Case Study: Heidelberg Materials

Unblurring lines between work & home, and empowering the team

 Profile image of Unblurring lines between work & home, and empowering the team From Spring Leadership

James Weelen

When James Weelen, now Vice President of Business Solutions, at Heidelberg Materials, moved to a new country, stepped up to become a member of the global IT leadership team and more than quadrupled the number of employees he was responsible for, the lines between work and home life quickly became blurred. Add in a pandemic, and he soon realised he wasn’t affording his peers, his team members or his family the attention he felt they deserved.

A desire to find the balance and empower the team

As James explains it, he had two primary reasons for contacting Corine: 

“One was that I was in a new more senior role and was struggling to find the right balance between the professional commitments and what I would describe as being ‘present’ with my family – I needed some help to distinguish the difference between work and home life. 

“The second thing was that I had recently taken on a lot of additional responsibilities at work and as a result needed to build up and then further empower my team. The hope was if they could run with their responsibilities, with less input from me, I would have more time to manage my own obligations and support them where needed. The trouble was I couldn’t find the time to work out how to make that happen because I felt I was having to get involved in everything that was going on.” 

It sounds odd perhaps, but I kind of knew what was good and what was bad, I was just struggling to find the right answer. There wasn’t really anything we spoke about that was particularly new, or that I hadn’t been aware of in the past. But sometimes in the day to day you just get bogged down with what has to be done there and then. So having someone to help lift you back out a little bit, remind you of the basics and give you the time and attention to help get them in place can be really valuable.” 

The stakeholder centred approach

While it’s often tricky to hear feedback (or indeed feed forward – a suggestion of something to try) as it’s intended, with a little practise it can offer up some real insights into improvements that can be made and behaviours that you may not even realise were holding you back in relationships. Stakeholder centred coaching capitalises on this concept.

“If I’m being honest, my biggest concern was the idea of the stakeholder based coaching. I’m British and naturally quite private; I don’t like to share too much. If there’s something that I feel I can’t do well, I don’t necessarily want others to realise that. I worried that explaining my development goals to others (my stakeholders) and then inviting them to give me feedback would be quite a quite an invasive thing to do. 

“But once I got used to the idea I found it surprisingly rewarding. When I shared what I wanted to try and achieve I almost got to know my stakeholders in a different way, particularly those that really engaged in the process. They wanted to help, to help me reflect and support me on the journey. And they began to share things with me too. 

“I was initially concerned about asking busy senior people to spend their time on this. But, in reality, the most senior guy I asked was one of the best stakeholders I engaged in the whole process. He was incredibly supportive. I think he was so good because while he’s a great guy that I’ve known for years, he is a very different character from me – someone very direct, very decisive in his leadership style. I shared with him what I was trying to achieve and he was really happy to help where he could.

“All in all, thanks to the openness of the conversations and the new connections made, the process enabled a level of transparency, a kind of feedback-centric environment – something that I think actually contributed to a bit of a beneficial cultural shift.” 

Finding the time 

Sometimes it takes time to find the time to make a change.

“It took a little while to get going. I’ll admit I was struggling to prioritise the programme – I guess a symptom of the challenges I had overall. So we took a step back. It sounds ridiculous now, but simply getting on top of my calendar management was the basic enabler. And in the end it was a 20-minute conversation where Corine (rather brutally!) said, ‘James, your calendar is a car crash. It’s literally a disaster zone – you’re not in charge of your time, everyone else is’. Then she helped me do something that I should have been doing myself. With her input and advice I managed to give myself back the time I needed, not necessarily to balance things between work and home at this point, but at least balance my working day more effectively. And I think that seemingly basic step made a huge difference.

“In hindsight, fitting it in it made fitting everything else in easier. And it quickly became part of my day-to-day rather than another additional thing to do. And once I engaged in the process and had taken that first step with the stakeholders, I began to see how valuable the process could be and how much insight I could gain. And when I got past that initial defensiveness to the feedback I began seeing it only as constructive and realised it could be incredibly powerful.”

Learning some important lessons

Once James began to embrace the process, he quickly saw results.

“The first thing that’s changed is I feel like I’m back in charge of my calendar and my schedule of meetings. I’m regularly reviewing what’s coming up making sure that I’m prepared for it, or that I’ve delegated or empowered others to support where needed. I don’t take it all on myself. So I feel more proactive in my working approach, which is a really positive thing. 

“I think the next thing I’ve learned is the need to be more direct in my leadership style. I’ve been more willing to address things that historically I would look for a unanimous backing on before I did something. What I realised is that, at my level of seniority, I’m never going to get everyone on board. So sometimes I need to make an informed decision, present that and set a direction that enables people to make progress. 

“As an example, we’re in the process of doing a huge IT system upgrade. I wanted everybody to be happy about the approach that we were going to take for it before we started. But after a period of trying to get everybody on the same page I realised (thanks to feedback through the SCC process) that we were never going to please everyone.  With any project of this scale, all stakeholders have their own agenda, for example, the business doesn’t want the massive upheaval, the IT team want to take the opportunity to do everything perfectly from scratch and resolve all the legacy problems in the system, but the Board doesn’t want to spend too much money. 

“Somewhere in the middle is the answer. What I realised, when I sat back and thought about it, is that I could quite quickly see where that balance was. I didn’t need to wait for everybody else to get on that same page, I just needed to be confident to say that’s where we’re going, that’s how we’re going to get there. And that’s what all these people needed from me. Not someone to faff around trying to get them all to agree.  

“I did that for this project and I think, in partnership with Corine, I figured out that sometimes you just know what you need to do and sometimes, unfortunately, that is gonna p*ss people off. At a senior level it’s not about being liked by everyone and giving them what they want. I think I felt much more confident in my own skin as a result, in part, of the support that Corine gave me around that.”

Empowering the team

“I think this process has changed the way I work with my team. I think they would agree that I’ve become more direct and maybe more demanding as a manager and as a leader. I now feel more comfortable telling them exactly what I expect of them. When I give a team member a responsibility I review it with them and make sure they understand what is expected. And then I make sure they understand that whatever support they feel they need will be available if they ask for it. But then I kind of leave the room.  

“When I first started working with Corine, she would say to me, ‘So what are your meetings looking like this week? And we would talk about them. She’d say, ‘but why are you in that meeting? Can’t that person take responsibility in the meeting and then tell you about it afterwards?’ I think Corine helped me recognize where perhaps my controlling influence needed to be tempered a little bit. And as a result I stepped away.

“That team member later came to me and said,  ‘I feel really happy that you’ve trusted me. You’ve made it possible for me to step up and not feel undermined because you’re there in the background questioning or challenging or whatever.’ And that feels like a really good outcome. I’m still the boss, I’m still the person he takes the guidance from and seeks support from.  But it’s a different relationship as a result – I’m really pleased with the outcome of that. And I know he is too.

“As a manager with a team underneath me I was always able to spend the time with them to help ensure they were successful. As a leader with lots and lots of teams and many different responsibilities, I simply don’t have the time for that, so I’ve realized the importance of learning to delegate properly and empower effectively for them to be successful. 

“Of course some of this depends on the team member and their confidence and capabilities and finding ways to help them step up where needed, but it’s given me something to work towards and a goal for other members of the team. 

“The important thing is I now recognise that actually empowering them, giving them guardrails within which to operate but the freedom to do it with flexibility, using their own competencies and capabilities, is much more rewarding for them. And actually in the same time they might have previously made two steps forward, they’re often making 100 steps as a result of feeling they have my backing, and the trust of the rest of the team.

“It’s great to see and gives a much more satisfactory outcome for everyone.”

On reflection…

“At the start of this process I felt that at, then, 47 years old, I didn’t really see that there was much I needed to improve. I thought I was pretty rounded, I was pretty good at everything that I was doing and I was more or less getting the job done. But what I’ve learned from this is that it doesn’t really matter how old you are or what responsibilities you’ve got, or what your situation is at any given point in time, there are always the opportunity to improve yourself. I think one of my main take aways is that I never ever want to stop growing or developing and there will always be areas to improve. That was a bit of a light bulb moment for me. 

“My work with Corine came after the first six months in my new role, she helped me out of a time of overwhelm into the light and I’m now feeling increasingly confident in my work, which makes me feel positive about the future. I guess each step up comes with a steeper learning curve and the unlearning of old habits and learning of new ones. And I think there is a huge benefit in getting an outsider involved in the process to help you take a step back and work out the best approach.

“I suppose at the beginning I wasn’t feeling massively confident in any of my working relationships and the way I was presenting myself to those around me. I think realistically I would have eventually navigated myself and my way to the top of that curve, but Corine definitely made that process less painful. She was able to listen to what I was saying, get right to the crux of things and identify some better ways of working and some better techniques to manage things a bit more effectively. All while putting up with a fair amount of James sh*t.  

“And I think actually the benefits have extended beyond just me. Working in a global team, across cultures, comes with a unique set of challenges. Here in Germany, for example, people tend to be naturally direct in their working relationships and not always open to suggestions or constructive criticism. But I think that collectively, we as a senior leadership team have been able to overcome some of those stereotypes and really improve our approach to feedback. To not see it as weakness, not seeing it as challenging, but see it as an opportunity to grow and develop as a group. And I think that’s honestly a contributor to making us a much stronger team. Of course that’s not just down to me and it’s not just down to the support that Corine has given, but it has definitely helped.

What about the balance between work and home life? How has he got on with that? 

“Errr…work in progress. I like to think I’ve been more present – but maybe that’s for my wife to judge! One things for sure, I’ve definitely managed to get out on the road bike more – those Strava stats don’t lie!”

Want to know more?

If you’d like to explore the idea of stakeholder coaching for you or a member of your team, feel free to get in touch for a chat

“And I think actually the benefits have extended beyond just me. Working in a global team, across cultures, comes with a unique set of challenges. I think that collectively, we as a senior leadership team have been able to overcome some of those stereotypes and really improve our approach to feedback. To not see it as weakness, not seeing it as challenging, but see it as an opportunity to grow and develop as a group." James Weelen | VP, Business Solutions, Heidelberg Materials