Lessons in Listening – an interview with Jean Keup of Sekaten

Listening. The most important tool of a good manager.

At the end of September, we had a conversation with one of our Synthetron partners, JeaKeup (Sekaten), to better understand how the Synthetron method enhances his consulting mix.  Jean is a native Luxembourger and a civil engineer.  In addition, he has an MBA and studied Psychology at the Gregory Bateson Institutewhich uses the approach of the Palo Alto Mental Research Institute.  In 2011, Jean started his consultancy, Sekatentogether with his partner, Isabelle Sol-Dourdin.  Up to that point, his career path had reflected his engineering roots:  20+ years with Shell International and other international positions in the oil and the heavy construction industry.  With Sekaten, the emphasis has gone from understanding how things work to understanding how organizations work.  Jean and Isabelle apply their professional and personal experience in over 64 countries to help companies navigate major transformation projects.   

Listening, according to Jean, is the key to being able to help an organization.  A good manager should not be telling his people what to do, how to implement a new strategy or what values the company should have; a good manager should be asking his people what he should do, how to implement a new strategy or what values they think are important for the company.  And this is where the Synthetron method fits in very nicely.   

Jean cites the example of a Russian retailer they worked with that was busy with expansion plans.  By nature, this man was a hands-on manager who thrived on contact with his people. He hired in Sekaten at a time his organization was moving from 9,000 to 35,000 employees.  He wanted to insure that the company values stayed stable in this huge transition.  Guided by Sekaten’s coaching, the manager realized that it would be much more powerful to ask his people what the company values were rather than presenting the values as seen by management.  According to Jean, “Everybody who has been a bit in that thinking environment knows that you cannot impose values on an individual/a team.  The values emerge from the team.”  Using the Synthetron method enabled the general manager to get input from thousands of his employees.  It helped him to understand how his people experienced the current company values on a daily basis and what needed to be done to reinforce the values that are important.  Taking the conversation to the employees gave them ownership of the outcome. 

Using Synthetron to listen to employees can help upper management in other ways also.  Coaching a newly appointed general manager of a major multinational, Jean used the method to help the GM prepare for his first ‘town hall’ meeting with the employees.  The GM’s question was simple – he wanted to know what to tell the employees.  To answer this, Jean organized Synthetron sessions to explore the way roles were distributed and fears employees had for the future.  The results enabled Jean and the GM to identify three main subjects for the town hall meeting.  At the meeting, the employees not only felt they had been listened to but also found the GM trustworthy when he promised to work with them on these issues. 

Sekaten has used the Synthetron method in many different situations in many different countries.  On one project, they even ran sessions in 11 different countries, including China and Russia.  The method seems to work well across cultures.  Given the safety of a completely anonymous environment, employees welcome the opportunity to share their ideas, hopes and fears with management.  According to Jean, managers are often pleasantly surprised by the constructive input given by employees.  Listening to the employees like this inspires mutual trust and promotes a healthier working environment.   

Jean’s advice to potential Synthetron partners:  “Take the full timeline.  I believe that isolating Synthetron as a one-off will lead it to be a one-off.  I believe that the effort is not about how can we use Synthetron.  I believe that the key step is:  how do I accompany this transformation?  What does the leader or leadership team need to establish communication, trust, and reduce its fear (its own fear and the fear of the team)?”  Synthetron can be a very effective tool in establishing the communication and trust. 

Anne Clark

For more information over this article contact anne.clark@synthetron.com