Not a day goes by without me trying to understand better the relationship between leadership, employee engagement, teamwork, and storytelling. Being super clear matters.
Examples from Elon Musk, Simon Sinek, Mark Zuckerberg, and Sundar Pichai, as well as practices from Microsoft and the UAE, triggered my interest. Adding those to the experiences I had with people such as Jan De Schepper, Luc Van Utterbeeck, Rik Vera, Koen Blanquart, Inge Van Belle, and Julietta.
First things first: Leadership and happiness
Many managers confuse employee engagement with “happiness” or “wellbeing”. They believe they must cuddle their people to be “happy and healthy”. Wrong. They also believe that non engaged people are not motivated. Wrong. Engagement is one culture level higher than motivated in our maturity model.
Many “non-managers” also believe that leadership is the responsibility of “the boss”, and their unhappiness results from their boss’ behaviour. Wrong.
Manager or non-manager, you are responsible for your happiness, and you can’t be happy without unhappiness. Great athletes will tell you you must learn how to lose if you want to win.
I believe in personal leadership, teams of teams, the power of culture, networked organisations, eco- and metasystems, and in energy and resonance. We are constantly transforming, not always because we choose it, but because society pushes us. Web 3.0, for example, is going to push us into a massive societal transformation where time and place become irrelevant in a decentralised global world. That’s a wicked problem and can only be solved by metasystems, but more about that in another post.
Why open communication matters?
Everyone should lead their own Herculean life in such a changing context. If you handle it the right way, your personal brand can even become one of your USP’s. You should become who you are in all the teams you work in. Those teams and the people in those teams are your ecosystem, and you play different roles in different teams. But please, be you.
I stick to my three beliefs when it comes to creating breakthrough teams:
- WOW: go for world-class. Your goals should scare you. The people surrounding you should be aces in their field.
- Cheer each other to victory: especially when people are having a hard time.
- Open communication: that’s the topic I want to touch on today. Be super clear! Tell and repeat your story.
He is an excellent example of “open communication”. When I posted his “to be super clear” email, many people felt they had something to say. Fact: he touched them all.
A lot of people hated it. My thoughts: yes, he was super clear. And that’s expected from leaders. If you want to be part of Tesla, the culture is super clear. Nobody forces you to go work for Tesla.
A few weeks later, Simon said, “Hire people inspired to achieve something big over people who demand something big before they feel inspired.” Again, many people reacted, and again it was super clear!
He told Meta staff he’s upping performance goals to get rid of employees who ‘shouldn’t be here’.
“Part of my hope by raising expectations and having more aggressive goals, and just kind of turning up the heat a little bit, is that I think some of you might decide that this place isn’t for you, and that self-selection is OK with me,” he said.
Again, outrage all over the place! But super clear, right?
Sundar Pichai, boss of Google and its parent Alphabet, told employees to “be more entrepreneurial” and work with “more hunger” in a staff-wide email that warned of consolidation. Effectively, Google is calling on its staff to work harder, or else.
Microsoft is also firing people, but they give the same message as above in a different way. “As the pandemic continues and many people work hybrid schedules, people analytics researchers at Microsoft realized they needed to move from measuring employee engagement to measuring employee thriving. Defined as “to be energized and empowered to do meaningful work,” the authors explain how their mindset shifted around this topic, what they’ve discovered among their employees, and what your organization can learn from their research.”
As many of you know, we moved to Dubai recently. Part of our motivation to come here, was the wise leadership that inspired us over the past decade. By being a part of this unique community, we now experience the wow, the cheering each other to victory, and the open communication every day.
This country is super clear: we want to be the best in everything. Here’s an excellent example of President Sheikh Mohamed, who addressed the nation on July 13th, explaining his vision for his country, and urging all people of the UAE to seize the opportunities before them to prosper. It’s a strange feeling to be a proud citizen of the UAE while I have lived in Belgium for almost 50 years.
John, Jan & Luc
The late John Cordier was an entrepreneur in his own league. He created Telindus, an independent networking services provider that would grow to become the service provider of choice for most large European companies. He was among the first to bluntly attack the dominance and monopolies of the European telecom operators, and he was president of football club KV Mechelen, who beat Ajax in the UEFA Cup final in 1988.
When Telindus was making a strategic pivot, their CEO Jan De Schepper and the marketing director, Luc Van Utterbeeck, convinced me to join them to add business know-how to support the new solutions. Jan soon became one of my mentors. When executives move from the client to the provider side, it’s often a decisive point in their career. It was for me.
In the spirit of John Cordier, Jan and Luc taught me how a customer-centric culture, working hard and playing hard, can become a USP. There wasn’t a day going by or they would use leadership and team metaphors from the soccer world.
We transformed the company from a CISCO network integrator to a full-stack IT integrator. We attracted talent, a very diverse bunch of people. As a result, Telindus’s stock value doubled in just three years. When Belgacom acquired the company, we each went our own way, but stayed in close contact. While the company was dissolved, the ecosystem that built it, based on trust and open communication, remains to this day. Over the last years, Jan wrote two books about leadership, and Luc started a growth agency. It was written in the stars.
People who follow me on Facebook know I tend to react to some of Rik’s posts, especially during the pandemic. He likes open communication and has a specific style and beliefs which are not always mine. When I react, people sometimes send me messages about him. Horrible!!! If you disagree, that doesn’t mean that person is “the enemy” or “a bad person”. He’s a warm granddad by the way. As long as you can discuss with respect, openly, learn, laugh and try to understand why something annoys you, all is good! Love is the answer; believe me, you and I are not perfect either.
Koen was probably the first to teach me the power of firm and explicit opinions. Back in 2004, we at Telindus acquired his startup. I had never met someone with such a clear vision and so much impatient frustration to implement his new ideas today. He could inspire customers like no one else but, at the same time, struggled to translate that visionary message to the team. Merging strengths, his inventiveness, and my natural-born feeling to seek meaningful connections between people turned out to be a lethal combination: In under three years, we became an unseen talent magnet, we built a high-performing breakthrough team, created a particular culture, and took the business from zero to tens of millions. Our paths crossed several times after our time at Telindus and will undoubtedly do so again in the future. Meanwhile, he’s a strategic consultant, and an author and a keynote speaker about new models of organizing work and life.
Inge Van Belle
I call her my muse.
We met at the Telindus Hercules Trophy back in early 2000. She’s an ace in languages and communication. Inge is another powerful and complex personality who understands the art of being herself. People notice her as highly intelligent, a true perfectionist, and an academic. She’s a role model to many, although she doesn’t want to be one. She shines as a leader and as CEO of Herculean Alliance, while this was never her ambition. Never intentioned of becoming a writer, she wrote a book. And she’s a fantastic mompreneur, although she didn’t want to be one, who raises two kids to become as independent as possible. I’m amazed at how she constantly reinvents herself and our relationship. Time and again, she becomes the best in class. People know that we can be very passionate when in open communication mode because that’s where the magic happens. I want to do the right thing; she wants to do the right things right. I’m privileged to be part of her journey.
When people called her “a little princess” when she was a few years old, she immediately replied firmly: “I’m not a princess, I’m just Julietta!!!” From the early days, I knew she was a natural leader and would go through hard times developing those skills. Fourteen years later, she’s on stage during TEDx Dubai: a powerful personality with solid communication skills. She’s surrounded by a diverse group of teachers, family, and friends who love her. They want to help her study at Cambridge so she can buy her Pink Bentley (and I can be her manager ;-)).
When she was only 10, she told her teacher she would live in Dubai in a few years. They laughed. She did it.
A conclusion: your vibe attracts your tribe
Personal leadership is hard. Become who you are. Don’t water it down. Be super clear about your purpose, beliefs, fears, weaknesses, strengths, and journey. Every day is day one.
Some people will join you; others won’t. Some will leave and might come back. That’s perfectly OK. Be a talent magnet. Create a clear culture with the people in your tribe. Diversity is a great thing if you want to achieve long-term goals. Don’t judge; listen to the ones who annoy you or those who are different. Try to love them. Sleep on it. Maybe they are trying to teach you something? Perhaps they are trying to teach themselves something? Follow your guts, your heart, and your mind. Be positively dissatisfied. Do you have a stern message to give to someone? Please don’t wait, do it respectfully and help that person grow.
People will never forget how you made them feel—your words matter. Leave a legacy. Your legacy.