ceo Insights

When You’re Intensely Invested In The Work You Do, It’s A Luxury!

In this edition of the ceo Insights, we have Egbert Schram, Group Chief Executive Officer - Hofstede Insights. In his conversation with Rahul Mahajan, Country Head of Great Manager Awards, he shares with us his key insights about his journey and leadership.

"Followers think and talk about the problems. Leaders think and talk about the solutions."

Egbert Schram

Group Chief Executive Officer

Hofstede Insights

Rahul: How would you define your leadership style? And what would be some of the dos and don’ts when it comes to working with you?

Egbert: If I were to summarize my leadership style in one phrase, I would say “It’s work-and goal oriented, direct. Not necessarily too detailed, but more providing general direction.”

I believe that the client always comes first, so I encourage my team to aim at maximizing clients’ service. If I reflect on my leadership style and assessments and look at those six crucial dimensions of the multi-focus model of organizational culture applied to myself, the first dimension is very goal-oriented and the second one is very customer-oriented and in both I would score high.

“Followers think and talk about the problems. Leaders think and talk about the solutions.”

Rahul: What has been your playbook in terms of leading your organization through crisis, especially during events of last year?

Egbert: Honestly, it’s been the same as it has been for the last decade while being a CEO. Being in this position normally means that you lead companies from one crisis through another crisis, because that’s what you should be doing as a CEO, building structures so that daily business focus can be delegated as much as possible, leaving you time to focus on the unforeseen. What this truly means is being available and making time for the team.

“I do not believe in “leaders” saying that there is no time, because the fact is that there is always time, if you choose to make it available”

What I think I’ve learned to do better, specifically in the last one and a half years of remote work, is to pay more attention to the fact that for some people, emotional attention is more important than for others. This is a pitfall for me because work for me doesn’t necessarily feel like work and that means I have not always been able to distinguish between those needing more attention and those needing less.

One important thing for me has been that my mental workday is not necessarily restricted by eight hours, which means that it’s easier for me to make time available. The point of being always available is that I lead by building a trusting environment, which means that my employees should never feel restricted in contacting me, which helps to balance out those moments where I have not found the focus to actively reach out myself at all times to those who might have needed that. This way I have tried to build a two-way street of communication.

“Effective leadership is putting first things first. Effective management is carrying it out with discipline.”

Rahul: What is your long-term strategic vision and how do you cascade it down to your leaders?

Egbert: If we start with a vision, it is basically in terms of the impact that we want to make. We want to increase the engagement scope that we have, and want our organization to go beyond awareness and take cultural thinking along in redesigning the ways in which organizations work globally.

For internal leaders this means that a growth mindset is very important, whether we talk about a small or a large firm, all of our work across and within borders with people come with different mindsets. So if we want to help our clients to foster an inclusive growth mindset, we need to help our clients understand what are the different mindsets within their context, where do they come from and how can they use them. All of this starts with us applying our practices in-house as well. This means internally that leaders need to display a personal growth mindset.

Secondly, leaders should be able to spot the bottlenecks in business processes, and address the need for automation, or delegation. It is not necessary for them to fix these problems themselves, although that does tend to happen in an entrepreneurial environment wherein the leadership spirit says that ‘if you see a problem, you fix the problem.’ Naturally there are many times where other people are better equipped at fixing the problem, and in that case, the best solution is that leaders should simply step aside for a moment and let the better people fix the problem.

If you want to grow a company rapidly, then as a leader you need to be ‘vacuuming’, which means ensuring that people can do their jobs and help people understand their priorities. This requires you to step up your own game, and that always starts with being approachable and creating a trusted environment. Even if your team members know that you’re busy, still they should be able to reach out to you.

These are the things that I find important for my leaders to understand; to recognize the bottlenecks, and the need to be approachable and available when their team needs them.

“If you have no vision of yourself in the future, then you have nothing to live for.”

Rahul: What are the challenges that you usually face in terms of people management, and especially in this virtual environment?

Egbert: The first thing I would mention is “time management.” You might always hear managers saying “they’re busy”, but it simply goes back to having time available on your calendar, i.e. ‘blocked for doing nothing’. If you talk about consulting, we’re not like traditional consulting firms; we don’t track billable hours, because I don’t believe in that concept. In consulting firms or any global firm, there’s always enough work, so finding that balance between engaging people with what they’re passionate about and helping them to understand that they don’t need to be pushing 10-12 hours every single day is very important.

“One has to practice what they preach.”

To make an impact in own as well as people’s lives, any leader or even manager should make a consistent work-life balance and ensure that in the 21st century, people don’t bore out or burn out themselves.

For me this has been a big challenge personally though. I will never push people to work extra hours or work during their holidays, yet because I will do it myself, I am setting a wrong example for them (which is to keep pushing ahead, even when you feel overwhelmed- in the long run this is not sustainable). I don’t necessarily take too many holidays, yet I want my people to take theirs.

When you want to lead by example it is also worth it to reflect on how your own behavior sets the tone. In my case that has meant becoming more mindful about actually taking time off (although still not at the Nordic “four week holidays at a time” level). I have found it improves my thinking ability and am glad to see that finally this has also meant others in the organization have been better able to take theirs.

“Life is about accepting the challenges along the way, choosing to keep moving forward, and savoring the leadership journey as you manage people.”

Rahul: What are the qualities that you would look for, if you were to find a successor for your role?

Egbert: The thing which is very important for me, is that person´s ability to grow and show ownership in their roles. One should always be able deal with the cards they get dealt. They should own their own context (e.g. emotions and actions) and not pass or avoid responsibility. I admire people who just deal with the things that they need to deal with and make the best of impossible situations. This is a really important leadership characteristic for me, in addition to a proactive attitude.

“When you’re intensely invested in the work you do, it’s a luxury.”

I do feel that one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that I’m allergic to leaders who are not invested in their jobs, which is why I don’t work with them if I recognize that fact. There is a catch there, the paradox being that when a leader is too invested in their job, have a great drive & energy level, they might make other´s feel guilty / obliged to work at a similar level, which is not sustainable for many, e.g. to different personal situations. Balancing this personal interest with understanding that for some work is just work, is another characteristic any potential successor has to be able to manage. To separate oneself as an individual, as a professional and as a leader.

“If you have achieved any level of success, then pour it into someone else. Success is not success without a successor.”

Rahul: If you had a limited time and you were to ask one question to a candidate and decide basis whether he/she is the right fit. What would that question be?

Egbert: The question will be, ‘Give me the description of a situation where you had to make a very difficult choice.‘ Through this, I gauge their priorities and ability to visualize difficult scenarios. First of all, I would like to know the person’s definition of a ‘difficult scenario’, depending on the example they come up with and then, understand their reasoning in terms of why they made that particular decision.

Although there are hardly any black and white situations whereby a decision is completely right or wrong, what I’m interested to know is the thinking that went into making their decisions and why did they make the choices they did. Basically, did they “own” their decision.

Many leaders ask the question, “What is more important “attitude or competency?” The challenge with this particular question is that people will answer to the extent of getting a particular position. That’s why I hardly ever asked for this kind of black and white example. Rather I’m much more interested in knowing about situations that people have faced and what were the reasons for the choices they made. This shows their reflective thinking skills and what they will choose – ‘action’ or ‘analysis’. For different job roles, you need different types of people; sometimes you need people who don’t think too much and simply execute, and sometimes you do need people that actively think because they need to balance people like me who don’t necessarily overthink situations too much.

“You are only one decision away from a totally different life.”

Rahul: Who have been some of the key influencers in your life?

Egbert: So, there are four types of examples that I had in a personal setting, which made me learn a few important lessons.

First, I’ve had people who very actively showed me what not to do, basically creating a toxic and unsafe work environment centered around personal loyalty and celebrating their “cult-like” status. Only they had all the answers and they were never in the wrong. When an organization is built around an individual´s guru status, my advice is to run like crazy– it can only go wrong. Organizations build around individual guru status are like a house of cards. Unbalanced, tricky and more centered around keeping itself in tact than focusing on employees and clients.

Secondly, I´ve worked with so-called “leaders” who are quick to take the credit, yet avoid all responsibility when things go wrong, basically political players who never take any real ownership. True leaders, in my book, are those who own their decisions, whether those decisions are right or wrong. They are not afraid to apologize and learn from their own mistakes. Power comes with responsibility. Those who do not want to take responsibility should not be handed power, whether that be formal or informal power.

Thirdly, if I were to name a few people who lead by example for me, I would name the founder of the company, which I now lead. To quote an instance, on the second day of my employment, he sent me to Stockholm and told me to sell something there. I had no idea what it was that I’m selling, but just the level of trust he had in me made me feel more able to pull something off.

Another positive example lies in three of our oldest business partners, based in Italy and Sweden (75+ years and still active). They have shown me to always keep learning, to keep an open mind, never claim they have all the answers yet offer perspective and not judgement. For me their behavior is something to strive for.

“A mentor is someone who sees more talent and ability within you, than you see in yourself, and helps bring it out of you.”

Rahul: What’s your piece of advice to the younger generation, who have just started in corporate?

Egbert: The advice I have been giving to younger people is that go for the jobs that give you knowledge. They might not necessarily pay as much, but do expose you to senior levels of thinking and a variety of projects all the time. In that sense, consulting is a very good profession. Especially in the beginning, it doesn’t pay that much and the hours are long, but there are a lot of insights and experiences that you can gain because of the varied type of clients and assignments. It may be different from one country to another, but here in Europe, we say that until you’re 40, don’t go for the money, go for the knowledge, and after you’re 40, cash in on the knowledge that you gained. It is easier said than done because when people need to enter into new life stages, the balance becomes a bit more difficult. Yet until you’re 40, I would say go for knowledge.

“Prefer knowledge to wealth, for the one is transitory, the other perpetual.”

Rahul: If you could go back in time, what would be your advice to the ‘younger Egbert’, to say?

Egbert: The advice that I would give myself at that young stage, when I was 22 and had just started working in a consulting firm with a very sales-oriented role, would be to develop a hobby that would have taught me more patience, like meditation. Patience helps with a lot of things when you want to grow in a more senior role, and it often pays off to think before you act. So going back 20 or 18 years that would have been the advice.

“One moment of patience may ward off great disaster. One moment of impatience may ruin a whole life.”

In terms of sacrifices made; I don’t feel that I’ve missed things in my private life, despite very frequent travel. I have clear priorities at this stage, which are family and work. This has come at the potential expense of a wide social life, yet I’m quite happy with the choices that I’ve made. In general, I don’t dwell too much on the past, because what’s done is done and you live with the choices you make. Perhaps this is seen as a very simplistic approach, but it keeps the brain fairly healthy.

About Rahul Mahajan

Rahul is the Country Head of Great Manager Awards and has played a pivotal role in strengthening the Great Manager Awards program in partnership with The Economic Times over the last 6 years in India. Rahul closely works with Business & HR leaders to help them identify and develop successors for their organization.
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