From complexity to simplicity at Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling Company
Organizational Culture

From complexity to simplicity at Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling Company

In this podcast, Matthieu Seguin, general manager at Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling Company Nigeria, shares his insights on leading an organizational transformation by changing the culture and reversing complexity to drive growth.
Heidrick & Struggles
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In this podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Adam Howe speaks with Matthieu Seguin, recently appointed general manager at Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling Company (HBC) Nigeria. Seguin shares his insights on leading a transformation, from a complex organization to a more agile one, as general manager at Coca-Cola HBC Ireland and Northern Ireland, and the lessons he is applying in Nigeria. He also discusses the often-missed step in the middle of such a journey—simplicity—and the importance of culture in reversing complexity to drive growth.

Some questions answered in this episode include the following:

  • (1:00) During your tenure as general manager Ireland and Northern Ireland at Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling Company, you led a significant transformation for the business. Can you tell us where the business started and where you were able to take it?
  • (2:46) How did you get to the realization that complexity was a blocker for growth?
  • (6:16) Culture is a big driver of complexity and therefore a big driver of simplicity, if you can reverse the things that create complexity. What are your perspectives on a kind of culture of simplicity?
  • (10:12) Do you have a perspective on whether technology actually helps or hinders the pursuit of agile?
  • (12:26) When you look at leaders in the organizations you’re leading and are thinking about a more agile organization, what are some of the leadership characteristics that you look for?

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

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Adam Howe: Hello, I’m Adam Howe, a principal in Heidrick & Struggles’ London office and a member of Heidrick Consulting and Heidrick & Struggles’ Digital Practice. In today’s podcast, I’m speaking to Matthieu Seguin, recently appointed general manager Nigeria at the Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling Company. Matthieu started his career at Proctor & Gamble and then moved to Coca-Cola Hellenic in 2009. He was the general manager for Coca-Cola Ireland and Northern Ireland from 2016 to 2019. Matthieu, welcome, and thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

Matthieu Seguin: Thank you, Adam.

Adam Howe: Matthieu, during your tenure as general manager Ireland and Northern Ireland at Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling Company, you led a significant transformation for the business. In the face of significant challenges such as Brexit and the sugar tax, can you tell us where the business started and where you were able to take it?

Matthieu Seguin: Back in early 2016, when I arrived, the business was in recovery mode. We had a couple very tough years, and we were looking at sources of growth, both top-line growth as well as bottom-line growth. At the same time, the team was also willing to engage in having clarity on the direction we wanted to go and definitely the need for a transformation. Over the years, the Irish team was enjoying a very great reputation, great leaders; however, it was basically doing the same thing over and over. And as you know, if you don’t grow, if you don’t go forward, you tend to go backwards. So everybody else was going up, while we were stagnating, with people having that mindset of “Whatever I do in Ireland is great, so I don’t need to change.” Now with that, we had a clear challenge of growing the volumes, or revenue, growing shares, as we were losing shares, so that’s how we started to engage the whole organization, saying, “OK, the bucket is empty. We need to take charge as a team to try to start a transformation of the organization.” Within that, simplicity came into play, and that was really a challenge for us. We are a very complex organization, very KPI [key performance indicator] driven, plenty of meetings, plenty of systems and reports, and we really had to step back and learn how to do things a bit differently.

Adam Howe: And how did you get to the realization that complexity was a blocker for growth?

Matthieu Seguin: I think it became obvious to everybody that we had too many priorities, and we were really swamped with everyday business and everyday priorities. And that’s where you and your team came in, at the right time, because we knew where we were going, we knew where we were, but we didn’t know how to declutter ourselves and to remove all those complexities.

There was one key element for us, which was a big a-ha moment in our journey together. A lot of my belief as well as the team’s belief was that all that complexity was inherited from somebody else. In Hellenic, we have the business unit as a profit center but also the group, and the group was always coming with different requests and this and that. The reality for our team and the team in Ireland was that more than 90% of the complexity was created by me and my team, and that was really a shock to all of us—a shock to me, for sure—because we always want to think that we are simple and great and all of that.

We decided to really focus on that, and, as you know, it’s not easy. Together we did a series of workshops, and one sticks in my mind. It was the end of December in Belfast, where 10 or 15 of us spent two days. We had the wall covered in more than 30 or 40 Post-it notes, and each of them listed one idea to kill, to stop doing, and we couldn’t agree on one. And that was a big moment for the team, to realize that, despite our willingness, it’s a very tough exercise to do.

Adam Howe: And it’s interesting, as there’s a bit of a paradox: it’s obvious that this complexity tangles up an organization and can stop growth, and it’s quite easy for people to give lots of examples of the complexity and blame the group and blame other people, but when it comes to personally stopping things and simplifying things, it’s a much more tricky task. Why do you think that is?

Matthieu Seguin: I think there is a comfort in complexity. It’s like when you have a closetful of clothes, and you haven’t worn an item for the past five years but you want to keep it because one day you will wear it. It doesn’t work like that. Better to get rid of it and start fresh and clean.

One example we had was the daily sales report, which had 27 tabs. And I could trace back every one of the GMs [general managers] in Hellenic for the past 10 years on those tabs as a way to look at the same basic information, but the team just kept adding tabs [with each new GM]. OK, the GM leaves, but you still keep doing it. You never know why, but maybe he will come back one day. And it’s funny, because with me now coming back to Nigeria, I find exactly the same tabs. So on the same daily sales report, I can go back 7 or 8 tabs and find the tabs that I left five years ago, which are up-to-date; people are still doing the report every day.

Adam Howe: Even after five years.

Matthieu Seguin: Yes, five years. And I can go back and see the world the way I was seeing it five years ago, which is fantastic. But back to your question. I think we are just used to that, and people don’t question the simple stuff. And that was one question to ourselves: If we do these reports, who is looking at them? Most of the time, nobody is. So when you stop them, nobody asks questions, life is good. Just stop it.

Adam Howe: And you’ve alluded to it, experiencing it both in Ireland and more recently in your role in Nigeria, that culture is a big driver of complexity and therefore a big driver of simplicity, if you can reverse the things that create complexity. What are your perspectives on a kind of culture of simplicity?

Matthieu Seguin: It’s comfortable to do the same things—reports, meetings, and being there, so fear of missing out and so on; it’s really a comfort zone. Once you cut out all the complexity and are more simple, you get exposed, because it’s black and white. It’s not a forest of reports and stuff to hide behind, so that creates a culture in which there is much more room for entrepreneurship, much more room for risk. But you need to make sure that you foster that culture of risk taking, so it’s OK to take risks, it’s OK not to do those reports, not to go to those meetings, to cut all of that, and that’s a real change. Now you realize that some people are very comfortable with that, and some people are not.

One example is the finance team back in Ireland that cut all those reports and so on. They had created loads of reports because that was the mode of comfort, as opposed to using that time to go with the customer, to go with the team, or just to go home and enjoy life, but this is difficult to change. And if the boss stops talking about simplicity, then we default back [to complexity]. So it’s like when you are on a diet; you need to have this fundamental shift and you need to be persevering, and that takes time and effort. But once you do it, then you are happy, but you need to make sure you are consistent.

Adam Howe: And playing on the point you make about the boss and, in your case, the general manager, do you have any personal reflections on how you may have created complexity for others in the organization? Or, on the flip side of that, have you felt any personal benefits from working in a simpler organization?

Matthieu Seguin: I now try to refrain myself from asking too many questions or asking people for all the details. And if I ask a question, I better know what I’m going to do with the answer, because the purpose is not just to ask the question and then 15 people go to work, come back with something, and I do nothing about it. So that’s a big reflection on me. When it comes to a more simple way of working, it works much better, and there are a lot of things you can do by killing complexity—you can then spend time out there with customers, spend time with stakeholders, spend time out in the market, away from the meeting rooms, and that’s liberating.

An example in Nigeria is the team was used to five, six, seven hours of meetings every week, and I said, “It’s not going to happen like that.” So we’re limiting our meetings; we’ll be meeting two hours [every week]. But by five o’clock, they don’t know what to do. They say, “It’s five o’clock; what do we do now?” I say, “We stop. You go back to whatever you do, whatever you want. But I can’t go any longer—physically, I cannot, as my brain doesn’t function anymore—so off you go.”

Adam Howe: Going back to the imperative for growth within Ireland, there seems to be a link. If you’re able to create capacity seeing customers, talking to customers, spending time on innovation, it’s more likely to drive both bottom-line and top-line growth, compared to spending a lot of time doing business with ourselves.

Matthieu Seguin: From complexity to agility, there is a piece in the middle that we usually forget, which is simplicity. You need to take stuff out to be able to put stuff back in, and the stuff back in is really what matters. We always say this, but we don’t do it enough. The best decision I’ve made in the market, with the customer, with the team, and with the stakeholders is to create capacity and time for that, space in your head but also physical time. And that’s what we’ve been doing in Ireland and even more now coming to Nigeria, killing all that time spent in meetings, looking at reports, looking backward instead of forward, and that has created a lot of space and a lot of time to make the right decisions and meet the right people out there in the markets.

Adam Howe: And when we talk to leaders all over the world, there’s a couple of megatrends that they’re thinking about at the moment. One is trying to become more agile in their own organization, and the second is looking to embrace digital technologies to help their organization. And I’m wondering if you have a perspective on whether technology actually helps or hinders the pursuit of agile.

Matthieu Seguin: Technology will help a lot and is helping a lot. Moving from a very developed country, Ireland, where there is Facebook, Google, Amazon, and all the rest of it, I thought it was advanced. Now, moving back to Nigeria, where Hellenic has invested a lot in BDA [big data and analytics] and in artificial intelligence, I’m finding myself in a world that is much more advanced than Ireland, and that’s kind of interesting. We can track everyone, we can track all our BDs [business developers] and sales reps, what they do from morning to evening, every single step of the way. We are optimizing; we are even recommending for them the orders and so on, things that we don’t even do in Ireland. So there is a whole world there that we can definitely simplify and accelerate the work, if and when done properly. If people are using the tool, then it works; if people are taking shortcuts, then it doesn’t work. But there is a huge amount of simplicity and optimization of time that we can do through technology.

Adam Howe: As a leader in a more agile organization, if you compare to when you became a GM those years ago for the first time, are you noticing a difference between leading an agile organization in 2019 and a less agile organization, say, 10 years ago?

Matthieu Seguin: Big time, but again it requires that step to simplicity, that we work together to get rid of a few things. Agility, beyond the buzzword, is how you make it real. In Ireland, it was all about the sugar tax and the Brexit task force. All those task forces and simple teams working on a common interest really worked. We are enabling the same thing in Nigeria, albeit in a very different, much more chaotic environment, but the same principle applies, and that has worked very well.

Adam Howe: And when you look at leaders in the organizations you’re leading and are thinking about a more agile organization, what are some of the leadership characteristics that you look for?

Matthieu Seguin: The way they embrace change is one of them. In the more developed Ireland, it was not exactly that at the beginning, but we went through that. In Nigeria, where it’s chaotic, people have that characteristic in them; however, when you bring talent in from outside of Nigeria, they have to embrace change quickly. The ability to explain easily and clearly and focus on a few key priorities works everywhere; it works in both developed markets as well as developing markets. If you change direction every single day, it doesn’t work. If you are able to cope with the uncertainty and find a way to make it happen, then it’s brilliant.

Adam Howe: A final question: What advice do you have for other leaders as they think about how diversity and inclusion efforts add value to their business?

Matthieu Seguin: Let me tell you a story. When I came to Ireland, my leadership team was less than 10% female. In less than one year, we moved from 10% to 60%, and now we’re still at 60%, so that’s good. And we wanted to do the same at the lower level. We were at 20%, and now we are at 35% to 40%. In Ireland, we joined the 30% Club, looking here at simple gender diversity. Now in Nigeria, 90% of our customers are women. However, in the business, I am in the same situation that I was in four years ago [in Ireland], which is that, in my leadership team, only 2 out of 15 people are females. That’s going to change big time, and my team knows that, because we need the diversity, we need the inclusion; we have to change.

Adam Howe: And how did you achieve that within Ireland?

Matthieu Seguin: By setting very clear criteria and very clear objectives. For example, if I have two people [applying for a job] who are as good as each other, man and woman, I will go for the woman. But I will never compromise on quality. If the man is by far the more qualified candidate, the man will get the job. Without this objective for gender equality, it would have taken us years to get to where we are.

Another example is how we handle maternity leave. New mothers know that they have their job when they come back, that we take care of them, that [taking maternity leave] is not a showstopper. In a woman’s professional life, there are different priorities over time. Often when they have younger kids, they want to take more time for the kids, and that’s OK, and when their kids are older, they want to get back on the track full blast. You just have to listen to what people are telling you and find a way to make it work. And the whole team is 10 times better now than it was four years ago. Hopefully, in Nigeria, it’s going to be the same as well.

Adam Howe: Matthieu, thank you very much for making the time to speak with us today. We wish you all the best in your journey as general manager at Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling Company Nigeria.

Matthieu Seguin: Thank you, Adam, thank you. See you soon.

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