Behind The Curtain: Interview With Jan de Sutter

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What does leadership look like in 2016?

What are some of the ways you can inspire your team to do a great job?

Jan de Sutter, an EU professional coach, shares ideas about how leaders can inspire the modern workforce: by dropping the carrot-and-stick approach and inspiring teams to think about what they do, and how they work, differently. He also gives advice on how to adapt your presentations based on who you are talking to, as well as how his varied professional career helps him train younger professionals.

Interview with Jan de Sutter:

Q: Jan, to start us off can you tell us a little bit about your professional background?

A: To start with: I am actually an engineer, originally in electronics and telecommunications. But later I converted to IT, and software development.

Actually I am a real nerd, if you know what I’m talking about. I studied in the early 80s, so you already have an idea of how old I am.

For around 35 years I have been in managerial positions, mainly in the Belgian, and the European public sector. I have been working for the European Economic and Social Committee as a project manager, but also as head of unit.

In 2013 I started my own company, and I now give training and coaching to young people in the area of developing their soft skills. I mainly work with people who are taking assessments at EPSO, the European Personnel Selection Office.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about EPSO? How does that work? What do the applicants have to do?

A: EPSO is the European Personnel Selection Office. It’s actually an administration that depends on the European Commission, but that works for all of the institutions. Their work consists of selecting people to be put on the “reserve list” for future recruitment [by EU institutions].

Something which is a bit particular about EPSO is that in the last stages of their selection procedure they have what they call an “assessment centre”.

The assessment center does not focus on IQ tests, or professional skills tests. They focus on testing what they call the core competencies, or the general competencies, which are nothing but soft skills.

Q: How did you make this transition from technology to being an expert in soft skills, and helping people apply for positions in the EU?

A: Very early on in my career I realized that it takes much more than just technical skills to perform well at work. Also as a young adult I experienced some troubles in my personal life.

Because of my technical education I was a little bit rigid as a person. But I soon realized that it’s not enough to be smart, and have the technical skills to be a good performer at work.

When I was working for the EU I also had the opportunity to be the president of an EPSO selection board. I was presiding in an assessment center. It was a selection procedure for recruiting IT project managers.

I really liked that work, and that was actually the trigger that made me switch careers from being a technology manager, into being a soft skills coach.

Q: What matters in becoming a successful professional in the EU?

A: I would say there are three things that matter. A person’s general intelligence, their IQ. His or her professional proficiency. You can call it the hard skills, that person’s soft skills, or interpersonal skills.

There are three things that matter. A person's general intelligence, his IQ. His professional proficiency. You can call it hard skills, that person's soft skills, or interpersonal skills.

It is not sufficient to be smart, and good at what you do for a living, you also need to have the necessary soft skills. Those competencies are important across the board regardless of what you do, or who you are.

There was an American gentleman called Daniel Goleman who coined the term emotional intelligence, as opposed to general intelligence. He did that only in the early 90’s when the preeminence of IQ as the standard of excellence in life was being questioned.

There is actually not so much we can do about the processing power between our ears. Our IQ, or intelligence coefficient, is largely fixed by our genes, and the way we were brought up.

At this given point in time we are stuck with whatever IQ we have got. The good news, however, is that our IQ is considerably less important to happiness and success in life than our emotional intelligence, or EQ.

Our EQ can be improved dramatically over time. This is actually what I’m writing and talking about in my current work.

The good news is that our IQ is considerably less important to happiness and success in life than our emotional intelligence, or EQ. EQ can be improved dramatically over time.

Q: Jan, can you tell me a little bit about the work that you do with your clients? How do you help them get ready for this assessment process?

A: I work mainly with people who are involved in the EU world. Candidates for the EPSO competitions, but also people who already work for the institutions, appointed officials.

There are actually two pathways in my work. The first is work on an individual basis. I call it coaching, but there are also elements of mentoring involved in that. That work on an individual basis is done in either face to face meetings and sessions, or over Skype if it’s not possible to meet face to face.

The other way is classroom training, seven-hour workshops. That I do for groups varying from 6 people to groups of 30 to 35 people.

Q: That can be quite a big difference between talking to one person about how to do something, and to talk to 35. How do you assess the situation differently when working with different group sizes?

A: When it’s a one-on-one session, I concentrate on what the person says, does, how he behaves, the historical background the person has, and his personality. For a group that is not possible.

It is my experience that it’s actually easier to talk to a group than to talk to an individual. That may sound a bit strange, but that’s my feeling.

Because when you talk to a group you don’t have to dig so deep into the real details of each individual, you can rely on your gut feeling. So far that has been working quite fine.

Q: It’s counterintuitive, isn’t it? You’d think having a conversation with one person would be fairly straightforward and simple, just talking. But actually you have to dive in.

A: I’m not saying that you don’t have to take into consideration the composition of your audience, if it’s a group. But you can already do some research on what kind of profiles are going to attend the group.

Usually people with a similar profile have a similar kind of expectation of what the speaker is going to talk about, and how he is going to tackle their questions.

Usually people with a similar profile have a similar kind of expectation of what the speaker is going to talk about, and how he is goign to tackle their questions.

Q: When you’re doing a bit of this research, before you get into the training what kind of things do you look for to build these different profiles?

A: Most of the people I’m talking to have a university degree. Whether they are technically oriented people, like myself, lawyers, economists, or generalists, that already gives me an indication of what to expect in terms of questions from those people.

Q: What are some of the biggest things you’ve had to learn about communicating, and sharing a message? Whether it has been through these one-on-one trainings, or through workshops, or even in conferences you’ve given.

A: I would say there are two things, but they are very intimately connected. The first thing in communication is listening. That may sound trivial, but the truth is that most of us are not very good listeners.

Frequently when we are in a discussion, or in a group we are in our head already preparing our arguments to make our own point for when we get the opportunity to do so.

In many occasions if we are polite when the other person stops talking, we start talking without listening to what that person has said.

In one-on-one situations you could say that dialogue is not the combination of two monologues. In order to have a good dialogue both people who are talking to each other also have to listen to each other.

When talking to an audience the first thing you have to do is do some research on who the audience actually is, and adapt your message to the audience.

When you are talking to a bunch of specialists you can use specialized language. But when you are talking to a group of people who are not really specialists in the subject matter of the talk then you have to talk like a journalist. Make complex ideas, and complex notions simple and understandable for the common layman audience.

Listening and adapting the message to the audience, these are the most important things I have learned about communication.

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Listening and adapting the message to the audience, these are the most important things I have learned about communication.

Q: When it comes to quickly adapting have you ever gotten into a situation where you have looked at the audience, and the audience really isn’t registering what you’re saying? How do you go about changing the rest of your talk, or the rest of your training segment to adapt quickly to your audience?

A: By asking for feedback. That adjusts my understanding of who is actually in the audience, so I can adapt my communication.

Q: That leads perfectly to my last question for today, which is about motivation. I wanted to know specifically, what motivates you?

A: That has been on my mind for quite a number of years. When I look at my career of about 35 years I realize there have been two or three periods that have stood out in terms of motivation, and in terms of happiness at work.

I’m not saying that overall I’ve had an unhappy career, but these three periods really stand out. A couple of years ago I came across a book called Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by an American author called Daniel Pink.

For your information, Daniel Pink has also been a speechwriter for Al Gore, but c’est n’est pas important, as they say in French.

Pink says in his book, and in his talk on TED, that beyond our struggle to survive, and beyond the old stick-and-carrot approach there are actually three conditions that need to be fulfilled for a person to be highly motivated.

These three conditions are mastery, autonomy, and purpose. He calls this motivation 3.0.

There are actually three conditions that need to be fulfilled for a person to be highly motivated. These three conditions are mastery, autonomy, and purpose.

In short, mastery is the feeling that we are good at what we are doing, and that we want to get better at it, that we want to improve continuously.

Autonomy is about having real control over our work. Not being micromanaged, but having a sufficient amount of liberty to do things how we want to do them, when we want to do them, and so on.

The third condition is purpose. Purpose is the feeling that you are contributing to a bigger picture, a picture that is bigger than just your own limited life and work environment.

If these three conditions of mastery, autonomy, and purpose are there then normally a person will be very motivated at work.

I realize that Pink was right, and during those happy periods of my own career that I was talking about earlier, these three elements were abundantly available.

To come back to a previous question, that was also the case when I was working at EPSO. These three elements of mastery, autonomy, and purpose were there. I believed in what I was doing. I was the president, so I had a lot of autonomy.

I already knew a lot about soft skills. But I learned a hell of a lot more doing that assessment center campaign I have been conducting.

Q: If somebody is not feeling motivated in their work, or in their life, how would you advise them on using these three categories to figure out what changes to make?

A: That depends on who I’m talking to. If I’m talking to a person who is not motivated, I would try to explain to them these ideas, or these principles, and make them realize, or make them aware of their needs. Probably if a person is not motivated one of these three elements will be missing.

If a person is not motivated, one of these three elements, mastery, autonomy, and purpose, wil be missing.

Depending on which one it is maybe the person can take steps to change their environment, change jobs, change his attitudes, things like that.

Q: I think you really hit the nail on the head there, so to speak. That it could either be you, it could be the position itself, it could be the company. Then you just have to decide which one it is that needs to change.

A: In my coaching sessions, and in classroom training, one of the competencies I talk about is leadership.

I try to explain to people who are in a leadership position that leading is not just managing, it’s much more than that. It’s inspiring other people to do a good job.

A leader has these three keys in his hands for his people. He can give mastery, the mastery feeling, or the mastery condition to his subordinates, or to his followers by challenging. By not letting them be in their comfort zone all the time. By allowing them to learn new things. By allowing them to make mistakes.

Create a safe environment where it is possible, or where they are allowed to make a mistake from time to time. Because making mistakes is one of the most powerful ways of learning a new skill, or learning something new.

In terms of autonomy, clearly if you’re micromanaging your collaborators, if you’re looking over their shoulders all the time they will not have that feeling of autonomy.

Finally, purpose. I would say involve people in your decisions. Explain to them the bigger picture. Tell them that their work really matters, and show them how their work contributes to the bigger cause they are working on.

Involve people in your decisions. Explain to them the bigger picture. Tell them that their work really matters, and show them how their work contributes to the bigger cause they are working on.

A bit about our speaker:

Jan is an EPSO Coach. He helps young professionals looking to enter into EU jobs by helping with various parts of the application processes and training them in soft skills. He focuses heavily on self-assessment, teaching applicants how their actions and body language can be used to make a positive impression.

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