Ingar Skaug was President and Group Chief Executive Officer of Wilh. Wilhelmsen ASA, a world leader in maritime services. Prior to that, he held numerous senior leadership roles with Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), after starting his career with Lufthansa. Currently, Skaug serves on the boards of a dozen organizations globally, including his role as chairman of the Center for Creative Leadership’s Board of Governors. Below is an excerpt from the recently published English version of his autobiography Make the Leap: Success, Failure, and Other Hard-Won Lessons of Leadership. It recalls his efforts as a senior executive at SAS to instill a leadership culture in the company’s American division while also involving workers who were part of the Teamsters Union.
I invited managers from various levels to a meeting to hammer out a strategy for the U.S. business that was in line with the new guidelines from the parent company. It was the first time the leadership in New York had invited them in on a real process. It turned out—as it usually did—that those who led the operational units had a lot of good input: ideas about what we should aim for in the United States and how we should organize the work and ourselves in order to accomplish it.
Meanwhile, I discovered that there was a certain gap in management experience and in the manner that the departments were run. I suggested, therefore, that we all go through a leadership development program tailored for us by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). It was already one of the most prestigious leadership-development institutions in the United States at the time and today remains among the world’s foremost institutions in its field. For me, it would be the introduction to a long-lasting partnership, which would end up with my being chairman of the board of the institution today. At that time, the leadership role was viewed differently in the United States as well as elsewhere in the world.
When my contacts at CCL heard that I had supervisors who were members of the Teamsters among the participants, and that I would include them in management training, they wondered if I had lost my judgment. They thought it would ruin everything and undermine management’s credibility. The trade union members would be able to use this in pitting employees against management when it came to wage negotiation, working environment issues, and other situations that could end in labor disputes.
I said that I was convinced they would be loyal, precisely because of the fact that we included them in the management group. Through the strategy work and leadership development program, they would have the opportunity to influence the turnaround, as well as have the same picture of the goals, challenges, and solutions as the rest of the company’s management team. And, I continued, they would become important ambassadors rather than conspirators. I continued to have regular talks with the three Teamsters leaders. Their feedback was that they thought the new middle management system at the cargo terminal worked perfectly. Through these meetings, I got an ever better impression of the union’s work.
Of course, the Teamsters had to safeguard members’ interests as its overall goal. That occurred based on two main strategies. When they dealt with business leaders who cooperated and included them, they contributed with all their power and resources to help the business do well. Against leaders who perceived them as enemies, they were ruthless opponents. I saw nothing of the alleged Mafia methods, beyond pressure they apparently had used and group dynamics to remove dishonest elements.
The leadership development program consisted of three one-week-long sessions. I was present at all the sessions and participated on an equal footing with everyone else. Some top managers refuse to participate in leadership development programs, either because they have an over-exaggerated opinion of their capabilities and believe only middle managers need to develop themselves, or because they are afraid to show weakness. That reduces the effect of the program as an engine for developing the entire business. Lack of participation by top managers signals to those below that development is not necessary for everyone, and if you consider yourself a full-fledged leader you can evade common processes.
A manager’s strongest management tool is always his own conduct. No speeches or documents, though richly laden with desired conditions and pious thoughts about the future, can make up for what the manager actually does—and does not—do: not words but actions. That does not mean that the manager has to come up with everything. Rather, the contrary. Many of the best ideas come jointly due to good work processes. But the manager must be the foremost in living up to them if he or she is going to get others onto the team.
I saw how the leadership development program contributed toward welding us together into a single team. We honored each other and ourselves. A team is not sufficiently sustainable—and effective—unless all players on the team know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Only then will they know how to bring the best out of one another and what it takes so everyone can help to improve. We all went through the Myers-Briggs personality test, a very thorough analysis that aims primarily to increase awareness of the type of person you are as a human being based on a set of criteria. In which directions do you most lean:
- Introverted or extroverted?
- Thinking or feeling?
- Intuitive or sensing?
- Judging or perceiving?
There is no right or wrong result of this analysis. It only points out the kind of aspects you need to develop further. You have to know yourself and your own development potential in order to be able to lead and develop others. Whether you are a leader at the top or intermediate level, it is important to receive feedback about yourself. Then you are aware of what you need in order to continue development. It is also the best medicine against becoming so great in your own eyes that you lose ground contact—a phenomenon that particularly affects top executives, and one that I have found myself close to at times.