Most of the themes in the Mythbuster Leadership program were inspired by the environment in which I worked. It was an industrial site with five plants, one of the largest of its kind in Canada. Approximately 1,200 employees were working there at the time.
Management always involves managing certain types of risks to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the setting: risks to people and the environment, risks to equipment and infrastructure, risks to processes and product quality, and financial risks.
The complexity of processes at the site made managing even more challenging: complex chemical processes that were demanding in terms of waste treatment; corrosive processes with high concentration gases and chemicals; six steam boilers; an ethanol plant; a water treatment system with a capacity equivalent to that of a city with a population of several million.
This type of site has its own emergency team, whether for fire, rescue at heights or in confined spaces, or for environmental emergencies. At all times, procedures must be ready, member training must be current, and both must be proven in the eyes of federal authorities. An Emergency Measures Coordinator was responsible for these aspects. For a number of years, I served as the manager in charge of this role in addition to my other duties.
This work environment, coupled with the difficult economic situation at the time, resulted in a high level of pressure, which managers dealt with poorly by slipping into disengaging behaviors. It was an incredible laboratory for leadership, as I would refer to it a decade later.
I didn't come from a family of university graduates or managers. For the first decade of my career, I was impressed and even intimidated by managers in senior positions. These people often had charisma. They fit in socially and had what we liked to call drive. They held big jobs, but also had enough time to socialize, to train. I wasn't anything like that, and I felt a bit cowed. I figured I would never be a leader. Little did I know!
I got my first job as a Maintenance Engineer in the utilities plant.
I was hired by the site’s Maintenance Manager, someone who would go on to mentor me at different points in my career. For the time being, I reported to the Maintenance Superintendent at the utilities plant. He was an old-school manager nearing the end of his career, an excellent boss who delegated and trusted his people.
When I first started, I could have sworn we were in another era! Everything needed to be done in terms of maintenance. That was the mandate the Maintenance Manager had set for us and it was highly motivating.
I found that I had a higher than average work ethic and enthusiasm for my job. For example, at the end of the day, I would browse, one by one, through thousands of documentation files at the 80-year-old plant just so I could find my bearings faster. This came in useful to me in dealing with the plant’s many breakdowns — one example of the approach that no doubt led to the many opportunities I would be offered over the next two decades.
After two years as a Maintenance Engineer, I was promoted to the position of Maintenance Superintendent at age 26. I was responsible for around 45 tradespeople and managers.
Although I didn't realize it at the time, this position allowed me to progress through the first levels of leadership. My position (or title), certain social skills, and, above all, my productivity made me a bit of a leader. It was easy for me to intuitively organize my team, which management appreciated.
Today I observe that most managers reach this level of leadership naturally, especially when their job is still fairly limited in scope, a fact that allows them to exert direct control over everything. So there’s nothing unusual about it, except perhaps the speed at which the results materialized.
But another ten years would pass before I began to understand what makes a true leader. It would take me another five year to really get it down pat.
At age 29, I was considering a sideways move to Operations in order to learn something new. Coincidentally, The management approaches me. They are looking for a Utilities Operations Manager who would be responsible for the thermal power plant, chemical recovery, and effluent treatment.
I accepted the promotion, which put me in charge of about 90 operators and managers. However, I was asked to stay on in my previous position as well until the position was filled, a process that would take nine months.
This was a pivotal time. I met a new senior manager who had recently joined the organization. For the first time, someone that clearly exemplified the concept of managing by mandate. He introduced me to the role by saying, “I won't tell you about the job description, you know what an Operations Manager does. However, I will tell you what your mandate is: you need to provide the financial justification, define the technical integration, and build a pretreatment system for our effluents that will increase our capacity. We’re thinking of investing a few tens of millions of dollars in this project, which is critical so we can migrate to higher purity products and secure our future.” I had 24 hours to respond, and that was enough time: I signed up for the job.
A few weeks after I accepted the role, our effluent treatment system malfunctioned. In the preceding months, exceptional conditions had gradually arisen and had jeopardized the system’s stability. Because of this, we had to slow down plant operations, conduct a complex cause analysis, and recover, all of which demanded our attention day and night, working 80 - 90 hours a week, for months. Internal relations at the site were demanding, say even difficult. The managers of five plants wanted to take advantage of our reduced capacity during recovery. When you throw in our external relations with environmental authorities and, it is of the public domain, the ensuing lawsuit, it was a crazy year.
At the same time, we had to continue working on the pretreatment project (the “mandate”), which was a long-term solution. Around the same time, the energy crisis reared its head and natural gas prices soared. The site needed a more ambitious energy management program. The general economic situation of the business was also deteriorating. This meant we had to juggle productivity, results that always fell short (no matter their level!), problems with employee retention and recruiting, and a whole lot of pressure.
After four years in Operations, we stabilized the environmental processes and reduced our energy bill by quite a few millions. I was offered the job of Maintenance Manager at age 34. In accepting, I became responsible for 210 tradesmen and managers, plus a few hundred external contractors during maintenance shutdowns.
I had to step into the position immediately. As before, I would have to wear my new hat while still acting as Operations Manager until the position was filled. Which won’t happen before the next change for me.
Pressure on the organization continued to mount.
Six months after accepting the maintenance position, my boss, who was a Vice President, left, and I was asked to become the General Manager of Utilities and Site Coordinator, a new position. This involved responsibility for around 500 employees, including roughly 100 managers. My new boss, a senior manager, was based in the United States at the time. This new position was of the highest level at Site, which put me in charge of coordination among plants and with external stakeholders as well as, amongst other things, human ressources and labour relations. I now held three positions on my management team: Operation Manager, Maintenance Manager, and Plant Manager.
My first step was to contact corporate Human Resources to launch a hiring program... The answer? No hiring allowed, due to the economic situation! We would just have to deal with it.
As if bad news on two fronts wasn’t enough, we soon received a letter from the company’s new President saying the company could no longer support the least profitable plants. The main plant, including the utilities plant, for which I was now responsible, had been selected to undergo the in-house “Intensive Care” program. We needed to generate a positive curve for our results, otherwise the plant would be shut down for good.
At this point, the pressure was at its peak. Employee turnover, especially among managers, was very high, including for Plant Managers. It’s tough to manage such a complex site with newcomers. Working relations between Plant Managers, department managers and employees were difficult, if not conflictual and political. I was part of the problem along with everyone else. Everyone was out to save their own skin, and many were holding down two or three positions. Understand that working 80-90 hours a week had to continue.
Thanks to an incredible effort, we survived the Intensive Care program.
It was almost hard to believe, but our results for the previous 12 months turned out to be a 30-year productivity record. Unfortunately, given the global economic situation in 2007, prices were now falling.
With our group of general managers, we proposed a reorganization of site management in an attempt to save money. Among other measures, we suggested consolidating the five main plants under three General Managers. Of course, we had more candidates than needed for these positions. To the surprise of many, I informed the group that I wasn't interested to continue.
I became interested in a position with Corporate Services and accepted a job in the Environment and Technology Department. There I encountered the former Maintenance Manager who had hired me 12 years earlier and who was now a senior manager. I already knew the move would be temporary, because I still enjoyed plant management and planned to return to Operations one day. For the time being, I would help the company’s plants in Canada and France correct operational or environmental problems. No employees reported to me.
In the previous two years at Site, individual coaching had been offered to all General Managers. This appeared to be a first at our organization, at least at that level — a fact certainly related to the prevailing work environment!
While the coaching was an interesting experience because it was new, I found the benefits to be limited. It wasn’t concrete enough, nor confronting enough, so it didn’t address the problems we were having. There was no decline in conflict, manipulation, lack of collaboration and other issues on the management team during those two years. This was the only help from top management. We felt directed and judged, with one-way interactions limited to reporting on our accountabilities.
However, the coaching did help me realize the importance of learning to recognize one’s needs and of negotiating conditions for success ahead of time. Spending some time in Corporate Services would save me from having to accept another demanding position without any possibility of obtaining my conditions for success with the current settings.
Despite our many successes (surviving the Intensive Care program, achieving record productivity, reducing current expenditures by about $10 million, launching the effluent treatment project worth several tens of millions of dollars, and settling the lawsuit), the pressure was so high that I would sometimes imagine myself having an accident on my way home. A few months in hospital seemed like a better option than heading back to work the next day — that’s how hard it was.
Although the people on my teams had been following me for 12 years at that point, I couldn’t say if they had done so because I inspired them or just because I was the boss. I was also increasingly interested in understanding why we create such work environments for ourselves. This period on Corporate projects gives me an opportunity to analyze this and, if necessary, grow my ability to inspire and influence.
When they welcomed me, the members of my new Corporate Services team told me they found their jobs difficult. The people at the plants weren’t interested in working with them (and it was my case) because their views were so different. I set a mandate for myself: within a year, the plants would be asking me my availability to ensure I could participate — not because they had to involve me, but because they wanted to.
I got down to work with a great deal of humility. After we successfully assisted the plants a number of times across Canada and France, my goal was achieved. I realized that I found satisfaction supporting people and helping them grow by sharing my experience. I was there as much for them as for myself, and I earned their engagement. At the time, I would not have described it that way. I hadn’t yet realized that I was in the process of discovering a secret of leadership at its higher levels: developing others and honing your influence, which becomes necessary when a position’s scope makes direct control of everything impossible. In a corporate role, scope is expressed by distance and by functional relationships as opposed to hierarchical ones, which also impede direct control of everything.
Throughout my 18 months on the corporate side, I observed, reflected and analyzed my experiences in recent years. Back at the site, the situation was deteriorating again — and the site’s results were in free fall.
When he saw the site’s general results, the group’s President decided to make changes. I was asked to return to the site permanently. I was not interested.
A bit before, in 2008, I had refused to take over another plant’s general management on Site.
I was told this time that my position at Corporate would be eliminated, so that I would have no choice but to accept.
Following some discussions during which I informed top management that I was considering leaving the company instead, we agreed somewhere in the middle. I would keep my corporate position but be assigned to the site for 2009, after which the situation would be reassessed. I would be responsible for optimization, which would give me the chance to help all departments where needed after I evaluated the situation and following any other requests for assistance.
I was beginning to put into words what was happening. As I saw it, our organization was struggling with harmful, and even toxic, behaviors. In recent years, I had seen numerous signs of this but could only recently name them and recognize them. That’s what was allowing me to conclude that my conditions for success could not be met.
And so I began my one-year mandate to assist the site in a corporate capacity.
In the course of that year, we managed to improve our external relations, the energy efficiency of the complex and maintenance shutdowns; we also reduced expenses. These improvements made a roughly $20 million difference in the financial projections, and management was pleased.
A new Vice President (management turnover being non-stop!), whom I knew a little, asked me to help him in looking into the working environment at the site. We agreed that we were the only possible allies who could tackle this issue.
Thus, at age 38, I accepted one of several vacant managerial positions at the site: Technical Manager. In that capacity, I was responsible for about 40 employees, including laboratory technicians and 10 chemical and environmental engineers.
I chose this position because I would be in charge of a technical area I was less familiar with, a fact that would permit me to continue growing my leadership, as I would have no choice but to delegate, collaborate, and inspire this group of people. Some of them had a lot of experience, were very technical, and had their own way of seeing the world, which would broaden my horizons.
This group, like the others, had been exposed to the working environment and, although disengaged, its members remained lucid. They seemed more sad than stressed and certainly less affected.
When I was named Technical Manager, a senior engineer from my group met with me one on one. He couldn't understand what I had to contribute to the team. In his view, my appointment proved that the company’s senior management didn’t understand the importance of the technical chemical aspect of our operations, which was to him the root of our problems.
Fifteen minutes later, a colleague wished me good luck and gave me a warning. He told me that the members of this technical group never finished projects, their doors were always shut, and no one wanted them in the plant because they only confused employees. Without knowing it, these two people confirmed to me that I had made the right choice and would be able to test my leadership in this position.
Over the three years I spent in this technical position, we all grew enormously. We spent a great deal of time talking about leadership with the entire management team so we could bring people together for collaboration.
The seasoned members of this highly technical group brought me a lot. They really did have their own way of seeing the world. Through them, I became acquainted with the concepts of systemic thinking and of mental model. Without becoming a disciple, I came to realize that certain aspects applied to leadership, a subject I continued to explore. This was the final step in my reprogramming, which had lasted six years.
After a flurry of departures (by the HR Manager, the General Manager, the site’s Vice President and the group’s President), I was asked to apply for the position of General Manager for the main plant and utilities.
By then, my mind was on leaving the company to start my own management consulting and coaching business. My interest in doing so had been growing steadily since 2007, and I felt that I had re-reprogrammed myself well enough that I could now help others in the same way.
The man of interest in the process is the new group President, whom I had met 10 years earlier in France. It finally looked like I might be given the conditions for success that I needed.
I told the group President that I had been considering leaving the company to start my own business and that if I accepted the position, it would be for a recovery period of no more than three or four years, whether I succeeded or failed. Productivity was at a record low and everything, the management team as much as its members’ trust, had to be rebuilt. The site was working on a steam boiler project worth several hundred million dollars and, given the high stakes, the company’s future was on the line.
I couldn’t promise that I would succeed because I knew that the last four incumbents had only held on to their position an average of 12 to 14 months.
My mandates were to stabilize management, product quality and productivity; successfully integrate and kick off the new boiler project; and oversee financial performance. With the prevailing environment, I could assume and kept in mind that the company might undergo a merger or an acquisition.
The group President’s mandate-based management approach and use of the right words under the circumstances reassured me. We agreed on my conditions for success, of which the most determinant ones would be:
In the end, I took the job. I was starting my second career as a Plant Manager at age 42, six years after my first experience, and I was determined to do things differently. I was the fifth person to hold this position in six years. We were also on our fourth HR Manager and on our fourth group Vice President. On our third group President.
I stick to what matters for the program here. My priority was to develop an in-house leadership program based on my new, and often unique, understanding of leadership themes, assisted by my management team, whose members gave me transparent feedback and their full cooperation. We tackled many highly complex challenges, but we had fun and were even filled with new hope — two concepts that had been lost at the site for about a decade.
Although this transformation may look easy reading it, we operated as a resistance movement within an organization where the method of operation never really changed.
It was an almost 4 years journey. It took some time to deserve employee’s trust at first. In fact, a bit passed year 1, we had to face a short strike. Thanks to the first stones set by our leadership program, the management team of about a hundred was able to put in place a contingency plan and train at operating the entire plant, because when unionized employees walked, we had to cover operations to avoid failures that winter weather would cause once down.
Once everything got secured, we were able to have a quick nap, after close to 60 hours of straight work for some. But it was still not possible to go home due to blockages at the picket line. A few chairs would suffice for a nap! This lasted for over 5 days, getting food brought in with a helicopter, before a court injunction reopened the picket lines. We finally got back home. During this episode, the situation got managed in an assertive manner and the collaboration and initiative from every management person has glued the team together definitively. It confirmed (thanks to our too generous laws during strikes perhaps!) that we were on the right track. Once back to normal operations, we picked up where we had left, more so convinced.
The results below give you an idea of what we achieved, thanks in large part to this leadership program. We:
Thanks to the carte blanche the group President gave us at the beginning and to the protection and confidence this gave us, we were able to stay the course and show that our approach was working.
On one of his visits from France in spring 2015, our group President asked me if I was ready to throw my hat in the ring for the position of site Vice President, the position to which I would normally report. The position had not yet been filled. I took advantage of his visit to inform him that I was considering leaving the company in the next year, taking us to spring 2016.
At his request, I gave it some thought. However, in the end, I let him know that I wasn’t interested. When I searched my heart, I just didn’t want to join the dynamics, that I perceived as being power wars from my angle, at the organization’s higher levels. Being right or wrong, it’s a risk that I was not ready to take. The company ended up hiring a new Vice-President, yet again!
The months that followed confirmed to me that the organization was going to keep steering left field, relative to the leadership model we now considered was ideal in our team. It appeared to us that the “direct and judge” and “condescending” attitude others only knew to apply would still be present with the new management. It was like going back years in time! It confirmed in the end that I was choosing the right path personally.
I resigned 10 months later, at age 45, leaving the company so I could invest in my transition and business plan. Rumors about the company’s sale were rife and came to fruition a few months after I left. For me, this was another reason to believe that my duty had been accomplished. I moved on to do what you will see with the Mythbuster Leadership program, and most importantly see how I did it, to help other organizations transform their results.
I am grateful for all that my 20 years brought me. These situations — whether related to actual management issues or to the ones appearing to me as control, threats, intimidation, or else — were taken for what they were: information that I needed to put in my baskets, to then address them in due time, in the right order of priority, with strategy and determination, just as a good Emergency Measures Coordinator must do.