How to fly high and stay grounded

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Carl Bek-Nielsen talks about the history and evolution of palm at the Jendarata plantation.

Carl Bek-Nielsen talks about the history and evolution of palm at the Jendarata plantation.

By Alvin Ung

One of my biggest highlights during my two-day trip to United Plantations was when Dato’ Carl Bek-Nielsen carried my bags and buckled my seatbelt. He fired up the Cessna 180. And off we went up in the sky.

“We have a rich flying culture,” Carl said, his voice sounding tinny over the headphones and the roar of the propeller plane. His predecessors at UP also loved flying.

Overhead we saw the distinctive red roofs of UP’s buildings: research center, palm oil refinery, staff housing, palm oil refinery, a biogas plant, and even a kindergarten. We saw three jungle sanctuaries. On Margrethe Hill was a church and garden. We flew over the township of Jendarata.

A school at the United Plantations plantation in Jendarata. Schools here were built by the Bek-Nielsen family in support of the education of the estate workers children.

A school at the United Plantations plantation in Jendarata. Schools here were built by the Bek-Nielsen family in support of the education of the estate workers children.

But my mind was thinking about the moment when Carl strapped me in. I couldn’t remember the last time someone wore a seatbelt for me. So I felt honored and humbled when Carl did it.

It’s not everyday that you go flying with the CEO of one of the world’s best plantation companies. United Plantations has the best yield in palm oil extraction. UP stock has soared in value over the past five years. The company is sitting on a huge pile of cash. By all standards of measurements, Carl’s company is flying high.

But here’s the biggest danger: as the saying goes, the higher you go, the harder you fall. Leadership guru Jim Collins has written a book called “How the Mighty Fall.”

He writes: “Every institution, no matter how great, is vulnerable to decline. Anyone can fall, and most eventually do. But decline, it turns out, is largely self-inflicted.” So how do we stay grounded when we are flying high?

We need to keep our eyes on the dashboard.

I noticed that as we were flying one thousand feet above sea level, our tiny plane held at a steady speed of 225 kilometers per hour. Nevertheless we were swaying from side to side all the time. Even as Carl was talking to me, his eyes were in constant motion, looking at the array of indicators on the plane’s dashboard.

“You’ve got to keep your eye on the cockpit and instruments,” he said, as he flicked a switch. And then another. His eyes and fingers were in constant movement making adjustments as we flew over UP’s vast estates.

“I love aircrafts. I like to get up there and see things from above. It’s like running a business or maintaining family. If you keep your nose too high, you will stall,” Carl said.

I’m glad Carl was vigilant. I wouldn’t want to crash in our tiny plane. I’ve heard of planes that have flown upside down in clouds or plummeted or crashed on the runway because the pilots did not keep their eye on the instruments. In the same way we can destroy our lives, families or the companies we lead when we don’t keep our eyes on the ball.

All leaders should develop dashboards of their organizations. As a vice-president of leadership at Khazanah Nasional, I worked with consultants to develop leadership development dashboards (LDD) for twenty of Malaysia’s largest companies. These dashboards enabled the CEO to assess the health of the company. At one glance, the CEO could see how the company is doing in terms of succession planning, performance management and much more.

We must also develop dashboards for our personal lives. A few months ago, my wife pointed out that I’ve been working a lot of late nights. As a result we don’t spend enough time listening, talking and praying together as a couple. That’s not good. So after a few weeks of discussion and tweaking, my wife and I developed a 3S Dashboard: Six pm, Sabbath and School Holidays.

We agreed: no work after six pm; no work during Sabbaths (we will cease from work of any kind for a 24-hour period in one week); and I will take a family holiday during my son’s school holidays.

How has this worked for me? I have good days and I have bad days. I admit that there are days when I still work after six pm. On Sabbaths, sometimes I have no choice but to answer a few work-related phone calls or emails. But here’s the thing. I can now keep my eye on the 3S Dashboard. Thanks to the dashboard, If I work late for seven nights a month, I know that my plane’s in trouble. And I need to adjust something or else I might crash.

Carl’s leadership dashboard, when he’s on the ground, is unannounced spot checks. No matter where he drives, he’s always checking something.

United Plantations - Carl Bek-Nielsen

We dropped by the old folks’ home. He checked the toilets (clean but not perfect) and the common areas (spotless).

At dusk, we swung into a barn-like structure. He switched on the headlights. He checked to see how the bags of fertilizer were arranged (neat).

He checked the price tags at the Bernam Bakery (they were crooked). He scrutinized a train that transported the fresh fruit bunches to the oil mill. At the oil mill, he studied the log book.

“Does he come here often?” I asked a mandore, who supervised a team of workers on the field.

“Yes, he comes by two or three times a month,” he said.

“Do you know when he’s coming?”

“Never. He always come unannounced,” the mandore said.

During the spot check, Carl might notice if something is left undone or not done properly. He will immediately ask for the staff’s phone number. At the end of the day, he will call or SMS the staff as a reminder. He will also send an email, copying in the head of department, to ensure the work is being followed through.

The beauty of checking the dashboard is that it provides you everything else you need to know to lead. You’re able to plan for contingencies. You can keep on making decisions and small adjustments along the way. You can watch out for early signs of complacency or danger. You can also see the big picture.

“Look down below,” said Carl, who has flown planes for twenty years in Malaysia, Australia and the United States. “Look at the nice great big Persian carpet, with straight lines of palms. The palms must look dense. The leaves must be dark green, not yellow.”

We landed smoothly.

Three members of the ground crew waited for us. One of them opened the door for me. This time I unstrapped myself and carried my own bags.

From the corner of my eye, I was startled to see the plane move slowly. I ducked to avoid the Cessna 180’s wing from beheading me. And there was Carl, together with another ground crew, pushing the plane into the hanger.

That’s how you stay grounded as a high-flying CEO: you’ve got to go the ground, and you’ve got to join your people in doing their work.

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