Interview with Steve Shoulder


My colleague Jason Saunders recently posted an article, “What UK Manufacturing needs to consider when securing the best senior talent”. Part of the article was focused on the fact that all too often when hiring talent organisations want to have people with a specific product knowledge or manufacturing sector experience, much to their detriment. We commonly find that executives who want to move across manufacturing sectors struggle to achieve this when they reach a senior level.

With this in mind, we spoke to Steve Shoulder, a highly-experienced manufacturing professional who has bucked this trend. Steve has forged a successful career supporting a wide range of manufacturers to transform their businesses. We discussed his career to date and his approach to successfully working across sectors.

After an international career in manufacturing what was the catalyst for becoming an interim manager?

In 1996 I was working for a business that had been sold and the operations were being moved from the North East to the Midlands and I found myself at a crossroads in my career. A friend told me about a unique full time course at Cranfield University called the Fellowship in Manufacturing Management. The course included a 1 year placement in industry where you had to prove you could apply the principles and gain the qualification. My placement was within a business called ABB Eutech (Formerly part of ICI) who were the largest manufacturing consultancy in the world at the time with 1250 consultants. They put me into what I would now call typical interim roles transforming businesses. I did this for around 18 months and then I had the opportunity to do it for myself, via the personal network I developed during that period. This was the start of my interim career which has now spanned 29 assignments in 21 years across 20 different manufacturing industries.

What have you enjoyed about life as an interim manager?

The first thing that I found very satisfying for me was that there was never any political baggage or history getting in the way of getting things done. I am simply going into businesses to deliver great results. I always have a specific job to do in a particular time frame which is both challenging and fun. I am normally called in to these situations when the company has run out of ideas, or the skills and resources to reach their goals and they were therefore open to trying a different way, which I could bring to help them. If you can handle the living out of a suitcase lifestyle, which I did struggle with in year 1, being in a hotel every night is not as glamorous as it may sound, then it is fantastic career choice. The thrill of going in to a new business as a change agent is addictive.

How has the interim market changed over that time?

It was a relatively new industry when I started and there were relatively few recruitment organisations with an interim management offering, but now there are hundreds. There are still manufacturers who don’t understand the value that an interim can bring and that educational journey is still taking place, but it is far more understood than it was. It is up to interim managers and providers like TS Grale to continue to promote the value they can bring.

How have you been successful at working across sectors while others have struggled and what advice would you give to individuals trying to do the same?

For me whether you are an interim looking for a new assignment or you are looking for your next permanent career move you need to work with the right recruitment partner. You need to work with someone who is tenacious and knows the industry they serve and takes the time to get to know you so they can best represent you in the market. In addition, I would say it is important to continually develop and nurture your professional network, my network has been great at opening doors in sectors that were completely new to me. So take the time to continually develop your network to your advantage even when you are not actively looking for new opportunities.

I have said on many occasions to prospective new clients “You already have enough people in your business who know about the product and the industry. In order to bring about lasting, positive change you need to have something different. I am something different”. Once you can start to have that conversation the way forward often becomes clear very quickly.

Getting in front of potential customers is the hardest bit, so the ability to use your personal network to help facilitate this and the right recruitment partner who is a specialist in the field you want to operate in is key. I have been very fortunate in my career to have worked with some fantastic specialists like T.S. Grale who can get me in front of potential customers. I firmly believe that I should do what I do best and leave the specialists to what they do best. It has worked very well for me.

Finally, once you get that time with a customer make sure you are well prepared. You must demonstrate complete confidence in your own ability, if you are the least bit tentative it can hinder your performance and you only get one chance of getting it right. I have this confidence as I have experienced success throughout my career using a methodology I have complete confidence in to get the required results.

What is the model you use?

It is a development of a problem-solving process I learnt at Cranfield for dealing with small challenges that you encounter in manufacturing. I have scaled it up to apply to transforming whole businesses. It is a 7-step process that I have used that has delivered wonderful results, so much so I have recently decided to write a book about it. If anyone is starting an interim career with a successful track record delivering change using strong process to transform, then they will be off to a great start. The approach would not differ for a permanent person in my mind, if they apply the same energy and vigor that an interim would use to achieve objectives then they will also get the results.

Tell me about the book you have written…

The book is called “90 Days to Profit”. The process is based around the word PROFITS. Each step has a letter and is one of the letters in PROFITS. It talks through the approach I adopt, but rather than give them a bland model to utilise, it is told through a story with interesting characters. There was a book I read at Cranfield called “The Goal” by Eli. Goldratt. This book teaches a complex theory through the story and characters in the book that really resonated with me. The format and the message of telling a powerful story through strong characters has stayed with me, hence the similar approach with “90 Days to Profit”. That style of learning worked for me so well and I am sure it will work well for others. This process is simple and logical. People “get it” within 30 seconds and they can relate to it very quickly. I would go as far as to say that anyone could use this process in the environment they are working in and get a good result. Just bring your own drive, enthusiasm and experience to bear and you will be on to a winning formula.

We sit here today 2 weeks after the Brexit process has formally started. After seeing the UK change exponentially in a 40-year manufacturing career what do you think are the challenges and opportunities for UK manufacturing ahead?

Going forward there is always one guarantee, the world will change. Brexit will present challenges we have not encountered before; uncertainty levels will rise and some businesses will be ill equipped to deal with them. For me, it would make sense that there will be a greater demand and reliance on interim managers during the next few years, who know how to work during difficult times and are able to quickly seize the opportunities that change may present. If people within business have a solid methodology that they can use to approach change then there is no reason they cannot make a success of their business no matter what is happening in the world… I know a good book they could read if they want some help with this!!

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