Keep Calm and Lead On

Kim Phelan

There may be a few natural-born, gifted leaders walking around on the planet, admits Lizeth Medina Balliet at AFS Corporate Member Neenah Foundry in Northeast Wisconsin, but for most people in foundry leadership roles, she’s convinced becoming a good leader demands rigorous, intentional effort to learn and hone a professional and personal skill set outside of the field you’ve studied in school. For leaders in their early 40s and younger, that hard work is sometimes made heavier by the scrutiny and doubt from older colleagues. Far from deterred, however, four leaders who spoke to Modern Casting in April––all within a loose definition of Millennials––have persevered in their quests to lead with empathy, humility, open minds, and readiness to learn. 

Medina Balliet said the journey of overcoming weaknesses to excel in leadership is exhausting, but worth it. An engineer who’s the daughter of dentists in Saltillo, Mexico, she became a beta student with an FEF university program, which set her on a course for a foundry career in the U.S.—today she is Neenah Foundry’s senior manager of Continuous Improvement, Automated Production and Advanced Data Science.

“Sometimes, I don’t know if it is so much my age or my gender––but for example, I may say something in a meeting, and then somebody else will say the same thing, so I always make sure to say, ‘Yeah, I just said that.’ 

“If it’s something you really care about, then you stick with it, but it doesn’t pay to put too much energy into every battle,” she added. “What I have learned is, leadership is not about being right, because that’s not how you’re going to get allies, right? It’s about just being fair.”

Reflecting on her own “personality-test colors,” Medina Balliet said her mostly green, “typical engineer” traits tend to be overtaken by opposing attributes in stressful situations. “I turn bright red,” she laughed. “I’m competitive, I’m stubborn, I become impatient, I become demanding. But you have to know your own traits and how you react. It’s huge. Then you create new habits and you adapt.”

Having been a collegiate athlete plays in her favor, despite having higher expectations for herself than she has sometimes encountered among others in the workplace.   

“I think that being an athlete makes me very coachable. Leadership is about being open to feedback; it’s about being willing to change and adapt. And if you tell me something, I’m not going to take is as, ‘Oh, you are mean, you just don’t like me.’ I take it as, oh, this is an opportunity to get better...the biggest thing that has helped me is feedback from others. I am far from being the leader that I want to be, but I’m a work in progress. Feedback has helped shape me.”

Continuous Improvement Mindset

AFS Board Member Jay Morrison always knew he wanted to be in a management role, and the third generation metalcaster began his career at Waukesha Foundry before moving into several positions at Metal Technologies in Michigan. Today, he’s vice president of sales and the Eastern Division sales manager at AFS Corporate Member Carpenter Brothers, which sells many foundry products and equipment as well as diecasting supplies. He got his first taste of professional leadership at the age of 30 when he was given oversight of a foundry maintenance department predominantly staffed with older, very experienced maintenance guys.

“I was definitely viewed as some fresh meat,” he said, smiling at the memory. “I was someone who appreciated the talent of turning a wrench and I knew all these types of things, but there were a lot of people looking at the ‘young guy’ with a lot of skepticism.

“Later, when I took over the Eastern Division at my current company,” he said, “I was still the youngest person, and this time they all had at least 10 or 15 years on me, and of course, sales guys are all Type A personalities! There’s an ego there, let’s say. That’s been a lot more difficult to overcome, especially since I didn’t have a ton of management experience then. But once everyone kind of saw how I can help benefit them and help them get to where they wanted to be, then it was like, ‘Alright, this is going to work out good.’

Morrison is averse to micromanaging and applies his process engineering and manufacturing background to his leadership approach today, giving control limits, he said, but then giving his remote-working team freedom to operate their own business within boundaries and direction he offers. 

“I also have this continuous improvement mindset; I never want to stop improving,” he said. “I think if you stop improving, then you should pretty much retire. I want to be the best. I can learn from my mistakes, and I’m going to probably make mistakes––but that’s at least how I know I’m trying.”

Working for the ‘Kid’

From the time she was 10, Kiley Eck told her family she was someday going to run the foundry her great grandfather founded, AFS Corporate Member Eck Industries. Eck, who is also on the AFS Board, started working in the business straight out of college, first in the quality department where she helped the QA manager achieve ISO 9000 registration for the company, then running the front office, which included accounting and payroll. Then she took over HR, handling job interviews, workers comp, and union negotiations. Her childhood prediction came true in 2016 when she was appointed president. 

“I was one of the youngest here for a long time,” she said. “Once I became president, there were employees in management who remembered working for my father or grandfather, and it was hard for a lot of them to swallow working for this quote-unquote kid now. I realized I needed to build my own team. I started from some key positions––I needed to backfill myself, obviously, so we hired an HR manager, an accounting manager, and also an IT manager. We also had to let some people go who didn’t want to ‘sing with the choir.’ It definitely was tough, but I think we’ve got a very good team now, and I’m proud of that.”

The feeling of having to prove herself subsided many years ago, but as a younger executive who’s also a female in a male-dominated industry, she is conscious of being watched without succumbing to self-consciousness. “That’s the way it’s always been ... I do stick out in this environment,” she said. 
Today, Eck says she trusts her instincts, has a good understanding of people, and maintains an open mind. “I like to hire smart people, give them a little direction, a little vision, and the resources they need, and then I get out of their way.”

Describing herself as fair but firm, she decided early in life she wouldn’t be someone to be taken advantage of. And when it comes to balancing communication in a workforce comprised of four generations, she follows a simple, age-old rule. 

“It’s not rocket science––I just like to treat people the way I would want to be treated,” she said. “People want to be heard, and they want to feel valued.” 

Companies Must Decide

As new waves of smart, energetic Gen Zs in their 20s enter the metalcasting arena––many with leadership aspirations and a keen desire to make their mark––they’re bringing excellent problem-solving/answer-finding skills into the industry, along with well-developed communication and technology skills that strengthen their ability to help others visualize their ideas, according to FEF Key Professor Dr. Charles Monroe, an associate professor in metallurgical engineering at The University of Alabama’s College of Engineering.

There’s just one problem: Not all casting companies have figured out how to incorporate 25-year-olds into leadership, and, said Monroe, time is not on the foundry’s side. Many foundries are currently led by a mid-50s to 70-plus-year-old executive, often with second and third tiers behind them in their 60s. And while some are bringing up younger talent, many haven’t planned beyond the next few years––Monroe predicts a backlash if metalcasting firms don’t create paths for a new generation that’s chomping to have their turn.  

“Imagine being a 25- or 26-year-old going into a company and looking at the management chain where there’s two or three layers between them—it’s going to seem impossible to try to effect any changes or have any influence with all the new skills and knowledge they’ve acquired, said Monroe. 

“What I think is going to end up happening is, we’re going to get even more Elon Musks,” he continued. “There are a lot of exciting things going on, and at some point, the shift will go from trying to move up those leadership chains to a new trend toward entrepreneurship. Either companies are going to find ways to incorporate the youth within their leadership structure—and that’s really what needs to happen—or that youth is going to learn enough that they’re going to leave and start their own companies.”

On top of wrestling with the who, when, and how of creating unobstructed paths for rising stars in the casting industry, companies must be intentional in their choices about internal culture. Monroe recommends a larger tolerance for risk-taking and testing new ideas because of the advances in simulation technologies. Even ideas that may have failed previously shouldn’t be dismissed today in light of ever-changing tools and methods that young professionals are eager to apply. 

Again referencing Elon Musk, the professor echoed, “If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.” 

Find Someone to Lean On

Company culture that embraces collaboration is another way to attract and retain up-and-coming young leaders. A mantra at Jordan Brown’s family-owned BCI Solutions Inc. sums up the company’s approach fostering both new ways of thinking and working together—they call it “Status Quo Sucks,” SQS for short. The AFS Corporate Member located in Bremen, Indiana, appointed Brown to vice president in 2020; her father, JB Brown, is CEO. 

Negative attitudes about age are absent at BCI, which she attributes to SQS’s premise that different perspectives, off-the-wall ideas, and colleagues challenging each other are all welcome. Although she’s the only female and the youngest person on the company’s executive team, Brown said she’s never hesitated to offer up a new way of looking at old problems in this open atmosphere. 

She started working in BCI’s inside sales the Monday after she graduated from Indiana University in 2014, but it wasn’t her first foray into the foundry, having spent her summers interning throughout most departments of the company. Five years later, she became operations manager, and as vice president she is currently knee-deep in an HR overhaul intended to better align with today’s labor environment. 

Like Eck, Morrison, and Medina Balliet, Brown has benefited from what Monroe calls a cloud of mentorship—people she has both intentionally sought as well as inherited who have served as role models and providers of advice and unvarnished truth when needed. In fact, all four young leaders emphatically endorse having one or more mentors, whether it’s a parent or boss in the business or even a leader from a different industry. 

“There are so many genuine people who want to see the industry, the companies, and the people within those companies grow and succeed—and they’re willing to help each other out,” said Brown. “When someone offers to meet with you, make the time and figure out a way to make it happen.

Learning from others’ experiences is critical, especially with the metalcasting industry and how unique it is compared to all other industries.”

But be prepared for the danger of hearing what you may not want to hear, Brown cautioned. “Make sure you’re willing to listen to what they tell you.”

Some AFS companies offer a structured mentoring program that pairs tenured leaders with those who are less experienced. Or, like Neenah Foundry, some offer professional coaches to various leaders, which proved to be game-changing for Medina Balliet. Beyond mentors, sources asserted that networking with industry peers as well as local business peers in the community is essential to creating a balanced and informed outlook in their jobs. Sources particularly advocate networking with AFS members both locally and nationally—a practice that fuels technical industry knowledge, fosters leadership development, and cultivates fruitful friendships. 

Words to Lead By

Sources concurred that team members of all generations working together should prioritize open-mindedness, kindness, and respect for one another demonstrated in words, facial expressions, and behavior. For optimum collaboration and company harmony, older, tenured people should resist the temptation to speak to younger people with the tone of a parent and instead treat them as colleagues. Young people must adopt openness to learning from those with more experience. 

Morrison emphasized the value of thinking globally and acting locally, which he boils down as: Understand what’s going on in the world, understand the big picture within your industry and company, and then identify ways to apply that knowledge to your realm of influence in both business and the community.

The single most timeless piece of advice he ever received, however, is a phrase known to all, but one that was driven home poignantly in the context of leading people—he heard it while working at Metal Technologies from Owner Rick James.

“Take a walk in their shoes,” Morrison said. “Think about what they’re doing on a daily basis and what causes them to do the things that they’re doing. Why are they wanting what they want? What are their dynamic influences or things that are going on with them when they’re pushing back at you...Try to think like they’re thinking and understand that, and then adapt to it. 

“And you know, there’s no reason to get mad over it, because everyone has a different goal. But we all have to be calm and cool and understand what they’re trying to do. And that might help you help them a little bit. And it might help you be a little bit more successful in life.”     

Click here to view the article in the May 2022 digital edition.