Frank R. van Vliet

Director of Leadership and Organizational Development, Baltimore Aircoil Company

Deborah Brownstein held this conversation with Frank on April 9, 2010.

Deborah: About thirteen months ago you made a change in your career path at BAC, leaving the position of Director of Marketing Operations, where you were very successful, to become Director of Leadership and Organizational Development. That change was a reflection of a much deeper shift in your life’s purpose. Something in you called you to make this change. Others may have such an urge to change the direction of their lives, but few act on those urges. What inside of you brought you to make the choice and take action?

Frank: We’re going back 25 years on my career to one of my early mentors who was a top-down hierarchal guy. He has mellowed out some and is still a mentor today. When he was younger he had a hot temper to go along with his management style; I’d let him blow off steam before I’d come back to have a dialogue. I copied his “Do as I say. Say as I do” approach to managing people. But I found that leadership style worked with only a few people. It fascinated me to work with different personality types. I quickly learned that I needed to adapt my style to those people. At the same time, I was seeing that a dictatorship style of leadership was conducive to producing limited results. I operated with my ego at the forefront of how I made decisions.

I am the first to admit that I had a big ego. I was a success and I liked to flaunt my ego. It was a self-perpetuating feeling. I’d be looking for my next win. Who would I conquer next? What would I conquer next? That was how I went through my business career. But I felt empty. I felt there was nothing there.

Now, add a lot of years on, and I remember Barry talking to me about ego. I remember him suggesting that I should let go of my attachment to my ego. My first thoughts were “What do you mean? I love my ego. My ego and I are best friends.” I didn’t recognize that it was also my worst enemy. I didn’t see the negative side of my ego. It took me some time to recognize that my ego was problematic. I’d say that the inner-work of being a leader has been a transformation for me over the past five years. If I really look back, it has probably been going on for a long time. I remember reading a poem by David Whyte; it was the moment in which I recognize that this is my life and I’m not where I want to be. That was very profound, like a slap in the face, I was 49 or 50. I wasn’t getting any younger. I had to do what I wanted to do. But, what did I want to do? I had missed the first ten years of my kids growing up. I’ve had some regrets. I let my ego interfere with my family life even though my wife and I have a wonderful relationship and my kids and I get along well. I have some regrets about where I invested my time and energy.

My wife tells me that I am much more nurturing today than I was when I was younger. I am way more health conscious. I run five miles a day, sometimes on the tread mill. I’ve lost 20 pounds; I’ve changed my diet. So I’ve done a lot of things to improve my physical stamina, which is part of the process of self reflection and inner-work. But, the ego is the biggest ride. It’s the devil that sits on my shoulder. I try to be much more conscious of it and not let it take control. In the business world, I’m not so concerned about title anymore. That was not true ten years ago. Ten years ago, I wanted the vice president in front of my name, and got there with a previous employer. But after I had it for a while, my ego still wanted more. What matters to me now is that I am adding value to the business. And more importantly, what does the future look like? What are we doing to grow the talent? Take the junior people; move them into leadership positions and give them a chance to fly, soar, and make a contribution. The current leaders that have been with the firm for a long period of time do not need to retire, but rather can move to supporting roles. They become the coaches and mentors for the up-and-coming leaders. We can lead with our hearts and do what is right for people and for the business.

Deborah: What strikes me as you tell your story is how you came to see your ego. You came to grips with it, saw how you constructed it, and make the choice that you didn’t want to be that any more. You have cultivated the capacity to be a neutral observer of yourself.

Frank: I’d love to say that I’m always a neutral observer of myself, but the reality is that my ego is always here. And the negative portion of the ego can be powerful. I have seen people who are close to me let their ego completely control their lives; it controls everything they do.

Deborah: Perhaps they do not see that they are something other than their ego? That is a problem in organizations too, when your people are so identified with their ego that they do not see that they are so much more. You, as a leader, have to see past that.

Frank: We are at an interesting time because there is clearly a change in the younger generation. They have an ego; but how they want to attack the business world is quite different. They see the job as a paycheck, not a career; they are not concerned about the corporate ladder. But, they want to be heard; they want to add value. Some senior people see them as insubordinate for not doing what they are told. But, that is what we want. Let them discover themselves and become engaged in the process and work in general.

I think our president, Steve Duerwachter, said it best. In a conversation I had with him about leadership, he said, “Everybody is equal …. We are all just people. And we all have different positions, different responsibilities, but everybody in the company adds value to the company or they shouldn’t be there. So as long as you are adding value then you should be treated as an equal team player. That is just sort of the nature of how we operate.” Because our current leadership does think this way, a new culture is slowly but surely coming to life. That is a really big philosophical change. BAC was founded in Baltimore, in 1938 by John Engalitcheff, Jr., a Russian immigrant who ran the company in a controlling manner. And in the early years, that worked fine. But in today’s global economy, our people and our leadership are literally spreadout all over the world. The knowledge is clearly dispersed.

When I got here seven years ago, the company was going through a transformation. We were in an old building with everybody from the manager level and up sitting in an office. Information moved at a snail’s pace; everything had to go up the ladder for approval. In marketing, I watched a four-page tactical piece go through iterations that made my head spin. It took six months for this thing to be approved; it should have been done in about 15 minutes. There was no reason for that but everybody’s ego was in there with a red pen, getting in their two cents worth to trump the next person. It was horrific! The culture was very hierarchical. I used to joke that everyone had a stiff neck from looking up—looking up for the answer, looking up to be told what to do. So it was kinda fun to come in and to recognize that the CEO’s and the President’s vision at that time was to flatten the organization and empower the people. They recognized that knowledge was living in the organization at the lower ranks, but if you sit in your ivory tower and try to dictate that knowledge, it just sits there or it gets lost. We had to harness that. It was a tough transformation to go from a hierarchical culture to one where people are empowered. Now, I know that the term empowered has become a buzz word. But the opinions and knowledge resident amongst the workers has to be harvested to be effective within the organization. It was a slow transformation.

I think the biggest move we made that helped change along was to change the environment: We left our old building. We literally built a new building across the street. The new building is two stories, with a total of eight offices in the entire facility. The old building was four stories; there must have been 100 offices–and I am not exaggerating. The culture in the old environment was that a director’s office had a wooden desk, a window, one plant, and two pictures. A manager got a metal desk and an office with no window. You knew who you were by your office. We had two parking lots, directors and vps and everyone else. Vice presidents and directors had reserved spaces with their name on a curbstone. It was like the 1950s. Today our president and the vps still do have offices; but we think of the other eight as meeting rooms for the various departments, not palaces for executives.

Deborah: A lot of re-thinking had to have been going on as you designed the new building. Was there a change in basic beliefs about knowledge? Did you see that shifting?

Frank: Absolutely. But, as I’ve said, it was an evolution as opposed to a revolution. I’d like to say we are 100% there, but that is not true. We are about 90% there, which is a big step from seven or eight years ago. Some of the management team got it fairly early; some didn’t, and they are no longer with the company. We’ve really worked hard to get people on board at all levels in the organization. I would say now that there are only two people at the VP level who have been with BAC for twenty or twenty-five years. They grew up through the organization, but they clearly got where we are going, as did all the rest of the leadership team.

It has been a transformation at all levels of the business. A lot of people who had been here a long time were not ready to make decisions. If you told them they had to make a decision, they’d look at you cross-eyed with an expression on their face that said, “What do you mean I have to make a decision? I don’t want to make a decision. I know I have the knowledge, but I don’t want to be held accountable. I don’t want the responsibility. I like being told what to do.” That was a surprise! I thought everyone would want to part of this. I thought everyone would want to have their say; but that is not true. So, it is a transformation. You have to get everyone comfortable, look at their strengths, and then leverage those strengths.

Here is an example of new product design that leveraged dispersed knowledge to accelerate the process: Seven or eight years ago, to design a new cooling tower was typically a two to four year process. Twenty years ago it was all done in R&D, in secrecy with little, if any, input from marketing. It kinda worked back then, but today it wouldn’t work. About two years ago we introduced a new product line with a completely new design. We went from a blank sheet of paper to full production in 13 months. How did we do that? Cross-functional teams. In the new building everyone is in an open platform so information can move quickly; it is much more easily shared. Departments that work together are co-located. If you’re assigned to a team, it is pretty easy to throw your stuff into a box and move to a new desk. Your job is to make it the best you can with everyone having input. When you are done, you go back to your regular job. But the beautiful part is we engage the knowledge from the team. We even brought people in from the manufacturing floor because they know how to bend the metal. Those people had never done that before. We found we can bring a product to market in a much shorter time; but more importantly, we could get it right. We could get a product to do what we said it would do. We could build it and get it out the door with a minimum number of errors. Are we there 100%? Heck, no. But we are much better in terms of warranty issues and reengineering a product after release. Pretty powerful stuff. We had to eliminate the hierarchical culture in order to make that work. Everyone is equal.

Deborah: How does inner-work help to support this process of allowing knowledge to be released?

Frank: What is the biggest part of this for me is that leaders have to look within themselves first. And that is a foreign concept for most people. “What do you mean, ‘look within myself.’ I’m fine. What is wrong with me? I just need another tool; I just need another piece so I can manage my people better.” It is pretty clear that you have to step back and ask “What is a leader? What makes a strong leader?” Look at companies we hold up. Look at Apple. I love Apple. But, I’m very nervous about a company like Apple because they have a very, very powerful, single figure leading the organization. Steve Jobs is a powerful guy, which tells me they are not doing a good job of creating future leaders within the business. Powerful leaders do not always build a sustainable organization. I hope I am wrong about Apple. My point is, a leader has to first look at himself and get off his pedestal. Get off thinking “It’s all about me. I’m the one making the changes in the organization. I’m the one that is driving it.” It isn’t you! A leader is a catalyst to help facilitate a process that allows the people to be successful.

Deborah: In your current position you are the point person in reorienting your leaders to see themselves differently.

Frank: I am. I just began circulating copies of The Inner-Work of Leadership to the senior staff in the company. My goal is to have all of our current and future leaders read this book.

Deborah: But you know that people are not standing around asking what is wrong with my ego. They have to get to the point where they are at least interested in finding out about their ego. They have to be willing to buy the idea that it all starts on the inside, instead of just responding to the outside.

Frank: Yes, and that recognition can come slowly. When you tell them it is all about you on the inside, the immediate reaction is “You’ve got to be kidding me!” You can’t jam this down anybody’s throat. Most people do not understand the psychological definition of ego compared to the everyday definition. I’ve got to get beyond “I have my ego and that is what makes me good.” That is the first step. Generally, in developing leaders, I do not use the word ego in the first discussion. I try to get people to look at themselves to see that a good leader is not a teller but a listener. That is the beginning. Everybody has two ears and one mouth, so you have to listen twice as much as you talk. Because the answers you are looking for are going to come from around you. And that is OK. In fact, I encourage you to not make the decision, but to let your people make the decision. That is the beginning of the transformation of developing leadership. Getting them to start thinking that it is good to have knowledge dispersed across the organization, and that it is really good to encourage people to use it. I tell them, “If you do not let them use their knowledge, then you are letting your ego be in control.” I’ll hear, “What do you mean my ego is in control?” Then I can get into the definition. It is baby steps. As a first step, I like the “two ears, one mouth” approach.

Deborah: It sounds like you are giving them permission to demote their doer. It takes a burden off their shoulders. They do not always have to be the one with the answers. They can be the one that facilitates others so they can find the answers.

Frank: They can be the coach. They can let people do their jobs. The Inner-Work of Leadership is a support tool for quality programs such as Lean and Six Sigma. It makes clear that the very first job of a leader is to leverage knowledge. The leadership has to get people to see that they are adding value, and they are not in a make-work program. Inner-work will support quality programs.

Deborah: It sounds like, in your organization, active support for self-reflection and for leading from within starts at the top.

Frank: Absolutely. People are going to look for leadership. And to be fair, hierarchal leadership did produce results. It did make money. That was all fine and dandy. But you are not going to grow. You are going to stifle your growth by doing everything at the top. Leadership starts by emulating what you want the culture to be.

I think we have been doing some of these things, but without the definitions. I think that when senior staff read The Inner-Work of Leadership they will be able to say, “I get it.” It won’t be a shock. It will be a nice catalyst to go to the next level. I think the first step before anyone reads the book is that they have to look themselves in the mirror and say, “There has to be a better way. And it has to begin with me.” If they can make that statement, they are ready to go to the next level. So, we have already done that a little bit. We have already said, “We need to leverage the power of the people at every level of the organization.” We have to harness that; it is our job as leaders to get the most out of the people. It is not our job to make all the decisions or to do all the tasks. If we try to make all the decisions, we might be successful short-term; but it will not sustain us in the long run.

It really is an evolution and not a revolution, because you are never really there. The bar keeps rising. It is easy with success to let the ego come back in and take control. So, as a leader, keeping your ego in check is always going to be a battle. It is easy to fall back to the old ways. It is more difficult to step back and be a catalyst to support your people. That is tough.

Deborah: As this culture grows stronger in your organization, I look for wonderful things to happen. Dropping that doer and allowing something to emerge in everyone, having faith in that process, is going to lead you down very exciting paths.

Frank: We actually believe it is going to differentiate us from our competitors. That is our goal. This culture has actually created a new group in the organization called “operational excellence” whose goal is to further take down the silos that still exist in our business. We want to get collective action and make improvements in our business faster than we have every been able to do it before. And it requires empowering people. Companies tend to create silos, whether they mean to or not. Sometimes it is silly rules to make life easier for one group or another. My favorite one now is warranty costs which were traditionally allocated back to the manufacturing plant. But if a plant did not have control over corrective actions, and they didn’t, what does that rule do? It penalizes the profitability of the manufacturing team without giving them the autonomy to make the necessary long-term changes to ensure that the warranty issues won’t continue.

You can think of it this way: We want to remove the traditional barriers that unintentionally created blame. Take blame away. It isn’t anybody’s fault. We take care of the customer first, and we don’t care what it takes to do that. We have to be able to come to the people who do understand what we need to fix and make that happen.

Deborah: If you stepped outside of your organization, what would you like to tell other leaders who are drawn to the idea that transformation begins with a look inside of themselves, but they are afraid that nothing will happen. They are standing at the threshold but not jumping in, fearing what would happen if they gave up control.

Frank: What I would say is you have absolutely nothing to lose. The risk is minimal. You won’t look bad or stupid in front of your subordinates. Initially, you may get some wide-eyed looks as you ask others for their input and you actually leverage that input. Once you go down this path, you will find it invigorating. You will find it to be very, very rewarding. Initially giving up control will be a little scary, because if you are used to making all the decisions yourself and being the know-all, giving up this control will be very hard on your ego. But if you can step back and do it, you will find that you will be much more successful in your business and you will grow as an individual. So it is very powerful. But getting past that initial hurdle is a challenge.

Deborah: It sounds like the ego will assess the risk as high.

Frank: If you open up The Inner-Work of Leadership, it will be the ego telling you don’t do it. The ego will tell you it is not safe. But, you will be surprised. Of course, you cannot just dump responsibility on a person who has never had it before, you’ve got to coach and mentor them. But again, the knowledge of many is far greater than one, no matter how smart or how good we think we are. The reality is there are things we as individuals will never think of, but others will. If we leverage that strength, we will be more successful. So go ahead and try it. Just say “no” to your ego and try it.

Deborah: Perhaps we should try it first on little things? What you are saying is that you cannot just think about these ideas; you have to try them out, little-by-little.

Frank: Right. Do it in baby steps. Get yourself off the temptation to do it yourself. And it is OK to fail. It is OK to make mistakes. It is OK to have your people make mistakes. Do not make them feel bad. If they don’t make mistakes, they will never learn. Think of being a parent. We don’t want our kids to fall down and scrape their knees. But, you know they have to fall down and scrape their knees so they learn how to do it differently the next time. We have to do that with our employees. We have to let them scrape a bit. You are not going to bankrupt the company, you might lose a couple of bucks on the short term. In the long-term, if you can get that person making decisions, going forward on their own, you will make a lot more money. Do not sweat the little stuff, let them do it. Give everyone, at every level, an opportunity to take some risks.

Deborah: I have a final question I’d like you to address today. Everyone of us who takes this inner journey and does our inner-work has something we are searching for, something that is still unsettled for us. We feel supported, knowing that fellow travelers are doing their inner-work and facing their challenges; we are not alone. Are there any unresolved questions for you right now that you would like to share with your fellow travelers?

Frank: There are always questions, and you’ve got to keep asking them. What I find is that my ego always comes back to act as a barrier. I guess we all have to face that. Life is very short. I question all the time, should I take this next step? Maybe Nike has the right model: Just do it!

The ego is always there, but it is OK not to feel safe. You need to follow your true self, listen to your gut, listen to your heart, listen within. It is hard because that ego is screaming at you, and it is pretty loud. It likes to play it safe, it likes to do what it knows how to do. And your gut? Follow it! You won’t be sorry.

I have no idea where this journey is going to take me. I am OK with that. I’ll continue to do what I have to do to grow as a person. I am not chasing the dollar; and somehow, that seems to take care of itself.

Baltimore Aircoil Company (BAC) is the world leader in the design and manufacture of evaporative cooling and heat transfer equipment. Founded in 1938, Baltimore Aircoil Company offers the broadest range of evaporative heat transfer products in the industry. Products and services include open cooling towers, closed circuit cooling towers, evaporative condensers, and Ice Thermal Storage equipment. Headquartered in Baltimore, MD, Baltimore Aircoil Company has manufacturing capabilities worldwide. For more information about Baltimore Aircoil Company, visit www.BaltimoreAircoil.com

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