“A change of perspective makes managers stronger”
As a leadership and management development adviser Arno Kooij (director of Customs Rotterdam Rijnmond) provides workshops in countries such as Malawi.
“The lost continent – that’s how some people regard Africa. I refuse to give in to that sombre impression and I remain hopeful about the continent’s future. Admittedly, there are many African countries contending with serious economic and social problems: poverty, corruption, bad government... But despite that, I see opportunities for improvement, certainly for countries like Malawi. It’s a very open country, one that explicitly seeks contact with the outside world. That will undoubtedly make it possible to continue to develop, albeit over a long time period.”
“The customs authorities in Malawi want to modernise their organisation, especially with more individual responsibility at grass roots level. That change will have to be found mainly in a new style of management. It’s important to know that managers in the Malawi service owe their positions mainly to their above-average substantive expertise. Good professionals are quickly promoted to managerial positions and are given their own team straight away. To them, the essence of management is knowing more than your subordinates. For that reason they are very reluctant to delegate, and only do so if their work schedule is completely full. They prefer to get things done themselves. We’ve also noticed this in the training courses we provide: participants are often found making phone calls or sending emails during the sessions. ‘I’m really needed at the moment’, is how they explain this. I always respond to that by explaining my own situation to them: that I’m in charge of 650 people, who all know better than me, and that there’s no need for them to phone me with questions about what to do. When they stare at me in disbelief I tell them how I see management: allowing officers to develop as people by having them gain new, informative experiences – linked to the organisational objectives. None of these present have ever seen it that way. Whereas this is the reason why I devote so much passion to my work.”
“In Malawi there’s barely any space for exploring individual talents, beliefs, standards and values. And in our Western way of looking at things this is vital to being able to effectively fulfil your role as a manager. What is my mission in life? Who do I want to be? What do I want to leave behind in this world? How does this affect my everyday choices? This self-searching needs just as much attention, as a counterweight to everything the organisation wants you to do. Experiencing this makes you many times stronger as a manager.”
“We use all sorts of instruments at our workshops – role plays, simulations, awareness exercises – to have people discover their own intrinsic motivation. We have them look back at their past, at experiences that have formed their personalities, at people who inspired them as children. These assignments draw sceptical responses at first because the participants aren’t used to talking about more intimate subjects with colleagues. But you gradually see most of them adapting. Many of them finally pluck up the courage to open up, show who they are and take the necessary steps. At the end of the programme everybody is asked to spend one minute telling the group: this is who I am, this is what I’ve learnt here and this is what I’ll be doing differently from now on. That’s when very shy people come up with the greatest stories. They start speaking from the heart rather than the head. You can feel that.
The senior managers of the service are always present at the closing ceremony. We impress on them that: these people are going back to the organisation with new, fresh ideas. Give them a voice, support them. That way we hope to really bring about change.”