For David Jeans, former member of the Executive Board of an international company of the Merck Group, shared values and a common mindset form the basis for Epic Stuff. True to the motto “I am because we are,” the first step is to really understand each other as a team and to start the journey with mutual values.
Everyone in my professional network who has done epic things in the past years works with a purpose, appreciation, and the common ground. As does the South African David Jeans, 54, young in spirit, with whom I met for this book to talk to him about his experiences. David is a former member of the executive board of an international Merck Group company and describes himself as a MUG – the abbreviation stands for “modest unassuming gentleman”. As you can see, no one needs to be an extroverted “go-getting” manager who performs wild dances to motivate his team to excel. Other things count. David can tell you just what they are.
I meet David Jeans on a wonderful spring day at the restaurant “Hammermühle” near Darmstadt, Germany. It is already warm enough for us to sit outdoors. We order coffee. The sun is shining on our faces and the birds are singing. We are surrounded by old half-timbered houses that have been carefully restored. I can’t resist them, so I get up and take some pictures with my iPhone. Then we start to exchange our views. David smiles his unique bright smile. Sunshine, lovely surroundings, good coffee and the prospect of a stimulating conversation are enough to make him happy. He doesn’t need anything else. After sitting down again, I immediately jump into the topic of “epic stuff”: that we were all born to create something great. And not to drag ourselves through life for 80 years doing mediocre stuff. And I say that I’m also thinking about David’s own career with Merck. In my view David has already done really epic things. How did he do that?
“As long as I stick to these three values, I can really get on with people. That’s the most important thing I’ve learned on the way.”
At first David remains the modest gentleman. “Maybe,” he says, with extreme understatement, “I should tell you a bit about my principles and values first. How I see things and what I believe in. For me, ultimately, everything depends on value systems. The common mindset of the people you work with, indeed of the people you interact with, is crucial.” I nod. I can only agree. Our values and beliefs are always the foundation on which our future success is built. In particular, the values and beliefs of the people who are around us every day have a decisive influence on whether we achieve great goals or not. “My three most important values are authenticity, integrity, and respect,” David explains. “Business is always about people, no more, no less. As long as I stick to these three values, I can really get on with people. That’s the most important thing I’ve learned on the way. We don’t live in an ideal world, but if you live the principles that you really believe in, then you automatically attract the right people. Actually, there is no right or wrong. But I want to focus my energy on achieving something with people who share my values.”
“The african word “Ubuntu” puts teamwork in a nutshell: no individual is more important than the team working towards a goal.”
Anything is possible if “the arrows point in the right direction” – this is the image David is offering me now. He emphasizes how important the beginning is if we want to make a difference with others: Do we understand each other? Do we share essential values? Is the foundation sound? If you want to create epic stuff, you need a positive boost and that synchronous inner alignment right from the start. David is just as convinced of that as I am. “First, try to understand,” Stephen Covey once wrote. “I believe in that, too,” David affirms. “If you start by understanding where people are coming from, you show them that you respect them. Then give them plenty of time to gradually recognize and accept different views. We’re all constantly learning from each other. No one owns the whole truth. That attitude creates the necessary trust. Does that make sense to you?” Absolutely. One of the strongest points David seems to have as a manager is getting people on board and quickly creating a positive, shared spirit. When I want to learn more about it, David first of all remembers his South African origin: “In Africa, we have the word ubuntu. Literally translated that means: I am because we are. That describes what teams are all about: No individual is more important than the team as a whole, working towards a common goal. So I believe in ubuntu – because of my African roots as well.”
Getting other people involved so as to achieve big goals together – that’s what companies are really all about. In good times that sounds easy though even in good times it isn’t easy. But what about when the going gets tough? At Merck, David found himself in a situation where his team was suddenly far behind regarding sales. The market had collapsed for a number of reasons Merck didn’t control. David got pressure from the top: The group management board expected the turnaround as soon as possible. So what did David do?
“First of all, you should know,” he says, “that in our team we’re not people who work top-down. So everyone in the team needed a why. Why take an extraordinary effort in the next weeks to earn more money again? Our answer was: Because we owe it to our customers! We are there for our customers, for nobody else, and we want to do our best for them again. When the why was clear, we started to define milestones, actions, responsibilities. Next, it was important to get everybody involved: operations, IT, internal procurement, and so on. After all, everyone was on board with equal rights! So the goal was clear to everyone, and then there were monthly milestones, feedbacks, team meetings, always with the big goal in mind.”
For the moment when the big goal was to be reached, David had devised something spectacular for his team: a joint trip to the Victoria Falls. To a European like me, who has seen a lot of the world, that doesn’t sound all that spectacular at first. Yet David explains to me that hardly anyone in his team of South Africans had ever been abroad before. Most of them didn’t even have a passport! The Victoria Falls, located in Zimbabwe, about 750 miles or just under two hours by plane from Johannesburg, are among the African wonders of the world. Many South Africans have always dreamed about seeing this gigantic natural spectacle live. “Most members of our team were looking forward to the journey of a lifetime,” David says. “The closer we came to our goal, the more momentum was building up. We used the anticipation, the energy, to give full throttle to reach the goal. The Victoria Falls were the carrot, of course. But then we also had the why and the intrinsic motivation. You should’ve seen what was going on after we had reached the big goal! First of all, we helped everyone in the team to get a passport. Then we chartered our own plane! On the day we started on our trip we all wore blue T-shirts we had designed specially for the occasion. Everyone was staring at us at the airport: 100 overjoyed people in blue T-shirts on their way to their own charter plane! When the plane took off, everybody shouted hurray. It hadn’t been planned; it was totally spontaneous. I still get goosebumps when I think about it.”
The moment David says it, I get goosebumps, too. It was pure joy, David confirms. An epic moment! By the way, for about half of the team members it was the very first flight ever. Such epic moments are possible if the start is successful! Again and again David goes back to the beginning, to the values, the convictions. For him, the courage to do great things comes from your convictions. At the same time, it’s important to him to take the initial doubts and fears the team members may have seriously. “In the beginning, I always spend a lot of time listening and discussing things,” David says. “You listen to people and understand their perspectives. You feel their fears and doubts. At the same time you show them your own perspective and what you think is possible. You acknowledge the challenges. You accept that at the beginning not everybody may be ready yet. But you show them a common path. There, if you like, is that ubuntu again. Of course, nobody would be able to do it by themselves – but together we can even achieve things that seem impossible! The sum of the parts is what makes the difference.”
Together, the greatest goals can be achieved – as long as the purpose is clear, the why. At the same time it requires people like David, who are authentic and who lead the way with the power of their convictions. Like David, these new leadership types aren’t tormented by fears or doubts. Yet they don’t think of themselves as being better than everyone else in the team. They know that their perspective is just one of many potential perspectives. And yet they see more quickly than others where the shared journey can lead to. They see what’s possible. They have a strong belief that big goals are achievable. Just like David, respect is enormously important to them. They don’t want to force anyone into doing anything. But they have the will and ability to listen to people, to get them to come aboard and to align them with a common goal. They lead the way!
About the book
This interview is an excerpt from the book „DO EPIC STUFF! – Leadership after Change Management”, published by Campus Verlag. Transformation expert René Esteban explains together with senior leaders of today’s business world how to achieve challenging goals together. Learn more about the book and order it directly.
About the author
René Esteban is the founder and CEO of the consulting company FocusFirst GmbH. With his team he supports executives in the global corporate environment to achieve their most challenging goals with focus and inspiration – and at the same time to develop the corporate culture towards more empathy and humanity.