On consistent leadership


Phil Martens, the chief executive of Novelis, the aluminum producer, says that if you’re inconsistent as a leader, “people are going to come at you from many different angles to get you to do something.

Were you in leadership roles early on?

When I grew up, two things always drove me. The process of creating something was always thrilling, even though I made a lot of mistakes along the way. We built a treehouse in a willow tree by just smacking plywood onto the limbs and then realised that wouldn’t work. My dad said, “What you’ve got to do is put a foundation and structure on it.” And I said, “Oh, just like a house.” He said, “Yeah, just like a house.”

The second thing is that I always enjoyed pulling people together to do something. I was the guy making the calls and creating the enthusiasm. My mother always encouraged me not to be afraid of being involved and that if you want to do something, you’d better go make it happen, because if you wait for it to come to you, it will never happen. It’s important when you’re young to have a parent who teaches you how to have social confidence and not be afraid to pick up the phone and call friends. You learn how to handle “no” and you learn how to handle “yes.”

What were some early lessons for you as a manager?

I learned that you have to have stable decision-making criteria so that people look at you and say, “I know you’re going to look for the same things in this type of situation every time.” You have to learn how to be very consistent and transparent. You can’t sit down with one person and say, “We’ll make it this way for you because I like you,” and then make it another way for somebody else. Because those two people will talk and word gets out that you’re really not consistent. If you don’t have a compass for true north — and you don’t stick to that — people are going to come at you from many different angles to get you to do something.

The other thing I learned is this issue of trust, and that you can’t get anywhere being a micromanager. You have to learn how to let go and let others make mistakes as long as they’re not catastrophic.

The most important thing I can do is create a safe highway to operate in, and define clearly what the bumpers are — whether it’s code of conduct or how we make decisions. As long as people are within the boundaries of that highway, then let them go as fast as they can. But if they hit a bumper, pull them in and remind them what the bumper is and why it’s there.

You joined Novelis four and a half years ago with a mandate to turn it around. It’s a big global company with 11,000 employees. What was your playbook?

I am a firm believer of the 100-day theory, because that sets your trajectory. Very quickly, you have to decide where you’re going to go. Otherwise, the organisation will decide for you and you will become part of whatever existed before you and whatever will exist after you.

In the first 100 days, I travelled the world and visited the plants. And it’s not just the questions you ask, but it’s also what you observe. What are the signs like? How clean is the place? How do people conduct themselves? Is the format of the paperwork different in each country? A lot of non-verbal cues are important to me.

The second thing is that you have to spend time with the leadership team and ask them their points of view and really listen. Are they really engaged or are they just telling you, because you’re the new boss, that they really like what you stand for? You have to look many levels below to understand what they’re really saying.

I set up an executive offsite meeting, and I picked Zurich because Switzerland is the most neutral country in the world. You have to set the tone that things are going to change, that I am going to make decisions, and that we’re going to move from a fragmented, regional company to a globally integrated company.

At a second leadership conference in Miami, there was still some discord in the group, and I wanted to make it clear that we were going to have uniform approach.

I had shirts made up that said “One Novelis,” and I told everybody at the end of the day: “On the way out, there are tables out there with new shirts. If you want to come in to the meeting tomorrow, you have to have it on. If not, you can go find something else.” And then we went out the next day and we had the picture taken of the group. We stood in a very defined triangle, very precise, because I wanted to create the image of order, and that we are together.

How do you hire, say, somebody who might report directly to you?

In the first five or 10 minutes, I look for a level of achievement and competency and independence in how they make decisions. Are they able to start and finish a project?

Work through adversity? Do they understand where they fit in on an executive team? I want to get to a point where I’m satisfied that this is truly a person of character: they do what they say, they’re honest and they hold themselves accountable.

Then I’ll talk about Novelis and what I’m trying to do here, to see if they have emotional energy. They’re smart people, and they’ve satisfied the character test, but now I want to see if we can get more energy in the room from the two of us than when we started. And if I can get through all of those, then I want to know what they want to know from me.

I don’t want them to ask me why I took this job. I want them to say: “Where were you born? Who are you?”

In about 40 minutes, you get to a point where you know whether they’ve got the character, the interest, the energy, and whether they’re really interested in who you are because they’re going to be working with you. But the amount of people who clear those hurdles is small.

New York Times News Service

You have to learn how to let go and let others make mistakes as long as they’re not catastrophic. The most important thing I can do is create a safe highway to operate in, and define clearly what the bumpers are — whether it’s code of conduct or how we make decisions.





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