Throughout his career, Sönke Stein has worked in very different cultures from Europe, to the Middle East and India. And although there are a lot of differences between them, Sönke has learned that being a leader requires a set of skills that works everywhere: listening, talking, and leading by example.
Being the boss used to mean in the old days that you took charge, told everybody what to do and your people ‘just had to follow’. In my years as a manager and being a CEO, I’ve learned that this style, whilst needed in start- up or phases of extreme change, is untenable in the long run. Especially if you work with a smaller team that has been together for a very long time, like the one I am leading today here at Oiltanking Malta. This team has been together so long, it is almost like a real family.
Even in the best families…
My predecessor used to lead the company during its start- up phase and early years of operation by that old style. He was a former merchant captain, so I guess for him this was normal. He certainly developed a very structured and solid foundation for the Company, which I was lucky to inherit for my first posting as a Leader of an organization. He raised a strong and solid family, with a good set of values. But as I said: what happens in families if they grow and get more mature over time? Some don’t get along, but will not talk about it. They will put all their feelings and frustrations in a box. At some point, that box overflows and everything comes out all at once and normally at the wrong time. I wanted to prevent that when I started. Because our team is relatively small – we have a total of 80 people working here in the Port of Marsaxlokk in Malta, a quarter of which have managerial duties – it is paramount that we communicate well between our team members. And since most of them have been here a long time and know everything there is to know in their own field, who am I to tell them what to do? If there is one thing I have learned in my career, is that the people on the floor know what to do best. So instead of me telling them what to do, I ask them what and how they would do things.
A little help to slow down
Of course, this isn’t as simple as it sounds. Especially if a company culture has been around for decades. So, to help us achieve this, we enlisted the help of Authentiek Leiderschap. Initially the Management Team and Department Heads joined the program Connect@Malta. The goal was to get us all to really talk and listen to each other, to connect. That requires time. And time is often sparse in today’s international business culture. As one of Authentiek Leiderschap’s mantras says: “slowing down is speeding up”, we literarily slowed down by taking a long walk with each other. This really helped us to listen to each other.
For us, the program was such a success, that we started a second one with the second layer, of which our shift leaders are also part of. In that way, they could benefit from it as much as the Management Team did. At the same time it helps me to prepare the next generation leaders for the future. In the coming years, some of the family will retire and I want to make sure that the others are ready to follow them up. We don’t like them to be clones of their predecessors, we want them to develop their own leadership style. By this program we can give them the tools. We are even in the planning stage of also letting the guys on the floor take part in a third program week. That is how important the help of Authentiek Leiderschap for us is; we feel everybody here should benefit from it.
Providing the lanes
As a CEO, I need to lead and guide, not to boss my people. I often compare my job to a swimming competition in a large pool. Our employees are the swimmers; they know how to get to the target the best, fastest and most efficient way. All I have to do is provide them with the lanes, so that they won’t drift off or run into one another. That does mean that sometimes I must steer my team into a particular direction. For me the best way to do that, is to talk with them. Tell them the plans and listen to them, to see if there are better ways. Just like the lanes in the swimming pool: The lines give guidance, but they have flexibility.
Sönke Stein is CEO of Oiltanking Malta. Oiltanking is one of the largest independent operators of tank terminals for oils, chemicals and gases worldwide. The company owns and operates 73 terminals in 24 countries with a total storage capacity of 20 million cubic meters. Oiltanking Malta has operated for almost over three decades from the port of Marsaxlokk in Malta and has seen a substantial growth over these years.
There are a lot of similarities between coaching a sports team and coaching a business team. Both share the same values; you want your team to be a real team, to perform better and to get results. So, how do you get there? As Brian Farley sees it, by first focussing on intent and creating unity, and taking away the negative perceptions of your ‘players’.
Athletes have to deal with failure quite often. This can have a negative impact on the athlete which can cause certain mental barriers. The thought of making a mistake (and therefore losing) can make them afraid to try again. “I am not good enough. I messed it up the last time, so I will probably mess it up this time as well.” This negative perception throws up a barrier that keeps them from trying because their focus is on the consequences of failure. However, failure in my mind is not daring to fail, failure to me is that you allow the fear of failure to keep you from trying. As a coach, it is your goal to help convince them to step out of their comfort zone, to try something new.
This was my primary focus as the Head Coach of the Dutch national baseball team, when we started our journey to become World Champions in 2011.
The power of passion and a collective ambition
No European country had ever won a World Championship in baseball before. So why would the Netherlands be the first one to do it? We had a number of reasons why this wasn’t possible and this was guiding our perception of our chances. These types of negative perceptions lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy that you will fail. My job was to influence our perception towards the positive. “We can do this, by taking control of those things that we control! We will fight for those things that are meaningful to us”.
As an American, I grew up with baseball. This is our national pastime. Americans are all about baseball, hotdogs, apple pie and Chevrolet! We have a lot of passion for the sport which to my mind is the driving force behind all successful teams. Do we share a passion for what we are doing? This is the motor that drives our success. This is what keep us going when things are tough. This is the connection we need to have in order to grow. This is to me the key ingredient to all high performing teams, a shared passion!
When I first arrived in Holland, I wasn’t certain what to expect. I didn’t appreciate how fortunate I was coming from a country that had so much knowledge and experience with the game. Originally, I came to play and was only busy with my own performance. I came to a club in the third division of Dutch baseball, RCH Heemstede. They were not a very talented team and they really lacked a proper education in the game. After two weeks into the season, the coach quit and they asked me to be the Head Coach. It was the first time that I was responsible for anyone else other than myself. Prior to this, it had always been about me and me alone.
Now I was responsible for 15 other guys and that was quite a challenge. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was my first real experience with authentic leadership. What we all shared was a deep passion and enjoyment of the game of baseball! This was the foundation for our future success. So I started to teach them the game, sharing my knowledge, wisdom and experience with the players. I witnessed the rapid growth of the players as individuals but also our growth as a team. I realised that I played a role in that growth and that gave me a tremendous sense of fulfilment that I was making a difference in growing others. I have been doing it ever since!
That was my starting point as Head Coach of the Dutch Team. I needed to tap into the passion of my players to get them to step outside of their comfort zones and grow. Players will only step out of their comfort zone if they can see that the reward for doing so is greater than the current reward they experience for staying in the comfort zone. Stepping out of my comfort zone is based on growth which in turn is driven by my desire to achieve this growth. If there isn’t enough desire to grow in this way then people will disengage as soon as they encounter too much adversity.
Therefore I needed to find a collective ambition that we were all willing to get behind. Something we all desired to achieve. In this case that was winning a medal at the World Championships. This collective ambition provides the fuel for growth. It is the achievement we could all get behind. Once that was established, then it was a matter of reverse engineering the controllable, those processes, tasks and behaviours that would give us the best chance to achieve it.
Last but perhaps most importantly, we need to recognise that each of us is unique and brings different qualities to the table. Those qualities when unified behind a collective ambition make us incredibly strong. This is what I call the unity of diversity.
Through the power of a collective ambition, unifying our different qualities, hard work and a stimulating perception that we could do it, we became World Champions in 2011. We relied on each other’s strengths to help us win not on one or two individual players. That is the real power of a team, when they all can engage their strengths in the right place at the right time.
My life mission is to break down barriers
After my coaching days, I wasn’t done sharing my knowledge and experience. I started to give speeches about it to other industries. I felt that those speeches were inspirational but were limited to having a short-term impact. I wanted to find a way to have a more medium- and long-term impact.
Teams in business need to have this same unity. You have to have a team, where your ‘players’ are not afraid to fail, that take the experience of failure as a positive in order to become better. They need to work together, assisting other team members by utilizing their unique individual strengths to benefit the whole team. It is your job as the head of that team to facilitate that. To redefine the culture to one of growth and find team members that are passionate about that growth.
So, when I got the opportunity to become a certified adviser with Authentiek Leiderschap, I seized it with both hands – that my colleague and friend at Authentiek Leiderschap, Carina Mak had a connection with baseball, made it easier. And the fact that Authentiek Leiderschap is now a proud partner of the Koninklijke Nederlandse Baseball en Softball Bond (KNBSB) in the Road to Tokyo 2020, brings my journey full circle.
I now use my knowledge from my baseball career, both as a player and as a coach, to help companies. I refer to it a great deal of the time. Not only because it is what I know best, but because it makes it more tangible in what I am trying to convey. This, I believe, is due to the fact that most of us can relate to sports. It makes it click much easier.
My mission in life is to take action each day to break down the barriers that are holding people back from achieving their true potential!
When a team shares a passion for a collective ambition and then join forces using their unity of diversity to achieve it, they can become that World Championship team. Because winning is a team effort.
Do you want to explore the sport similarities and possibilities to increase your team performance so that your business team becomes a World Champion team? Contact Brian or Authentiek Leiderschap at info@authentiekleiderschap or call +31 (0)35 621 97 99.
My personal mission in my professional life is very clear: I want to create a professional environment, where people can be aligned successfully and are able to perform to the best of their ability. To achieve that, I need to give my management team, and their teams, the tools to make that happen. To help my people have everything they need to succeed, here at AirPlus we train them intensively, so that they can acquire the knowledge and skills to become successful sales- and customer agents. So, when we noticed that our people couldn’t fully unleash their potential, we were wondering: How did we fail them?
For instance, we agreed that someone would make 40 ‘cold calls’ per day to generate new business. By the end of the week it turned out that person had not made those calls. After talking to them, we learned that if the person knew how to make the call and what to do to get a new client on board, there still were obstacles to make these calls. The fear of rejection – something that happens a lot with these kind of calls – caused people not to make them.
This shows that personal behaviour, or in this case ‘to deal with fear’, is extremely important to succeed in business. But it also showed us that we did not quite know how to tackle these obstacles that were created. So we needed to find someone who could. Our Global Excellence Director Olaf Knijn suggested Authentiek Leiderschap. We asked them to come up with a proposition, as we did with two others. From the first moment, I was impressed with Authentiek Leiderschap. It really struck me how the type of questions they asked us on how we could change things, put me on the edge of my comfort zone. For me it was immediately clear: I wanted to work with them to help us and our people.
Because we are an international company, we opted to have a first training in London. During the training we got to know each other extremely well, in part thanks to the Ego Scan. We learned about each other’s personal missions, our barriers and learned not just to ask questions, but also how to really listen to each other. I can say that it was a success, not only for me personally, but for all attendees. The view on coaching your staff, looking from the inside out and make people aware of this; it felt natural to me.
In fact, it was such a success, we wanted all our 450 commercial staff to benefit from this. The thing is though with trainings, that it often feels like a ‘one-off’; we do a training, keep it in mind for a while and then continue as before. I didn’t want that. I wanted my teams to make Authentic leadership’s philosophy their own, so they could use it not just for themselves, but also spread it to their teams.
Authentiek Leiderschap was excited about our idea. Together we created a way to make this possible. And even though this was the first time for them to do this internationally, it went brilliantly. Two months later we started with a ‘train the trainer’ program: trainers from AL and ‘would be’ trainers from AirPlus, gave the course together. Meanwhile, Olaf and his team worked together with Carina and Lidwine to create a program that fits perfectly with AirPlus. He talks about how he experienced that in the next blog.
We are now in full swing to spread the philosophy to our colleagues in Germany, Italy, U.S.A, China, Australia, to name just a few countries. And I can say that I am thrilled about the perceived success and enormous energy I receive from it! Right after the first training, I could see that it was helping my staff and myself during the course of our day. We still have a long way to go, but I feel that I can now give my people an even better working environment especially in times of big changes, which can happen within AirPlus International. We are taking away as many barriers as possible, so that our staff can fulfil their personal missions and fully unleash their potential! This gives them the strength to believe in themselves and bring out their best in order to collectively make AirPlus International even more successful than it is today.
Michiel Verhaagen is Chief Commercial Officer and Executive Board Member at AirPlus, an international provider of payment solutions for the day-to-day management of business travel. Michiel is dedicated to support and push his team to become even more successful than they are today.
The reason I am so passionate about the philosophy of Authentiek Leiderschap, is the fact that it is very pragmatic while maintaining depth. It is recognisable. So, when Michiel Verhaagen was looking for a way to increase sales by influencing behaviour rather than by improving skills, to make our people even better at their jobs, I knew who I wanted.
I was already familiar with Authentiek Leiderschap, before I started working at AirPlus. I knew what powerful tools are hidden in the AL approach. I was glad to see that they came out strongest in the RFP, even though some of the other agencies were big international companies with strong reputations. It was not just me who had a good feeling about this. Michiel said so himself: It really struck him how Authentiek Leiderschap put him on the edge of his comfort zone, which was something others didn’t do.
I was one of the people who attended the first training session in London. The Authentic leadership philosophy covers the whole spectrum of coaching, yet you can get started in half an hour with simple tools that have deep and lasting impact. The pragmatic way that AL makes coaching a fun, light-hearted but impactful experience was impressive. I knew and had used AL already and this training added new layers of knowledge and wisdom to what I was already doing, making it even more successful. It’s almost like second nature now; listening to colleagues, seeing what it is that holds them back and together see what we can do about it.
It was very clear that we wanted to do more with this. With the upcoming restructure to an Agile organisation and the change management required we wanted everybody in the company to benefit. But to train over four hundred people is a challenge. That is when we came up with the idea of creating a program where we want our people to become trainers themselves.
We discussed this idea with Authentiek Leiderschap. As this had not been done abroad before, it brought them to the edge of their comfort zone as well. It became a real co-creation between AirPlus and Authentiek Leiderschap: as we were developing materials, we were making continuous improvements both on material and process. Their open-mindedness, creativity and sincere willingness to help gave me a lot of energy. They were very open about sharing their knowledge and expertise. That is quite unique: most other agencies I have worked with, are very protective of their materials. It resulted in four practical workshops tailored to our needs and our business with each of the workshops going one level deeper.
The program had two goals: the AirPlus trainers (Champions) needed to become coaches using the Authentic leadership philosophy, and they needed to become trainers, able to give workshops to the other 452 employees so that they too apply the principles of Authentic leadership. Our trainers are delivering the four workshops to their colleagues in our office locations all over the world as we speak; from Europe, the Americas all the way to Asia and Australia.
The workshops are part of a bigger program, called Global (Commercial) Excellence. Besides giving our staff the knowledge and skills to be a sales agent, we are now also able to help them identifying and overcoming their barriers. People can fulfil their personal mission even better. The valuable present the AL team gave our salesforce is that they will stand a better chance of hitting their 2019 targets.
We have only been training our staff for a few months now, but already I see how the philosophy of Authentic leadership is changing our culture. I notice it in conversations I have with colleagues. It has become something natural, not forced. That to me is the true power of what we created.
Olaf Knijn is Global Excellence Director at AirPlus International. His mission is to give all 450+ AirPlus sales and service employees the environment to become the ultimate sales professional and enjoy and have fun in their role by being customer focussed, well-educated and disciplined in their pursuit of success.