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TRENDS Sep 30, 2021

Michel De Coster: ‘Help their people grow, that’s the job of a manager.'

Aurelie Favresse

Every quarter, Gumption organises the Ambassadors Club, a chance for all the managers of the group to get together. They network, share tips and information, and regularly invite speakers. This time, it was the turn of Michel De Coster, with an interesting talk on leadership. After his presentation, we grabbed him for a quick interview.

Music lovers know Michel De Coster as the bass player of De Mens, but he has also built an impressive career in business. He is a coach at several organisations and companies, including VUB, SAP, UCB and Sabam. He is also an adviser at Fortina Capital Partners and a board member at Ancienne Belgique, Tobania, Verelst and Tein Technology, among others.

Good managers know how to organise themselves and De Coster is a prime example of this. He has written two books on leadership: No-nonsense: Brains, Heart & Guts about efficiency and the strengths of the modern manager, and People Peppers, about empathy. A third book is on the cards.

Michel De Coster: ‘The publisher wants this book to be autobiographical, but I don’t think I’m important enough for that (laughs). I would prefer to write about the characteristics of strong managers, the kind I’ve been giving talks about. We haven’t quite figured it out yet.’

We will be sure to note ‘modesty’ as one characteristic of a good manager. What are the others?

Michel De Coster: ‘To me, a manager has to have twenty skills. These are the characteristics needed to manage people, whether you are in charge of a team of two or two thousand people. Are you decisive? How long does it take you to make a choice? Are you ambitious enough? Do you manage not to get too caught up in the details? Do you think about what kind of manager you are? It would take too long to list all twenty skills, but it all boils down to this: make sure to also concentrate on your expertise as a manager and not just on the job itself.

Michel De Coster

Too often, managers focus on the operational aspect, while they should predominantly work on attitude: their own and that of others. To adopt a strict but caring approach, and in doing so, help their people grow, that’s the job of a manager.’

What impact has the coronavirus pandemic had on managers?

Michel De Coster: ‘A hybrid way of working is complicated, particularly for middle management. How do you replace those informal moments? You need to know what is going on in your team. A scheduled Zoom isn’t quite the same as a chat at the coffee machine. In companies where things were already bad before the pandemic, the situation has now become disastrous. But extra effort is also needed to reunite the troops in those companies that were doing well. The concerns some people had about homeworking often turned out to be misplaced; that said, a lot gets lost when you are just teleworking. Also, not everyone likes the idea of having to work under the scrutinising eye of the boss again. Companies have to find a new balance.’

As an experienced expert, what is your impression of leadership at Gumption?

Michel De Coster: ‘I see: youth, ambition, a good atmosphere and strong personalities with strong opinions. Great. And, the companies are doing very well. Money and success can make people arrogant. This can sometimes be a pitfall. Luckily, that ‘we’ve made it’ feeling is completely missing at Gumption. One observation, though: there are too many men in the room (laughs). With just one woman in management, there is a lot of room for improvement.’

What advice would you give an employee with leadership ambitions?

Michel De Coster: ‘Keep your eyes open. Take initiative and help people in your team. Many feel they have what it takes, but few actually do have the talent to lead. You have to be thick-skinned. There is a lot of disrespect for leaders.

Often, people are ambitious for the wrong reasons, like the desire for status or a bigger car. I used to be like that myself: flattered by being asked and blinded by the flashy car. But if that’s the only thing that drives you, you’ll soon come unstuck. You have to have a genuine interest in people and want to help them grow. Have you been a scouts leader, or did you spontaneously step up to take the lead in your football club? If so, you’re one step ahead.

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There’s still too much weight being placed on degrees. Knowledge doesn’t make you a good manager. You have to be given the chance to grow as a manager. And, you need a little bit of luck too: are you meeting the right people? For instance, I learnt a lot from my first boss.’

So, did he teach you what being a good manager is all about?

Michel De Coster: ‘Absolutely, he supported me mentally and had confidence in me. Two vital elements. The army, too, taught me a lot about leadership. Here, though, we are talking elementary leadership. The army is not a democracy, there’s no doubt about who is giving the orders and who is following them. You don’t get a vote when taking a shot. But as a commander, you do have to get your soldiers to that point where they would go through fire for you. Without empathy, you won’t do it. At the risk of sounding like a dinosaur: military service instils a sense of citizenship in young people. It shapes them and teaches them what it means to be a productive member of society. It’s not just about taking, you also have to give. During my military service, I discovered that achieving something as a team gave me immense satisfaction.’

Afterwards, you chose a career in business. At Belgacom, among others, where you were the executive vice president alongside CEO Didier Bellens. Another battlefield, but different than the army?

Michel De Coster: ‘Exactly (laughs). A lot has changed since then in business. It has become more empathic and diverse than in the past decades. You can also sense this in companies like Gumption.’

What do you consider Gumption’s main challenge to be, now that the group has grown from fifty to more than five hundred employees in just a few years’ time?

Michel De Coster: ‘It created a middle management level and this means that managers are faced with a choice. You can’t keep doing everything yourself, but spending all day on the golf course is not an option either. The managers have to find a balance between steering and letting go. They’ll take on more of a role of a coach who knows what is going on in the team. Know yourself and know your people.’

Thank you for this interview.

Gumption interviewed Michel De Coster at the San Marco Village in Aartselaar, after his talk on leadership at the Gumption Ambassadors Club (GAC).

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