Hi! Managers: Words of wisdom from a business leader

Economy April 25, 2012 00:00

By Jean-francois Cousin

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Meet Peter Cauwelier, Essilor's executive vice president in charge of Asian Operations - six factories in four different countries; 8,000 employees, of whom more than 4,000 are in Thailand. Essilor, the worldwide leader in ophthalmic lenses with such famo



What are you passionate about in leadership?

What I love – when I discuss with my colleagues about their plans – is at first to understand their way of thinking and their objectives, before offering additional insights or suggestions, rather than just review their proposals in detail; I like to help them get a more complete picture, to explore new directions, so they make a more informed decision. Many people might dig down into an idea and tear it into pieces. I don’t think I bring as much added value if I only analyse and approve or disapprove. As leaders, I believe we need to make sure that we add value each and every time we talk.

Another thing I feel strongly about, beyond “setting a vision and goals”, is that good old fashioned way of rolling up the sleeves, showing that I push myself – setting an example for others to do the same – and walking-the-talk. At the end of the day, it’s all about what you get done. In this regard, one of my favourite books is “Execution, the Discipline of Getting Things Done” by Charan and Bossidy.

--What are personal rules you have chosen for yourself as a professional?

One is to come in on time and…not to work too long in the evening. I want to set an example that it’s not because you work twice as long that you are more efficient. I have to admit though that I don’t really manage to stay away from my e-mails after 6pm!

Then, when you see managers working late again and again…

I think they should think about the way they manage their time, and make sure they find an optimum balance between the number of hours they work and their effectiveness, especially after 6 or 7pm. I found out a long time ago that setting time-boundaries enhances my concentration and effectiveness. Nevertheless, in certain situations (crises, urgent situations…) working late is unavoidable.

--Which career move was particularly beneficial to you as a leader?

A career transition that took me from managing our largest factory in Asia, with thousands of workers, to a newly created functional job in North America, where I was all alone without subordinates… That was a complete change, and I must admit it was difficult at the beginning: I had to prove myself all over again, in a different working atmosphere. I struggled but learnt a lot. And today I am very proud I demonstrated that I could do a good job both in running a very large organisation and in a functional role working with peers.

--Your advice to managers who are offered a functional job after an operational one?

People with a lot of operational experience may look at a functional job as downgrading, if they measure their self-esteem in the number of people they manage. I remember a Thai manager who was initially wary of accepting such a career-move… and – just a while ago – he thanked me for having encouraged him to take up the challenge. He recognised that this functional role was no less important than his previous operational job, and that he had grown a lot from the experience.

--What are the toughest challenges you have had to manage so far? And what did you learn from them as a leader?

The crises in Thailand – political turmoil and flooding – were tough challenges for us. We had to find out how differently we could operate, to continue to deliver to our customers through the crises. I learnt two major lessons: the importance of assigning everyone a clear role and sticking to it, and the necessity of communicating continuously in a context where unreliable information overflows. We reported twice a day with real-data and no interpretation or speculation. Another major confirmation from our successful crisis-management: put people first, at all costs, make them safe, and then they will help you take care of the business.

--What would you like people to say about your work here, 10 years from now?

Not that I managed thousands of people, but rather that I led and helped individuals to progress and made a difference in their career. I am delighted when colleagues tell me I helped them grow, sometimes through very strong challenges. A plant manager shared with me recently: “I appreciate that you were so straightforward and shook me up: it helped me grow”. Such “challenge” and “shake-up” is fine as long as you explain why, present options going forward and follow up.

--Who is an inspiring role model for you? And why?

I am not inspired as much by larger-than-life personalities or heroes as I am by looking at the people I work with, seeing what they do better than me, and learning from them; my colleagues are my role models.

--What advice would you like to give to Thai managers?

“Dare” a bit more at work, be more assertive, especially when you face disagreements or strong discussions. Don’t take these personally. Don’t think others don’t like or respect you anymore. Separate the professional discussion from the relationship. And dare a bit more to step out of your comfort zone. Companies need people with broad experience, and a more complete package – generalists who can adapt.

--What are the top three skills you would advise managers to excel at?

Think two steps ahead, define your priorities and focus on them ensure that 80 per cent of what you do everyday is linked to your priorities.

Follow up, follow up and follow up; it’s all about what gets done. Make sure people dig to the bottom of issues, by deep-diving yourself when necessary.

Step back and look for what people are not doing or seeing, then help them get the most complete view of things

Jean-Francois cousin is an accredited executive coach (www.1-2-win.net) and former managing director of a Fortune 500 company in Thailand. Follow his articles in Hi! Managers every fourth Wednesday of the month.