When I look back at the various roles, which I have occupied during my professional career, the one that always springs to mind, as the most insightful and the richest in terms of learning, is when I was the manager of a small gas distribution subsidiary in Belgium.
Back then, in the early 2000s, I had been working for Shell for almost 10 years and I had only been doing R&D or technical roles, drawing from my background as a chemist.
Now, I was about to head an operation and a team of 25 direct reports, most of them blue collar workers, for the first time.
The contrast with my previous experiences in corporate offices and high-tech labs could not be starker.
When I went through the door of the premises, which were going to be my work location for the next 1.5 years, little did I suspect that I eventually would come to remember this period as the most important one in my professional development.
The challenges were numerous. My predecessor had resigned, the workforce was demotivated and highly distrustful of management, we were losing customers to the competition and the minority JV partner was interfering in the daily running of the operations.
Needless to say that I didn’t really know where to start. One thing I quickly realised though, by engaging with my new colleagues, is that I first needed to restore the trust between them and the person they were seeing as their leader and the manager of the outfit. To regain self-confidence and perform, they needed to gain confidence in me.
Trouble was that I had no previous experience in this market or role, so I could not take decisive actions to turn things around on my own. I had to do it through them.
So, I took the unprecedented move to relinquish my “executive” office on the first floor of the building to sit downstairs with them, where the action was taking place. Every time an issue, tensions or a conflict were looming, I was there to help find a solution and take responsibility for it.
Not only did I start learning the ropes of the job, I was also being seen as one of them, who was there to help, with his own strengths and weaknesses.
To build on this momentum, I shadowed every one of my colleagues in their role, from taking orders at the call center, planning deliveries with the dispatcher, to making them alongside the tanker truck drivers.
This active listening and observing exercise had a huge impact on the morale and the improvement of the operational performance. People opened up and restarted sharing their thoughts and feedback. More importantly, when they were under pressure, they were supportive of each other, rather than crawling back into their shells or blaming each other. The level of frustration went down, customer complaints decreased and the sound of laughter could be heard on the work floor again.
I introduced a weekly operational debrief, where we were collectively looking at our operational performance and analysing what went well and what could be improved the next week. People who had ideas about ways to tackle issues or improve the business were empowered to develop them and the progress of these initiatives too were monitored at these meetings. It was a little like sprints in the Scrum methodology, though I knew nothing about Scrum in those days.
Overall, this whole experience revealed that it is easier to manage people, when you are a good leader, because establishing mutual trust makes it possible to empower and delegate, where it makes most sense and creates most value. It also brings people together and liberates the creativity and potential of a team. It is a subtle art, but not necessarily a complicated one.
At the end of the day, I also realised that success often boils down to the quality of decisions and being able to bring the best out of the people around you. And you can achieve that without always needing to have a lot of experience in any particular domain. What will make a difference is your ability to create an environment, where people will adopt the mindset, attitudes and behaviours to gather and share the right information to make quality decisions, take responsibility for them, learn from each other and improve. That’s managing the human factor towards performance and it’s 80% of any managerial role.
This experience has shaped the way I approach my team performance training and coaching activity today. In many respects, my team back then, was not much different from a crew on board a racing sailboat. We too had objectives to meet, competitors to contend with and an operational environment we didn’t control. We too had to repeat the same manoeuvres every day, adapt to the conditions around us and try to get better at what we were doing.
That is why today I use sailing as the vehicle to accelerate the development of the successful team mindset.