The Power of Clapping

As the nation steels itself for the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 crisis, millions are taking a moment to express their gratitude and assert the message that we are “in this together”. When I join my neighbors in the UK in standing at our doorsteps and balconies to applaud the doctors and nurses of the National Health Service, the collective goodwill is tangible.

The gesture is not unique to the UK. Indeed, there have been similar events in the Netherlands and my home country of Belgium. But it is perhaps significant that the health service should be the primary focus here, where the NHS has a unifying force that I’d venture exceeds even other iconic British symbols, such as its much-loved monarchy. The goodwill shown towards the NHS as an institution is stronger than any commercial brand, any political party; at times, any objective reasoning.

In the present moment, to comment on the unfolding crisis risks the possibility of gross imprecision, of events unfolding in ways that we cannot foresee. Over a matter of days the policies of governments across the globe have turned on a dime; at times, a sort of ‘hysteria in small increments’, only to arrive at where we should first have started. Thankfully, there is now consensus in Europe, if not the US, that containment of the virus is best achieved by a temporary lockdown of personal movement – and that this is the only acceptable way forward.

But as we face into the lengthy privations this involves, it will take more than legislation to see us through. Liberal democracies do not draw their strength from the strict imposition or literal interpretation of emergency laws, however necessary or democratically legitimate they may be. Rather, they thrive on the communal values and unity of purpose that was so effectively demonstrated last Thursday night.

The power of collective sentiment is well known – you need only to look only at the stock market to see the impact it can have. Politicians nurture it, brands thrive on it; the ‘goodwill’ on company balance sheets is effectively much the same thing. Over recent years, the use of ‘nudge theory’ has sought to identify small prompts that stimulate positive behavior in areas where legislation would be complex or difficult to police. The charging of a nominal sum for single use shopping bags has become a case study in how to influence good choices – as, on a lighter note, is the painting of a fly on public urinals to improve the aim!

For now, it seems we are at least agreed – and have found a collective goodwill – on the need for containment. The question, therefore, which most interests me most, is whether we can also stand together in support of the ‘exit strategy’ that, in time, we will surely need? At present, this may appear of secondary importance, but its relevance to our future should not be underestimated.

In a recent piece in the Financial Times, the historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari noted the decisions we take will shape the world for years to come. At a policy level we will need changes to healthcare, to travel, to emergency procedures; we may all of us – though I hope with real caution – need to be more accepting of restrictions to our liberty.

But what of the public sentiment which will underlie and legitimize these choices? Will we retreat to the false security of a more closed world, or have faith in a future that’s based on greater cooperation and knowledge sharing? Can we muster the altruism and trust to coordinate an economic recovery – or will we emerge from the wreckage in a way that resembles the panic-buying and squabbles we’ve seen in our supermarkets?

These decisions will be determined not so much by our governments and institutions, as by each and every one of us. For, as the recent policy pirouettes have shown, it is our collective actions and attitudes that will most influence those who act in our name. Across the world, economic rescue packages are being put in place, that would have been unthinkable were it not for the public mood that we must stand in unison and shoulder the short-term costs.

As we emerge from the crisis, I wonder if we, as individuals will exhibit the same generosity? Among those thousands who’ve had flights cancelled, how many of us will accept a credit voucher rather than demanding a refund? When commerce returns and our customers need more time to pay, how swiftly will we, as business leaders, move to foreclose? And as shareholders, can we refrain from punishing those companies that are far-sighted enough to support their partners over the restoration of dividends?

The economic and social exit we achieve will be the accumulation of the answers we give to these – and countless more – specific questions. I hope we can sustain our goodwill – for as with most aspects of life, we will reap what we sow. Our governments can nudge us, our banks can support us (no doubt with gritted teeth) but ultimately, to come through this crisis stronger, we must sustain the collective sentiment that required no words, but was so clearly heard, in our standing and clapping together.

This article was originally published in CEOWorld.biz – The Power of Clapping (2020)

Reflections on the World Athletics Championship in Doha

Athlete starting a relay — illustrating reflections from Jos Opdeweegh
Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash

Last week, the eyes of the world’s press turned to Doha and its hosting of the World Athletics Championships. Here in the UK interest was intense. Dinah Asher Smith’s victory in the 200 meters was a masterclass of controlled and specialised technique, but it was Katerina Johnson Thompson’s Gold in Heptathlon that caught my eye.

The Heptathlon is one of the ultimate trials of all-round athletic ability. From shotput to sprinting, the discipline tests speed, strength and stamina, as well as the mental ability to hold it all together over two days of competition. In contrast to Asher Smith’s 20 seconds of brilliance, Johnson Thompson’s victory required a balance of skills, none of them world-beating on their own, but which collectively others could not match.

Since returning to the UK as CEO of Connect Group, I’ve been impressed by a similar quality in our news and magazine distribution business. Handling an average of 5 million copies every day, it delivers to 27,000 outlets from superstores to corner shops, collecting unsold copies for recycling, processing data to forecast demand, taking customer calls, invoicing… and all of it achieved in the tightest of time windows. The physical logistics is only half the story; I recall being astounded to learn that by noon our publishers can typically view their sales figures from the day before, right down to that corner shop I mentioned.

Newspapers — illustrating article by Jos Opdeweegh
Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

And yet, if we examine the unique skills of news wholesaling, what we find is that success more resembles a heptathlon than a sprint. What underpins our competitiveness is in not so much that we are very best at physical or even time sensitive delivery, nor are we peerless leaders in information management, invoicing or customer services. Rather, we are good at all these things, and it is this optimum combination of our arguably sub-optimal parts, which make us world class at what we do.

That’s not to say, there isn’t room for improvement. As with athletics, standards move on, expectations increase; the competition is always at our shoulders. As leaders and strategists, the lesson from this week’s heptathlon in Doha, is that we must take a holistic view, considering the impact of each initiative in its wider context — ensuring the strength we build in one area, doesn’t sap our speed or stamina in another.

It strikes me that the metaphor of ‘leader as coach’ is never more apt than in complex and well-established organisations — not least because, the catalogue of good companies brought down by supposedly transformative projects should give us pause for thought. But that pause must never lead to indecision.

The danger in managing this type of complexity is that answers can tend towards those that start with ‘But…’ As professionals we must accept that all decisions involve some risk, including the choice to leave matters alone. Risk can feel uncomfortable, threatening even, but a failure to commit is the surest way to ensure the competition will soon be pressing at your heels.

Making progress, while limiting our exposure requires that we draw on analysis as well as experience; creativity balanced by objective measures — and occasionally some counter intuitive thinking. Standard operating procedures, for example, might appear to be a restrictor to change — but we should view them more as athletes see solid technique. For only when we have sound and consistent foundations, can we test, and most importantly measure, the impact of changes we might introduce. In a world where all the parts are different, it’s tough to know what works, what doesn’t, or what to do next.

If I were to add one more ingredient, it would be to encourage, and be seen to exercise, appropriate humility. For no one can be right all the time and not every idea will be a success. Occasionally — though hopefully not too often — we must hold up our hands and learn from the experience. It is not being wrong that we should fear, it is being too proud to change course when the evidence is clear.

Track lanes — illustrating Jos Opdeweegh article
Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

Returning to Doha, in the time I’ve drafted this piece the UK teams have won silver medals in both the sprint relays — pipped, I might add, by the Americans if not the Belgians!

The relay, of course, is all about passing the baton, with success being more than the sum of the parts. That’s a subject for another day, but it reminds me that harnessing the commitment of our teams to a bold but measurable strategy, is the best way to exceeding our expectations.

Jozef Opdeweegh and Leadership – What Makes a CEO Successful

No two business leaders or executives boast the same leadership style. Because circumstances always vary, there is no correct, one-size-fits-all way to lead. Nevertheless, there are certain traits excellent leaders share. Not only do these traits drive the company forward, they also foster admiration among employees.

Jozef Opdeweegh, known as Jos, has served for over 17 years as CEO of public and private companies in global technology, distribution, and supply chain optimization. Opdeweegh has extensive experience leading different groups of people and teams of varying size in multiple industries.

His long career as a leader has provided him with intimate knowledge of the traits a good executive should display. These traits or attributes are not only crucial for the success of the company but also to assure employees are inspired and empowered by the CEO. Such an environment results in positive growth.

Opdeweegh has outlined 5 traits that make for a successful CEO, and he has included observations from former employees.

1. Makes Decisions Decisively

CEOs, like most leaders, must make numerous daily decisions, both large and small. A great leader can make tough decisions and take accountability for subsequent consequences. According to the Pew Research Center, “Intelligence and decisiveness are considered ‘absolutely essential’ leadership qualities by at least 8-in-10 adults.” The same study goes on to note how men and women both agree that being honest, intelligent, organized, and decisive are also integral qualities. The capacity to make decisions, especially tough ones, is seen by employees as a trait of a strong leader.

2. Engages People

The ability to engage people is an imperative trait for a CEO, and it is one well-recognized by people who have worked with Opdeweegh. Former employee Tim Oglesby says, “One of the key things you need in a leader is the ability to be engaging. Jos is very engaging with people in various roles. It could be the associate driving a forklift in the warehouse, all the way to the top including team leaders, the executive team, shareholders, and potential investors. Jos is able to engage a broad team and get everyone on the same page, moving forward in the same direction.”

Oglesby has worked with Jos in different capacities for over 10 years. He first worked with Jos at Syncreon as CIO, at Americold as CIO, and then at Neovia as CTO. At each company, Jos presided as CEO.

3. Puts Employees First

Typically, when thinking about the hierarchy of an organization, the CEO is at the top, followed by the management team, and then come the rest of the employees. Opdeweegh focuses on flipping that pyramid upside down and putting employees at the top. Doing so puts more emphasis on employees who have direct contact with customers. Putting employees first also makes for a better communication flow. Not only does this leadership style empower employees, but according to former employee Carey Falcone, it can create a completely different environment.

“When you flip that pyramid upside down, it starts to seed a different culture. Jos truly created an environment where people were focused on a common goal but not limited by the traditional way of getting there. He encouraged people to think outside the box and to speak up. Jos fostered an environment where everyone started to think about how they could drive the business forward,” says Falcone.

Carey Falcone was recruited by Jos to come work with him at Americold. He credits Jos’s leadership style and the culture Jos created as key things that attracted him to the role and working relationship. Falcone served as the EVP and Chief Customer Officer at Americold for over two years. When Jos left to become CEO of Neovia, Falcone went with him and worked as the EVP and Chief Commercial Officer for three years.

4. Communicates Clearly

Leaders and CEOs must have excellent communication skills. They have to be able to communicate clearly and effectively, not only to their management team but also to the broader organization. A study by Navalent found that “top executives are consistently transparent and balanced in their communication. They effectively translate their view of business potential and challenges, as well as expectations for action using succinct, direct and readily understandable language in doses that are easily digestible. They devote time to their connections.” Communication is invaluable in the world of business, especially between a CEO and his or her team.

5. Inspires People

Employees will be more committed to the success of the company if they feel inspired by leadership. A successful company generally boasts a roster of employees who enjoy working there. For example, employees consistently rate Google as one of the best places to work. Giving employees a voice, equipping them with the knowledge they need to succeed, and inspiring them to drive the company forward is beneficial to the company at large. Carey Falcone agrees, saying, “The most important people were the people who actually touched our customers. The senior leadership team was truly there to empower, support and enable people who were customer-facing to really do their jobs. Management supported them and showed them they had everything they needed to be successful.”

Jozef Opdeweegh: The Soccer Player and the Formula One Race Car Driver: A Tale of Odds and Good Fortune

Sports are often a tool through which we can learn critical life lessons and skills. However, sports teach more than just teamwork and good sportsmanship, it can also provide a lens through which we can view the path to and expectations of CEOs.

On June 14th of this year, the FIFA World Cup will kick off in Russia. The World Cup is the most popular sporting event in the world by quite a distance. It is estimated that more than half of the world’s population consider themselves soccer followers. With more than 4 billion fans worldwide, it dwarfs any other sport in terms of global appeal. Even more impressive, at any given point, there are an estimated number of 265 million active soccer players, which equals about 4% of the world’s population.

Meanwhile, the 2018 Formula One racing season is in full swing. The nexus of speed and technology, exhilaration and excitement, Formula One speaks to the imagination of an ardent and growing fan base. It is also an iconic sport where a very select few have the opportunity to compete for the coveted world title. Each year, no more than 20 drivers are allowed to participate in the Formula One Championship, two drivers for each of the 10 racing teams in F1.

Jozef Opdeweegh, CEO

While it may seem surprising, the experiences of a soccer player and race car driver are quite illuminating on the trajectory and journey of CEOs. With nearly two decades of business leadership experience, Jozef Opdeweegh explores the similarities between reaching success in the athletic and business worlds.

Everybody’s game

Soccer Players

Many of the world’s greatest soccer players had very humble beginnings. The Brazilian legend, Pele – who is universally recognized as one of the greatest players of all time – was too poor to afford cleats or even a soccer ball growing up. He used to make a ball using his parents’ socks filled with paper to play the game in the streets.

Soccer is a sport with virtually no barriers to entry. It is inexpensive to play. The game can be played on any open patch of grass, sand or concrete. Successful male soccer players range in height from 5 ft 6 to 6 ft 2. No less than 95 percent of the world’s adult male population fit within that range (to contrast this with other sports, professional basketball and American football players for instance require levels of strength and height that exclude over 90 percent of the adult male world population).

Simply put, success on the soccer field is available to almost anyone.

The $8 million price tag of access

Race Car Drivers

Becoming a Formula One driver is no easy feat. In fact, there may be not be a smaller or more elite group of athletes in the world. There is a recommended path for racecar drivers whose ultimate ambition is to end up in the most prestigious of all categories. It typically starts with karting. Those who are very successful at karting may evolve to one of the entry-level racing categories to subsequently try their luck in Formula 3 or 2. Very few ultimately make their way to Formula 1.

Are they the most talented drivers? They most certainly are better drivers than you and I. But what separates them from the pack is a very large wallet. It is estimated the path to a Formula 1 seat comes at a price tag of at least $8 million dollars. And while there are driver traineeship programs to promote very talented youngsters, even those come at a steep monetary price.

Best versus good

To excel at a game with more than 260 million active players and become one of the game’s 50,000 or so professional soccer players, you have to be exceptionally gifted. The sample size is so large that it may be concluded the most successful soccer players are also the most talented soccer players. In a game with universal access and appeal, it is virtually impossible for a hidden gem to go undiscovered. In the world of soccer, “best” truly equals best.

Conversely, while a Formula 1 champion is undeniably a very good driver, he (or she) is almost certainly not the best driver on this planet. Countless are the people out there who unknowingly have tremendous potential as a racecar driver but shall forever remain anonymous. Without the monetary means, they simply will never be given the opportunity to sit behind the wheel of a racecar. In a sport with very high barriers to entry, it is virtually impossible for the biggest gemstone to ever be discovered. “Best” equals (very) good, in Formula 1.

Cleats or a racing seat for the CEO?

The path to becoming a CEO is arguably more akin to the story of the race car driver than it is to tale of the soccer player. Certainly, being a good CEO requires a combination of relevant education, experience and skills to handle the role with success. But good fortune undeniably plays a major role in whether a qualified professional ever gets a shot at the top job. Being in the right place at the right time is very relevant to the opportunity of being selected in your very first CEO position. And once you have been chosen to run a company, you will quickly become a proven commodity and your next job will very likely also be a CEO job.

Much like the race car driver though, there are many people who would make excellent CEOs but never get a chance to demonstrate their talent for running a company. In any organization with a sizable workforce, it is a near certainty that there are one or more employees who are intrinsically better equipped at running the business than their CEO. But despite their efforts and their talent, they don’t rise to the top, often due to office politics, shortfalls in talent recognition and development or a predisposition to recruit outside the organization. Consequently, these professionals often leave the organization to try their luck elsewhere, thus depleting the company’s talent pool.

At social functions or industry conventions, you can’t help but overhear CEOs explaining to their peers how they carefully, step by step, crafted their path to the leadership job. They will lay out in excruciating detail how they realized from a very young age that they were destined for success. Without taking anything away from their professional journey, the reality is that these CEOs simply had a healthy dose of plain luck on their side.

Given this reality, CEOs not only are bestowed with luck but immense responsibility. A responsibility to deliver on their good fortune and hard work through thoughtful leadership, a commitment to doing what’s right and a focus on creating value – for shareholders, employees and the community at large. A rare opportunity to truly make a difference.

Jozef Opdeweegh: Why the First Two Weeks as a new CEO Are the Most Important

No matter if you are an entry level employee or a company’s brand-new CEO, the first day on the job can be nerve-wracking. Even so, your path to professional success begins the moment you walk through the door. Read on to discover why the first two weeks as the CEO of a company are the most important.

The recruitment process:

When considering an individual for a leadership role, the candidate is typically subjected to numerous interviews by recruiters, the board, and shareholders. Oftentimes, the final recruitment process stage involves the candidate providing example insights and an example strategic plan for the business. The candidate would then present the plan to the board, mapping out key strategic goals and proving why they (the candidate) are the best pick for the role. The audience will assess the plan and presentation through the lens of what the company may look like after three to five years under the candidate’s leadership.

The first week on the job:

Once the chosen candidate successfully passes all the hurdles and negotiated a satisfactory employment agreement, it is time for them to assume the leadership role. The first week is an important week, and longtime CEO, Jozef Opdeweegh, recommends spending those first days like this:

Day 1 – 2: Establish a vision, mission and core values/behaviors

Day 3 – 4: Map out the key drivers of success

Day 5: Draft the strategic plan

Opdeweegh says, “it is my experience the senior leadership team gathers in person to attend this 5 day-exercise. Of course, the size of that group depends on the size of the company, but I would caution against groups in excess of 40 -50 people because the ability to interact openly and effectively diminishes with an increased group size.”

Day 1-2

The first two days are really all about culture. “In the mission statement, you define the company’s current business, its key goals and the key milestones to achieve those goals,” says Opdeweegh. The vision statement describes how the company’s future state will look. And then finally, the corporate culture is defined by a set of shared core values and behaviors that will best enable the company to achieve its goals. Opdeweegh says, “it is paramount to focus on core behaviors early on: the future success of the company, and therefore your future success, largely depends on it. You cannot have a large group of associates work towards a common set of goals if they do not share a set of collective beliefs.”

Day 3-4

The following two days center on the key drivers of success. Opdeweegh suggests asking, “What do we need to focus on to be successful?” Obvious topics include financial success, and to satisfy the board, shareholders and lenders. It may sound somewhat counterintuitive, “but in my experience, many members of the senior leadership team do not necessarily have a good grasp of what the main drivers of financial success are. An extensive tutorial may be in order,” notes Opdeweegh. Topics that require discussion are historical valuation of a relevant peer group and the drivers of those valuations: compounded annual rate of revenue growth, EBITDA-margins, EBITDA-multiples, evolution of earnings per share, level of diversification across customers, geographies, industry verticals and product or service offerings and many more. “You need to ensure the leadership group acquires a sufficiently large level of financial literacy in terms of balance sheet, cash flow and P&L to allow them to monitor the financial performance of the company,” advises Opdeweegh.

Day 5

Finally, on day five, Opdeweegh says, “you should present a draft-summary strategic plan that consists of a P&L, balance sheet and the key strategic goals for the next five years.” This draft is then open for discussion with the group. At the end of day five, a subcommittee should be appointed with the specific task to develop a more detailed strategic plan within 30 days and to present that plan to the group. The executive team needs to be intimately involved in this exercise.

The 2nd week on the job

In the second week on the job, Opdeweegh recommends, “organizing a roadshow to get in front of the rest of the organization. You need to be out there and allow the associates to get to know you. You should spend time on the shop floor, demonstrating a decent level of understanding of the operational processes, but more importantly, you should interact with your coworkers.”

In your first couple of weeks on the job, and during your entire leadership tenure, it’s important to be relatable and approachable. Work to be humble, kind and authentic. You are human, and there is something very endearing about sharing stories about how you have faced challenges in the past and how you have successfully dealt with them. They need to see somebody who is fair, inclusive and open to new ideas. You are nothing more than member of the team who is there to support his co-workers. A good CEO does not find authority in his job title, but rather in tangible achievements.

Jozef Opdeweegh Shares Insights on Effective Leadership in Times of Uncertainty

Responsible and measured crisis management has always been a key objective for Jozef “Jos” Opdeweegh, a seasoned C-suite executive with over 20 years of experience developing, leading, and growing public and private global companies. With a career dedicated to leadership, corporate culture, and business transformation, Opdeweegh has seen organizations rise and fall in response to a variety of unexpected and unplanned changes. In times of crisis, he argues that listening and adapting is critical, and to do so successfully is a test of truly effective leadership.

Jos Opdeweegh shared four key takeaways to guide the executives navigating through stormy waters.

Decision-makers must remain solutions-oriented.

According to Jos Opdeweegh, “Leadership in these circumstances requires more than bravado. It needs a cool head, an ability to take others with us, and perhaps most of all, a clarity of purpose as well as strength and consistency of will.”

A crisis is defined as a moment of intense difficulty or danger; a situation when critical decisions must be made. Specifically, it is a time of turning points — when the actions people choose will steer them to either recovery or disaster. Leaders are the primary decision-makers at these critical turning points in times of crisis. They must be level-headed, encouraging, exacting, and dedicated to those that depend on them.

In times of uncertainty, maintain your leadership values.

“The principles of good leadership surely still apply: a willingness to listen and learn, a focus on the common good, clarity, and consistency to our messaging,” said Jos Opdeweegh.

Experts often point to historical examples in offering guidance to help navigate a crisis. But often, in considering the specifics of a current situation, these parallels are less relevant. And occasionally an unprecedented crisis is what risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes as a Black Swan event: a major unforeseen situation, for which we are entirely unprepared — and one with such wide-ranging impact that it changes our view of the world thereafter.

Without concrete lessons from the past, the principles of good leadership are something of a fail-safe. These principles include humility, compassion, emotional intelligence, competence, and cooperation. In troubling times, people recognize these qualities and are actively looking for them in their politicians and influencers.

Opdeweegh is a strong proponent of value-based leadership – the idea that leaders should draw on their own and followers’ values for direction and motivation. He claims that being a good leader involves drawing on these universal values to bring others with you.

Define the organization’s purpose before outlining the direction of next steps.

“The challenge for leaders is that in this moment of greatest uncertainty, the need to provide clarity of purpose and direction is more essential than ever,” Opdeweegh positions.

Jos Opdeweegh consistently champions the value of long-term thinking and cautions against the pitfalls of short-term solutions. In times of crisis, vision and intention are imperative to prepare for the consequences and opportunities that lie beyond our immediate difficulties.

Uncertainty and unease call for actions that demonstrate purpose and direction. And before any action is even taken, that intention must be established. If purpose is the core plan, then direction is the route for translating that purpose into action. Leaders must create a sense of shared purpose, set the direction of travel and guide behavior towards those goals.

Seek impact, rather than consensus.

Jos Opdeweegh also asserted, “Leadership, almost by definition, will never please all parties, nor is it intended to, but there comes a point when a path must be chosen.” To quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “A true leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of it.”

Ideally, that consensus should help to shape our actions beyond the immediate hiatus.

Opdeweegh suggests the various responses to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and how the decisions which followed have impacted those countries, are exemplary of the difference between action and avoidance. He points to the stark contrast between the outcome of the bold action taken by Germany in uniting its country and the grim realities of many former Soviet states.

In drawing lessons from the past, it is relevant that Germany acted with speed as well as clarity of vision. And in returning to the present, it is surely significant that organizations that take the most immediate measures, and proactively focus on containment are those that are successful in reducing further damage.

Opdeweegh concludes that in times of real crisis, whatever path is chosen, leaders must offer their constituents hope. “Today – more than at any time in history – we vastly greater potential to communicate and marshal our actions in a coordinated and steadfast manner. ” If we can add hope and the motivation which comes with it, then “leadership becomes the organization’s most powerful tool in tackling the challenges that unfold.”