In our interview series ‘Just do It!’ with inspiring leaders, we met with Joris van Oers, Managing Director at British telco provider BT, responsible for the global resources, manufacturing & logistics industries, and BT’s activities in Europe.
What is driving you in life?
To make the impossible possible is probably what best summarizes my personal drive. I love to work with talented people in complex and challenging situations. I thrive in short-term crisis situations, channeling efforts towards sustainable results and real impact. Stepping out of my comfort zone gives me energy and in that sense, the current Covid-19 pandemic has been the ultimate test!
What impact did Covid-19 have on your personal and professional life?
From a personal perspective, my work/life balance has improved tremendously. Pre-Covid-19, I spent around 30% of my time in London with the Leadership Team. On top of that my global responsibilities required a lot of additional travel. Since March last year, I have not been to the office anymore and only work from home. Together with my colleagues, I have learned that managing the business predominantly remotely works amazingly well. This entire situation has taught me a big and important lesson: delivering on business performance and have a better quality of life, can go well together. Having said all that, I do miss the face-to-face interactions, so I guess we need to find a new mix of working patterns.
How did you keep your people connected, healthy, and creative?
We have embraced two major initiatives. The first initiative was to put our people at the center of everything we do, more so than ever before. Our simple philosophy is that happy employees make happy customers. We launched a lot of well-being initiatives in every country we operate. Local teams work on a voluntary basis in providing all kinds of services, supporting the mental and physical health of our people. This can be literally anything depending on the local needs – there are colleagues who are doing Yoga sessions online, or we have virtual coffee breaks to make sure we keep in touch with each other and can also have an informal chat. To keep the creativity going in the organization, we increased working with mixed teams. The technology to support that, like MS Teams, for example, is developing rapidly with all kinds of new functions. The second major initiative relates to our insight that companies at the forefront of digitizing their business models, had a much higher level of resilience in times of big change. Hence, we accelerated our investments in digitizing our processes and enhance our Cloud and Security services. We have seen a very positive impact of these initiatives on the sentiment of our employees in our latest survey. Their trust in BT and their commitment to the company have further increased over the last year.
What are the key business challenges for BT?
We need to accept that our telecom industry is structurally undervalued. There is relentless and continuous pressure on margins, while the need for huge investments in our technical infrastructure is only rising. Increasing our efficiency and effectiveness remains top of mind to balance this paradox. New technology allows us to bring new services to our customers and create new revenue streams. At the same time, we are rethinking our office setup. Which teams do we need to have physically together in an office and which people can work from home, or from a customer site, a few days per week? The office of the future will no doubt have a different function, accommodating the changed needs of our people and customers.
How does this impact the leadership challenges within BT?
Leaders have become much more accessible and visible due to remote working. Supported by video technology, we can collaborate much faster in a new way. In my opinion, this is incredibly valuable, as it enables us to grow closer to each other and create a better mutual understanding in ways we have never seen before! I particularly value the sincere and personal conversations I now have more often with my people, triggered by remote working. I also see informal leadership growing, which can come from any place within our organization. We have an opportunity to enhance our leadership culture in a unique way.
What does Digital Leadership mean for you?
For me, it all starts with creating a spirit in which ‘nothing is a given, but anything is possible. The fast development and application of new technology in our business are very exciting. However, we first need to give our people the opportunity to learn and acquire new skills and knowledge to work with this new technology. Role modeling and creating a culture of a growth mindset is an important element in crafting digital leadership. Organizing new ways of learning through for instance gamification can help our people to accelerate their learning curve in a fun way. We need it as we depend on it!
How have you adapted your leadership style in the past year?
I have tried to become more personal in my interactions with people. With everybody on a screen in front of you, as a leader, you need to create and encourage a new dynamic in the team. This starts by being much more specific about what needs to get done. I try to keep it simple and focus on making small steps of success. I stimulate informal collaboration by being open and honest as new ways of working need to be established. And last, but not least, I try to have fun together. This is important as a virtual collaboration model can only thrive if people believe your intentions, see you do what you say, and having fun doing it. You can’t hide!
Can you give an example of how your team has grown closer by better understanding each other?
One of the most impressive examples I can give was during Christmas last year. This has taught me so much! My intention for this virtual Christmas gathering was to have the usual management-speak, with business updates and stuff like that. Quite boring, in all honesty. My team advised me to do something completely different. No business update at all, but only exchange visual examples of how each team member celebrates the end of the year with their family in their respective country and culture. The impact was amazing as everybody went out of their way to give a real personal insight into how they celebrate this. To give you an idea, we traveled the world from Dubai to Switzerland, India, the USA, Australia, Brazil, the UK, etc. People just did not want to stop sharing. To me, that showed me once again the value of belonging to a team of great and diverse people!