After almost 40 years at the same company, MD of Gyproc Isover, part of the Saint-Gobain Group shares the secrets of his success.
Historically, planning a career path was reasonably simple. You would finish school or university, join a company, and build a career with a single employer until retirement. The 21st century has, however, thrown a bit of a spanner in the works. According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics in the United States, the average worker currently holds ten different jobs before age forty, and this number is projected to grow. According to Forrester Research individuals entering the job market today will hold twelve to fifteen jobs in their lifetime.
Leon de Jager, recently retired MD of Gyproc Isover, part of the Saint-Gobain, is the antithesis of this trend having spent almost 40 years at the company, making it his home and, by extension, ensuring his retirement will be well earned, and well-funded.
Having started his working life at Armskor, de Jager needed to gain some practical experience to receive his certificate of competence. To this end he applied for a temporary position at a company in Pretoria that made ceilings. “That was some 38 years ago,” says de Jager, “the longest temporary job ever.”
According to de Jager, the work was both enjoyable and challenging which led him to make the position permanent. “I started as a technical assistant at the Pretoria factory of Gypsum Industries. My big break came when we decided to build a new plant in Brakpan where I was the project engineer. Upon completion it was understood that I would become the plant manager, which I did, and the rest is history. By proving myself through hard work and dedication, over the years I was offered more operational duties and responsibilities and my portfolio of skills started to swell. At one stage I oversaw all the technical operations. This led to me becoming MD of Isover, then MD of Gyproc and when it was decided to bring the two companies together, I became joint MD.”
The one piece of advice de Jager has for aspiring corporate climbers is to have the goal in mind. “I, unfortunately, meet millennials every day who want to see the benefit first and receive it immediately before they earn it. I miss my generation’s view of asking what’s in it for me in the future. Today’s generation is interested only in instant gratification – they ask about the car they will drive instead of the pension benefits they can expect down the line. Young people should steer clear of wanting the reward before the effort. A prime example of this is when people get training and a qualification but leave before they prove themselves – that can catch up with you in the future.”
That said, there is a certain allure to instant gratification. Staying focused and motivated is sometimes difficult for long periods of time. “It helps to set long term goals,” says de Jager. “You must always have a bucket list, both personally and professionally – tangible targets for your future. I believe in creating a vision board for your life which must include all aspects of your life including work, relationships, hobbies, etc. Unfortunately, many of the young leaders don’t do this today. In our household we plan a long time ahead – my wife, my son and I each have our own list and out of the three we draw up a combined list. A vision board guides your career – if it’s not in your vision board, why do you want to do it?”
When it comes to the question of leadership within the workplace, de Jager has some advice for up and coming professionals. “Number one must always be trust. Leadership comes down to being able to depend on and trust your team. Additionally, you need to win people’s trust before they will follow you. People need to know where you stand, that your word is your bond and you will follow through on your promises.
What some leaders don’t realise is that you are only as good as the team you build. Coupled with this, you need to know a little about every aspect of the business, be it sales, production, finance, etc. because as the leader you must make all these disparate activities function together. Without a team you will get nowhere. An often-overlooked function of leadership is to pass your knowledge onto the team. This can, sometimes, be a daunting prospect as you may feel you will make yourself redundant, but remember, you can only get a promotion once there is someone in your team with the knowledge to replace you. When you keep information and knowledge to yourself, you will have a job, not a career.”
On staying with the same company throughout your working career has positive and negative aspects. According to de Jager the intellectual property you build up over the years enables strong decision-making abilities. You can, however, end up in a rut by not wanting to consider new approaches despite market, process and tech changes. “For me, every few years I was given a big challenge which would pique my interest.
When I was still in Pretoria I was the plant engineer and we had a transport department with 16 trucks for deliveries. One Friday the ops director called me in and asked me what I knew about logistics and trucks. Despite not having first-hand experience I tackled the task and it was announced a week later that the transport section would fall under me. There were some big issues that needed to be dealt with and it really invigorated – challenge accepted. When everybody follows your process and works with you, your job becomes easier – here I was never in a position where I did the same thing year after year. ”
When all is said and done, one cannot lose oneself in your work. There must be an equilibrium maintained between your job and personal life. “You have to strike a balance between your work and your home life. My office at work is a house office in the sense that it contains personal items, such as ornaments and photographs.
I didn’t want white walls where I spend the most time. I wanted to make it a comfortable, familiar environment where I didn’t mind spending time. I think it is because of this I have a better ability to switch off work and switch on family. Too many people stay at work wherever they are, they are unable to make the mental leap which is not good for your mental health or for family. Feeling at home at work helped me to switch off when I went home. Remember, any place where you work, do the best with what you have and where you are. Your work environment depends on you as much as on the company.”
Going forward de Jager is set to reap the rewards of his notable career. “Because of my longevity at the company, prudent financial planning, and dedication to keeping my retirement policies I don’t plan to take a job that entails responsibilities – I am done with that. I have worked hard and don’t want to consult or find another job. I have paid my dues. That doesn’t mean life is going to stop altogether.
I have a huge list of things that I want to do. Woodwork is my hobby, so I have hauled all my machinery out of storage and am planning on building a grandfather clock. The family is also moving down to George where we have bought a stand on which to build a house. For a retirement home, your environment is hugely important. Ideally, we wanted to buy a house, not build, but couldn’t find what we wanted. We have toys, wet bikes, quads, off-road and road bikes so we need the garages. This is all part of the vision board the family and I created, and it is all becoming a reality. We will continue to do things as a family which is the most important reason to ensure you have a plan to be financially stable and well financed for your retirement.”
De Jager’s actions and planning resulted in a long successful career at Saint-Gobain.