BeanTalk: Koen Damman

Leader Wintersports Project & Feedback Culture - Coach - Trainer at Decathlon

From hierarchical organization to 'entreprise libérée'

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In this podcast episode, Bean Greet Verhaest talks with Koen Damman. Koen is “Leader Wintersports Project and Feedback Culture” at Decathlon, a well-known company recognized for its liberated approach to organization.

Koen introduces himself as someone with a lifelong passion for winter sports, which has shaped his personal and professional life. He is responsible for the winter sports offerings and strategies at Decathlon, and he is increasingly involved in supporting the company’s human transformation through training in effective communication, coaching, and leadership.

Decathlon is known in the world of organizational development as an “entreprise libérée” or liberated company. Koen reflects on the company’s evolution from a hierarchical structure to one that embraces creativity, connection, and work-life balance. Initially skeptical, he decided to stay and give it a chance, believing that if it aligned with his values, it could become a great place to work. With the support of the international CEO and influenced by pioneering individuals in Belgium, Decathlon began prototyping collective recruitment and implementing new compensation policies.

In Decathlon’s approach, experimentation is a key aspect of their journey toward liberation. Instead of setting specific milestones or KPIs, they focus on raising awareness of ego dynamics in meetings and working on personal development. They believe that when one team experiences the benefits of greater freedom and autonomy, it inspires others to follow suit.

The conversation touches on the importance of addressing personal ego in meetings and the balance between providing autonomy and offering clarity in professional growth paths. Koen emphasizes that the direction toward self-directed teams and a feedback culture was embraced by the majority, while those who felt the need for more clarity had their situations evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

The evolution of hierarchical structures within Decathlon is an ongoing process. Some stores have fully embraced the liberated model, while others prefer a more traditional approach. However, the principle of inspiring one another remains relevant throughout the organization.

Inspiration between teams is fostered through the meeting culture at Decathlon. Meetings often begin with personal testimonies, allowing individuals to share their experiences, emotions, and the value gained from certain actions. Ideas are picked up, and people are motivated to take action. This emphasis on sharing personal stories and emotions forms the basis of the change process and encourages a culture of open exchange.

To promote the sharing of best practices, Decathlon developed “best for now” documents. These living documents are stored on a Google Drive and cover various topics, such as compensation, IT tools, and feedback culture. They are created through collaboration and can be updated by anyone in the organization, ensuring continuous improvement and knowledge sharing.

Regarding the question of whether introverts can thrive in such a culture, Koen highlights the importance of the shared passion for sports within Decathlon. The culture has always been rooted in a love for sports, and the joy of engaging in sports together allows individuals to take responsibility for their respective departments. He hasn’t encountered the term “einzelganger” (lone wolf) within the company, as the shared passion for sports creates a strong sense of connection and belonging.

The conversation concludes with a discussion on self-leadership within teams and how Decathlon’s culture fosters resilience and agility. Koen mentions that during the COVID-19 crisis, the CEO communicated a message of trust and allowed each store to decide how to respond to the situation. This approach empowered employees to find their own solutions and led to innovative practices, such as shipping online orders directly from stores. The culture at Decathlon allows individuals to be themselves in their professional and personal lives, promoting a sense of freedom and continuous growth.

Koen expresses that he feels in his element at work because he can be the same person as when he engages in sports with friends or spends time with his family. The liberation journey at Decathlon has allowed him to shed limiting beliefs about how he should present himself at work and has fostered personal growth.

In conclusion, the conversation with Koen highlights the transformative journey of Decathlon toward a liberated organization. Through experimentation, a feedback culture, and a focus on personal development, Decathlon aims to create an environment where employees can thrive, connect, and be their authentic selves.

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