IPC's Dr. John Mitchell: Leadership in Times of Crisis

On May 13, Barry Matties and Nolan Johnson spoke with Dr. John Mitchell, IPC president and CEO, in another installment in our series of industry updates.

In this interview, Mitchell discussed the challenges of leadership in crisis situations. In his role at the helm of IPC, Mitchell brought a unique insight into the power of leadership. He pointed out that a good leader will assemble a strong team, get out the team’s way, and concentrate on breaking down obstacles.

Other observations from Mitchell included the balance of communicating with optimism and realism, and that while COVID-19 is testing leadership skills, it is also providing an opportunity for innovation within organizations. Mitchell concluded by sharing ways in which industry leaders are regularly networking, supporting each other, and sharing successful strategies.

I-Connect007 continues to deliver original reporting and coverage of the electronics design, electronics manufacturing, and contract manufacturing industries, including up-to-date information from the companies, associations, and supply chains globally. Find the latest news and information at www.iconnect007.com, and on our new topic bulletin board, “Industry Leaders Speak Out: Responses to COVID-19 outbreak.”

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Audio Transcript:

Barry Matties: Welcome. Today, I’m talking with John Mitchell, IPC president and CEO. John, welcome, and thanks for taking the time to talk with us again.

John Mitchell: My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Barry.

Matties: John, we recently conducted another survey, looking at some of the lessons learned during the COVID-19 outbreak, along with the shifting priorities companies now have. What we found is a lot of the response is focused on leadership and leadership issues. As the president and CEO of IPC, you are certainly a highly visible industry leader, along with your team, and IPC helps lead the industry in so many ways. Today, I want to focus this conversation around leadership. To start, why don’t you share what you think the role of a leader is, please?

Mitchell: In a broad and kind of generic context, the role of a leader is to cast the vision, and you bring in and work with a team that you enable and get out of their way (laughs). You also overcome obstacles that they encounter; if you have resources they need or challenges, your job is to help share that idea of where you’re going so that you and your team can work together to make sure that’s a reality. But when obstacles come up, it’s the leader’s job to try to break those down.

Matties: There are a lot of different leaders out in the world—good, bad, and some right in the middle. What do you think makes a good leader?

Mitchell: When I think of a good leader, you have to do the basic blocking and tackling that we talked about, but a good leader does more. It’s a balancing act. It’s challenging because it’s kind of a lonely position, but at the same time, you need to interact with your team and your entire group—whether it’s a team, a business unit, or an entire company, whatever scope of your leadership responsibilities may be. In that role, you need to exude confidence. You have to show that you believe in a positive outcome, and you have to be a positive leader. If you’re always a Negative Nancy or a Debbie Downer, that’s not going to play as well or be as inspirational.

You have to find the positive, but you also have to temper that with realism. And in today’s world, as you leaders go forward, they want to have their organization be a place where talent becomes part of it and offer a fair wage; that’s probably number five on the list of important things. Leaders also want to make sure they are doing something important and that they caught the vision of how to doing something important. You wanted to make sure you’re contributing to society and taking care of your employees. The aspect of being a good leader by taking care of your employees has become enhanced with what we’ve seen happening lately.

A good leader today has to do all of that stuff they have been doing, and now they need to make sure that their employee feels safe and that their needs are being met. We’re focusing on concerns regarding a safe workplace, being able to contribute, etc. It enhances that dimension even more than what we used to do, beyond just, “We have a healthcare plan.” No, we actually make sure that, in your environment, we’re doing all that we can, and we’re listening to what you do as well. That’s the other aspect of a good leader that I would point out; you’re not isolated to the point where you don’t hear the real issues from your team.

Matties: As the industry adjusts to the new world realities, this brings new demands and challenges, as you were just keying in on, for business leaders in the environment. What changes, if any, do you already see in the way business leaders are approaching their businesses today and into the future?

Mitchell: A lot of the good leader qualities have to just be enhanced. It’s about transparency and being willing to call a spade a spade, a nickel, a nickel, or whatever it is. Helping your team see and hear the real situation will help them respond. You can be positive about that.

Let me just use an example from IPC. We shared that, “It doesn’t look like we’re going to hit some of the targets we had set out this year, and because of that, we want to change how we work.” And what I hear from my staff is that they appreciate that forthrightness—not to be sitting there, ignoring the situation, but saying, “This is not going to be possible the way we envisioned it six months ago. Because of that, we’re going to have to change how we act.” Be transparent about that sort of thing, and be a good communicator.

And it’s not just telling; it’s also doing. Your actions need to align with those things as well. Your business today becomes even more important. And into the future, you have to be very responsive. One of the things also that COVID-19 has provided as an opportunity for leaders today is in the area of innovation. We know things have to change. We hear all about the “new normal.” That new normal can also help you say, “I may need to leverage some innovation to respond to this.” At the same time, that new innovation to respond to COVID-19 can help you solve some other problems that you may have been struggling to invest in previously. You can take advantage of making your organization even better in these circumstances.

What I see happening for businesses today in leaders is to find those opportunities where you can innovate, whether it’s buying new technology or changing your processes. Now, you have the reason that everybody understands. “Due to COVID-19, we had to change some things.” We all did, so what did you change? “I changed this, this, and this,” and because of those changes, going to be even more successful into the future.

Matties: That’s a great point. Anytime you can get buy-in on change and direction is important because the most challenging times in any business is when they’re creating change. And when you add a solid reason, it’s a lot easier to get buy-in on that.

Mitchell: Yes. The other thing I want to mention is that as leaders, we don’t have all the answers, and we know this. One of the tools that leaders are becoming more aware of and are starting to do more is reaching out to peers, whether they’re in the same industry or not, to share ideas and test their thought processes. Again, being a leader is a lonely position. You’re kind of set out there, and you are expected to have all the answers, but at the same time, you don’t.

One of the ways that we’ve done this is we’ve been holding these executive forum calls where presidents, CEOs, and heads of the electronics manufacturing industry have gathered together for an hour or so in a very safe environment where they could say, “How are you doing this?” People are sharing, and the entire industry is better for it. Finding those kinds of opportunities where you can share executive to executive and leader to leader—whether they’re in the industry or not—will become ways people can come even better leaders as we go forward.

Matties: Since you still have those meetings, are they growing in size, or what’s the future of those?

Mitchell: We were doing them every week, while COVID-19 was most urgent in North America and Europe. We have just shifted to every other week because we’re getting to the point where people are getting what we need to do. There are fewer questions, so it depends on the topics. Going forward, I expect this will be a new norm that we’ll do.

 We’ll have this maybe once a month where we’ll set up specific topics, bringing a specific expert or person to share an idea about that, and then let the group that’s interested in that topic that attends again collaborate together and share their ideas. I’ve heard from the industry that they value this opportunity. While I don’t think we’ll be able to keep the pace of every week—because as business gets back to booming, they have other things to do—once a month for an hour will be helpful as new things come up because things are always coming up.

Matties: As leadership skills are honed throughout a career, along the way, we all have mentors or role models or leaders that we admire. Why don’t you share with us some of the leaders, past or present, who have influenced you or who you most admire?

Mitchell: I’m sure there are iconic leaders everybody thinks, but the first place my mind goes is people like Albert Einstein or Richard Feynman. Most people don’t really think of them as leaders, but they were leaders of their discipline and industry. Sorry I went to physicists, but they built on and were aware of the history, and they weren’t afraid to strike out on a new path and challenge the status quo; they did so in a way that it could be explained to others. I appreciate that.

As far as living, I recently watched a three-hour documentary on Bill Gates. I used to be one of those “Oh no. Not Microsoft” people when I lived in my IT world. But frankly, what Bill has done lately in his retirement or after leaving Microsoft is he hasn’t sat there and said, “I need to go build another Microsoft.” Instead, he said, “I’m going to help solve world hunger, sanitation, or many other different challenges as global issues,” which is admirable. But he didn’t do it by saying, “I’m the world’s greatest leader in this stuff.” He leveraged the skills he has. He’s a very structural thinker. He is trying to apply innovation and technology to solve these problems. That’s his bailiwick, and even though he’s doing something completely different, he’s leveraging the strengths and talents he developed along the way.

We have an opportunity to learn from our experiences, hone those specific skills that we are best at, and then leverage those skills in whatever we’re doing. That’s why I thought of those folks. They are clear communicators, directional leaders, and boundary breakers, and they’re diverse in their approaches to different problems but grounded in their methodology with which they approach them.

Matties: What advice, John, would you have for our industry leaders today?

Mitchell: The first thing I would say is everyone’s an industry leader. I don’t care if you don’t have any reports. I don’t care if you’re an individual contributor. You still have the opportunity to be a leader. Every one of us has not only the opportunity but also the responsibility to be a leader. We can lead out on issues. We can raise concerns. We can do the best work we possibly can. We can share ideas to improve things. Everyone should think of themselves as a leader, no matter how many reports they have or don’t have.

My other advice is to be transparent, nimble, and innovative. Don’t be too stuck in the way things have always been done. I really think that we should find ways to explore new opportunities. We don’t need to only do what we’ve known; we can take the opportunity and change like this, whether it’s good or bad, which provides us that opportunity to act. My last piece of advice would be to take action. Don’t over plan. You need to take some steps. Just do something and learn from it.

Matties: You’re right. The past often gets in the way of the future.

Nolan Johnson: Within the confines of IPC and the work that you’re doing, how do you push leadership as a culture down into your organization?

Mitchell: When I first interviewed to come to IPC, one of the questions they asked me was, “How have you been successful in the past?” The answer to that is the answer to your question because I’ve brought in good people, and I’ve gotten out of their way. Don’t micromanage. Allow people to be leaders, ask them questions, and listen to those answers.

If you’re the president of an organization, your line manager probably knows more about that product than you ever will. Thus, listening and having the opportunities to have them be listened to not only improves your business, but it will also improve their sense of worth within the organization. That’s part of the leadership responsibilities as well. You give them the opportunity to say, “I don’t know what the answer is going to be on this. Here’s an opportunity for you to come up with a solution, and please do so. Let’s see it.”

Mistakes are going to happen, and that’s okay. We’re going to learn from and say, “We spent $10,000 dollars, but hopefully not that much, meaning a lot of money on whatever that solution was. Is there a better way we could have done it where we only spent $25 on that?” And then we do it. You learn, and it grows, but you give people the opportunity—a safe space if you will.

Matties: John, thanks again for taking the time to help keep our industry well-informed. We greatly appreciate that, and we wish you all the best.

Mitchell: Thank you so much. I always enjoy talking with you.




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