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Wed 17 Aug 2016 09:29 AM

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Port of Sohar CEO Mark Geilenkirchen on laying the foundation to success

CEO of SOHAR Industrial Port Company, Mark Geilenkirchen knows that leadership is about more than barking orders, it's about motivation, inspiration and setting a good example for the team

Port of Sohar CEO Mark Geilenkirchen on laying the foundation to success

CEO of SOHAR Industrial Port Company, Mark Geilenkirchen knows that leadership is about more than barking orders, it's about motivation, inspiration and setting a good example for the team

If all goes well, where do you see the company going in the next five years?

You will see SOHAR further develop as one of the most important logistical hubs in the GCC region, and seamlessly connected by land, sea and air. Give it a decade, and you'll see that the regional logistics industry has become a key driver for the Sultanate of Oman's future prosperity, with many young Omanis entering the industry and using it to build their future careers.

If could narrow it down, what do you think is the single greatest challenge facing your industry today?

It's certainly the general level of financial uncertainty and volatility in the world today. On one side, it is globalisation that is the main driving force behind many of our port-related and logistics businesses at SOHAR, but on the other hand, it's a big challenge – uncertainty in one part of the world can quickly affect another part. For example, just look at the recent turmoil in the Asian financial markets after the UK's decision to leave the European Union.

Where does your organisation get new ideas?

Everywhere. We pride ourselves in promoting an idea-driven corporate culture here at SOHAR. We want to ensure that good ideas are both shared and nurtured. We believe that the strength of a single idea is critical, not necessary the strength of the person who had the idea.

How do you develop that idea-driven culture?

I think that people need to feel that they can share their thoughts because they are in an environment that tolerates mistakes – as long as the mistakes are made because people are trying too hard, not because someone is lazy.

We try to foster a culture of open and ongoing communication without barriers, top down and bottom up. If you have an idea at SOHAR, we want to hear about it and explore its potential. Asking for questions or ideas is the only way to solve problems and develop solutions.


What's the most important at SOHAR – the mission, core values or vision?

That's like asking a Formula One team what's more important: the engine, the wheels or the driver. I believe everything plays a role in success, but without a clearly formulated vision there can be no progress, so we'd always start with clearly defining that.

How do you make tough decisions at SOHAR?

I research. I try to get all the available facts as quickly as possible, listen to varying opinions and only then do I reach a decision. Then, most importantly, I stick to it. And, of course, you have to try and make the right decision more than 50 percent of the time.

What do you think about social media? Has it impacted your organisation?

Yes, with camera phones and social media everyone is a journalist nowadays, and that has enormous consequences for us. On any given month, as many as 100,000 people are following our business on a daily basis via social media, so what we do and how we do it is far more transparent than ever before. Our communications as an organisations are no longer one-way, people are looking not only for feedback but a real conversation, and that's something we're just getting used to in this region.

What's the best part about working at SOHAR?

Well, I only officially started in June 2016, but so far I have enjoyed everything! But seriously, as a country, Oman is focusing on developing itself as a global logistics hub, and that fits in with my previous experience. I started out as a business consultant in the Netherlands in the early 1990s, focusing on logistics and quality. I became a business school lecturer and helped establish a specialised faculty just for logistics, before working internationally.

Most recently, I've spent the last two years in Hong Kong as Global Client Director with APM Terminals – managing client portfolios at over 60 ports around the globe. Today, SOHAR is one of the world's fastest-growing port and free zone developments, and it is establishing itself as the region's 'challenger'. Frankly, I'm very keen to play my part and help write the next chapter in its amazing success story.


How would you explain your job to an 8-year-old?

I would say that almost everything you wear, you eat or that your family owns, has been made somewhere else and then transported to your home either by ships, aeroplanes or trucks. The company that I run makes sure those things can be made, and then get to your house when you need them – be it your clothes, some food or a new refrigerator. I'd also mention that my job is really fun, and it's worth trying when you get older.

Is there a person who has had an impact on yourself as a leader?

I was working at ABN AMRO in the Netherlands during some very turbulent times – in the middle of the global financial crisis. At that point, we were bought, split up, nearly went bankrupt, sold and then merged again. I had to keep our people motivated while reducing the headcount by a third. At the same time, I had to increase sales while merging two banking systems and corporate cultures.

 As well as increasing customer satisfaction at a time when everyone was worried about their investments. I think we were all powered-up by the uncertainty we faced each day at work, and we managed to accomplish all those goals successfully and measurably. But I could have never met that challenge without the mentor I had in the bank, who empowered me to do what I was good at. For sure he knows who he is, so I'd like to say thank you.

What would you say to a new employee about the culture if SOHAR?

Instead of just talking about our culture, I would appoint a mentor for them as quickly as possible. That's the best way to immerse them in it one hundred percent. I'd also make sure they could listen to the memorable and compelling stories that illustrate our culture.

We would never say something like, 'always go the extra mile', we have a story that vividly demonstrates that point. I believe that storytelling is the single most powerful method of teaching and sustaining a strong corporate culture.

What advice would you give to someone going into a leadership position for the first time?

Listen carefully to people and don't presume. Stay humble and empower others – when they shine, you shine too, and when they mess up, it will be you that's on the line.


What's one mistake that leaders tend to make more often than others?

I think they stop managing and start thinking about how they can delegate parts of that job to others. While leadership and management are two different skill sets, good leaders still need to be involved in organisational management for their own direct reporting lines. I always try to keep that group small but then manage them to the very best of my ability.

What are three characteristics every leader should possess?

First, conviction, because leaders with confidence show us the future is certain and that we’re all heading in the right direction; when people feel safer and more secure in their future, they’re happier and produce higher quality work.

Second, he or she should lead by example, because that’s the best way for a leader to build credibility and gain respect in an organisation. They can't just talk about what they want people to do; they need to demonstrate the positive attitudes and behaviours that they want others to emulate.

Third, they should empower others, which is a big personal investment for a leader, and one that requires energy, effort and time. The best part of being a good leader is seeing people move up to a higher level of leadership. I would also like to add a fourth characteristic: I think being in a good mood all day, every day, really helps a leader and all the people who work around them.

What's your greatest fear in business?

It may sound odd, buy my biggest fear is becoming too successful and not being able to deliver on our promises. I have always feared that in business life, much more than failing at something, and it can be much more damaging.

I have an entrepreneurial mindset, and that means I am not afraid to take a calculated risk. I know that I will sometimes fail, so that's not my fear. We learn by making mistakes, analysing and then improving them. That's what drives good organisations forward.

What's one thing most people don't know about you?

That I co-owned one of Europe's first e-commerce companies in the 1990s, long before the banks allowed direct e-payments. It was an online portal that offered personalised gift items – like pillowcases with your photo on them. We came out of nothing and shone quite bright for a short while, but we passed into internet history about the same time as the great dot-com bubble burst in 2001.


What's one productivity tip you wish everyone else knew?

Once a week, get to the office a few hours before your colleagues do. Clean your desk, rewrite your action list and then think about what you are going to do for the rest of the week. By the time your colleagues arrive, you will have a very clear path mapped out – which provides great peace of mind and really improves your productivity.

If you were to give someone just starting out in business one piece of advice, what would it be?

Look for the best possible company to hire you, find someone there who seems to know what they are doing, latch on to them and start to ask lots of questions. Soak up knowledge like a sponge.

Your first job should be the steepest learning curve of your working life and the better your first company and your first mentor, the better equipped you’ll be for what comes next.


What is the biggest luxury in your life?

That’s simple: time. In today's’ busy and connected world, it is time and not tangible possessions which have become the ultimate luxury. It's something we must all learn to cherish.

What makes you get out of bed each day?

A large and very loud alarm clock… What drives me to get out of bed, that's the desire to unleash the full potential in other people, to inspire them and to help them achieve all they can be. That's what gives me the greatest satisfaction in my leadership role.

What's one quote to live your life by?

It’s always easier to make bouillabaisse out of an aquarium than the other way around.


Finish this sentence: "the world would be a better place if only...

…we’d all recognise the humanity of other people and respect their dignity.”