For Eric Taylor, Georgia Tech’s Professional Master’s in Manufacturing Leadership (PMML) program elevated his professional value and opened his eyes to a new take on management -- part of what he sees as a continual journey.
Taylor grew up in Southern Mississippi. While he wasn’t the first member of his family to attend college, he would prove the first to graduate -- following a period of adjustment.
“I really wasn't sure what I wanted to do after high school,” Taylor said. “I was looking at just going to work, but I did well on the ACT, so I was given a full ride to the University of Mississippi. I spent a couple of years there. I had some issues and lost that scholarship, so I went to work.”
When Taylor returned to college, it was at the University of West Alabama, and on his own dime. He worked two jobs to pay his way through school and earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental science. An internship with the chemical company, ECC International, led to a full-time job after graduation.
“I spent the next roughly 20 years in the pulp and paper industry, initially with chemical companies and eventually working for paper companies," Taylor said. "And you know, I guess I grew to a point in my life that I started to realize that a life of learning is important, and that it’s the only way to grow and develop.”
With this mindset, Taylor learned as much as he could about the paper industry. While working for the corrugated packaging company, WestRock, he also began to explore leadership and personal development opportunities. When a WestRock regional vice president suggested Georgia Tech’s PMML program, it opened an entirely new chapter in his life and career.
PMML provides learners with a wide range of manufacturing industry skills, alongside extensive technical expertise and an MBA-like focus on business and leadership techniques. Taylor’s superiors at WestRock not only supported his participation in the program in principle, but also financed it.
“I was operations manager at WestRock’s Hodge Mill when I entered the program. Roughly a year in, I was promoted to general manager," Taylor said. “I was on that path already, but the program helped me perform my job better as an operations manager.” The general manager role is the highest position at the mill level.
In particular, Taylor singled out the PMML leadership courses taught by Professor Robert Thomas, director of leadership education.
“It not only forced me to look at leadership a little differently, but it also gave me some tools that I use to facilitate growth and learning of others,” Taylor said. “And that's certainly a huge expectation of folks that are promoted to general manager. One of the most important roles I have is to lead and develop our talent, particularly young talent.”
Taylor said that he was particularly taken with the philosophy of servant leadership and its focus on the needs of employees.
“We have a saying around here, and it came out of my servant leadership training: Keep your eye on the ball, and you're not the ball,” Taylor said.
Following his graduation from PMML, Taylor invited Professor Thomas to visit WestRock’s Hodge Mill and advise him on servant leadership implementation. Thomas, along with servant leadership author and consultant Jim Hunter, developed a training course for Taylor’s senior leadership team and salaried employees.
The relationship goes far beyond mere implementation of servant leadership, however. A joint research project from Georgia Tech and the University of New York at Buffalo will analyze the results.
“They're going to be doing a study with us over the next couple years to look at data around the performance of the business and how a culture of servant leadership affected that,” Taylor said. “I'm very excited about that.”
Taylor graduated from the PMML program in August of 2018. In the same month, he also welcomed his first child into the world -- a son named Jack. As a new parent, he finds himself applying servant leadership principles -- particularly the cultivation of a growth mindset.
“In my two years with the program, I learned a lot about myself and the need to have a growth mindset in my life,” Taylor said. “That’s something I always want to teach him -- and even I have a lot of growing to do. You have to have that mindset if you want to live a life of substance.”
In working with Taylor, Professor Thomas was impressed by his commitment to servant leadership, as well as his commitment to environmental concerns.
“He is acutely aware of the environmental consequences of his firm and the paper industry,” Thomas said. “I have been impressed with his knowledge of environmental challenges and his pride of the positive steps WestRock is taking to ensure that future generations can enjoy the natural beauty of Louisiana. Eric Taylor embodies the spirit of servant leadership.”
Written by Robert Lamb