Meike Salvadó-de Reede (Van Oord) On Secure Base Leadership

‘Only Those Who Feel Secure Will Dare To Think Big’

Meike Salvadó - de Reede in conversation with Smaranda Boros

Meike Salvadó-de Reede (Van Oord) On Secure Base Leadership
‘We must be performance-oriented to survive. Employees must challenge themselves and their colleagues to go to the limit, but that is only possible within an environment where everyone feels safe,’ says Meike Salvadó-de Reede. Therefore, according to the chief people officer of maritime contractor Van Oord, a new form of leadership is needed: secure base leadership.

A turbulent international market, war in Ukraine and - partly as a result - price increases, operational pressure, and a halt to activities in Russia: maritime contractor Van Oord faced hefty challenges in 2022. Yet the company also seized opportunities: it responded to the growing demand for renewable energy and the greater need for climate adaptation solutions. Van Oord wants to continue this sustainable course and aspires to a leading role in the energy transition.
In these turbulent times, more than ever, it comes down to the ingenuity, technical know-how, entrepreneurship, and courage of employees. That explains why Van Oord made ‘people’ a strategic spearhead. This has been the responsibility of chief people officer Meike Salvadó-de Reede since last November. She is driven to bring out the best in people and considers psychological safety essential in this regard. ‘It is the basis for success within an organization,’ according to Salvadó-de Reede. ‘Only if you provide an environment where everyone feels safe, can you unlock the potential of employees and move forward as a company.’ That view, says the CPO, calls for a new form of leadership: secure base leadership. Contemporary leaders must make their people feel safe while challenging them to think and act outside the box. That is what Van Oord is currently working on within the organization.

Salvadó-de Reede speaks about the transformation process with Smaranda Boros, professor of intercultural management & organizational behavior at Vlerick Business School. Salvadó-de Reede several times in her career experienced how important the role a manager plays can be for the development of an individual and thus for the success of a company. Her first manager gave her the space to learn outside her familiar field. Another manager dared to be vulnerable and knew how to exploit the differences within the team. She herself also wants to be a secure base for the people on her team, because only then can people harness the best from themselves. ‘I learn every day. To achieve this, feedback is extremely valuable. Then I think: I can indeed do this better next time.’

Van Oord wants to increase psychological safety in the workplace. How did that insight grow?
‘Because we are a family business, care for employees has traditionally always been a strong value. At the same time, especially in these challenging times, we must be a performance-oriented and innovative organization to survive. This is only possible with employees who challenge themselves and their colleagues. Realizing both values - care and challenge - requires psychological safety in the workplace. Only when employees feel safe do they dare to come out of their comfort zone and can exceptional things come about.
This theory was introduced in 2012 by George Kohlrieser, professor of organizational psychology at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne. In his book Care to dare, Kohlrieser writes that leaders must challenge employees to perform well while caring for them, by sincerely listening, paying attention, and connecting people.’

Therein lies a paradox. If a manager is one moment focused on caring (care) and the next on performing (dare), employee trust can be undermined.
‘Indeed, care and dare are often seen as opposites. That the two values cannot co-exist. However, this is incorrect. In the ideal situation, there should be equal focus on caring for and on challenging people. You need both elements to move forward. That goes for individual employees as well as the entire organization. Managers must not only be aware of that, but also have the skills to pay attention to both elements.’

How has Van Oord trained its leaders in secure base leadership?
‘Van Oord recently had its top 150 leaders attend a high-performance leadership program at IMD business school in Lausanne. These leaders became more aware of the importance of psychological safety. They also learned various skills to enable this. One technique is like negotiating tactics with hostage takers. This sounds peculiar, but there are parallels. For example, a hostage negotiator must establish an emotional connection with the hostage taker to succeed in convincing the latter to put down weapons and release the hostage. It is about gaining trust. The same is true in the workplace. When leaders make employees feel that they really matter, that they can voice their opinions and discuss mistakes, people come out of their comfort zone. Then they will be willing to follow the lead, take more risks and work independently. It also leads to greater creativity and more innovation. These are all elements that lead to a high-performance organization.’

It is not always that simple. A caring employer can allow employees to contribute in ways that make them happy. But their personal goals need not be consistent with the company’s strategy.
‘That is right. We therefore put a lot of energy into communicating our corporate mission. In doing so, we do a lot of storytelling. We tell a clear story about the how and why of our business - that way we make it personal for employees. They feel proud and involved and want to contribute to our ambition. If this is not the case, this might not be the right place for them. But that hardly ever happens. Employees deliberately choose for our company and our mission: contributing to a better world for future generations. During the recruitment and selection process, for example, we pay close attention to whether a candidate fits our values: we create, we care, we work together and we succeed. Internally, we have translated these values into behavior. That is tangible and concrete - people know how it translates into their daily work.’

Can you give an example?
‘What matters are simple, but important conduct. For example, that I want to give feedback to colleagues. And vice versa: that I am open to feedback from others and use it to improve myself. Or that I ask questions and really listen to a colleague or to our customers to understand what he or she means. On the challenge front, for example, it means to challenge myself and others to achieve better results. A total of 12 behaviors have been formulated. That may be a considerable number, but it gives people direction. This makes it easier to start a conversation about how someone is doing his or her job. We used to judge someone mainly on financial, commercial, or technical performance, now we also look at how this person behaves. How does a team manager function? Does he or she get the best out of his or her team? Does he or she cooperate with others?’

Within many companies, middle management in particular experiences great (work) pressure from both above and below. It becomes even tougher when they must become a secure base leader. How do you motivate managers for this transformation?
‘Secure base leadership should not lead to an additional ‘to do list’. It is about a different way of managing people and of having conversations. The new approach can easily be embedded in daily work and existing management processes. Every manager deals with change differently. Some will manage faster than others. That is also not a disaster. However, it is important to explain why this new approach is needed. If people understand why you are choosing to embed psychological safety in the organization, they will want to put their shoulders to the wheel. Give them that dot on the horizon and they will want to make the journey together. It is also important to then provide adequate support, such as development opportunities and team sessions.’

How do you measure the extent to which managers succeed in providing a secure base for the team?
‘Managers themselves have a responsibility to develop into a secure base leader. We have therefore developed a 360-degree feedback scan. This not only provides room for self-evaluation, but it also allows managers to get a picture of how others perceive their behavior. The intention is to repeat the 360-degree feedback scan every year. That gives leaders insight into where they can develop further, and at the organizational level it gives us insight into whether leaders are developing.’

How is Van Oord integrating psychological safety deeper into the organization?
‘Van Oord is implementing the concept throughout the entire organization. So, both on the projects and on board our vessels and in our offices. The principles of psychological safety come to the fore in all training courses an employee takes during his or her career. The message is tailored to the target group. For colleagues on our fleet, we have different methods than for colleagues in the office. Furthermore, behavior is an integral part of development interviews, talent review and assessments.’

How do you ensure that people within the organization who may not feel safe enough are also heard?
‘This is an issue that plays out in several places within our company: on the fleet, on projects and in the office. As mentioned, leaders and direct managers play an important role in creating a safe environment, but unfortunately, they do not always succeed yet. To include the voices of those who do not feel safe, there are confidants, and we offer speak up opportunities. But that does not mean that people make use of these when something is going on. So, a lot depends on the leaders within our company. They must be able to create a safe space for people to speak up. And they must radiate this too.’

I would imagine that Van Oord has a masculine corporate culture. Only 18 percent of the workforce is female. So, is there room for authenticity and vulnerability within top management?
‘I cannot deny that we have a masculine corporate culture. We are in the maritime sector, and that is a sector that employs many more men than women. Less than 3 percent women currently work on the fleet. At the same time, we are a family business that takes good care of its employees. It is a combination you do not often come across. To improve psychological safety within the organization, we made a conscious decision to start at the top of the company. Management must bring about the change from the top down and also has an important example function. Making yourself vulnerable was therefore part of the IMD program in Lausanne. Members of the executive team led the way in this and made themselves vulnerable by sharing personal events from their lives. It sends a powerful message to employees. If even the CEO dares to show vulnerability or admit a mistake, then it must be safe to speak up.’

Are the effects of a different leadership style already visible within Van Oord?
‘We are still in the middle of implementation and transformation. It takes time, but we are already seeing some changes within teams. A different kind of conversation is taking place. It has always been easier to talk about results than about each other’s behavior. But we already, sometimes, see that changing. We now dare to question when a colleague reacts vehemently to an idea. Maybe he or she is afraid of something? What is the reason the colleague is digging in heels? It is important to recognize and discuss subconscious feelings. We want to create an environment where everyone knows it is okay to voice resistance, opinions, or fears. The analogy we use for this is: it is better to get the fish on the table before it starts to rot.’

For Van Oord, what is the goal of a psychologically safe organization?
‘The energy transition and climate adaptation are huge global challenges, and we play a crucial role in addressing them. If we really want to have a positive impact, we need to be the best version of ourselves. This means fostering collaboration, responding quickly to change, improving our performance, nurturing the growth of our employees, and delivering outstanding results to our customers. Psychological safety is essential so that our people can tackle these challenges together. Leaders play a critical role in creating this safe environment.’

This interview was published in Management Scope 08 2023.

This article was last changed on 03-10-2023