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Leadership Essentials: How WestRock Navigates Culture Change

Guest writer | Dave Briere, SVP, Recycled Paperboard Mills, WestRock

With thirty plus years of experience managing paper mills, I’ve been part of a lot of teams – many successful and a few not. I can tell you it feels a lot better being part of a winning team where every member is focused on their area of responsibility along with confidence that every team member has your back.

Change is the one constant in today’s business environment, making it more important than ever to have the right people working together as a high-performing team. WestRock is no exception. In 2015 we found ourselves facing a fiber packaging market that was fast becoming hyper-competitive. Our borders were no longer limited to North America, we were finding global competitors in our own backyard, and China had just completed a nine-year national capital growth plan to build the most modern paper mills to the capacity of 30 million tons per year.

I was assigned the task of creating a business plan for our paper mills here in North America. It quickly became apparent we were not going to win in this world market with capital investments alone. Though we were blessed with the lowest cost natural resources, a drive to be environmentally friendly was challenging the cost equation. The obvious answer quickly became clear – our future success depended on our people. 

We had to start by facing the brutal facts. The younger generations were less and less enthusiastic about a career in manufacturing. We were struggling to stay minimally staffed. And motivating employees to be fully engaged was becoming increasingly more difficult. To add to these challenges, the average age of our employees was spiking into the 50’s and early 60’s. The fatal cliff was quickly approaching.

I saw the problem and knew I had to act, but it wasn’t until a colleague shared his experience bringing their team through Team Trek that I began to get clarity on how I was going to get there. I must say, growing up in a “Command and Control” style of management, I was more than a little skeptical. However, I knew our circumstances required a change.

We started our journey by taking our nine General Managers and four key corporate staff members to Team Trek to check it out. Conrad Lehfeldt, Team Trek COO, and I discussed what we wanted to achieve in this week at Team Trek. The conclusion was for the group to learn the fundamentals in creating an engaged workforce and that each of us to walk away personally committed to be 100% responsible – no excuses, no blame!

Each of us personally got something unique and significant from the experience, some describing it as a “life changing event”. All would testify three years later that it was the most significant training we have received in our careers! And that was just the beginning. Since that time over 500 salaried and hourly employees have personally attended at least one week-long training session at Team Trek.

The benefits have been tangible:

  • Transformation of “Command and Control” management style to a “Servant” leadership style from all members of the top leadership group

  • A significant improvement in the effectiveness of all meetings, conference calls and task-forces made up of the original senior managers

  • Lower employee turnover – over 14% reduction

  • Year-over-year growth in employee satisfaction measured by a third-party annual poll

  • Double digit improvements in percent up time, percent prime and year-over-year increase in overall profitability

Plus, one big benefit we didn’t anticipate – numerous thank you letters received by family members and spouses commenting on how much they have appreciated the improved relationships they have experienced since their husband or wife has attended the training at Team Trek! 

In summary, we now manage and operate our nine paper mills utilizing Team Trek Principles and utilize Team Trek Coaches and Facilitators to assist and guide our mill location’s management culture transformation. We feel confident we are staged to compete against the global competitors in our market!


Learn more about the Team Trek Culture Change Roadmap as a tool for gaining organizational clarity and navigating culture change.

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Team Trek is a world-class provider of culture transformation solutions, leadership development, and team building.

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