During our visit to Bucket list hero Frank van Massenhove at the Belgium Department of Social Security in Brussels, he told us to also visit his fellow countryman Wouter Torfs, CEO of shoe retailer Schoenen Torfs. We were directly intrigued by the story and decided to order his book ‘Werken met Hart en Ziel’ (Work with Heart and Soul). Being inspired by the book we decided to visit Wouter in Sint-Niklaas, Belgium.
When we arrive at the headquarters of the family owned business it doesn’t directly inspire us. The office of Schoenen Torfs turns out to be a random building in between many other grey buildings in an uninspiring industrial area. We even wonder if this is the right place. But once we enter the building, we are greeted by a plenitude of certificates and awards of being a Great Place to Work. We must be at the right place.
Schoenen Torfs is a 100% family owned business, and shoe retailer in Belgium. It owns over 75 retail shops, a distribution center and a growing e-commerce channel. The company employs over 600 employees and has a strong focus on being a highly engaging workplace. In Belgium, and even in Europe, Schoenen Torfs is known for many years as a progressive and inspiring workplace.
Once we enter the office we are welcomed by Bucket list hero Wouter Torfs, whose books are placed on the coffee table before us in the waiting room. In 1992, after being a lawyer for some years, Wouter became CEO of his family owned business. Ever since he has been the CEO of Schoenen Torfs, Wouter has emphasized a strong focus on being an inspiring workplace.
The results? Due to their strong focus on being an inspiring workplace, Schoenen Torfs’ turnover has multiplied fourfold over the past 10 years. And while the company performed tremendously well, Schoenen Torfs has had the Great Place to Work certificate ever since 1996. For us, a great opportunity to learn more from this humble leader.
The roots and ethics of the family as strong company values
The foundation of Torfs’ values and the strong focus on employee happiness are only partly based on Wouter’s leadership and vision. His vision of ‘creating a community where people feel appreciated and happy’ goes all the way back to his own grandparents, the founders of the company. Wouter: “Back in the days, when an employee was ill at home my grandmother would visit him or her and bring a meal, mostly chicken and appelmoes (a kind of apple sauce). Employees did not feel they were working for an organization, they felt they were part of the family.”
The importance and influence of leadership
During our conversation with Wouter it becomes clear that he highly values the role of leadership within inspiring workplaces. To him it seems to be the influences of the leaders that really count. Wouter: “I believe organizations move in the direction in which the leadership is developing itself. So, it is very important that the leader´s personal mission is clearly aligned with the organization´s mission. Once the mission of the organization is defined, it’s the role of the CEO to hold that space.”
It is the task of leadership to always support and protect the mission and values of the organization. At the moment when the mission or values are under pressure or in danger, for example because of conflicting commercial interests, leadership should stand up, and guard them. Wouter: “When the personal ambition of the leadership turns towards money or power, it is just a matter of time before the organization will start to focus on increasing market share and boosting profit.” We ask for Wouter’s own deepest motivation: “To become an organization that inspires others.”
The CEO Counsel
When you believe that the development of organizations is strongly linked to the development of their leaders, it´s logical that leaders should start focusing on developing themselves. And this is exactly what Wouter is doing, as he is part of an initiative called the ‘CEO Counsel’. The ‘CEO Counsel’ consists of a group of CEO’s of different companies who regularly meet each other for intense learning sessions. Wouter: “During these sessions we show our own vulnerability, we learn from each other, reflect on our behavior and constantly develop our own leadership style.”
A bunch of local leaders
Schoenen Torfs is a retail organization and therefore has many different locations. Those local branches, however, are still under relatively strict control of the headquarters. Wouter: “I do not believe in self-management, at least not within Schoenen Torfs. I do believe in great leaders, in developing their personal leadership style, and in giving them the freedom to let them manage their own location”.
This means that the management structure can differ between the different locations, based on the needs of the local leaders and teams. But there are still strict guidelines coming from the headquarters. There must be a strong focus on supportive leadership: leading should be done in a coaching manner. Management is there to support the employees in creating a place they love to work, as we described in a previous blog on supportive leadership.
The challenge of Torfs
Wouter is quite clear about the biggest challenges Schoenen Torfs is facing at the moment. It is their biggest challenge to keep up with the current pace of e-commerce and the high possibility of losing jobs in the process. This change will bring them organizational challenges as well. The traditional silos will have to be broken down as all departments need to start working together on this e-commerce challenge. But that’s exactly when the power of an inspiring organization and its values shows it strength. Wouter: “Especially when you are facing this kind of challenges, and when people might be in fear of losing their jobs, it is important to focus on the values and mission of the community. Besides it’s now that we, as management and as leaders, need to be as transparent as possible.”
To continue to be an inspiring workplace and to keep improving the way of working within Schoenen Torfs, Wouter emphasizes it is important for them to continuously invest in its leaders. Three lessons that can be learned from Torfs:
- Develop yourself as a leader. Be vulnerable, dare to learn and make sure your personal mission is in line with the organization’s mission.
- Invest in your leaders. Teach them how to be supportive, to be great leader being supportive to their employees, instead of being directive.
- Walk the talk. If you really care about your people, show it in your actions, guard your values and continuously walk the talk.
Leaders play an important role in the organization. If their behavior is not in line with the culture you want to create, it won’t happen. If it does, it’s a good step in the direction of becoming a great place to work.
We were told by Wouter that the happiness of the Schoenen Torfs employees reflects in the special way they treat you in their shops. An important part of our Bucket list trips is to make sure that what we read and what we are being told is true. Therefore, we visited one of the nearest Schoenen Torfs shops. Unfortunately, after 5 minutes of walking around in the (busy) shop, it wasn’t the warm welcome we hoped for. It might be due to the number of clients, it might be a result of our impatience, but we felt we could not exclude this experience in this blog post.
Check out more stories on leadership in the highly progressive organizations we visit on our Archives page. Also, make sure you check out the blog post on one of the 8 trends we have uncovered during our research: from directive to supportive leadership.