Diversity in icecream. Tin Pot Creamery

Embracing Differences without Conflict – from Steven Sels, CEO Primagaz

We are continuing with our series on diversity inspired by Steven Sels, the CEO of Primagaz.  The previous post broached the benefits of diversity and how the company’s intentional strategy to build multi-national and multi-cultural teams favorably impacts their talent management, bottom line, and corporate culture.

Read: 12 Riches of Diversity – Interview with Steven Sels, CEO Primagaz

Today, Sels shares the practical side to harvesting these riches:

  • How it happens
  • Who does what and when
Steven Sels in action

Pre-Requisties to Effective Diversity – Differences without Contention

Sels believes diversity programs fail to reap these riches when the prerequisites are not yet in place.

“Do not start with diversity because it will crash.  For me there is no real cost to diversity. But there are prerequisites that, if they are not in place, I am convinced a diversity strategy will not work.

When there is a culture of openness, collegiate decision-making, work organized in networks (vs. in silos), and the willingness to hire people who do not fit a standard profile, then diversity speeds up performance and growth.”

Denise Dampierre (DD): Describe collegial decision-making at Primagaz.

Steven Sels (SSe): Our Executive Committee – the CEO, CFO, COO, CHRO, CMO – meets weekly.  We are an international group: I am from Belgium, we have a Turk, two French, and a Franco-American who has lived 15 years in the US.

Every Monday, we take the whole afternoon together.

It starts at 11:00 and we resolve the first two issues on the agenda.  Over lunch, the five of us take one and a half hours to debrief the previous week and share what’s coming up.

The afternoon is open for presentations from throughout the organization.  Numerous teams present a project for review and decision-making.  We add to the agenda proposals of a maximum of five slides submitted by the previous Wednesday. During the Monday meetings we spend thirty minutes in discussion with each team.  We do not spend the time reviewing the presentation; we explore and debate the issues. It requires considerable preparation by everyone.

These five slide proposals and ensuing discussion require that team members are aligned with each other; the teams themselves have already practiced collegial decision-making.

The Exec Com reviews many projects every week.  This gives us a feel of the trends and new perspectives. The invitation is open to any team to convince us of a project.

“It can be very difficult for people from other countries to manage French teams.  The fact that we see each other very regularly makes it easier to understand and to be understood.”

DD: Do you have to meet every week and for as long?

SSe:  It’s because we see each other every week that we advance faster.

Colleagues outside the company tell me that this half-day is wasted time.  For me it is four half days gained time!  We don’t have to get the train rolling, it already is in movement and these meetings build the momentum.  It’s a continuum that functions easily, smoothly, and productively.

“Since we review many projects every week, we gain a feel of the trends and new perspectives.”

DD: How do you arrive at collegial decision-making?

SSe: We aim for a unanimous agreement in our Executive Committee.  If someone is not in accord, it is the responsibility of the other members of the committee to find the arguments to convince him. This can take several sessions. If we do not succeed in convincing the other person, then we do not proceed with that venture.

Since we meet so often, we get to know each other and learn to work with our various cultural frameworks and individual personalities.  It is rare that we cannot reach an agreement.

This collegiate decision-making works so well for us because we are multi-national and multi-cultural.  We need to take advantage of our diversity of cultures, points of view, and characters.

Once we have reached the agreement, implementation goes super-fast.  Management is all aligned and we each know what to do to make it happen. What a great advantage!

DD:  You described collegiate decision-making at the Executive Committee level as possibly lengthier in discussion yet speedy in implementation.  How can you act quickly if operational teams also go through the time-consuming process of collegiate decision-making?

SSe: This process of having groups present to the Exec Com forces the teams to be aligned beforehand.  They have been through their own collegiate decision-making process before their proposal reaches us.

“Once we have reached the agreement, implementation goes super-fast.  Management is all aligned and we each know what to do to make it happen.”

DD: What happens when you cannot reach an agreement?  How do you avoid outright conflict?

SSe: It happens very rarely. Very, very, very rarely.

We have a culture where things get said directly, not in back-handed comments in the hallways but face-to-face in the Exec Com meetings.

We also acknowledge cultural differences and account for it.  Take the French. Their communication style is High Complexity & Very Direct.  By the way, this is only true in France, not in other European cultures.

High complexity means using long sentences and sometimes running around the bush before getting to the point. They can also be very direct with comments, like giving a slap.

Germans have Low Complexity and are Direct.  Italians and Spaniards tend towards High Complexity and Indirectness.  That’s also the case with our Turkish head of HR.  The Americans have yet another mentality.  These differing mindsets are wealth that we want to tap into. If we only have French people around the table, or men or women, everyone will come in the same direction because we are all biased on the same way of working.

And yet, it can be very difficult for people from other countries to manage French teams.  The fact that we see each other very regularly makes it easier to understand and to be understood.

“We aim for a unanimous agreement in our Executive Committee.  If someone is not in accord, it is the responsibility of the other members of the committee to find the arguments to convince him.”

In some rare cases, you still need a CEO to decide. I remark, “There are too many different opinions around the table. Here is my proposal and why I think it’s the best for company.”  I open the debate and ask if everyone can find themselves in this solution. And we move on.

DD: Even that is a collegial way to decide!

DD:  How do you handle errors in a collegial decision-making environment?

SSe: We need to be close to our teams and to be visible.  Visible thought leadership. We work in a decentralized organization; we depend upon trust. People must be comfortable saying things.

Admitting error only works when people know an example of someone who exposed himself and the situation turned out positively for him and for the company. They can tell themselves, “I dare speak up.”

We apply this regularly in meetings asking, “Is there still an elephant in the room?”  Is there a potential or actual problem that everyone sees yet nobody talks about?  We make it super easy and simple to broach so that people see that they are not blamed.

When I learn of a mistake, I pick up the phone and call someone at our holding company.  We can only correct mistakes when we know about them.  Then we seek solutions.  It’s simple.  It’s our culture.

I worked in other organizations before joining SHV Holdings where employees had suspicions about unethical behavior.  They kept quiet.  That doesn’t happen here.  Bad news travels quickly so that we can do something about it.

“How we shape our buildings shapes our business and our people.”

We also have to be in touch with our indirect reports and reduce notions of hierarchy.  Hierarchy fosters fear.  We use our physical building space to create connection.  It’s open space with possibilities for privacy.  Open space only works well when people also have an opportunity to retreat.  We call it Total Workplace Organization because how we shape our buildings shapes our business and our people.

There is no golden rule to preventing mistakes.  It’s a daily effort.

Thank You

Many thanks, Steven Sels, for sharing with simplicity (Low Complexity) and candor (Direct) how Primagaz transforms the concept of diversity and the reality of different perspectives into quality decision-making and speedy implementation.

  • Meet often & consistently
  • Model the behavior you seek
  • Create processes which reinforce collegial decision-making at multiple levels
  • Take time to get Ready & Set. Then GO!

Stay tuned for the next post where I’ll be sharing a tool to put these insights into practice.

Questions for Steven Sels?  Post them in the comments below.  Thanks.

Cover photo – Tin Pot Creamery
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