We interviewed a visionary woman leader, Kadi Metsmaa, CEO of Esplan. Esplan is the leading Workplace Happiness consultant with 30 years of experience in architecture and engineering. http://www.esplan.ee/


Could you tell us more about how you look at physical wellness in the workplace and more about yourself growing up as a young woman leader? How do you grow yourself to be a good leader?

I was placed in a leadership position when I was around 19 or 20. I had employees that were much older than I was and I felt that in order to be able to manage them, I needed to understand the theory of leadership. I read a lot of books and did many things according to what I read because I did not know what else to do. I never had the experience of leading a group of people then. Luckily, I had good books to rely on and that was how the business starts with good practices. If I did not know something, I searched and read up on articles related to the problem and also learned from other’s experiences.

Now that the business has expanded quite drastically, I realized that just reading and thinking is not enough to sustain the business. In order to ensure I am aware of things, I started with personal profiling which has data about my employees. It allows me to have a deeper understanding about them. Previously when the business was much smaller, instead of personal profiling, I held personal conversations with my employees to understand them better. However, with the business growing, I no longer have the time to do so. Therefore, personal profiling helps because up till now, I need to know what drives my employees.

I tested out and compared many different solutions because of my skepticism towards tests. I always had a doubt about the accuracy of tests and their reliability. It was thus important that the final test I chose was validated by the employees. I know the test I am using today (vip24, provided by CXS International and individual tests are available at vip24.me) is the right choice because of the clear analysis it provides which is easy to understand and I can work with the data. Instead of having a management manual that is 500 pages thick, I can understand my employees better with concise tables and diagrams that enable me to make wise choices.

One example was Chris (not his real name). I wanted to motivate him, would do everything that is good to help. In my case, I thought that by providing him a variety of work, it would motivate a young person. However, with a greater variety of work came more challenges and different visions as to where he or she can end up. When I continued reading his’ test results [about providing a variety of work] and got deeper into it, it was then that I realize this working pattern did not work for him. Chris was unhappy at work, he was not performing and back then, I did not know what was wrong. It turned out that he has a totally different from me in terms of the way we get motivated at work.

For me, having a variety of work enabled me to feel confident and do well in the workplace. For him, he constantly felt demotivated. When I found out that it had a negative effect on him, we dropped the idea of having a special variety of work and having bold challenges. We returned to the normal work routine and creating challenges of his level. From then, he was able to deliver the best results he has ever performed, he was happy, content, and confident about his work as well. I learned from this experience with Chris that even if know a person very well, I need to understand that they work differently from me.

After this experiment, do you strongly recommend that any leader uses the same test as you do?

It is important to use a test where you can achieve the outcome which can be utilized. For me, I use the current test because it is simple to understand. Being a visual learner, I like to look at diagrams, tables, and data. This is how I work. Before choosing a test, it is important to first understand the diversity of your company in terms of working style and needs. Usually, employers will employ people who are similar to them [in terms of working style and need].

Even if it is a small and less diverse company, it is still necessary to know what elements are missing in the company and also how to ensure those who have different working styles from you can survive and thrive in their own ways. This is especially so when work processes have been developed according to your working style. In fact, this is the part where leaders have to be conscious of the working environment. I feel that being conscious is all about employees and talent management. While the other parts of a business are important, every leader today must understand that the people who make up their company are key players who need to be accounted for first.

Although you have a better understanding of your employees, what happens in the case where you cannot provide what they need in order to thrive in your company? How do you normally have your coaching conversation around underperformance and mismatch?

There were occasions where I did feel I could not offer anything to someone because their values were very different from the company’s. It is in this stage where being a leader you should consciously pinpoint the differences in values and declare that these differences are significant to cause misunderstandings in the workplace. Therefore the company may not be the right place for the said person. With the knowledge of your employees, you do not have to accept everybody, you just have to inform of the diversion in values. Let them know that it is nothing personal and it is just how things are at that current stage. Such transparency allows for better communication between a leader and employees.

Sometimes, it may seem like there is a lack of tasks to be completed within an occupation or the job cannot be found. In fact, there is more to offer in a job than we think. There are many small tasks in every occupation which we usually do not consider it part of the job scope. In almost every occupation, someone needs to create documents, insert data, and sometimes set up events. You will see that some of these tasks are your strengths and others your weaknesses. However, you do not need a person analysis to delegate these small tasks.

All you need to know is who are those on your team and pick out the one who is strongly motivated by organizing events, for example, to do the setting up of the events. Even if the individual is working as an engineer, you can give him this part of the job. If it motivates them and plays with their strengths, it will be more flexible for you as a leader when it comes to delegating roles and dividing tasks.

After personal profiling, we will have more personalized tasks to be done by each person. That being said, not everyone doing the same job has a common interest. For example, if you are an architect, you may have a totally different interest from other architects because everyone is unique in their own ways.

When we discuss conscious business leadership, there will be a lot of talk about leaders being on a mission and that they will do whatever it takes to change themselves and learn in order to complete the mission. How do you see that in your company? Is the mission a big alignment factor? In the case where your employees have different interests, do they come together because of the common mission?

I agree that the mission is crucial in a workplace. It is important to find a company that you share the same values with. Although having different values distinguishes you from the rest, and you think you are doing well at the job, it is usually because you are purely doing whatever is needed to complete the task. It will never give you a sense of satisfaction when you do so, to do things that you actually dislike or even hate.

While you can allow employees to continue working like this to a certain extent, if our intent is to create a better world and to provide more satisfaction, to achieve better workplace performance, instead of motivating employees to complete tasks which are unpleasant to them, you should try to align their mission with their tasks.

In less affluent countries or in some companies, the owners do not have the ability to customize the work and staff actually may not like to do what they are doing, but need the job. Your version of mission alignment sounds too good to be true.

As an entrepreneur myself, and being one of the owners of my company, I have the freedom to do things differently. The freedom has enabled me to enquire and experience from various sectors such as the medical sector, human resource, and finally landing in a very conservative construction industry. Because of the many experiences I have gained, it has allowed me to build my company differently from other companies. This is exactly what distinguishes my company and also the main factor that attracts people to work in Esplan. We are always mixing and matching how we organize our employees and tasks. While we have (something that they do), we are also trying to give our people more experience and also a chance to redevelop.

While you are at the peak of your curve in this area of creating the Future of Work and having been in Singapore before, how would you inform your readers of the importance of workplace environment?

It is important to show how the workplace environment has measurable effects on the productivity and effectiveness of employees. In America, there was a study that tabulated results in figures to show how the workplace environment affects workplace performance. I think productivity is not only to keep the computers working all day, but also to ensure the brain is thinking throughout the day as well, and that it is not slowing down as the day passes. At the same time, we are also trying to avoid overworking. It may seem like there is so much on your plate sometimes, that people tend to forget about their initial plan to create something and their ability to think has been impeded. Therefore, my take on workplace environment in Asia is for them to take a step back, manage the workload at a given point in time, and they will be able to achieve better results in a shorter span of time where they will not have to pay for the extra working hours. In Estonia, people are very strict about their working hours.

How can Esplan’s proceses be adapted for Asia companies?

Esplan will work as consultants for the company. Whenever there is (something, like a problem?), we will fly over to do the necessary research and provide solutions. As Asia companies are usually really big in terms of space, it can bring significant gain when optimizing the occupancy in the office. We will analyze the number of people who are physically present in the office, the number of people who do not work at their desks but rather in meeting rooms, put these numbers into documents which will present the data on how the office space is used. We can also do a consultation on efficiency and wellness in the workplace.

Workplace environment also includes schools. There was a case study on how the lighting of the school will affect students’ performance. The study showed the degree of improvement in students results and that they feel calmer when the lighting is adjusted accordingly.