97% in 144 Hours

Twice a week for six weeks, Ryan McFarland sat 6 feet apart from 10 of his colleagues at Tyson Foods Inc., in Portland. The maintenance supervisor of 13 years could have been assigning repairs or coordinating equipment inspections, but instead, he talked about communication challenges, dove into management exercises, and even tackled homework.

“One lesson I have brought back to my team is that not all criticism is bad or negative. I also learned new ways to encourage people to come talk to me when there is an issue, so we can work together to figure out a positive way to handle the situation,” McFarland said.

“Since the training, my team is working together more and talking things out. Training leads and well as supervisors helped tremendously because it means we are now speaking the same language at different levels of management.”

60 Employees, 144 Hours, All Zoom

McFarland was among 60 employees who engaged a total of 144 hours — or 45 hours per employee — of leadership training for supervisors and front-line leads at the plant, which makes flour and corn tortilla, chips and flatbread. Muncie nonprofit Shafer Leadership Academy provided the training, thanks to a workforce grant facilitated through Eastern Indiana Works.

The hybrid virtual and in-person experience was the largest training SLA has facilitated in its 14-year history of providing people of all ages, backgrounds and interests access to leadership skills. Shafer Leadership Executive Director, Mitch Isaacs, said investment in leaders matters most when times are tough. “Companies like Tyson Foods that invest in leaders now are helping their people weather the storm and positioning their companies to emerge from the pandemic stronger and more resilient,” he added.

Tyson worked with Shafer Leadership to customize the program based on the specific needs and goals of Tyson supervisors. In February, SLA Program Director Tisha Gierhart visited the plant to talk with each shift and team member. That assessment informed the custom program, which included SLA signature programs The Five Behaviors, Emotional Intelligence, and The Leadership Challenge.

A Satisfied Family

Gierhart said more than 97 percent of participants were satisfied with the experience, which wrapped in late October.

“To spend six weeks with the same group of people made it like family, and I kind of miss them now. I felt like we all really learned to trust each other and recognize similarities, which helped these managers because many of them don’t get to share and interact because they work different shifts,” said Gierhart, who has worked at SLA since 2014. “The homework piece was especially important because it challenged participants to apply each session to their workday, then reflect on it at the start of the next session.

“By the end of the training, so many of them were using tools in their toolbox, but they didn’t even recognize them as tools because those tools had become such a part of the way they communicated, and so much of the work to build effective workplaces is about building effective communication,” she added.

Open, Honest Discussions

Gierhart said the interactive sessions empowered participants to hold open, honest discussions about group dynamics and team building, among other topics. Virtual Program Manager, Eilis Wasserman, operated video, audio, text and interactive tools within each Zoom session. With her help, participants used digital collaboration “whiteboards,” live polls, breakout sessions, chat boxes and non-verbal feedback buttons.

“SLA’s style is very interactive, and this experience was no different, as we challenged participants to build relationships inside and outside the room,” said Wasserman. “I’m an introvert and Tisha is an extrovert, so we worked to make sure all personality types felt comfortable and able to contribute. For instance, we allowed people to reflect in notebooks or to share out, and we provided participants with access to a password-protected resource site. On that site, we listed contact information, a place for continual feedback, so we were able to address their needs and hopes in real time.”

Wasserman said participants also learned from observing how she and Gierhart operated. “We asked a lot of ‘why’ questions as we pushed participants to go deeper and change behaviors, and they experienced the outcomes of that process of inquiry,” Wasserman added. Feedback after the sessions spoke to teams that have changed processes and dismantled silos as a result of the sessions. “One team has added a new team meeting, and that idea came out of a session,” she added.

Gierhart said the scale of the Tyson training has allowed Shafer Leadership to expand what it can offer before, during and after a virtual or hybrid experience.

“I have taught virtual trainings and in person trainings, but this experience was unique because we were coming to them virtually, displayed on a big screen in the room, where they were together in person,” Gierhart said. “That format challenged me to bring components of both live sessions and virtual sessions to create a program that was different from anything we have ever offered, and it really opens the doors in terms of how we can connect with a range of audiences, near or far.”

A Valuable Investment

Tyson Human Resources Manager Bree Steffen said the program empowered front-line workers with enhanced communication, social awareness and leadership skills. She has heard from many participants that they appreciated the time to self-reflect and consider new approaches to working with teams, managing difficult people and situations, and lead with positivity, among many outcomes.

“Shafer Leadership has been a valuable investment in the growth of our leadership team giving them the soft skills to develop the next leaders and becoming a more well-rounded employer,” Steffen said.

In early spring 2021, SLA will continue the relationship with Tyson with sessions from signature trainings, Emotional Intelligence and The Leadership Challenge.

Go to shaferleadership.com for an overview of its programs, scholarships, and impact on the community. Connect with SLA on Facebook, LinkedIn, or call the office at 765-748-0403.


About the author:

Mitch Isaacs was named Shafer Leadership Academy’s Executive Director in May 2015. In this role, he works closely with the organization’s board of directors to fulfill the mission of the organization. He is responsible for creating vision, connecting with stakeholders, administering program offerings and leading the organization in meaningful ways.