This interview is carried out by Michael Koukouzas, Sara Iturbide, Laura Karvelyte, and Lola Favart, students at Ghent University, in the frame of a group assignment for the Business Skills Course. The assignment’s goal was to gain insight into the extent to which a leader applies the four central leadership styles and understand how contextual influences require a specific leadership style. They chose SPIN – Space Innovation since it is a non-profit organization fostering innovation, which is crucial competency in business management. Especially, Ilias Psyroukis was able to provide to them with all the necessary framework, as the Co-Founder & CEO.
The output of the assignment will be also published in another article.
Please describe a typical day at work.
I don’t know if we have a typical day. We try to be as agile as we can. It depends mainly on the tasks. For example, if we have to work on the Rocketry Project, or the CanSat in Greece, or on a bureaucratic task such as go to the bank, etc. Every day, all the members of SPIN are in constant communication. A lot of times we also work remotely. I love this diversified schedule.
I would like also to mention that, currently, our office is at HIGGS, which is the 1st Incubator and Accelerator for non-profit organizations in Greece, and that means that we interact with a variety of other organizations. And, most importantly, we are participating in HIGGS’ Incubator program. This is very important for us because it helps us develop, forge collaborations and maximize our impact.
What education and training have you received in your higher education? How has it enabled you to be a better leader? What did you miss in your education in developing your leadership skills?
I am currently studying Electrical and Computer Engineering at the National Technical University of Athens. We don’t have any courses about soft skills and let’s be honest, a lot of our teachers are lacking leadership and communication skills. I believe that almost everybody soon will have to be an engineer, at least to a minimum extend, but also work within teams. I feel it is essential for the best engineering School of Greece, and probably one of the best in Europe, to understand the importance of soft skills. Nevertheless, I have to mention the great work from our university teams that try their best to fill the gap.
What training and development programs for leadership skills are offered to you at work? Did these programs affect your leadership style?
SPIN is taking part for the second year in the Incubator Program of HIGGS. In there we have the privilege to attend some great seminars on leadership. We also try to train ourselves online and work some soft skills as a team. I have to make the statement, that the best way to improve anything, leadership included, is to apply them in everyday life and learn upon the feedback of your colleagues and experts.
What are your greatest strengths and values you demonstrate as a successful leader?
I do not know if I am a successful leader, but I hope that I have some good qualities that help our organization to grow. As the CEO of SPIN, I take full responsibility for the actions of every member of our organization towards our beneficiaries and partners, trying to be a shield for them. I also try to be as honest and fair as I can with my colleagues. Last but not least, I try to help all the people that I have worked with to develop themselves and achieve their goals, irrespective of if they are members of SPIN any more or not. The next step for me would be to share the load in a variety of things and empower my Team’s ownership in everything we do.
How would you describe your image as a leader (e.g. strong leader)?
Let’s say…I hope that I am a “visionary leader”. To be leading a non-profit organization focusing on space technologies and education is a very challenging and crazy career path to choose, especially in the Greek reality. We hope that we will be able to create an innovation hub that will help new scientists and engineers to shine in Greece. So yes, I think that our vision is the force that drives us.
Do you think that you are the ideal leader for your NGO’s well-being?
I grow and develop with SPIN. I am just good enough to help SPIN to overcome the obstacles that we have faced so far and I hope to be able to do so in the future. I have to mention apparently that I wouldn’t be here without every person that helped us. SPIN is a team’s story, not a leader’s one.
What are the most critical skills needed in your field and why they are important? (directly related or not)Please describe a typical day at work.
Teamwork, openness, and inventiveness. Most of us are university students with little or no experience. So you have to create a versatile team to work together to achieve your goals. Our most iconic value is “Learning by Doing”. We try to create projects to be able to learn from them. We had to learn how to ask experts for help and mentoring and to adapt our strategies based on their advice. Moreover, due to the lack of resources, we have to be inventive to overcome every obstacle. The combination of space technologies and a non-profit organization creates a very diverse and strange field of work.
Which of these skills do you think you have mastered already and which ones do you still need to develop?
Inventiveness is our strongest skill I think and we are very proud of that. Starting from scratch and work your way throughout difficulties makes you follow the Latin quote of Hannibal “Aut inveniam viam aut faciam” which means “I shall either find a way or make one”.
One the other hand, of course, we working every day our openness that leads to teamwork. Sometimes is very difficult to speak your mind out to people that you know for about 10 years, even so to the new members of our team. I believe that last year we make great progress on this matter.
What are the major reasons leaders fail in positions like yours?
Let’s say…you have to be a little bit crazy. Starting as a university student and creating a non-profit organization about Space in Greece. First of all, you must pass the face of arrogance and publicity as soon as possible, many people lose themselves in their vainglory.
My real struggle was and is to keep a balance between external difficulties and openness towards your team. I have the feeling that your colleagues need to know everything possible about your organization, but you also have not to overwhelm them with the stress that is caused by some obstacles. There is a very fine line between these things and any withdrawal from it will create a utopia or dysphoria in your organization that will cause it to fall apart because eventually, reality will crash your team because nothing is as good as a utopia and nothing is as bad as it seemed at first.
Last but not least, being a visionary leader may cause a napoleon complex for your organization. When you are a small organization trying to prove your worth to the community you are taking a lot of risks and if you have some successes you start thinking that if you work harder and expand rapidly you will become huge and respectable. This is the most common mistake of our generation, I believe. I have to admit that we made this mistake for a long time and we wouldn’t change our attitude if wasn’t HIGGS a part of our lives in the last 2 years. As Katerina Matiatou , the Project Manager of the Incubator Program of HIGGS, told us “The hardest thing“, in the program, “is to change people’s mindset, this is the first step.” and they did so with us. The leader of an organization needs to be visionary and realistic at the same time. He or she has to work steadily and strategically to provide the organization with viability needed on the first steps; the viability that will lead to a future of great success.
Do you feel lost sometimes in your thinking and actions in your NGO? If yes, why?
Of course. This is a common mistake that I do, more and more rarely. As I mentioned prior, due to the Napoleon complex, I have found a lot of times myself struggling with an overwhelming workload. Those times I feel just like a robot that has to execute one task after the other without minding work-hours or resting. We are talking about working 24/7. Hopefully, this situation becomes more and more uncommon for our organization.
About getting lost in my thoughts now, it’s a reality for me to be honest. It may seem like a luxury for my organization, but I embrace it. I even take some days off to get lost and built my vision for our projects. It is a very important thing for me and I don’t mind working on weekends to regain the “lost” working hours. I am affected on this topic from a Billie Joel’s song called “Vienna” and says that:
“You’ve got your passion, you’ve got your pride
But don’t you know that only fools are satisfied?
Dream on, but don’t imagine they’ll all come true
When will you realize, Vienna waits for you?
Slow down, you crazy child
And take the phone off the hook and disappear for awhile
It’s all right, you can afford to lose a day or two
When will you realize, Vienna waits for you?“.
Our work is like Vienna and it will be there for a long time I hope; we have to slow down sometimes and let the child inside us to dream. I don’t really believe that all of my dreams will come true, but after this process, I write them down and I return to my day-to-day work with a greater passion and a bigger vision. We are passion-driven people and we need those little breaks more than everything, escaping from the chaotic and workaholic world that we live in.
What are the challenges that your line of business faces (e.g. changing job contents, robotization, innovation, social unrest)? How do your strengths and weaknesses frame within the actual challenges of your business context?
There is not any road-map for a non-profit organization in the Space Sector, especially in Greece, to create programs that will impact our society. First of all, we have to make people believe that Space is not only about science fiction and going to other planets. Space is also about Earth and improving our lives here. You have to consider that a person uses about 30 satellites every day, like GPS systems, and also medicines, like insulin, are produced in the best way possible in Space and this will have a great impact on the lives of many patients. Having said that, the first step is to educate the public. And then, to gain the trust of possible donors and the space community in general, in order to develop. If you achieve that the only main challenge is to find the best way possible to grow. Space Sector is the epitome of innovation right now so we have to keep up with everything that comes around. The last challenge that I need to mention is collaborating with other organizations, companies to achieve greater goals, and it is a challenge because we tend to not like the culture of collaboration in Greece.
Name a time when you had to change a decision due to unseen circumstances.
In the CanSat in Greece 2018 competition I had to change its Project Manager because of a lack of communication and efficiency. That time I had to step up and take the workload in order to complete the project. It was really difficult to work on such a strict schedule. Thinking about it, I believe that the problems laid on the way we had conducted our interviews and the inexperience we had.
Which are your top priorities and activities when you have to solve a problem in your organization?
We only think about the best output for our beneficiaries. They are the reason why SPIN exists and they are the only thoughts that we should have when we are facing a problem.
How do you feel when meeting your goals as a leader?
There is always another goal you want to achieve afterwards, so I celebrate for a short period and I move on. The best reward that we get is the hugs and smiles of our beneficiaries and volunteers; it is really reenergizing for me.
What is the most significant change that you brought to your organization?
I try to improve myself for the better, in order to help the organization achieve its goals. And to build a team that will shape the future and this is the thing that I am taking pride in, our family.
Could you describe the most challenging situation for you as a leader which dissatisfied you? What did you do? Would you do anything differently now?Please describe a typical day at work.
The time that I had a very serious personal problem and I let it affect my teamwork skills and my decision making was the most dissatisfying situation for me. I should have talked with my team more openly and I should have asked them to cover for me so that I could take a step back and solve my problem. Knowing when to take a step back is a great skill for a leader.
Is there a specific behavior of your colleagues that you think is worth mentioning? How did you handle it?
After the time frame that I talked to you about in the previous question, my colleagues took the time to understand my wrong-doings and they helped me return to a better version of myself. That’s why only the team is the real future of an organization.
Which were the consequences/output of such behavior and what do you think it means for your future as a leader?
The output of their behavior was the foundation that we rebuilt and reformed our organization; teaching us that even if the technology is the main scope of SPIN, humans should and must come first at every cost. And for me, as the leader of the team, this was the most significant lesson about openness and teamwork so far.
What are your job expectations for the years to come?
I don’t really know if I have personal job expectations. My job is aligned with the organization; we grow together I think. The only thing that I wish to gain in the foreseeable future is the experience and the maturity needed to serve our vision.
Would you like to spend more time with your colleagues?
We already spend a lot of time together and we are more than colleagues. Keep in mind that with Ilias Theodoridis, the Co-Founder & CTO at SPIN, we are working together from high-school, approximately 10 years, and he is also my best friend.
Do you think that all your colleagues, including your possible supervisor, act in the interests of the organization?
I believe that to work or volunteer in an organization like SPIN, you have to own your unique vision, but only if it is parallel to that of our organization we will meet and work together effectively. We should not oppress the diversity of interests of our colleagues, but we should try to align them with our vision. Having said that, yes, I think that my colleagues act in the interests of the organization and the organization tries to act in their interest as well.
Do you admit it if you make a mistake?
Yes, of course. You don’t have to be ashamed of your mistakes, but you should be proud of admitting them.
Do you usually ask your employees how they are and mind their mood or you avoid discussing with them about matters irrelevant from the NGO’s ones?
As I mentioned before, nowadays we try to have a human-first approach, but it’s worth mentioning we always are discreet, albeit caring, to each other. This is a fine line as well.
Do you think that your colleagues have a proper idea of what good leadership is? What do you think that they believe about your leadership?
I am not sure if they have a proper idea of what good leadership is and I will take a note of this question to discuss it with them.
If you have asked me this question a year before, the answer would be “authoritarian” for sure. This year and after copping with the personal problem that I mentioned before and after being more open with everyone, I hope that they have already seen the changes that I have applied as a leader. And as somebody has said: “You have three selves: the one you think you are the one the others think you are and the one you really are.“. I am working hard to combine them!.
Do you think that the results of your work are likely to significantly affect the lives of other people? Does your organization have a social impact?
I strongly believe that they have already affected other people’s lives. You can feel it at the end of every program. This month we have collected some interviews of our beneficiaries of past years and we really feel so proud of them. For example, I would like to mention a high-school student who participated for two years in the CanSat in Greece competition that we organize and now as a first-year university student he is responsible for the telecommunications system of an urban electric car that a student organization builds in our university; and as the leader of this organization recently told me, they are more satisfied with him than they expected at first. I think that this example is a fair representation of our impact.
I have also to mention that we have 495 CanSat in Greece participants, 628 trained high-school teachers on the Internet of Things Technologies, and more than 112 trained volunteers, so far.
How do you keep your employees motivated in these times of Covid19?
As we are used to working remotely, we didn’t have a great problem. On the contrary, I can say that you have more time to revisit and restructure our organization’s strategy.