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7 Questions on Leadership with Nuno Afonso

Name: Nuno Afonso

Title: Sales Manager

Organisation: Portocargo, S.A.

I work as Sales Manager in Portocargo, S.A. a logistics operator well known and a reference player in the Portuguese market with several vertical services.

I graduated in Marketing Management in 2003 in IPAM (the first (and the best) Marketing school in Portugal) and always had an interest for international trading and sea freight transport as I grew up in Porto and close to Leixoes port. I used to pass through the Leixoes port several times and remember as kid to stare at the big vessels anchored in the port thinking where they came and where they go but I never thought that years later I would be working in this amazing industry! Right after graduated in University, I started my professional career in logistics in a traditional Portuguese logistics operator named Pinto Basto where I had the great opportunity to experience positions in operations and sales.

The funny thing about this story is that I wasn't expecting to be selected, but being selected and meeting some great people that I still keep as friends was like stepping into the world of work with the right foot! This start gave me the experience that was fundamental to deepening my knowledge in a sector as important as Supply Chain Management. I believe that this experience laid the foundations for the path I have taken so far. Someone who works in logistics must have those strong foundations to know how to interact in such a fierce and competitive market, and this is true for all business areas and industries.

In order to win in any area, you have to know all the processes and moments so that you can be prepared for the challenges ahead. After two years I embraced a new challenge in my career and in 2005 I joined the Portocargo team. Portocargo is a company that currently belongs to the BBL Group, a French group that operates as a federation of specialists in international logistics. Portocargo has always operated in the market with a sense of responsibility and transparency, and its values are incorporated by all those who work for it, such as: team spirit, transparency, teamwork, reliability, trustworthiness, integrity, etc.

These are the values that have guided us for over 30 years of success and that help us to create value for our customers, by delivering tailored solutions to move their products, promoting efficiency and effectiveness in all processes based on innovative systems, clean processes with the best people. In fact, as we can saw during the pandemic, the world has realized the importance of choosing the right players and as a result of the hard work done at Portocargo, the entire team has given itself selflessly and in a spirit of mission to defend the interests of our valued and esteemed customers.

It was with a sense of accomplishment that we emerged even stronger from the pandemic with our status as a reference and credible company for customers, suppliers and agents, resuming for our partners. As a result, we feel much better prepared to take on the next challenges and obstacles, but always together with our partners, always side-by-side.

Thank you to the 2,000 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 Questions on Leadership!

I hope Nuno's answers will encourage you in your leadership journey. Enjoy!


Jonno White

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader?

For me, managing people will always be the secret behind an excellent team. There are no successful teams unless there’s someone behind them who is able to unite and gathering people with different identities and personalities. This is the secret for a leader to stand out from the rest. Someone who is able to be present at all times and who, by example, knows how to lead the people in its team. After being a Sales Executive until 2009, my journey as a team leader began in 2009 when I was 30 years old, which seemed too early for me.

But, if the company thought that I was the right person to the job, then I should not disappoint the expectations they had on me and that was the most challenging time for me as a leader. I had to deal with people who had been with the company for several years, I had to deal with people who were new to the company and had little experience.

Bringing all these people together and making them work as a whole was incredibly challenging, but at the same time comforting when you realize that people trust on you and you start to see good results. I often say that our work is a long, never-ending marathon and to keep the team focused and constantly striving for results, we need to have the necessary skills not to let our focus fade, because the competition is just waiting for us to slip up in order to reach our clients. In this case, the challenge is to be resilient.

Resilience persists and even when it seems to be breaking down, as leaders we have to know how to turn our weaknesses into strengths and only then lead by example. The challenge of leading people can be intimidating, especially for those who come from a low-income family like mine, where my childhood was spent in a social housing estate, but it's in the most challenging moments of our lives that we should look back and see where we've come from and where we've already got to. Always look forward with confidence! Even with difficulties, I feel grateful for my childhood, those difficulties made me strong!

2. How did you become a leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?

What does a leader in a successful company? As they say in football / soccer: "You shouldn’t change your team if you are wining ", but in reality, it was necessary to create control tools that didn't exist until then and it was necessary to create synergies between everyone in the sales team so that we all realized that these tools would help us along the way.

I've had the privilege of working in several levels in this industry and in just two companies, which gave me the chance to become a team leader in 2009, but my journey began much earlier. Throughout my academic career, I tried to get the best out of every teacher. I had great teachers, but the one who marked me the most was my elementary school teacher, Teacher Dilma Brandão. Those first four years of school were the foundations for my academic career, and I can assure you that I was lucky enough to have many other excellent teachers. I believe that no one born as a leader. What is the profile of a leader? Can anyone say that they have such a profile?

I don't have the profile of a leader, but I do lead a group of people. In one of my first professional interviews, at Hilti Portugal (a renowned multinational company in the construction and installation tools industry), I came across a French director, Gérad Catesson, who asked me what I thought about going into sales... Well, my answer was: "I don't have a sales profile", to which he replied: "Yeah, but you know what? Nobody does".

If you're a marketing graduate and you want to work at Hilti, you have to go into sales, and that's why it's important to start by learning the basics of the business. The reality is that after all these years I have never forgotten those words. I ended up doing a professional traineeship at Hilti, which gave me the impetus I needed to enter the world of work.

At the end of the internship, I took the chance to specialize in Distribution and Logistics and I ended up not continuing my work at Hilti. However, this specialization in Distribution and Logistics gave me the orientation to finally have direct contact with the world of international logistics and opened the door to the company Pinto Basto, a traditional and very old Portuguese freight forwarder, but where I absorbed everything related to international sea, air and road transport.

And I can’t be more grateful to my CEO at the time Vitor Sanches that hired me. I started out as Executive Operations for a year and after a year I had a Sales Manager (Rui Teixeira) who saw in me the profile for sales that I thought I didn't have... It was then that I became a Sales Executive. The results started to come in and with that came the ambition to want more for myself and the opportunity arose for me to join Portocargo as a Sales Executive invited by my still CEO Mário de Sousa who for me it’s not only my CEO but also a coach, a mentor, a friend! In 2005 I began my career at Portocargo as a Sales Executive. I've always been a person who likes to learn and learn from everyone around me, no matter what level or area.

I have always been a very observant and attentive person and I believe that this has given me the opportunity to get the best out of every colleague, manager or boss who has crossed my path. I believe that even with mistakes, we can always take something and learn, as Thomas Edison once said: "an experience will never be a failure as long as we can learn from it". In reality, I have always learned something from the leaders who preceded me in my current position at Portocargo.

When I look back and in 2009, I was invited to become Sales Coordinator and later Sales Manager, I believe that although I thought I was too young to hold that position at the time, I believe I had the essentials, the basics, to be able to succeed as a manager or leader of people. In my university course, which is Marketing, Philip Kotler initially talked about the 4 P's: - Product - Pricing - Promotion - Placement But the most important “P” would come a few decades later... the “P” for PEOPLE! In fact, it's people who drive companies forward. And knowing how to manage people is the most important thing in an organization. As leaders, if we don't know how to manage people, we won't know how to manage products or services.

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

Well, I structure my days by making weekly plans. Breakfast is made on the run, but with the right ideas in mind for what will be done once I get to the office. As I work with the countries of Southeast Asia and the Indian Sub-Continent, when I arrive at the office my Outlook already has hundreds of emails to be answered or delegated and distributed.

I identify and flag the most pressing and important ones so that they can be answered at that moment. I try to tackle the most complex tasks right from the start so as not to waste energy and, as I'm a methodical person, I only stop for a coffee break when I've read, guided and replied to everything. Afterwards, I review the figures / business number through the control tools we have in the company, one of which is Microsoft Power BI, where I can have a comprehensive view of the company's results in real time.

When there is time left over, I have a self-imposed obligation to review the tasks I have planned for that day before starting meetings. I check with my team if there is anything that requires my attention and direct intervention and only then I start my meetings presential, online or phone. I don't hold a meeting with any client unless I know what I want to get out of the meeting, what my client expects from the meeting and, finally, I try to find out more about the client and the area or industry in which they operate.

Working as a Freight Forwarder gives us this ability to learn about various areas, industries and markets, as we work with companies from a wide range of business areas that can do business in China, USA, Brazil or Mozambique, each with their own specific needs, demands and characteristics. In other words, it's my duty to have a very well-formed and structured idea of such different industries and markets.

After a rushed lunch... As I often say, "do as I say, don't do as I do", particularly when it comes to food. Despite everything, I make sure I eat a balanced diet and I make jogging at least two times a week. At the end of the day, I try to keep my work organized as I had previously planned.

It's true that sometimes this doesn't always happen because unforeseen events do occur and if there's something left undone, after dinner I still deal with situations that I've been unable to deal with throughout the day, especially because when it comes to clients, answers have to be given in due time... in this case, it's the client's watch that's in charge and, as we all know, the client is always right! I've been meditating before bed for a few years now and it helped me to sleep more soundly, trying to sleep an average of 7 to 8 hours every day.

At the weekend, it's time to leave the tie at home and spend some quality time with the loved ones, my son Gabriel and my wife Andreia. Mainly outdoors activity to feel the fresh air of the natural and green parks we have in the city or walking by the beaches we have in Porto and around Porto area. And by the way, this wasn’t possible without my family support, son and wife included!

4. What's a recent leadership lesson you've learned for the first time or been reminded of?

Now that we are in 2023, the years of the pandemic easily come to mind as lessons we can learn for life. In March 2020, when countries in Europe began closing their borders, streets, services and implementing teleworking, none of us knew what the short-term future would bring. I was no exception, but I knew one thing: the responsibility to safeguard our clients' interests was very much on my mind.

So, I decided that, on a regular basis, I would write to our clients to urge them not to be overwhelmed by these uncertain times. To stay safe, but to never lose hope for better days. That we were all important in that battle and that no one would be left behind. These communications started to let customers know that we were there and that their orders were being handled, even though these were new times that required different and unique operations.

The feedback I got from several customers surprised me, because in several cases they said that these communications brought a breath of fresh air and a lot of encouragement. In other words, we are not just leaders in our companies. We are also leaders in the society we belong to and live in. We can't hide away from the added responsibility that our professional position gives us.

If we have the chance to improve someone's day, whether it's a colleague or a client, even with just a word, then why shouldn't we do it regularly? I once read a story that said that a certain tribal leader had become leader at a very young age, but as nothing is eternal, he lost several battles and therefore lost his territory.

However, he never stopped believing that it would be possible to regain what had belonged to him before and, in fact, he did regain the territories that had previously been his and became the leader of his people once again. The lesson to be drawn from this is that when we are leaders, we should never forget the days when we had nothing, but also if we are ever in the situation of having nothing, we should not forget the skills we had to get to the top, in other words, never take anything for granted and maintain the humility of knowing how to recognize our faults and not forgetting our qualities.

5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

"The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" by Stephen R. Covey. For me, leading by example is the way to lead people. Before delegating something to a member of my team, I have an obligation to know what that person needs to know in order to complete the job correctly and effectively. In other words, I have to know the process that will be required to complete that task or objective before delegate.

Being highly methodical, organized and focused depends on us. Well, not just on us, but if we know how to deal with the problems we face, we'll always be closer to success. If we don't, it will be much more difficult or practically impossible to achieve our goals, especially professional ones. But by trying to be better every day, we will certainly be closer to success. And if it's not that day, that week, that month or that year, it will be next day, or next week, or next month or next year, because every step we take is one less step on our way to the goal.

This book by Stephen R. Covey has helped me in many ways to become a better professional and a better person. It's no coincidence that it's one of the world's most acclaimed books on business. It's a book I recommend to many people, regardless of their professional position or expectations.

6. If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?

My advice is very simple. As I said before, no one is born a leader. From my point of view, whoever has the responsibility of leading people must always keep these 2 pillars in mind: - Humility - Learning In one hand, the humility to know where you've come from and the long road you've traveled to get to the position, you're in today. I once read in a book that a salesman got a certain deal only because he was polite to the receptionist at the company with whom he did business.

This was because the receptionist, who was not the decision-maker, commented internally that salesperson “A” always had a word of respect for her while salesperson “B” didn't even look at her when asking to talk with the decision-maker. No one can be a leader without having professional people at their side who are capable of self-sacrifice and devotion. In other words, any leader has to be aware that without people who believe in them, they won't get very far.

In my professional career, I have been lucky enough to have the best professionals in the market working with me and by empowering them through the trust I show in their work by delegating fairly, I will know that I am helping myself. If we don't have the trust of our teams, we won't be a leader, we'll just be a boss and there's a huge difference between being a leader and being a boss. A boss is just someone who has a dominant, controlling position. A leader is someone who can inspire others by example, who works to seek cooperation between everyone on the same team.

On the other hand, it's important that you never stop learning and never stop wanting to learn. Continuous learning will ensure that you are always up to date. Even today, I try to develop skills that will allow me to better understand my surroundings, even in areas that are not my own, i.e. I'm in sales, but if I can learn more about how IT tools work, I'll be able to get much more out of them for my role and thus be much better prepared for the electronic changes that the world has experienced over the last few years.

Nowadays, information is so readily available that there's no excuse for not being updated. If the world is constantly changing, why should we be averse to it? So, filter all the information that is available and never stop learning and improving every day. Every day is a good day to learn something and never forget that we also learn from our teams. They are the ones who value our work. A leader only has visibility because he has the right people working with him. The best in the market and, in my case, I have better people than my competitors.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader, so far?

Once again, leading by example. In my professional field, I work with clients who have shipments from the Far East to Europe, and the overwhelming majority of these orders are already paid even before being shipped out from the origin. In other words, the goods have already changed possession but the customer still doesn't have them.

As I work in a service industry where there is no tangible product, I implemented a Shipment Status system to make the service tangible, a process we call "servuction" in marketing. Servuction for services companies as Production for products companies. This Shipment Status allows me to have a clear and comprehensive idea of everything a particular customer has ordered to departs from the factories in the Southeast Asia and Indian Sub-Continent countries origin and in transit to the destination.

On the other hand, the customer has something tangible through an Excel file that is either online with 24/7 access or sent to them by me every week with updated departure and arrival dates. This started with just me and my initiative, but was quickly embraced by the other members of the sales team. More, customers began to appreciate this attention and care and it became a point of differentiation from the competition. We implemented an annual quality of service survey and this is usually one of the points that customers value the most, making our customer retention rate over 80%.

In a service company where it's the people who make the difference, this example is just one of the things I've said before: the most important resources in an organization are the people and those who are responsible for leading teams have to bear in mind every day that without their team to help them, they will never succeed. No leader succeeds alone, either professionally or personally! Kowing how to managing people is the key to success!

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