The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, September 12, 2006



Two years ago Mario Sugianto was sent by his company Pt ABB Sakti Industri to a training course in Bangkok.

Assessments of his skills were mostly excellent, with a near perfect score in mathematics. And a 10 ranking for management style.

Unfortunately this measured aggression – and while that might suit the army, it’s no longer appropriate in modern multinationals.

“I was shocked,” he said. “I’d got my MBA through the University of Western Australia and thought I was pretty good. But this was a wake up call and I had to change.

“I was warned by psychologists on the course that this would not be easy. It wasn’t – but I’ve altered my behavior. I’m no longer rough and tough. I now spend more time listening. And I think it’s been effective.”

Sugianto’s new approach was soon tested when last December he was appointed as ABB’s branch manager in Surabaya.

The office had been without a manager for almost three years and the 66 staff and subcontractors had become slack. A workplace culture had developed which put worker interests ahead of the company.

Cleaning up the show was never going to be easy, particularly when the new broom was young (he’s 34) and from Jakarta.

If Sugianto had stuck to his pre-Bangkok axe-man style he’d have probably read the riot act and sacked anyone who answered back. In a previous job he’d done just that, kicking out half the staff and earning great applause from his bosses – and undying hatred from his former colleagues.

“At the time I didn’t care,” he said. “I was 27 and I considered staff over 40 to be old and slow. I didn’t give them a chance to show they could change and perform better.

“I thought this was the professional way. You can justify almost anything by saying that. Now I know I was wrong.”

So in his new position in Surabaya he opted for the personal touch, trying to understand what had gone wrong and why.

Instead of making enemies of his colleagues he sought to win them round to accepting that things were now going to be different.

“I told them to close the book on the past and to open a new one,” he said. “I wasn’t into blaming for what had happened. They were good people and I needed them.”

Eventually only one person had to be shown the door.

The Zurich-based ABB Group operates in 100 countries with a workforce of more than 107,000. It’s listed on stock exchanges in its hometown, New York and Stockholm.

ABB makes, sells and services equipment used in electrical power generation and transmission, and turbochargers for ships and big diesel engines. Its clients are power generation authorities, factories, miners and other major users of electricity.

In the second quarter of 2006 the company announced a big jump worldwide in orders and profit. Its main rival is Siemens.

Earnings before the payment of interest and taxes was US $640 million compared to US$ 371 million in the same period last year. Most of this growth was in Europe. The company said orders in Asia were “flat”.

Before joining ABB in 2001 Sugianto worked for a French telecommunications company.

Sugianto spent the first six months of this year reorganising the ABB office and two workshops in Surabaya, including making them flood-proof. He introduced new procedures with the emphasis on safety – a major issue for multinationals.

Among the other changes was demolition of a wall separating the electrical and turbocharger workshops. The two functioned separately and would not share ideas. The turbo blokes reckoned they were the elite.

“It was our Berlin Wall,” said Sugianto. “My message was that we were all working together for one company. My style is to walk around and talk to the staff, to discuss their problems in a practical way.”

Now he’s planning to open another branch in the oil city of Balikpapan (East Kalimantan) and is exploring other opportunities in Nusa Tenggara.

“In a gloomy economic climate with uncertainty in law and regulations we’re probably among the few optimists – if not crazy – who believe in this country’s potential,” he said.

“Indonesians planning to work for multinationals must have an excellent command of English. Europeans are fluent in its use and it’s the language that’s used to communicate between branches around the world.

“I was lucky that my parents pushed me to learn and stressed the importance of education. The other factors are independence, maturity and responsibility.

“That means you can take constructive criticism, always seek to improve your performance and be responsible for everything you do. If you work well only when you’re watched then you’re not responsible.

“I’ve learned that it’s possible to turn a bad situation into something positive. Sure, it’s easier to clear the workshop or office of non-performing staff and start again, but that’s no challenge.

“In the past I didn’t care about people or how long they worked. I just wanted the job done. Now I think: ‘How would I respond if my bosses treated me like that? Workers aren’t units – they’re human beings.

“Respect others and they’ll respect you. Put yourself in their shoes. Who’s happy with a dictator? Who wants to work in a prison? Tyranny is not the modern style of management.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 11 September 2006)


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