Talent Tips That Win: One Manufacturer’s Story

Corey Stowell, CHRO for Webasto Roof Systems Americas, candidly shares the company's Covid-era struggles—and what they’re doing to address them.

At our Smart Manufacturing Summit in Detroit this spring, the top topic was talent. No surprise there. U.S. manufacturers have been grappling with the lack of skilled workers available to fill what amounts to millions of vacant positions in factories, on docks and in engineering offices across the country for the past couple years.

But it won’t help CEOs to throw money at those jobs and hope that more-than-competitive compensation will attract and hold people. For long-term advantage, there’s still no substitute for building a cohesive and sustainable corporate culture.

In a live case study for the CEOs who gathered in Detroit for the event, Corey Stowell, CHRO for Webasto Roof Systems Americas, talked about his experiences building that kind of culture only to see it struggle amid Covid-era changes. Now he’s rebuilding, and was candid in presenting what his company is facing—and what they’re doing about it.

“Forty-four percent of employees are actively looking for a new job these days,” said Corey Stowell, CHRO for Webasto Roof Systems Americas. “It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in: You can’t afford [with compensation] to keep up with what you’re seeing in the marketplace today.”

Webasto has been in the middle of this struggle, because the U.S. arm of a giant Germany-based manufacturer of automotive sunroofs has been trying to staff about 900 positions at its new plant in Plymouth, Michigan, southwest of Detroit. And the company has found its most effective recruiting tool to be the fact that Webasto completely overhauled its workplace culture five years ago in a transformation that continues to reverberate today.

Eight years ago, Webasto was making several rounds of layoffs, freezing and cutting wages and “creating fear within as employees moved to the end of the week,” Stowell said. “Fridays became known as ‘Black Fridays,’ and employees would celebrate if they made it through.” Webasto had “created an environment full of fear and distrust, where collaboration rarely existed and people worked in their own little silos.”

New management came in at that point and engaged a consulting firm that confirmed the bleak picture: It had never measured employee dissatisfaction at levels as high as those it found among Webasto’s workforce. So, leadership decided to leverage cultural transformation as a way of revolutionizing worker attitudes and even gaining new business.

And it happened quickly. Within a few years, the same consulting firm tapped into Webasto worker attitudes and found record happiness with the company. Business was booming, and the company built a new headquarters locally in addition to the new plant. Here were the keys:

• Come up with a coda. Webasto wanted to forge and explicate its new commitment and document it as quickly as possible. The company chose a diverse group of employees from up and down the organization to address a series of questions about the future of the organization.

“It generated emotional discussions and a hell of a lot of passion that went into them,” Stowell said. But it all helped Webasto produce a sort of corporate culture Magna Carta that it called the Compass. Now, operations folks get on a daily call in which they “pull up the Compass and someone talks about what it means to them or an example of someone living the Compass.”

• Listen before anything else. Webasto hosted one-hour “listening sessions” for which it gave workers time off the factory floor to “come in and talk.”

“We urged people to be open and transparent, and talk about their hopes and fears,” said Stowell. Venues included roundtables, town halls and “coffee hours,” as well as a complimentary full-weekend conference for hundreds of employees at a Detroit hotel and casino. “We had to be taught how to listen,” said Stowell. “We actually went through a class about how to become fully engaged, how to look at individuals eye-to-eye, how to use phrases to get them to open up.”

• Don’t argue. In the process of soul-baring, Stowell said, some workers threw out falsehoods about the company, such as one who said Webasto didn’t even offer him time for bereavement when a loved one died. “I knew that wasn’t true because we had bereavement,” Stowell said. “But I wasn’t there to argue with him. My goal was to listen and learn. People’s perceptions are reality, and it was important that we recognized there was a reason he felt that way.”

So, even if what you’re hearing “goes against the grain,” Stowell said, “listen to your employees.”

• Expect instant results. Launching the listening process brought changes in employee attitudes and results. “It gave us time to focus on longer-term topics such as leadership development and improving communication,” Stowell said.

This includes the requirement that you act on what you hear. “If you take action, you’ll gain their trust and respect,” he said, even if remedies are as simple as installing a new light bulb in a parking lot to restore a sense of security when second-shift employees leave for the night. “Otherwise you’ll have the complete opposite effect on the organization.”

• Recognize contributions. “You can’t do it enough,” Stowell said. “Give reasons you’re recognizing employees, and make it important.” Webasto even holds a national employee appreciation day each month.

• Embrace employees. “Give them a sense of belonging,” Stowell urged. “Give them the freedom to be themselves. The more connections employees have with the organization, the less likely they’re going to leave. Or at least they’re going to think twice about it.”

Webasto was soon the subject of a Harvard Business School case study and winning awards as a “best place to work.” Covid-19 registered a “hit” to Webasto’s culture, Stowell admitted, as the company “fought hard to keep our employees safe. But we didn’t have a single layoff. We experienced more turnover than we’d ever seen, so we need to focus on what we can do.” And most of that is to rely on the new culture Webasto had built quickly.