The Leadership Talks 1 — Mehmet Ali TOMBALAK
The Leadership Talks series starts with Mr. Mehmet Ali TOMBALAK whom I am happy to call a close friend. He is a successful and well-respected businessman in Turkish ICT sector. He had started his career as a young electronics and telecommunications engineer and “switched to sales side” as he says. Since then, he has been a co-founder, general manager, chief executive officer, and executive board member. He has always been interested in the business incubation. He is also interested in and currently does executive coaching and mentoring on developing strategies for companies’ growth and branding, and also on building strategic partnerships with private equities, and/or venture capital firms in the ICT sector.
Being the most positive, calm IT businessperson I know, I believe he is a true leader with his strength of caring for people before everything else.
Thank you, Mehmet Ali, for the informative and awareness-raising interview.
· How do you describe leadership?
A leader focuses on discovering and maximizing the true potential of the people he works with, while also sharing responsibilities, giving confidence, and not leaving their people alone. He remembers to give feedback, underlining that any feedback is an opportunity for self-development. He supports one’s leadership abilities by showing that a leader is not born a leader, that leadership is a skill that can be improved and developed over time.
I believe that a person is the right person for their company only if they are working in the best position for themselves. I would always support a colleague with an opportunity to move to a better place for their career in a different company, even if the person is valuable for our company. When I am faced with a situation where I have to give feedback on any subject, I do it immediately, positively, and without demotivating the person. At the end of the day, if the person is demotivated, it will not affect just them, but the entire company. Any feedback I give will be part of a dialogue between the two of us, where we both share our perspectives.
· Is leadership really different than management? How? And why?
Personally, I don’t think of leadership and management separately, because only when a manager starts acting like a leader, they can achieve real success. Yet there are still a few main differences between a leader and a manager. Expectations from a person in charge of a group would be taking responsibility and making sure everything goes smoothly, and according to a defined plan. The difference between a leader and a manager in this situation would be that while the manager focuses on the product, the final result, the leader focuses on the producers — the people. While a leader encourages their team to make a collective decision, a manager might want to decide on their own. A leader will always support personal development, a manager might overlook it for the sake of the required results. One of the most important differences is that a leader is always focused on asking the right questions, while a manager only focuses on the answers, without giving proper guidance. Leaders care about utilising the mind and talent of their team. After all, why pay people if we are not going to help them achieve their full capacity to contribute to our success?
· What key characteristics should a leader have? What leadership values and approaches are indispensable?
A leader should always be positive and should always look for opportunities. The best way to do this is to listen. While listening, a leader should both be a sincere and an active listener. People expect understanding and empathy from the person they are speaking with, which is something one cannot achieve without being sincere. Only by fully focusing on the person you are listening to, and by not putting yourself forward when the topic is not about you, can you achieve pure empathy, free from ego. Alongside these indispensable personality traits, the leader should also be inspiring with their own life’s purpose and values.
I am positive because I am aware of where I started in life and where I have come from. I always pursued work I wanted to do, work I enjoyed doing. There is over seven billion people on Earth, many others have done what we have done, and even more. That is why I do not like saying “I did it”, and not going into that conflict makes me a happy person. Maybe it is the advantage of coming from the East part of Turkey, Gaziantep. You then know both the East and the West. In an Eastern family, values and social relationships are the most important things. In a Western family, on the other hand, individuality and individual ambitions are prioritized.
A lot more can be said, but I would like to give an example that I think would give a better answer to the question. I asked my previous team members what they enjoyed while working with me and the following were the conclusion of what they said:
Being a Family: A family of good people, a feeling of belonging that could never be found elsewhere, trust and sincerity, democracy, friendship, sharing.
The “You’re the Boss” Motto: Feeling like you are running your own business, the absence of a clear boss/employee relationship, the feeling of being a partner of the firm rather than an employee.
Feeling Valued: Being given the opportunity to express yourself, collective decision making, respect for the employee and their private life, kept promises, giving initiative to employees, valuing the person.
· Which one is more effective for a successful business management, dictating leadership or empathetic leadership?
I see myself as an empathetic leader. Some assume that the successful manager should be the only decider and should intimidate people. I disagree. This is not sustainable or successful on the long run.
A leader should be person-oriented. I try to listen actively, care about the person, and support them in their development. Only then you can empathize with someone and understand their potential. I have observed numerous times that instead of giving advice, I help people succeed when I allow them to grow and when I show empathy when they do something wrong. The most important step in the journey of becoming a leader rather than a manager is letting the team do the work instead of doing their work for them. This way, you will increase their participation and their bonding while also creating time for yourself to inspire and lead more effectively.
If you can be a transparent leader, if you can make decisions together with your employees, you can eliminate uncertainty about the present and the future of your company and its employees. When you achieve that, you will make sure that no-one who would exploit your good faith stays in your company.
· How important is mental health in a workplace? How important is a fulfilling and peaceful work environment for the success of business?
I believe that success can be achieved by giving people authority with responsibility, by showing respect when expecting respect, by always caring about new ideas and by creating a peaceful atmosphere that prioritizes people. An environment built on these principles will bring success.
What is important is the communication and maintaining an enjoyable and satisfactory workplace. You exist when you create value(s) together. You succeed when you create a balanced, a healthy partnership with your employees. Good communication and understanding are signs of healthy environments, and it is essential especially in periods like the pandemic we are in.
It was not until I switched from a newly graduate engineer to sales that I understood how easy life was as a technical person. When you deal with machines, their response to your actions is always the same. In sales, I realized that communications require two sides. You do not always get the same response to your actions.
Diamonds are formed under pressure. I learned a lot during the time I spent in sales — in a way, it turned me into a diamond. I am still learning, but I’m glad that I had experience when I stepped up to leadership positions. Being a leader was fun, and it made me understand we could create more value by embracing the job.
· How should a leader’s approach should be about mental health at work?
Firstly, by helping the abovementioned atmosphere get formed.
This would be better explained by explaining how a leader should not approach mental health. I have had the chance to observe leading technology firms closely. These firms were voted as the places where people wanted/liked to work the most. I saw a different side of these successful firms: ends of months, trimesters, half years, and year-ends turned into nightmares. The happy employees would get replaced by stressful people who spread their own stress to their surroundings. Questions risen from projects not finishing on time turned to tension, threats, and personal insults, at which point the “positive firm” transformed into an unhealthy working environment. I have always wondered why this transformation happened. Were these really successful firms?
The “exemplary” people were managers, not leaders, and maybe they were not even aware. Maybe the employees have become “more of a royalist than the king”. There were instances where I told them “Yes, you are valuable, but there are seven billion people just like you”. Or have the firms crossed a line by thinking they were indispensable? One thing was clear: the atmosphere in these firms was nothing like the one in ours. It felt like the fact that these firms were leaders in employee happiness and loyalty only reflected the “honeymoon period”. Creating a family, helping the employees feel like the company was theirs, creating an atmosphere where everyone can express themselves freely, and emphasizing that making a mistake isn’t the end of the world — these are what makes a healthy work environment.
In my firm, we had accepted the motto of “the right person for the right job” as our golden rule to success. We know that employee success, and more importantly spiritual happiness comes from the right person doing the right job, which is the job they enjoy doing the most.
· How is the business world’s adaptation to the COVID era?
The business world adapted to the pandemic much more quickly than expected, even with various difficulties. The jobs that were most affected were the ones based on transportation, tourism, and hand labor, but most people working in these jobs managed to adapt rapidly — as well as major technology firms, telecommunication firms, and banks. There were also companies that turned this era into an opportunity by acting even more quickly: training institutes that usually operated in rooms with limited participants managed to move to digital mediums, shedding any financial weight of arranging a physical space for gathering people, cargo companies collaborated with supermarkets by offering delivery services for groceries, and e-commerce companies are just three types of firms that majorly benefitted from the pandemic. At this point, I would like to extend my thanks to all the healthcare providers that work day and night and I hope that these hard times will be left behind shortly.
This era also created the question of whether we make the right choice between “just keeping ourselves busy” or “doing what we really want to do”. I think this is a question we need to ask ourselves. In this empty period of time, after finishing things we have to do, can we use the rest of the time to improve ourselves in different areas? Or can’t this be an opportunity to clarify our lives’ goals or go after an even larger goal?
· What type of changes in business management and leadership should be expected after the pandemic?
I think leadership shouldn’t change, because I don’t think one’s job and private life are separate. You are who you are, whether you are at home or at work, and you have to keep reflecting your personality. My belief is that you have to bring the person who you are and who you want to be as close as possible, continuously learn and develop, and look at your surroundings with empathy.
The ones that haven’t given up on their employees regardless the crisis, and the ones that see their employees as a family have already demonstrated their leadership. Leading is accepting and adapting to the changes instead of resisting and fighting against. Leading isn’t about forcing employees to come to work at an office when there is an easy way of switching to online work. Leading is about taking responsibility of your employees during this period.
I wish that at least after the pandemic is over, people will be in the center of any work environment. Without healthy people, can any job really matter? When you have a migraine, when you can’t even get up from your chair, can the meeting you are supposed to go really be what matters the most? Maybe this pandemic is the time we add humanity to our jobs. Why don’t we have more understanding, more tolerance?
Will we finally shed our egos, stop hunting for new positions, and find out if we really have what it takes to be a leader? I hope so!