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
They ship ice cream throughout the US! 

Olympians from many nations

12 Riches of Diversity – Insights from Steven Sels, CEO of Primagaz France

Is diversity a lofty concept or does it impact the bottom line?

Steven Sels, CEO PrimagazFor Steven Sels, the CEO of Primagaz France, diversity ranks among the top competitive advantages of his company.

Primagaz is a fully owned subsidiary of SHV Holdings, a global, privately held corporation of 20 € Billion in revenues and operational in seven industries.  In his nine years with SHV, Sels has worked in two of their industry sectors and in five different countries.

Diversity is not a chance thing here at Primagaz. In our La Defense offices outside of Paris, we have 750 employees representing 19 nationalities and a balance between men and women employees. – Steven Sels

Throughout our discussion, Sels peppered his comments with the phrase “riches of diversity.” That’s the topic of this post which is the first in a three-part series.  In the second article, you’ll learn of Sels’ prerequisites to reaping these benefits of diversity.  To close this series, we will provide you with tools to assess your diversity friendliness.

The Costs and Riches of Diversity

Interview with Steven Sels
CEO of Primagaz France

Steven Sels embarked us on the topic of riches from diversity when addressing my question regarding the costs.

There is an initial financial output for a diversity strategy, just as there is with any investment.  We must accept it and the fruit come quickly…Diversity is not a real cost; it brings riches.

Three “Centers of Wealth’ emerge from Sels’ comments:

  • Talent management – SHV is a family owned holding seeking to pass on a vibrant business to the next generation. They believe the key is through the teams that help the organization grow and in whom they invest.
  • Competitiveness – Primagaz, as with every SHV company, has the vocation of market share leadership and growth through performance
  • Corporate culture – SHV Holdings and Primagaz have transformed the challenges of diversity into an advantage through clear values and processes to guide decision-making.

See for yourself.  How would your organization benefit from these riches?

Talent Management

1. Attracts Ambitious Talent

Steven Sels (SSe): “When I recruit, I recruit for the holding. We seek young employees with CEO potential.  For our fast track employees, we help them acquire an ideal background and better baggage for their future.  For example, I have been able to work in 7 countries (5 of which with SHV Holdings).  We also seek to move people both vertically and horizontally so that they can acquire more experience.”

Denise Dampierre (DD): When I walked into his office, Steven Sels held the Olympic flame in his hands which was lighted with Primagaz fuel. Throughout our discussion, as Sels spoke with respect and care about his employees, he conveyed that Primagaz has a winning team.

2. Retain Quality Talent

We actively work to eliminate reasons to leave.

SSe: “The family of the holding company seeks to develop people who wish to stay with us and who have the profile of becoming CEO of one of their subsidiaries.  We actively work to eliminate reasons to leave.”

3. Build Adaptable Talent

 SSe: “We are changing from an organization in silos to a network organization within Primagaz and SHV.  For example, Primagaz is leading the development of a Customer Engagement Hub with an integrated team including members from the holding staff and international specialists from various industries and different countries.  Once the hub is up and tested at Primagaz, this team can help adapt it to other companies in the holding in other businesses and cultures.”

Competitivity in Operations

4. Speed in Implementation

We might take more time to reach a common conclusion, but implementation goes super-fast.

SSe: “We might take more time to reach a common conclusion, but implementation goes super-fast.  Our Executive Committee is multi-national, multi-cultural, and multi-gender.  When we are aligned, we progress with speed and quality.  Since we meet regularly, we know each other very well.  Now, both decision-making and roll-out happens quickly.  What a great advantage.”

5. Accelerated Growth & Innovation

SSe: “There are prerequisites to enjoying the benefits of diversity.  (Stay tuned.  We address this in the next post).  When those are in place – an open corporate culture, collegiate decision-making, team networks, and a readiness to hire people who do not have a standard job profile – diversity speeds up creativity, innovation, and results.”

6. More Opportunities & Fewer Opportunity Costs

A lack of diversity prevents you from doing certain things. It’s like horses with blinkers that do not even realize their vision is restrained.

SSe: “A lack of diversity prevents you from doing certain things. It’s like horses with blinkers that do not even realize their vision is restrained.  Diversity opens the range of possibilities.  If we only have French people around the table, or men or women, everyone addresses an issue with the same biases.

For example, our CHRO from Turkey does things completely differently from most French.  It’s an enormous advantage, like removing the blinders.  Now everything is possible. That’s really it. Everything is possible!  It’s such richness and wealth.”

7. Discussions without Conflict

DD: How do you resolve conflicts?

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

Sels expands on this in our next post.  Stay tuned.

8. Quick Recuperation from Errors

SSe: “One of the company maxims is to allow good news to travel slowly but bad news must travel fast.  With our global network, I know who to call and tell them something is not working in our company. I can admit, with sincere apologies. that even though I have been here for three years, it is only now that I discovered this important error and they need to know about it.

And he’s going to say, ‘Thanks Steven for letting us know. We’ll look into it and get back to you.’

There is no blame culture. They are not going to say, ‘But how is this possible?! It happened under your responsibility!’  We really do not have this culture.”

Corporate Culture

It’s normal to hear someone ask, ‘Are there any more elephants in the room?’  We are not looking for blame but for solutions.

9. Meaningful Values that Define Behavior

SSe: “Our values are engraved into our DNA.  As a decentralized organization, it is vital to trust people in the field.  When I hire, I seek people with an entrepreneurial mindset who can thrive in our decentralized structure.”

DD: Sels’ actions spoke loudly too.  He reached over onto his uncluttered desk to show me the Corporate Values Statement.  It’s a fun-to-handle foldout that dedicates one page per core value: growth through performance – go for niche and market share – invest in people – keep things simple – listen, learn and react – look for the unusual – manage change.

Sels spouted off the values like one enumerates the ingredients in a peanut-butter & jelly sandwich.  Simple and straight-forward.

10. Clear Cultural Processes

SSe: “The process by which we appropriate these values is super important.  We have unmistakable guidelines and our performance assessments address how we live out these values in the field.

The Leadership Profile is one such guideline.  We use it to build effective teams and to help people evolve.  We select team members with complimentary profiles so that teams encompass the full leadership characteristics.  We also use the Leadership Profile as a guide to identify skill development and training opportunities for our employees. We are an organization in transformation and are developing teams with the necessary skills and mindset for the future.”

11. Openness to Pleasant Surprises

SSe: “I can and have recruited people without a job for them. Sometimes even the Executive Committee wonders what that person will do.  In most cases, that person creates their job and Splash!  they have developed something amazing.  I have that freedom.  An unusual hire may add costs; the give back a lot too.  It’s important to be able to break the mold from time to time and see what happens.

Sometimes we make mistakes.  Most of the time when the company trusts me and I put my trust in someone else, we harvest unexpectedly positive fruit.”

12. Frank Talking

SSe: “We speak directly.  It’s normal to hear someone ask, ‘Are there any more elephants in the room?’  We are not looking for blame but for solutions.  We benefit by finding solutions fast.”

Real-Life Test

As I was leaving Primagaz, I spoke to an employee in the elevator.  She had worked for Primagaz for 22 years and stayed because they made it interesting for her to remain, providing opportunities for career growth every three to four years.  She counts among her accounting team some Parisians, a French woman from Martinique, and a colleague from Thailand.

I had expected diversity in marketing, sales, innovation, and operations.  In accounting!

The Prerequisites to Reaping the Riches of Diversity

SSe: “For me there is no real cost to diversity.  There are prerequisites that, if they are not in place, I am convinced that a diversity strategy will not work well.”

DD: “Thank you.”

Thank You

Steven Sels shared his experience of diversity at work which challenges us to review our own beliefs and behaviors.

  • What are some of the riches you gained from diversity within your teams?
  • How do you compare cultural, gender, ethnic, and age diversity issues and benefits?
  • What questions do you have for Steven Sels?  Please write themm in the comments.

Stay tuned for next week as Steven Sels, CEO of Primagaz France, talks about the processes determine the success of their diversity strategy.

Cover photo – a diversity of Olympian champions

Woman doing pushups in Pilates class

Lead Constructive Meetings – Tips from Pilates

For many of us, meetings are a necessary evil.  We need team ressources and support, so we have to meet.  And yet many meetings feel unproductive.

How does one organize and run a meeting for optimal teamwork and productivity?

Contrary to popular believe, efficient and effective meetings rarely start by jumping right into the meat of the matter.  That’s expecting everyone to have thinking, listening, and creative caps donned.

It’s rarely the case.

Here is inspiration from one of my most envigorating weekly meetings:  a Pilates class.

1. Define the Mindset

Tips from Pilates

Our teacher begins every class the same way.

“Breathe.  Stand straight.  Feet hip-width apart.  Shoulders above hips.  Tummy muscles squeezed tight. Let your chin drop towards the sternum and feel the stretch…”

Every time, I am caught by both surprise and familiarity.

Surprised because I’m slouching, am disconnected with my body, and don’t even realize it!

These regularly repeated words prime both my spirit and my body for stretching and muscle-building. It takes 10 seconds.

Positive Mindset in Meetings

How do you prime your team members for alignment during your meeting?  Model the behavior you seek.

For connectedness: Take 10 seconds to smile and look each person in the eye.

To tackle a challenge regarding the competition: Link your fingers and stretch your arms out in front of you.

To foster listening: Stay silent until the room quiets down.

2. Engage the Core Muscles

Tips from Pilates

“Tighten your abs. Squeeze the inside of your thighs …”

Engage the Core Muscles in Meetings

What will constitute a “firm core” for your meeting?  Let the group know the intellectual muscle you expect.

“Let’s put those creativity caps on!”

“We have a full agenda.  We want to hear from everyone who has something new and relevant to add.”

“Disagreement is OK. When we present our viewpoint, let’s stick to facts. I may request a moment for each of us to write our thoughts down before continuing the debate.”

3. Clarify Expectations

Tips from Pilates

“Feel the stretch in your lower back…”   It’s our cue for success; if we only feel the legs, something is out of whack.

Clarify Expectations with a Meeting Agenda

A shared written agenda helps keep the meeting on track.  It’s an agreed-upon tool to refocus.

“The decision we have to make today is ___________. You have a valid point and we still need to move ahead.”

Time indicators on your agenda adds yet another element of accountability.

“We had spent 15 minutes debating this issue.  Are we getting ready to decide or do we need to come back to this topic with additional information?  If so, who will do what?”

4. Maximize Results in Minimum Time

Tips from Pilates

“Let’s tone triceps.  For these push-ups, place your hands facing forward with arms next to your body.”

Standard push-ups build upper body strength.  This particularly positionning tones triceps.  Our goal is fit-looking arms to show off our summer wardrobe.  These forward-facing pushups get us the results easier and faster.

Stay Focused

Less is more.  Avoid distraction that generate lengthy, somewhat-related discussions.  Aim to define several concrete steps to move forward and assigning who does what.  That’s HUGE and motivating to all.

5. Self-Evaluate

Tips from Pilates

Between exercises, our Pilates instructor reminds us to align our body, to strengthen our core, and where to feel the stretch.

Oops!  I squeezed those glutes five minutes ago and then shifted my concentration to the movement.  In that short time span, I forget to keep those butt muscles engaged!

Invite Re-Alignment throughout the Meeting

In the same way, it’s helpful to return to meeting’s posture, purpose, and schedule to check in.

To avoid putting someone on the spot, invite self-evaluation.

“How are we doing on creativity/timeliness/mutual respect/?  What could you do to help us be more imaginative/productive/effective listeners?  Let’s continue…”

Read Turn Good Intentions to Great Teamwork for an example of self-evaluation during meetings.


6. Nourish your Brain

Tips from Pilates

Between exercises we rehydrate with water infused with lemon, ginger, or cucumber.

Serve Water during Meetings

Do you know that the brain contains 80% water?  Studies show that hydration contributes to memory and clear thinking.

Serving water also creates a pause in the meeting dynamic.  Try relieving tension between participants by offering a glass of water.  These nanoseconds allow the brain to receive nourishment AND to process emotions which boosts the ability to reason and rationally weigh alternatives.

The humble act of service demonstrates your care for the participants.  It’s a basic human need to seek belonging and significance.  A glass of water with a smile allows you to connect one-on-one with a person, even during a large meeting.

7. End with a Closing Routine

Tips from Pilates

“One last stretch before we go.”

Stretch the Value of the Meeting with One Word to Recap

“Let’s go around the table with a take-away from each of you.”

This is a gentle yet firm way of securing buy-in….at least on something.  Peer pressure encourages even the reticent participant to contribute.  It could be eye opening for them to realize the meeting held value to their colleagues.

If the closing comments fall below your hopes,consider how to prepare or manage your next meetings differently.  Take stock:

  • What went well?
  • When were the less productive moments?
  • How well did your respect the schedule (ie and respect the value of your participants’ time)?

Want to participate in a business meeting with these tips in action?  Contact me about organizing a conference in your workplace.

Apply to Life

These techniques work marvels with children around the kitchen table.  It’s the opportunity to address an elephant in the room and get the kids involved.

“I noticed that we have trouble getting out the door on time in the morning.”

Define the Mindset – Smile.  Reassure the children this is a time for solution-finding, not blaming.  “Around this table I won’t tell anyone to ‘Stop dragging your feet.’”

Clarify Expectations “Let’s come up with ideas to make mornings calm and joyful.  From our list we can choose one to try this week.”

Invite Self-Evaluation“Yes, your brother could ______.  What could YOU do?”

Stay Focused – When the kids squabble among each other, reframe.  “Hum. How is that pinching helping us get out the door on time? (Pause. Eye contact. Smile.) Another idea?”

Finish Strong“Let’s each say one phrase to share what you thought of our meeting.”

  • “I felt like a big person.”
  • “I know how to help.”
  • “We have great ideas!”

Cover photo from Unsplash