Alan Schijf, Manager of Regional Facilities and Services, has worked in Corporate Services in a large multinational electronics company for 30 years. He shares with us stories of his informative years, and how his experiences then, have shaped him as a leader today.
What has been pivotal in your personal story, and how has this impacted your sense of meaning and purpose in your life?
I grew up in Central East Africa, and lived in what is now Zambia. Growing up in remote part of Africa during the 1950s and 1960s has left me with amazing childhood memories. My experiences from then are imprinted in my brain, almost like they occurred yesterday.
There was a big change in my life, when at the age of 14, I went to boarding school. Suddenly I had to become independent. Boarding schools then are very different to the ones today. It was a pretty rough experience and it really toughened me up.
After graduating from high school, I entered the military to complete my national service. In basic training, there were kids from every walk of life. Most of them had never left home before. They were homesick, and every day were screamed at. For me, the transition from boarding school into the army, was not that difficult as my skin was already about two inches thick.
After basic training I progressed to an officer’s school and received my commission as a Second Lieutenant. We were fighting a war in Angola during this period. Part of my training took place on the Angolan border and we were deployed into the ‘red zone’. This experience has been a pivotal influence on my life as a person, and as a leader. I was 18 years old and when commissioned placing me in a role of leading at a platoon level whose average age was around 30.
I reflect on that period often, especially if I am having a bad day. Remembering being in a conflict zone, or driving down a dirt track knowing there was a potential for landmines, yet having no choice but to take that track. These experiences make me realise that any bad days I have at work are nothing.
Another pivotal experience occurred before setting off to university. To cover the costs of studying in the USA, I found a well-paid job in a gold mine. I was a sampler/surveyor and every day I descended 7000 feet to identify where to extract gold from. It’s a very dangerous environment and every week I would confront multiple near misses. The mine I worked on was one of the deepest mine in the world at that time and it averaged multiple fatalities weekly. Risk wasn’t something I thought about then, I was just happy to get a well-paid job. I feel that, in the period from my childhood up to attending university, I experienced more than most other people experience in a lifetime.
My early years are a very critical part of my life. The need to mature quickly, together with the discipline and values learned during this early period, have had a very significant impact in my life. My experiences then have had a profound impact on who I am, how I cope and deal with situations, and how l manage and lead people today.
How have your early experiences shaped your philosophy and given you direction in life?
One thing I’ve learnt about leadership is the need for trust. I learnt this the hard way in the military. You have to trust the people around you. When you are leading, it’s about the group of individuals who all have specific tasks and roles. Their focus is not only on the mission, but also to take care of each other. If one of those links in the chain breaks down, then you are in trouble. On the first day of military training we were all teamed up with a buddy. Our buddy was a total stranger. Drilled into us from day one was the rule that you never leave your buddy behind. Instilling that buddy system of trust has become part of my DNA.
As a leader today, you have to trust your people. If you can’t trust them, you can’t empower them. I always say my role as a leader consists of three things:
- set expectations and objectives that are very clear, so we are all marching in same direction.
- ensure your success. If you are successful, I am also. If you fail, we all fail.
- support you to ensure you have the resources and budget you need, but then get out of your way so that you are fully empowered to do your job.
I also tell people that you can come to work every day, be busy and attend meetings, but that means nothing. The only thing that really matters is results. Showing up to work and looking busy doesn’t translate to results. It’s all about delivering results with a high level of integrity and doing it well and above all, safely.
As a leader you have to be able to identify people’s differences, know when to step in and help, and when to step back out again. You have to be selective in how and when you exhibit or force your leadership style.
Listening to your story, there was a lot of freedom and fun during your time in rural Africa before moving into stricter environments. What space is there now for fun, and what gives you joy?
I am an avid conservationist and enjoy observing wildlife. I love hiking and gardening. When I get home from work I love to garden, digging and pruning because it releases all the toxins out of my body. Getting my hands dirty and putting all my energy and frustration into things I enjoy doing is my release. That’s the pressure valve I use. My natural style is very introverted; I don’t need other people to energise me. When recharging my batteries, I want to enjoy my alone time.
You are so clear about who you are as a leader and what is important. How has this helped you in making tough choices?
People always told me I am a tough manager but very fair. I have a crusty exterior and people say I always look serious. Deep down inside I am a quite a softie, I am very passionate and caring. My teams tell me that they respect me because I hold them to account to deliver results. But at the same time, when they need something, I am always there to support them. We can have all the systems and processes in place, but work only gets done by people. You have to take care of people and treat them well. So its fine to be tough, disciplined and driving for results, but you’ve also got to have that inner passion to be there for your people.
From listening to you, it is clear that you are results focused whilst also being passionate about people. What is it that drives you to get out of bed every day and constantly work long hours?
I’ve been in Corporate Services for 30+ years within essentially the same organisation. We’ve gone through transitions and called ourselves different names, but essentially the same function. Corporate Services today is so diverse, with many different roles and responsibilities. The people in Corporate Services all have different and unique skills, and all are critical to getting the job done. We are here to support our internal customers, and they encompass many different cultures, languages, wants and needs. Addressing all of those needs and ensuring everyone can come to work safely every day takes teamwork. Joining Corporate Services is like being a medical doctor, you are on call 24/7, 365 days of the year.
I learn something new every day because of the diversity and scope of my job and the environments that I work in, and learning from the very smart and capable people in my team. So that’s what gets me out of bed like an antelope, looking forward to going work every day.
How do you make an impact on the large diverse group of people you lead?
Storytelling. People tell me I love to tell stories! I do this deliberately as the way I relate to people is by sharing stories and experiences of things that I have seen or done. I give context to current issues through storytelling. If we have a complex issue, there is always a story in my past I can tell to help them understand that this issue is not a unique situation, that something similar has been solved it before.
Storytelling makes people feel comfortable and it’s a technique I use over and over again. It comes naturally to me. Learning, managing and leading through storytelling.
What results do you see from your storytelling?
Storytelling breaks down barriers between the manager and employees. You are not barking orders, but sharing your own personal experiences. It brings everything to a level where they are comfortable communicating with me. That’s something that I’ve learned is important in Asia as its naturally very hierarchical from an organizational perspective. The culture in Asia is one where you don’t question the leader, exercise caution in approaching the leader. There is respect for your leader and how you engage with them.
Storytelling doesn’t create an environment of familiarity, but in a hierarchical society it breaks down perceptions people have about leaders. When I am in staff meetings, I get concerned when no one challenges me. I have two people on my direct staff who can be quite outspoken, they ask the tough questions and keep me honest. Having one or two contrarians on your direct staff provides a check and balance system. They feel safe to question and challenge me which is healthy. Sometimes I course correct because of them. It goes back to trust, people feel open to speak up and comfortable doing so without retribution. So establishing a psychological safe environment for people to operate in is important.
As people have the opportunity to contribute, you have full commitment and buy in, rather than dragging them along. They see that you are flexible enough to make course corrections as a result of their input and executing becomes easier.
We are living through really complex times at the moment with Covid. How do you stay on course and not lose focus during periods of challenge?
Despite the challenges we are facing with Covid 19, I always reflect back to those challenging times in my life, and it helps me put things in perspective. I can’t tell you when or how it’s going to happen, but eventually this will go away. You have to adjust to the situation you are in. What’s really helped us through this pandemic is technology. If this had happened 20 years ago we would be in a whole bunch of hurt. But technology has enabled me to work from home and find other ways to stay connected with my organisation. We are bringing the whole organisation together through video conferencing and so are still able to make those connections. Probably not as good as face to face, but not bad either. Somehow the wheels haven’t fallen off. How long we can sustain it no one really knows, but so far so good. So staying connected is important. Every week I check in with my staff. Not asking about work per se, because I know how work is by looking at my dashboard and indicators, but how are you holding up on a personal level? Today I have employees that are stranded overseas and others suffering from mild bouts of depression. So you have to deal with these things as they come up. But you are always there to support people and that’s what’s wonderful about working for this company that is so supportive in this space. It makes my job as a leader very easy, because I know the company has our back at all times.