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As head of the Space and Defence Development area in SENER Aerospace’s Electromechanical Systems division, Juan Ruiz de Gopegui is used to working with multidisciplinary, intergenerational and multi-local teams.
Juan, tell us about the diversity you have encountered in the different phases of your professional life.
In each of the projects in which I have participated, as well as in each position I have taken on, I have had the opportunity to work with very diverse people; this has made learning rewarding and professional growth greater.
Having just graduated in Industrial Engineering, specialising in mechanics, at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), I joined SENER as an aeronautical and space project engineer. My first project was the EJ200 (Eurofighter) nozzle, where I learned a lot from Jesús Lata, who was 10 years older than me and had a strong technical orientation.
Already in the Herschel satellite optical bench project, Carlos Pascual was my mentor. He taught me the peculiarities of space projects and much more. He was about 30 years older than me and had a lot of experience in project management in many different sectors, from nuclear power plants to artificial satellites. Later, during my participation in the development of machinery for the manufacture of fibre struts for aeronautics, I had the opportunity to share a project with colleagues from SENER in Barcelona, who came from automotive projects, and I realised that the different sectors and different geographies made the common work richer and more complex.
In 2005 I left SENER to join, as project manager, a boilermaking and machining company for large components. It was a company where the ways of working and interacting were very different from those I had experienced at SENER, neither better nor worse, but different. From the technical director, from whom I took over after his retirement, I learned a lot about welding and boilermaking, and about the particularities of the steel sector.
Three years later, I returned to SENER to manage Space projects. This was a phase in which I had to work mostly with younger people. Their drive and good humour helped me a lot to overcome the difficulties of a project that was becoming more complicated than it should have been.
Once again, in 2014, my career took a turn and I became manager of the Structures and Mechanisms section, taking over from Fernando Artigas, with whom I had the great good fortune to share several months of overlapping and carry out a very orderly transfer. I don’t think any other manager has ever been made so easy! This new position meant managing a team of more than 100 people, a guarantee of diversity. Indeed, the team ranged from interns who were just starting to get a taste of what a company is all about, to senior people with a lot more experience than me. In addition to the Aerospace sector, which I knew, we worked in the Energy sector, which even in the same company had its particularities and differences. I enjoyed learning as I went along, helped by many colleagues. After the spin-off of SENER Aerospace and the consolidation of SENER Aerospace as a company, the area I manage is both multidisciplinary, with Electronics and Control as well as Mechanics, and trans-geographical, between Tres Cantos and Las Arenas. Once again, colleagues from different backgrounds, in this case from other disciplines and geographies, are helping me to grow as a professional and to enjoy my work every day.
How does diversity affect team management?
In a first step, one might think that teams that are not very diverse, composed of people with similar temperaments and ways of working, are easier to integrate as a team and to manage. Maybe in teams oriented towards a very specific task and with few deviations from the established plan this is the case, because indeed the affinity of the members facilitates some things, but I think that these teams are not suitable for complex projects such as those we develop in SENER, with activities of very different natures and in which the initial plan is almost always profoundly rethought several times.
In our day-to-day work, and within the same project, we need creativity to conceive new solutions and products, analytical rigour and technical robustness to guarantee the viability of our developments and plans, the ability to understand people (be they clients, subcontractors or colleagues), specialisation or in-depth knowledge of a specific technology, transversality or knowledge of different technologies with the ability to integrate them, negotiating skills to align conflicting interests, ability to improvise in unforeseen situations, meticulousness to look for the ‘devil’ in the details, ability to present our achievements in a convincing and inspiring way,… These are very varied, and in some cases conflicting, skills that cannot be found in a single person, but can be found within a team of diverse capabilities.
I believe that, in most SENER projects, we have to look for this diversity in the teams, select people with diverse skills, know how to see the particular talent of each person and assign them to the activity in which they will perform best. We have to bring this diversity together in a constructive and positive way, tackling potential conflicts and always valuing diversity. As individuals, we sometimes tend to seek the company of peers, but I believe that those of us who have worked in well-articulated diverse teams can see the multiplier effect.
Nowadays, in companies, four generations live together in the same workspace, in the same teams. What do you think are the advantages of this intergenerational coexistence?
First of all, I think we need to be able to look beyond the categories we use to analyse sets of people, whether these categories are age or generation, geographical origin, gender, or any other. Each person is the way they are, whether this correlates better or worse with the categories they fall into. I can think of examples of people, young and old, who do not fit into what is said of their generation at all, and that is perfect!
Having said that, I believe that in general the coexistence of people from different generations in the same team is advantageous. It allows us to take advantage of the knowledge, the experience in different situations and the composure of the older ones with the drive, the openness to incorporate new solutions and the mental agility of the younger ones. At the same time, each person is enriched by working together: the senior people age less and the younger ones mature earlier. And the intermediate ones? For them, it serves as a reminder that they still have much to learn and little to forget.
In many cases, beginners tend to consult more with peers of their generation or slightly older, whom they feel closer to them. Operationally, this may often be appropriate, as they have recently gone through the same learning process. However, if they do not consult with their more senior colleagues and do not build up that trust, they will miss out on many occasions when the answer, in addition to the technical solution, will lead to sharing experiences or reflections that will contribute much more professionally. I always encourage overcoming excessive respect, breaking the ice and establishing these relationships of transgenerational trust.
My eyes were opened in this respect by a project we called Millenium, because of the ages of the Project Manager, the Materials Expert and the Thermal Manager (it was a cryogenics project). I started off a little bit shy, and worried about getting bored. But it turned out that I learned a lot, technically and humanly, we did a lot of things that had never been done before, and along the way we had a lot of laughs and a great time.
What strengths and weaknesses do we have in companies when it comes to managing the transfer of knowledge between the different generations?
Instead of talking about companies in general, I am going to shift the question to SENER, or at least the parts of SENER that I know best.
I think our main strength is in the unmanaged transfer: the day-to-day transfer of projects shared by different generations. As we are a company with a long history, the population pyramid is balanced in many areas and allows close contact with other generations. It is well known that a high percentage of the learning we do is done through daily work, and sharing it with people from other generations is an opportunity.
On the other hand, I have always experienced a great openness to share knowledge and experiences from all the people I have turned to at SENER. I think this is something that is learnt as soon as we join, and when we have something to share, it comes naturally to us. It is one of the company’s values and, of course, a very strong point for the transfer of knowledge.
In addition, in recent years I am detecting a ‘groundswell’ with the different standardisation processes and actions across disciplines, which encourage us to share knowledge in a more structured way. As a result, internal procedures and trainings have been prepared to accelerate knowledge transfer.
These initiatives, not so day-to-day, are limited by a difficulty intrinsic to our way of being: the pressure we impose on ourselves for high productivity, in many cases measured in the short term of each project, which does not encourage “sowing for the future”. However, as I say, this is something that in recent times is being mitigated, although we have to keep at it.
Finally, I believe that there is a difficulty that can be extended to most companies, and that, while the transfer from the older generations to the younger ones is something natural and sought after, the opposite transfer is less common and is not sought after. I think this is a mistake in these times of great change. The younger generations have technological knowledge, and especially a capacity to integrate innovations, which would greatly enrich companies that are able to give them a voice and the means to integrate them into their activity.
What role do you think the combination of diversity (demographic, cognitive and experiential) and innovation plays in business?
When it comes to being efficient, improving results and solving today’s problems, a certain degree of diversity and innovation already allows for a better response. If, as is usually the case in companies like ours, it is a question of improving existing products or responding to new customer needs (or new specifications), diversity of profiles and innovation in solutions is essential. The very diversity of people is a facilitator of innovation, of finding new answers, and even new questions that lead us to the right solution. Having people with different experiences and skills in the team allows for a greater diversity of options and to work better on the selected ones, innovating more efficiently.
But the really important long-term innovation, which can make the difference to survival in times of change, is the exploration of technologies, products or sectors that are new to the company. Seeing and working beyond what now “feeds us”. This requires a greater diversity, not only of personal profiles or skills, but also of focus, of high and low lights, of ability to take risks and to control them.
It is important that, from positions of responsibility in companies, even if our personality or skills are specific, we know how to see everything that different people bring to the table. That we encourage this diversity, promote innovative proposals and provide a channel for their assessment and development, if necessary.
What role does work-life balance play in managing diverse and innovative teams?
I think it is important to point out that work-life balance is not only required by parents with dependent children; there are also other situations of dependency, interest in sports, cultural or social activities, or other circumstances.
For a long time, too much emphasis has been placed in companies on the ability to sacrifice personal life in favour of work. This model encourages people who take on responsibilities to have similar patterns of priorities and tends to be reinforced. Fortunately, we are breaking out of this vicious circle, as people are increasingly demanding a better balance. However, I believe that companies have also realised that this balance is beneficial for the work we do and that it favours flexibility in both directions.
Work-life balance measures allow more people to be more involved in projects, and the organisation of working time leads to a higher quality of work. The diversity of characters and skills we look for in innovative teams would be much less if we could not count on people with different priorities and time needs, or if their involvement was limited by their personal circumstances.
In addition, the greater organisation of time brought about by work-life balance measures also helps teams to organise their work better, and to balance collaborative and personal work. This is where new technologies help, as they have demonstrated during the pandemic, as well as collaboration between people who are distant from each other. This balance between personal and collaborative work, which facilitates creativity and the remote collaboration of complementary people, means that innovation can be strengthened by these measures.