BeanTalk: Peter Michiels

Chief HR & Communications Officer & Chief Alignment Officer at Elia

Constructive conflict as a challenge for and lever to successful teams

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In this podcast , Bean Greet Verhaest talks with Peter Michiels, Chief HR & Communications Officer & Chief Alignment Officer at ELIA. The discussion revolves around key figures in organizations who have the ability to ensure that employees give their best. Peter Michiels shares insights about his role as Chief Alignment Officer and the challenges faced by Elia, an electricity transport company.

Peter explains that when Elia integrated its German subsidiary two years ago, it required the collaboration of two strong local companies. He was given the responsibility of managing the aspects of how people work together, which led to his role as Chief Alignment Officer.

Elia is involved in electricity transportation on the high-voltage grid, ensuring that electricity is delivered from production to consumption and maintaining the network’s balance in Belgium. Elia is now an international group, also operating in Germany, East Germany, Hamburg, and connecting to the Baltic Sea. They have a consulting business that offers expertise in managing electricity networks to other players, with a focus on Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.

The conversation then shifts to the “MAD” (Make a Difference) program that Peter initiated. He explains that the program aimed to align the company’s culture with its future vision. Elia had a history rooted in risk-averse infrastructure management, emphasizing reliability and avoiding mistakes due to the critical nature of their infrastructure. However, this culture hindered innovation and adaptability to change. The MAD program sought to evolve the culture while retaining the accumulated expertise.

When asked if the senior management was on board with the program, Peter mentions that everyone recognized the need for change. However, long-time employees who had been with the company for 20 years or more were so accustomed to the existing culture that they didn’t perceive it as an issue. To bring a fresh perspective, the CEO and Peter, both external hires, joined the company. They conducted a survey and received an impressive 84% response rate, indicating a willingness among employees to engage but a lack of direction on how to proceed. They also partnered with a consulting company specializing in organizational culture to analyze the survey results and guide the process.

Peter discusses the importance of storytelling and creating a vision to engage employees, particularly those with a strong engineering background. The company started by identifying areas for improvement, translated them into desired behaviors, and developed “from/to” statements. For example, they focused on fostering constructive conflict and encouraging open dialogue during meetings to achieve a shared perspective and decision-making. The leadership team became role models for the desired behavior and embarked on an offsite session to reflect and shape the future direction.

The discussion then explores the sustainability of the cultural transformation and how it was cascaded throughout the organization. Peter shares that after aligning the executive team and establishing clear communication, they gathered all senior managers (around 70 individuals) and had each director explain one of the desired behavior changes. The goal was to let long-term employees articulate the changes to involve a broader audience. Eventually, the consulting company’s services were no longer needed as the senior managers took ownership of the cultural transformation, creating a program and training sessions themselves. Each department head became a trainer, resulting in ongoing engagement and vigilance in upholding the desired culture.

Peter highlights two dimensions for future cultural development. The first dimension involves focusing on the company’s complex processes and instilling a sense of “impact” in each individual’s work. This approach aims to break down silos and promote collaborative responsibility for successful outcomes. The second dimension involves expanding the cultural transformation to the international group. They aim to demonstrate that despite some cultural differences, they face similar challenges and can work together.

The conversation concludes with the positive impact of the cultural transformation on the company. There is now a more open culture

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