sometimes from working on the floor with your colleagues to suddenly becoming a shift supervisor.

"This program addresses communications on many different levels; face-to-face, e-mail, letters and a lot of role playing and the opportunity to work with different personalities and behavior styles, and how to motivate different colleagues most effectively. The feedback from our people has been very positive. We invest 5.5 percent of our payroll every year in development and training and 80 to 90 percent has been at Hennepin Technical."

Avoiding bad bosses

Anthony Krump, 40, a team leader in logistics at Ajax, was one of the first management trainees to take the new 32-hour course.

"I've had supervisory roles [at other companies], and there was some redundancy," Krump said. "But anything that helps you critique yourself, I'm always open to that. Everybody can get better. Mike Colestock runs the class and he's a class act and has a lot of work and teaching experience and the course covered the basics and he also allowed students an opportunity to describe their own past situations. It was a great learning experience."

Cherie Rollings, director of customized training services at Hennepin Technical, said people often quit jobs because of "a bad boss" and the training helps prospective managers behave appropriately and avoid common mistakes.

For example, a machine operator who is promoted to team leader may have excellent machining skills, but little experience in dealing with personnel issues. And there is a shortage of skilled manufacturing professionals. So, if good machinists don't like their boss, there are other shops where they can make more money.

"It's a buyer's market for skilled employees," Colestock said. "Employers know this and want to groom effective leaders. Plus, there will be a big loss of knowledge with baby boom retirements, so improving supervisory skills is a win-win for employees, managers [and] the company."

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144