Making Sense of a Challenging Year: A One Minute Interview with Gordon Pitman of AkzoNobel

Gordon Pitman is the Manager of Global Management Development Programs at AkzoNobel, a global leader in coatings and specialty chemicals with more than 57,000 employees in over 70 countries. In this One Minute Interview, Pitman talks about drawing out learning from the recent economic crisis.

Q. What is the top business, or people management issue, you’re looking at? 

A. I think one of our main challenges for 2010 is helping leaders make sense of what happened in 2009 in a way that helps then take those skills into 2010. Just as we saw a country by country entry into the economic crisis in 2009, so are we seeing a similar, country by country, emergence.  I think that enabling leaders to reflect on their 2009 experiences will be a continuing challenge for global organizations like AkzoNobel and others.

The impact for those of us working in an HR, OD, or training function is to facilitate this self reflection process with our business leaders. Over the past six months a lot of our people managers and executives have had to learn, or relearn, some skills that perhaps they may not have had to use in a while.  This includes how to lead change, how to handle difficult conversations, and how to drive business performance in a climate where no matter what they do, the results don’t seem to come.

I am getting the sense that some of our business leaders have become much more flexible in their thinking and behavior in order to enable them to do things differently this past year.  I don’t think that they have had time yet to reflect and assimilate what those experiences mean for them and their leadership style.  So I think that will be one of the things that will be a focus in 2010—enabling and supporting our leaders to really make sense of what 2009 has been like, both personally and for their teams.

Q. What are some of the biggest challenges leaders face as they attempt to make these changes?

A. I think the challenges are around making sense of these experiences.  So the first challenge is a self-awareness and assimilation of these new behaviors.

A second challenge is how to make those skills a part of my ongoing leadership toolbox.  How do I keep some of those new skills that perhaps I may not get to readily use again, and how do I continue to build and develop some of those skills which I was forced to learn, relearn, or reuse? 

Q. What are some of the challenges from a human resource, or training perspective, that go along with helping managers build up skills again?

A. AkzoNobel is a global organization with 57,000 employees across 70 plus countries.  Being able to find a way to facilitate those dialogues and self reflection moments with our leaders is the first challenge.  For HR & OD people, enabling and supporting those conversations on a global scale is complicated, because most of those conversations happen one-to-one looking at the experiences that individuals have had within their department, or with the situation in their country.  Consistency across the organization is a second interesting challenge. 

The final challenge is then resourcing that global conversation, and effectively keeping your finger on the pulse, using all the different communication channels within the organization.

Q. Any advice for people looking to get ahead of the curve?

A. Ask great questions.  Because great answers usually come from great questions.  Make sure that there is a way to start to dialogue with your senior leaders and ask them the right questions. 

For example, “What do we see as a top management, or strategy priority for the year?  What have you learned through the economic crisis?  What skills have you identified that you need to develop more of?  What skills have you seen your managers are lacking?”  

And some of those questions asked in the right way, at the right time, would be a very insightful way to start a conversation about what your organization needs to really look at, and what needs to happen next to really take advantage of the global economic recovery.


The One Minute Interview is LeaderChat’s new monthly series featuring interviews with some of today’s most intriguing HR-focused thought leaders and practitioners. Gordon Pitman is a featured speaker at this year’s Blanchard Summit 2010.

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