I met with Gerry Akkerman, Director of Business Technology Programs and Projects at TransLink. The top 3 areas that we focused on were core leadership values, sources of leadership inspiration, and advice to his younger self.
Our interview began with Gerry explaining his career pathway. He said that he didn’t have a lot of help or advice when he was young, so he had to find his own way, financially and professionally. The first thing that I learned about Gerry was something I strongly believed and was pleased to hear from someone with so much more experience than I: after leaving school with the foundations from which to build a career, you enter the workforce where you really begin learning.
Core Leadership Values
I asked Gerry what his top three core leadership values were. He replied that he believes there are three things we all want when we go to work. These are::
Set Clear Expectations – We all want to know what success looks like.
Be clear in communicating your expectations. You will know by working with people what their sensitivity to autonomy is, so you can leave some degree of uncertainty up to your team. However, clear expectations for outcomes is pertinent to the success of your team. Nothing is more frustrating than working for someone whom you do not know what their expectations are.
Equip Your Staff – We want to be equipped to meet expectations.
As a leader, you are responsible for the success and failures of your team. An extension of this responsibility is knowing how to equip your staff in a way that allows them to meet your expectations. As a leader, questions that I will ask myself are: what kind of training and support is needed that am I not currently offering to my team? When was the last time that I checked in with my team about what they needed?
There is a metaphor from my Leadership & Teamwork class that I keep returning to: a leader’s job is to keep the pot of water boiling but support your staff enough so that the pressure from the steam can be released.
Give Feedback – No matter how successful in meeting the expectations, we all need feedback and encouragement.
Giving feedback to your team and to your colleagues is the most valuable personal and career development benefit you can offer to those working with you. Out of the first three leadership values, Gerry recounted that, in times of stress, feedback is the most often forgotten leadership piece that is necessary for optimal growth, development, and success. Give feedback freely and give it often. And make sure you prioritize giving feedback in times of stress. It is important to make time each day to go catch at least six people doing something right.
Gerry says: “As you move up in a company, you find that you need to adapt your communication style in certain circumstances. For example, in Senior Executive meetings there is a need to be concise and specific. Sometimes this doesn’t seem natural, but it is important to keep focused. We have another meeting called a “Senior Leaders Meeting” where it’s a lot more relaxed and less formal. This is where there is a lot more dialogue, information sharing, and open conversation.”
Gerry stressed that you must feel as close to being yourself as possible in any role. From what he said next, I surmised that, in a leadership position, you need to create spaces where you can be authentic with your team. Chances are, your team feels the same way to a degree. Gerry recalled what he experienced working under former Coast Mountain Bus Company’s President and CEO, Denis Clements:
“[Denis] had five direct reports and he had what he called ‘coffee klatch’ in his office every morning for 15-30 minutes. It was a quick coffee together where we would talk about any issues or activities of the day. Denis was very effective in re-enforcing that this was one leadership team. We built strong relationships and looked after each other. It was a really delightful experience. It felt like we were all leading together. We were on the payroll for different purposes, but we were leading together.”
Being authentic sets a foundation from which you can forge strong relationships with colleagues.
Leadership Sources of Inspiration
Gerry and I also talked about where he sources his leadership inspiration: other leaders. We learn to imitate leaders from the great example they set. We also learn from other leaders what tactics not to reproduce because we’ve seen them backfire. Observation is a leadership learning experiment for all involved. One of Gerry’s greatest leadership inspirations was, again, Denis Clements:
“If you asked anyone what it was like to work for Denis Clements, your answer would come before they said a word. They would smile, their whole expression would change. He was an empowering leader that made people want to go the extra mile. […] Denis would end meetings with ‘Just remember everybody, I want you to get out there and catch six people doing something right. I don’t expect to find you at your desk’. At first I felt it seemed repetitive to hear all the time because he kept saying it over and over again, but it really set the stage for us. I later realized that we do need to keep reminding leaders to do this because it is important. It is too easy to get buried in email and work. […] Showing appreciation to other people is incredibly important and it’s the most easily forgotten thing when things get stressful or busy.”
Bless his soul, I hope I can work for someone like Clements! I hope that, one day, people will say that I had the same effect on them when they worked with me. This feels like a wholesome goal to strive for.
Something else that Gerry had said that I wish some of my earlier managers would have known from earlier on in my career was:
“No one wakes up in the morning thinking, ‘I’m going to screw up today. I’m going to mess up and make people really angry today’. Most people are just not built that way.”
People don’t want to screw up. People want to do well, and the way that leaders respond to mistakes can either inspire or destroy any motivation that an employee has. When handling mistakes – even the big ones – you need to make sure that you handle them in a way that will continue to engage the employee and help them to prevent errors in the future.
Gerry’s Advice to His Younger Self
Just say “yes”
Gerry has said “yes” to nearly every career opportunity that came his way. Not one opportunity that he committed to led to a dead end – even the ones that he didn’t think were related to the work he was doing. He recalled a time when he took on a project that required him to develop a course on business communications:
“I was always someone who helped out, and so I got pulled in to do different things. One of the things I was able to do very early in my career was to be part of a team that delivered an effective employee business communications course. They offered it to me, and we delivered this course internally to all employees. Why is that significant in my career? Because part of that course was around effective communications and conflict management. How to unravel conflict and drive at people’s assumptions. I had no idea that the tools in that course would dramatically change the rest of my career. And I still use those tools today and share them with other people.”
We also talked about something obvious that I had never really thought about before, and that was: if someone has come to you with an opportunity, they have already done their homework and decided to choose specifically you because they believe that you will be successful. The career opportunities that you get are not happenstance. He went on to say:
“I have had it before where I’ve seen someone say no to and opportunity that was being offered. It’s saddening. You can’t force them. I’m so sad because I see something in them that they don’t see.”
What would Gerry say to his younger self? He would say to “take chances, say yes, and leverage tools of effective business communication and change management.”
Create a document of “Interview Answers” as you go through your career and write down your answers. This will both help you focus on outcomes when you are in challenging situations and it will be your testimony for how you worked through the tough stuff.
This is one of the pieces of advice that I acted on right after meeting with Gerry. As you go through your career, there are going to be situations you should be reproducing in interviews to illustrate how you learn from adversity. This will make you as prepared as possible for any big interviews coming up because you’ll be able to sift through examples that you’ve already written down as opposed to having to sift through your memory as you’re trying to practice – or worse, you draw a blank in the interview. He shared with me some of the questions that I will likely be asked within the next few moves of my career:
- Describe a time when you had to get something done but there were a number of people who weren’t on board with you. What was the situation, what did you do, and what was the result?
- Describe a time when someone with authority over you didn’t agree with what you were doing. What was the situation, what did you do, and what was the result?
- Describe a time when a subordinate was unsupportive of a critical initiative that you needed to deliver on. What was the situation, what did you do, and what was the result?
Watch Media Interviews of CEOs
How often is it that you see a news interview with a company CEO who runs over their words as if they are stumped and don’t know what to say? CEOs get grilled in the media when controversy happens, and CEOs need to know how they can represent their company. Gerry recommended that I watch CEO media interviews so I can imagine how I would respond to press questions. A lot of the successful CEOs that handle controversial press inquiries have undergone extensive media training to prepare for these situations. Thank goodness for that!
In closing, one of the major things that I noticed about our conversation together was that, when speaking about leadership, Gerry never really talked about himself. He always spoke about how he’s learned from other people. This tells me how important it is to source my learning from external sources, and not get stuck in my own head ruminating over a life lesson I’m supposed to be learning. Just observing others will help you to learn what to do and what not to do in leadership situations.
I also walked away with two recommendations from Gerry:
- Gerry recommended an episode on the Ed Mylett podcast titled “Be Yourself”. This was great because I LOVE podcasts.
- Gerry also suggested looking into a framework written by Michael Porter titled “The 5 Forces that Affect Companies”
Looking to conduct a leadership interview with a professional acquaintance? I’ve got a detailed step-by-step guide on how to invite someone for an informational interview right here.
A special thank you to Gerry Akkerman for his insight into leadership, and for graciously offering his permission to post our conversation publicly for PWB readers.