A management philosophy that shapes excellence

31. January 2024

Thinking is work

I’ve been fortunate to be a strategic leader at SOL for the past 10 years, and one part of my job is thinking. In the past, I always used to smirk when someone said that they needed to take some time to think. I was someone that liked to do things on the fly, my train was moving fast, stops whizzed by, thinking took place on the move. It’s been years since I last laughed when someone said that they need to take some time to think. On the contrary, I am the first to say to all managers, please take some time to think.

On the picture: Rinel Pius, author of the story and CEO of SOL Baltics – a leader as the leader of change management

There are seven of us on the SOL management team, six of whom have their own teams and manage specific functions. The managers are all very good managers who share the same core values, while each having different personalities, different operating speeds, and different skills. Their main job is to make sure our train doesn’t derail and stops at the right stops. My job is to make sure our six trains arrive at the station on time in the evening.

I think that most of my day is spent thinking about leadership. Thinking about how? and what?, while thinking mostly about why? I believe it is the amount of time put in by the team that has enabled us to raise our competitiveness in SOL to a high level. We are a large pan-Baltic company with 2,200 employees, contributing at a high level in business culture and teaching others when the topics are good organisational culture, effective recruitment, strong HR management and safety, freedom and responsibility, sustainability and environmental management. We have become a respected service company, not just a good cleaning company.

Freedom and responsibility in leadership is a Ferrari, something most people will never possess

I have completed many different leadership tests during my career, which measure a leader’s behavioural tendencies, characteristics, leadership potential, etc. For the most part, they have confirmed what I have also felt inside – that I am triggered and motivated by independence and freedom. In my case, this ensures a good result in everything. As soon as somebody starts to put pressure on me, everything goes to hell. I’ve experienced things going completely wrong twice, and those two experiences are also my experiences with total failure. I myself have been guilty, because I was trying to fight against the only thing that motivates me – freedom and responsibility.

I am in favour of the thinking that a person will do a good job if they are in the right place and the manager lets them do it. People are responsible and creative, they want to have good results, and they need to be taken as a whole – this is, by the way, a written understanding of how we treat people at SOL. I advocated for this manner of thinking with the first steps I took towards becoming a manager in 1994, that the time and place where work is performed, taken on its own, is of no importance. It’s important to understand whether a person is accountable for everything – results, ethics, money, collaboration and time management. In 2019, Patty McCord’s book Powerful. Building A Culture of Freedom and Responsibility was published in Estonian. I thought, damn it. I’ve been managing for 25 years using the style written about in the book, but someone else beat me to the punch and wrote a book about it.

With such a culture, I have three lessons. Firstly, the word FREEDOM gives many people a very nice feeling and they are very keen to come work in a company with such a culture. But they have failed to understood that other word – RESPONSIBILITY. It is very difficult to work in such a management culture. It is unsuitable for most people. First and foremost, you only have to manage yourself; something that many are unable to do. The second is that if someone begins to implement this culture from scratch in their own company, you have to take into account that most people will leave or be forced to leave. Precisely for the first reason. Thirdly, if you have people who respect this style and are able to thrive in this culture, then it no longer seems like a job, but a lifestyle. In fact, a privilege. And what could be cooler than working in an environment you really like and with people you really like. To work for 10 years in the same company, in the same job, and feel the same excitement every day as you did on your first day. Cool!

Sustainability as a mindset

For many people, sustainability equals green thinking. Of course this is not the case, and I approach sustainability from a different angle. I’ve advised my team that when choosing a new employee, choose someone you want to work with tomorrow, not today or yesterday. The idea is to not build the kind of employee profile you want, but to look for the one you need. What you really need is a new way of thinking, new opinions and new experiences. In order to not think that something is ending, but to constantly think that something is continuing or beginning.

The profit of the company as a thing in itself is not very attractive or desirable as the sole objective. I’m attracted to people who are passionate about what they do, who have shared values, who know how to motivate themselves and each other, who are not afraid of responsibility, who inspire, who have a good sense of humour, and who are compatible with each other. When it all comes together like this in a company, the result is even higher profits than expected. And that profit is sustainable, because the team described above is constantly thinking about how this or that decision will look in 10 days, 10 months, and 10 years.

At SOL, we have experienced that the example set by leaders is contagious. Leaders are the ones who provide an example. Many years ago, we started a coaching mentoring course with the management team at Fontes. To date, the course has been completed by both management and some middle-level managers, with the training continuing on an ongoing basis. Also, seven of us – the entirety of management and one middle-level manager – went to Tallinn University to complete a microdegree course in Green Transition management. After obtaining the degree, we sent our entire five-person Sustainability and Business Development unit there, and we will certainly be sending several people to study there in 2024.

Developing yourself and your business is one of the pillars of sustainability. It is important to understand that this is a kind of running start competition, where one heads out to the first lap before the actual start of the race. The first lap must be completed by management, and if one crosses the actual starting line at full speed, then this is the line of change in one’s mindset. The more people that cross the mindset line, the more of them are promotors of sustainable thinking. If management fails to complete this preliminary lap, then the actual sustainable mindset in the company has zero value and the worst result is that you will no longer be invited to the circuit to participate in the rally.

Mentoring as a leadership style

Mentoring reached SOL through Fontes and by chance. This coincidence has started a lot of great changes in our company. We now have 9 mentors. We would have more, but unfortunately Fontes does not have such a school in Lithuania and our Lithuanian leaders have not yet experienced all the excitement.

The mentoring style suits us. This kind of coaching management was something we had used before, but we just didn’t know it. Mentoring has helped us to become better leaders ourselves. Mentoring gave us a fresh new battery or starter. Mentoring practices and exercises help us to kick-start the self-motivation engine, which works like a chain reaction. One mentor helps someone with their self-motivation, they, in turn, help the next person, etc.

‘People in our company have often asked our partners how we manage to do so many things in a year. In fact, we don’t really sense it ourselves. If you’re doing something you really like and find interesting, you don’t really think about time. Rather, you have to enjoy the process and it’s fun. The biggest danger is that it all tends to be liked too much over time, and if no one notices at the right time, the engine can burn out. But this is where mentoring, leadership culture and people’s mindfulness come to the rescue. We watch each other for signs and step in.

Despite the fact that it has been years since the mentoring course, the management team is keeping itself in shape. Each of us undergoes external or internal mentoring from time to time, we actively participate in the Fontes Alumni Club as members of the Advisory Council, we refresh ourselves with our own in-house mentoring refresher course and we are also further educating ourselves with the Fontes Career Guidance course.

A leader is caring by nature

One of the qualities of a good leader, in my opinion, is caring. At SOL, we look at the person as a whole, which means we understand that they have moods and feelings, and if things are not right at home, things are not right at work, and vice versa. A good leader cares about their employees. This means that they really listen and are ‘present’ mentally and physically. As well as listening and being there, they also listen and act accordingly.

Like thinking, listening also takes time. I ‘suffer’ from a bit of excessive caring, which sometimes makes me feel like a mop placed in the washing machine and spin dryer at the end of the work week. This is something I have to work hard on, because you really have to care for yourself first and foremost, and only then will you have the energy to care for others. Although those moments, when someone says thank you for listening to them, for advising them and for taking them as a whole person are like a balm.

When we think about how much our daily lives affect us all, and if a leader doesn’t understand their people, it simply ends in a bad mood, a bit of undermining, a serious conflict, an employee leaving, or even the end of the company. All this can be prevented by simply showing a bit of consideration. If you see that someone’s work is not progressing, they have a long face or even a bad mood, it doesn’t cost anything for the leader to come up to them and say, ‘hey, we haven’t spoken in a while, let’s take a minute and have a cup of coffee, sit down and talk’. I’m glad to see that this is working pretty well in SOL right now!

Open leader

Many leaders say they are very open, that their office door is always open to everyone. Openness is also a trait I share, but it takes more than an open door.

I go to the office in the morning and our recruitment partners are always the first people that I meet. They are wonderfully energetic and cheerful. Thanks to them, we have been used to hugging every morning for years. After the hug (which lasts 8 seconds), they say that now they can get to work because they have received a shot of energy. We also talk a bit more about topical recruitment issues.

During the course of the day, I have the chance to talk to a dozen more colleagues in the office on various topics. Doing so by going to see them myself. These are all, so to speak, communications outside of meetings or specific duties. When I’m in the building, I don’t invite anyone to come see me or send anyone an email or a Teams message. I walk up or down the stairs myself. I have to admit that, contrary to the stereotype of open leadership, which employees generally like, what I need most is open leadership.

That’s because I get so much more back from absolutely every work conversation, formal or informal. I may know a solution myself, but when I share it with a colleague, they give it an additional meaning or even a new direction. I can give you two alternatives to a possible solution, but my colleague gives you three. I can ‘guess’ about someone, but a colleague knows more and will tell you why that person did what they did. I may be very confident that I’m running the business well, but when I talk to a colleague, it turns out that I still have a long way to go.

And I can hug my colleagues and they think they get energy from it, but in fact I get much more from them, because I understand that the act is a gesture of trust on their part.

A leader as the leader of change management

Rinel says that one of the qualities of being a good leader is caring.

The words strategy, vision, business model, focus, but also crisis, recession, restructuring, etc., are often associated with change management. In short, the ‘big picture’ stuff. Yet, we do dozens and hundreds of things every day and every week and every month, all of which are changes, but we don’t treat them in that general way. It’s like an everyday job. Examples include updating the website, improving the customer service process, training a small software group, changing the contracting process, improving service efficiency, etc.

At the weekly operations meeting we meet an angry sales person, who complains that someone redid the website, I couldn’t find anything, and when I visited the client I left a bad impression of myself and the company. A first-line manager is angry because they discovered that a button to automate the payroll programme had appeared a month ago, but no one had informed them. Another manager is angry about why the contracting process has been changed again, he just got the old thing sorted out and there was nothing wrong with it.

What is causing this outrage? In fact, these are all the result of a poor change management process. Whoever conjures something new usually does so as the solution to a specific problem. Problems include the old website not responding to a Googlebot, or the contract process being out of date, or the payroll programme requiring a lot of manual work. All of these are the right things that need to be addressed. But the fact that they are also all change management processes is generally not thought about. Just as you don’t think about the fact that if the project team has been working on fixing or updating the problem for a month and everything is clear to them, the user only found out about it when training was held or information shared about the change. But they have the same questions that the project team had a month ago. Why is this necessary? Who does it? Who benefits? etc.

As a top executive, I often feel like a leader in change management. I am the one who often creates a link from the benefits of change in one department to another department. Or I’m the one who brings together different projects from two different departments into one project. Or I’m the one who points out to the Function´s Manager that they are not actually leading a project to replace the HR department’s recruitment software with three HR people, but actually a very big change where the end users are 40 Front-line Managers (who have no problem with the old software, but when they find out about the new software too late, their first concern is why so late and we have other work to do). So, sometimes the head of the company has this rather amusingly named role: the change management leader.

The article was originally written for the January 2024 Fontes newsletter by Rinel Pius, CEO of SOL Baltics OÜ. Rinel is also a member of the Fontes Alumni Club Advisory Council.

The original article can be found on the Fontes website: https://www.fontes.ee/rinel-piusi-juhtimisfilosoofia-mis-vormib-tipptulemusi/.