Jozef Špirko: “Trust, but verify”

The chief brewmaster for Pivovar Velké Popovice is self-taught when it comes to management. He used trial and error to find the recipe for successful team leadership, and recommends an individual approach, open communication, and trust.

What is the job description of the chief brewmaster at Pivovar Velké Popovice?
Very broad. It starts with selecting ingredients and production people, and ends with cooperation with distribution centers. The chief brewmaster must have an overview of everything. For example, each day I tour the operation, keeping an eye not only on the technology but on the people’s moods – what they want, how the work’s going for them. I literally soak in the atmosphere and adjust my further managerial steps to it.

How many people report to you?
About 50 workers from various professions, from laborers to boilers, herbalists, technologists, and the center’s managers.

You came to Pivovar Velké Popovice a year ago from Pivovar Radegast and inherited a team you didn’t know. Were there any problems?
I’ve changed jobs a few times, and I’ve always inherited a certain “community.” I always sort the people into certain categories and then decide whether I want to continue working with them or replace them. When I sense a desire to work together, that’s great. There usually isn’t much turnover in this field. There’s almost a family atmosphere at our brewery, since even fourth generations of families work here.

How would you describe the ideal employee?
Someone who thinks the way I do. Not so he’ll subordinate himself to me, but because he perceives the processes in the brewery in the same way. Also, he should be hard-working, steady, and reasonably intelligent. Why just reasonably? Sometimes you have an extremely intelligent person on a team, but in the end that’s of no use if he pulls against the group. It’s better to have more average people on the team, unified by common thinking, instead of geniuses who follow their own paths.

Some managers have a hard time finding the balance between informality and an authoritarian approach. What about you?
Each environment requires different behavior, and a boss should adapt to a certain degree. In my experience, a directive management method that is successful in one environment can fail in another. The boss must keep the average intelligence level of his colleagues in mind and adjust his behavior accordingly. It involves constantly balancing which approach will succeed.

What do you think most motivates your employees?
Our employees recognize traditional values, so I don’t think their main motivation is money. Prestige is more important to them. They want to be the best, recognized in their field. When the firm receives an award at a prestigious competition and the boss can praise his team, that brings the greatest happiness! Money can’t buy that.

How did you refine your managerial style? Did you study handbooks, or did you rather rely on trial and error?
Trial and error is a very effective method. That’s how I started my career. True, it took me quite a while to understand what others might study, but I’ll remember my experiences my whole life. In the last four years since our firm became a part of SAB Miller we’ve taken various management courses. I try to educate myself on an ongoing basis.

Have you ever made any managerial mistakes? What did you learn from them?
My fateful mistake was believing in one subordinate more than I should have. He intentionally did things to make my life difficult and messed things up for me. The lesson? Trust, but verify, and constantly analyze what your team’s doing! Some people can dissemble and then do something you don’t expect of them behind your back. So communication’s terribly important.

Career highlights
1985 completed studies at the College of Chemical Technology and went to work for Východočeské pivovary, where he became deputy director
1995 set up a new minibrewery in Ukraine
1996 production-technical director for Radegast Most, later director of the Radegast sales center, then production manager for Radegast Nošovice, Plzeňský Prazdroj, and production manager for Velkopopovický Kozel, Plzeňský Prazdroj
2002 victory of the Radegast brand at the World Cup in the US
2003 Radegast won at the World Cup in Belgium and won the Gold Cup Pivex Czech Republic competition
2004 Velkopopovický Kozel beers continue to win Czech and international awards

How does communication work at your company?
My door is always open. I’m aware of what’s going on in neighboring offices, and anyone can come see me. If we have a problem we try to solve it. Even top managers need transparent communication. I don’t believe in the ‘I want to have the best team’ and ‘I don’t care what your team does’ approach – it’s no good. If a team next to me isn’t cooperating and cares only about its results, we don’t gain a thing.

Can you describe the ideal boss?
He has to be a specialist in his field so that his subordinates can respect him. He needn’t understand all the details, but he has to have enough of an overview to be able to coach his colleagues. He also has to be creative and self-confident, but also humble. He has to be aware of the interests of both his subordinates and his bosses.

Are you willing to delegate authority?
Yes. With time I’ve come to believe that it’s good. When I was young and working my way up I thought if I were irreplaceable, I’d be seen in a better light. That’s exactly backwards. Now I firmly believe that every wise boss surrounds himself with high-quality people whom he sees not as competitors but rather trains as potential successors.

How do you resolve crises and stressful moments?
With detachment. I always try to evaluate priorities, not to make myself or others nervous. It’s good to teach your people to think about planning their time and give them a great deal of independence so they can prevent stressful moments. When a crisis occurs and I start to boil over, I try to keep my emotions in check and not blow up.






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