Barnevik on Leadership: Getting the Most out of your Team

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I was a 32-year-old engineering manager with virtually no manufacturing experience, but that didn’t matter. The company needed a strong leader to take over one of the key manufacturing operations in the division and, because I had demonstrated the ability to get things done, I was asked to lead this business. This was the culture that Percy Barnevik created.

My first job after serving in the U.S. Navy was working for the global engineering company, ABB. Our CEO at the time was the legendary, hard-charging Swede, Percy Barnevik. In 1988, Barnevik created ABB by pulling off the largest European merger at the time, bringing together two engineering powerhouses, ASEA and Brown Boveri Ltd.

What I loved about Barnevik was his bias towards action. He got things done. He was decisive and he expected the same from his employees. The company culture at that time reflected his personality. We moved fast and we fixed it along the way. He knew how to bring out the best of his employees by challenging them to do more.

“Leadership Is the ability to get extraordinary achievement from ordinary people” – Brian Tracy

Barnevik believed in getting the most out of his teams. He created a culture where we challenged each other to do the impossible. It was a company where the status quo was constantly challenged and we worked hard to create new levels of performance.

He understood the most important role of a leader is to set expectations and Barnevik kept his standards very high. He expected strong performance but he also knew that he had to create an environment where employees could take chances and try out new methods and techniques to improve the business.

Here are four things Barnevik did to get the most out of his teams:

Challenging assignments. Barnevik thought good people should be challenged. It was not uncommon for strong performing employees to be placed in high profile assignments which were far beyond their proven abilities. This allowed employees to have the opportunity to showcase their skills and provided management with a way to quickly evaluate talent.

Professional development. Barnevik believed in giving employees opportunities to grow professionally. In my time working for him, I attended countless domestic and international training sessions which exposed me to new ideas and helped me further develop my leadership skills.

A forgiving culture. Barnevik pushed decision making to the lowest level and embedded a culture of decisiveness at all levels. He created a culture of speed, decisiveness and forgiveness. If you made a bad decision, it was not the end of your career. You were expected to fix it and move on. This allowed leaders to try new ideas to improve performance without the constant fear of being fired.

Recognition for high achievement. Barnevik also understood that excellence should be recognized. He had countless programs to acknowledge significant achievement throughout the organization. This created positive feedback for high performing employees and generated internal competition which continued to boost performance.

“Good leaders boost the achievement of everybody, bad leaders can have the opposite effect.” – Percy Barnevik

I was fortunate to serve under Percy Barnevik during his time at ABB. Because of the culture he created, I was given the opportunity to lead a manufacturing operation at a young age. The company continued to invest in me and I grew as a business leader. Like many, I thrived in the culture he created where speed, decisiveness and forgiveness were embraced and high achievement was recognized.


Read more about Barnevik’s leadership in this rare book written by Percy himself.  This book is hard to find so I purchased a limited supply of these books and only have 4 left. This book is often stocked-out on Amazon and other sites.

Price includes shipping to U.S. customers. Overseas customers, contact me.


Percy Barnevik on Leadership (Shipping in U.S. included)

(Paperback – 2014) Percy Barnevik on Leadership is largely based on the author’s own experience gained in different leadership roles over a period of nearly 50 years. The emphasis is on efficient execution. This is, in his view, what mainly differentiates successful leaders and companies from less successful ones. The advice, contained in 200 separate points, covers a wide spectrum ranging from personal efficiency, strategy, handling of crises, company acquisitions to, not least, building successful teams.


Staying on Course: How to Protect Your Mission

As the machinery division officer on a nuclear submarine during the cold war, I had the challenging task of checking the boat for “rattles” before every deployment. This meant climbing down into every part of the hull structure with a rubber mallet and pounding on anything that could possibly move to make sure it was secure. The goal was to eliminate anything that could make noise.

I knew our boat had one mission, to remain undetected and be prepared to launch our missiles if needed. Inspecting the hull structure was simply part of that mission. In fact, everything we did on board revolved around the mission. Our training, our routines and even our footwear ensured we would remain quiet and ready. “Hide with pride” was the nickname we all used to describe our mission.

The military does a respectable job of focusing its people on the mission. This cannot be said for most companies and organizations. If you asked ten employees what the mission of their company is, you will likely get ten different answers. This is because most company leaders assume everyone knows the mission. The sad truth is that no one really knows what the mission is because leaders don’t talk about it. And when the mission is unknown or unclear, chaos reigns.

One of the biggest problems is “mission drift.” Over time, organizations routinely drift from their founding purpose. When a company or organization is young, its founding mission is usually very clear. The founders and early employees instinctively understand the mission and carry it out daily. But, as time goes on and new people are brought in, the mission becomes muted.

Peter Greer and Chris Horst discuss this in their book, Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Charities, and Churches. They say that “without careful attention…organizations will inevitably drift from their founding mission.” Staying on course and protecting your mission can only be accomplished through focused and conscious effort.

Consider these five actions to keep focused and stay on track:

Start with why. Simon Sinek’s breakout bestseller, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, explains how some organizations are simply more innovative, influential and successful than others. The reason is that their leaders understand and communicate their “why” to their employees. These leaders realized that people aren’t truly motivated by a vision or a mission until they fully understand the motivation behind it. Figuring out your “why” is critical to motivating your team to stay on course.

Know your mission. You can’t expect to be a mission-focused organization if people don’t know the mission. Most leaders incorrectly assume everyone knows the mission. Don’t make this mistake. Communicate and repeat the mission statement every day in meetings and daily discussions. Develop a common language around the mission like we did in the Navy. Make it simple and easy to understand.

 Hire people who embody the mission. Mission-minded organizations know that it’s the people that carry out the mission. This is why hiring the right employees is so critical. Look for individuals who display characteristics and experience that will be essential in achieving the mission. Look for those that will fit the culture of the organization. Leaders should also work with new employees to set expectations early and to monitor their progress.

Make the hard decisions to protect the mission. The real test of a leader is making the hard decisions and staying true to the mission when faced with conflicting priorities. These typically involve employees, ownership, money, customers, suppliers or partners. A leader who protects the mission and makes the tough call to put the mission first will be respected by the team. They will know there is a deep commitment to the vision of the organization.

Measure what matters. What gets measured, gets done. The things you measure should reflect your organization’s mission and objectives. For example, if you want to be the fastest supplier in the industry, measure lead times. If you are trying to become a premier college-prep high school, measure the number of college scholarships awarded to seniors each year. The challenge is identifying the right things to measure. Metrics that matter to your mission aren’t always easy to identify or track. Still, push hard to find something that can be used as a gauge of your success.

Staying on course and protecting the mission is difficult, especially in the long term. Mission drift and conflicting priorities can derail the efforts of any organization. Finding your “why” and communicating your mission on a daily basis to employees will help solidify your focus. Keep your mission in mind when hiring, making decisions and measuring results. Don’t leave the success of your organization to chance.  Protecting your mission can only be accomplished through focused and deliberate effort.

[Photo Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Amanda R. Gray/Released]

Building an Unstoppable Team

Last week, I went out to the factory floor to see how we were doing building a critical order for a new customer. From a distance, I didn’t recognize the person packing the units at the end of the line. When I realized who it was, I had to laugh. It was our head of sales. He had jumped in to help get the order out in 24 hours as we had promised. I laughed because I knew there was no way our competition could ever match this level of commitment.

Have you ever noticed that there are some teams who just know how to win? Companies that outpace their rivals, sports teams that dominate their competition or military units that seem to do the impossible. There is something special about these teams that make them unstoppable.

As leaders, our job is to build and lead our teams. Leading teams is one thing but how do you build a team? How do you form a group of employees that will be resilient, persistent and consistently effective? What makes a team unstoppable?

Let me suggest that there are 4 important things to consider when building a high performing team.

Select individuals who have complementary skill sets. This is especially important for small teams. Everyone should have a specific expertise that is required to accomplish the team’s objective. Take, for example, Navy Seals. In each team, there are specialists like medics, snipers, breachers, jumpmasters, dive masters or language experts. Even though there are some overlapping skills, the experts are relied on by the team for success in specific areas of the mission. Look at the team you are assembling. Do they have complementary skill sets? Do they have the combined skills to complete the objective?

Select individuals who have achieved a high level of competency. As a former Naval Officer who served on nuclear submarines, I appreciate the brilliance of the Navy’s qualification program. To be promoted or to assume certain duties, you had to go through a rigorous qualification process. This meant everyone you served with had achieved a high level of competency. This established mutual respect across the team and built a high level of trust. You knew your teammate had the skills to watch your back. To build a great team, you should carefully consider the competency of each team member.

Select individuals who have proved themselves under adversity. As I wrote in the article, The One Trait your CEO Wants You to Have, persistent people are extremely valuable to the success of any team. Look for those special employees who can step up and deliver results regardless of the adverse circumstances. Look for people who don’t quit and have a proven history of perseverance. Look for the engineer who worked two jobs and went to night school for six years to graduate, the veteran who served two combat tours or the plant manager who worked their way up from the shop floor. These are the people who are going to make a difference when things get tough.

Select individuals who are unselfish and have a “mission first” mindset. The success of unstoppable teams resides in the singular focus on the mission. “Mission first” employees understand the objective takes priority over individual goals or career aspirations. Like our sales manager jumping in to help manufacturing, these employees will do whatever it takes to complete the mission. This mindset creates a culture where individuals hold each other mutually accountable to the team’s goal. There’s little room for office politics and egos when the priority is winning.

The objective of leadership is to direct a group of individuals to achieve a common goal.  The most important part of that objective is choosing the right people who will make up the team. Selecting employees with the right characteristics, experience and mindset can make the job of winning easier. Unstoppable teams are uncommon because building a great team isn’t easy. You need to find the right people with complementary skills sets who have achieved a high level of competency. Look for individuals who have proven themselves under adversity and can adopt a “mission first” mindset. Putting these people together and leading them well is the key to lasting success.