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Lessons in Leadership: A Conversation with Reyad Fezzani

“It’s absolutely true that crises bring massive opportunity for growth and learning”

Reyad Fezzani serves on C.O.I’s Advisory Board and is Chairman and CEO of Regenerate Power, a developer, owner and operator of utility-scale renewable energy projects.

Prior to co-founding Regenerate Power, Mr. Fezzani was CEO of BP Solar and Chairman of Tata-BP Solar. He previously served as President of BP’s Global Wind and Solar business operating solar manufacturing plants, as well as solar and wind farms across the U.S., Spain, India, China and Australia.

Before leading the wind and solar units, Mr. Fezzani was CEO of BP’s $10B Global Chemicals business and was previously the Executive Assistant to the BP Group Chief Executive, Lord Browne, at the time when BP launched its Alternative and Renewable Energy business. Mr. Fezzani holds an ME in Chemical Engineering and Chemical Technology from Imperial College, London.

C.O.I’s Rowena McAllister recently had the chance to ask Reyad about his approach to leading across global cultures and what helped shape his own leadership journey.

Reyad, having spent the majority of your career in global roles in the energy sector, what would you say are the keys to leading across cultures?

I have been fortunate to work in multiple cultures in Europe, Asia the Middle East and North and South America – in many cases leading organizations operating in multiple continents with diverse and very different cultures.

While there are no silver bullets there are in my experience some keys that can help a leader be successful:

Being fully present, a great listener, and to be curious to understand more about the cultures of your team members. This can sometimes be more challenging than it seems – for example one of my teams on the east coast of the US was almost 80% first generation Asian, and so appreciating that mix of culture was important to being successful.

Sharing and adapting the business context. In my experience people need to understand the purpose of their work, where they are heading and where they are relative to the journey – it’s beyond information. Getting that message across in different cultures requires an understanding of nuance. Having the right leadership team to carry and translate the context into what’s needed locally whilst preserving the big picture messages is critical to ensuring a good fit with all the needs.        

Face to face interactions. People need to interact to get beyond words and to get a depth of understanding, and therefore meaning. It’s hard to do this without face to face time and that’s not a 20-minute town hall meeting. Typically, in a visit, I would spend time one on one with a cross section of a local team then with local leadership team together, then a town hall meeting with everyone making sure there is plenty of time for questions and staying behind to allow people to come up and speak or address issues privately.                                                                                                      

Promoting a common set of values and principles across all cultures and allowing for interpretation.

Adapting decision-making. Decisions are made very differently in different cultures. This is a trap that is easy to fall into. The classic contrast is singular versus consensus based where in many cultures decision making is a relationship based process rather than an event with no short-cuts. Settling on an understanding of which model you are operating in early becomes a key success factor. This is beyond providing and communicating a single context. It’s about acting as a role model and ensuring a hard edge to principles and at the same time giving permission for some local tailoring/adaptation and defining specifically the space for flexibility. 

In your experience, what makes an individual stand out as a leader and is it different across varying cultures? If so, how?

Leaders are constantly watched and your every move is scrutinized interpreted and tested -what you do vs. what you say. In my experience what makes great culturally sensitive leaders is self-awareness, modesty, and maintaining a balance between supporting and encouraging versus challenging. 

Much of this is about how comfortable and committed a leader is to search out views and listen to the pulse of the organization, as much as you listen to customers, suppliers and other stakeholders.

 If you had to identify a single event in your career or life that contributed the most toward your emergence as a leader, what would it be?

It would be a crisis! It’s absolutely true that crises bring opportunity for massive growth and learning. My crisis was to run emergency response for a country-wide shut down of all my companies’ refineries and fuel storage facilities by protestors complaining about high fuel prices. This became a corporate and country crisis management effort because of the impact on critical emergency services and the overall economy. My biggest learning as a leader was the importance of looking after the team as they became exhausted, to stick to my principles as the pressure came to find solutions, and to trust my leadership team to work through local relationships to find breakthroughs.

 What advice would you give your 21-year-old self about how best to influence and guide others and what pitfalls to avoid, hard lessons to avoid?

Looking back, I was very naive and just assumed that people will do what you ask them to. Certainly, it was a better strategy to ask for help and that’s generally more likely to be successful. I would also say that making sure you don’t forget to give the ‘why’ is important, and being patient to take the time to build relationships and trust to get things done. Finally, there is no substitute to getting the experience and understanding of business by managing and leading people and making the mistakes from which you learn.

How does a true leader handle failure?

It’s in the nature of leaders to be positive and to always push for the art of what’s possible, taking well thought out risks. Failure is a reality and no matter how confident you are it hits you hard. Part of the challenge is not to be in denial and equally not to overly personalize it. 

Great leaders admit to failure and take on the responsibility to try to fix or improve on what has not been achieved and mobilize people around them to help. The biggest risk is to become isolated.

In the era of flat matrix organizations and cross functional teams, is ‘leadership’ being redefined, if so, how?

There may be fewer positional vertical leadership roles and more horizontal leadership roles as companies do more cross functional projects and initiatives. I believe the skills are comparable e.g. influencing, setting context, listening, decision making. What becomes much harder experience to get is the opportunity to manage people’s more personal and long-term development. Of course, you can still do objective setting, performance management, feedback, coaching, career counseling without being a vertical manager and you can even argue that having multiple managers for each “project” you work on could be an opportunity to get more feedback and more diversification of feedback as you are seen in different situations. To get to those benefits the people management process would need adaptation.

Rowena McAllister