Frans Van Schaik on The Art of Asking Tough Questions, Why He Avoids Peak Performance, and the Scheduling Hack that Prevents Him from Getting Overwhelmed
About Frans Van Schaik
Frans is a Partner at the privately held investment company Schaker Holdings LLC, where he also serves as CEO. He is also the Executive Chairman of African Asset Finance Company Holdings BV and chairman of Ethiopian Capital Goods Finance SC. He is a Partner, Director and Senior Advisor at Roha Group, and serves on the Board of Roha Africa Holdings. Frans is also a Senior Advisor to the CEO of Biom’up SA for the build-out of their North American operation, and previously developed Tribute Capital, an alternative direct investment platform in East Africa with an emphasis on energy, infrastructure and private equity.
'Mindset of Mentors' with The Africa List
As part of a CEO Night with The Africa List community in Ethiopia, Frans answered questions from the members about the leadership practices he has cultivated along his leadership journey. This was part of a quarterly series of ‘CEO Nights’ hosted by The Africa List communities across all five countries under the theme of unpacking the 'Mindset of Mentors'. At these events, a range of senior CEOs and Chairs from across Africa spend time with the community of 'next-in-line CEOs' that make up The Africa List community to unpack what it really takes to make it to the top. We only run 'CEO Nights' once a year so to make the interactions with the CEOs in attendance as structured and useful as possible, a selection of CEOs host breakout sessions, answering questions posed by the members on their 'CEO Life Hacks' that cover a range of topics including productivity, leadership, management strategies and their personal reflections.
These are some of our favourite pieces of advice that Frans shared on the night:
What does the first two hours of your day look like?
I get up early, so typically by 5:30 I'm up. I quickly go through my e-mail, read the news and exercise. Then I prioritise my day in the shower, then read more news and start working by around 7:30.
How do you set up your days and weeks for peak performance?
I try to avoid peak performance, because that means you also have a valley where you do very little. Organisations need stability. If you spike then do nothing, it doesn’t work. Peak performance is to be avoided at all costs.
What do you spend most of your time thinking about as a leader of your company?
I’d say I spend the most time thinking about what I’m missing. What it is I don’t see, or don’t hear – what am I not asking? I think that’s the most important thing. As a CEO or whenever you manage things, people quickly start to figure out what you like to hear and you start to live in a bubble that’s not very reflective of reality.
What do you do to energize yourself when you’re feeling overwhelmed?
I try not to be overwhelmed at all. I used to get overwhelmed, but at some point someone helped me to understand that the trick is to make sure that you don’t have a very full calendar and schedule. I thought having a packed schedule from early morning into late at night, filled with one meeting after the other was how you were supposed to show people you’re doing your job and you’re working hard. Then I figured out the only way to really do your job is to have at least a few hours a day with nothing to do. Take at least one full day per week with nothing planned and no one knocking on your door. Part of that time inevitably gets filled up because there is always some emergency, but you can use some of that time to do the things you otherwise never find the time to do. If you’re truly overwhelmed, it can become unhealthy; you start spiralling downwards and then you’re just hurting yourself.
How much of your life is spent making versus managing? How do you feel about the split?
I don’t think there’s a difference between the two. The only thing that you make by yourself is ideas - when you take the time to think through things and come up with new ideas. If you want to be effective as a CEO, you have to delegate as much as you can. Your job really is to find people who are better than you at everything that you as a CEO are responsible for. You hire above you, not under. Your job is to find those people and get them to work well together. So, you make very little actually.
What are some of your learning rituals?
The one thing I think I benefit from is to regularly read outside of my comfort zone. I try to read about things that I know nothing about, and about things that at first glance aren't that appealing. For example when I realise that I’ve been sitting in cars all the time, I take public transport, just to see what’s going on. When I notice I’ve been flying the same airlines or same routes, I try and change that. I try to do that as much as possible and as is practical. I get impressions or talk to people that are not in my normal zone. That’s how you learn things and get new insights.
How has your management style changed over the years?
It’s changed dramatically. When I started managing, I did it by the seat of my pants. I relied on being clever enough, fast enough and hard-working enough to figure it all out and to lead by example. I figured the dots would connect backwards. I’ve since learned that managing is a conscious process. If you follow a method, prepare well and do things with a regular rhythm, companies tend to work better. If you’re too disruptive in your management style, your company becomes chaos. As much as you can, just bring rest and calm and a steady process to your business and you will benefit greatly. You can be disruptive as a business in the market, but if you don’t manage the process well and steady, you don’t succeed. You need to be able to churn out the product or deliver the service.
What’s the best investment you’ve made?
I think the best investment you can make is in people. Not just relationships with people, but in educating people. The people you’ve worked with and the people you trained, it’s surprising how many of them come back in your career as you advance. You redeploy each other. From a junior they become a CEO and come back to ask you for something. Time is your most important asset and investing in people is the best use of your time. While I’ve regretted other investments, I've never regretted investing my time in people.
What investment have you made in your career that has helped you to grow?
When I was in my late thirties and had been a CEO for about five years, I realised there were a couple of things I wasn't doing right and I reached out for help. That was a difficult decision because all CEOs are very proud, you think you know it all. Reaching out to a CEO coach helped me tremendously, it changed the world for me.
Who has been the one person who impacted your career the most?
The CEO coach actually. A gentleman called Geoff Eisenberg who used to be the CEO of West Marine, and then became a CEO coach for a while and a professional board member. I met him when I sat on the board of another company and we’d hired him to evaluate the management team and he'd refused the assignment. We thought it was because of the team, but he said it was the board. He said, “You as a board are the most horrible board I’ve ever seen”. He was right. When I finally recognised that I needed help, I thought 'this is the guy I need'.
In your leadership journey, what has been your biggest failure and what did you learn?
My biggest failure, and I learned a lot from it, was when I tried to pressure somebody into make a hiring decision. Somebody in my team needed a colleague and we’d narrowed it down to three final candidates and I’d asked them to decide between the three. I’ll never forget how that person burst into tears and was completely unwilling to decide. I was baffled. I thought I was setting a fine example of delegating. It took me a while to discover you have to be very careful not to take your own reference framework and impose it on other people and assume that what you enjoy and understand is the same for others. It’s a difficult game to play and it's always hard to figure out how to balance inclusivity and making sure people can live in a zone of comfort. In this particular case, the person had no appetite for it. The reasoning was that if they chose one candidate over another, they would be denying the other one a job and they didn’t want that responsibility. It had never dawned on me that somebody might not want to have that responsibility. That was unimaginable to me. How could you not want responsibility? But people are wired differently; not better or worse, just different.
What is one thing you are committed to becoming world class at?
The art of asking questions. To myself, to other people – asking the hard questions. The questions you don’t want to ask because you don’t want to hear the answer. I think if you keep asking questions, you can get better at almost anything you do.
Can you give an example of a question you regularly ask yourself?
I often ask myself, “What am I missing?” You sit with management, or in a board room, especially if you’ve worked together for a while, people start to adjust their behaviour and frame their answers and questions to you in a way that they know there’ll be a good outcome. We all tell ourselves little lies about how wonderful we are. So, what you need is a mirror and the further you get in your career, the more difficult it gets to have that mirror. People become more and more afraid to call you out and it becomes more difficult for people to be an effective mirror as other people have more problem overseeing the whole spectrum of what you’re trying to organise. So, you have to become more reliant on your own capacity to ask difficult questions.
Who are you currently inspired by?
Not really by a single person. I tend to be mostly inspired by entrepreneurs. I greatly admire people who start and develop a business and manage to hang on. I also admire managers who educate other managers really well, the Jack Welch types, and locally in Ethiopia people like Girma Wake who I often describe as the Jack Welch of Ethiopia.
What is something you believe in that other people might think is crazy?
I believe that if you do the things you like best, those are the things you will do well and should focus on in life. If it doesn’t sound like work to you, then you should make it your work. Name me one activity where you can’t also name somebody who has become famous and rich because they are good at it. There is almost nothing where you can’t think of a role model like that, from celebrity chefs to athletes, musicians to entrepreneurs.
In your experience, what is one trait in leaders that you have seen cause the most chaos?
Ego has ruined a lot of lives and businesses. It’s difficult because the more successful you become, the more tempting it becomes to try and believe that it’s all you and therefore you are wonderful. The ability to look in the mirror and ask hard questions, or to have people around you say the things you don’t want to hear, that’s important.
How do you develop your team to become leaders themselves?
The most important thing is that people feel empowered. As a leader, you have to delegate as much as you can and let people figure it out for themselves. Then, one day they’ll be able to handle more situations on their own.
How do you create and sustain your network?
I’m not good at creating a network, at least not in a systemic way. The problem is that a lot of people think of networking as something that serves an immediate purpose, like finding a client, investor, business partner etc. But if you work to build these relationships, the good ones can last a long time throughout your career. You have to choose the ones you actually want to build and realize that solid relationships are based on a long term balance, on an exchange of values, not tit for tat. You need to ask yourself why would somebody want to talk to me? Why would this person be interested? It’s like finding a deal, if you can’t figure out why someone would want to do a deal with you, you’re probably better off not doing the deal at all.
How do you communicate your core values?
You have to articulate them, and they have to align with your personal core values, otherwise it doesn’t work. Then you have to lead by example, and you have to accept that people might call you out on the values and examples that you set.
What happens when someone in your team fails?
It’s very important that your team takes ownership of both the successes and failures. You do post-mortems to find out how you can learn from things. Never make things personal. If a team member fails, you as the leader made the mistake. You put the wrong person in charge of the wrong task. You can never blame the people in the team because ultimately the buck stops with you. If the company fails, it’s your responsibility. It a team member fails, you bear the responsibility.
How do you manage setbacks or disappointments?
I think if you can’t deal with setbacks and disappointments you shouldn’t be a CEO. Disappointments are part of life, especially if you’re ambitious. You have to learn very quickly to get over things. If you hold grudges, if you are not capable of saying, ‘too bad, that was a bad incident, but it’s also water under the bridge,' then you don't move on. Let’s learn from it, that’s important – but let's move on first. No one is going to wait until you’ve finally processed whatever did go wrong.
How do you encourage creative thinking and idea sharing in your company?
One is creating a culture where people are unafraid to make mistakes, which is difficult because at the same time you want zero mistakes, so how do you combine the two? Don’t put a penalty on making mistakes, but if a mistake is made you want a culture where people feel like they can own up to it. People who dare to make mistakes are the same people who can come up with new ideas. If you’re too afraid to make mistakes you’ll never be creative. You need a culture where people are invited to do something which has never been done before, and you can lead by example.
What would you put on a billboard in your city?