Interview with Rafał Sonik (part 2)

copyright: TETE (Tomasz Tomaszewski)


WO: The adventures you had on Kasprowy taught you courage, gave you the desire to learn about nature and your country, to spend time together with friends. What else can young people learn from you, which of your qualities would you like to pass on to them?

RS: I would like them to use their achievements to help others. For me this is crucial, necessary, it’s at the core of our work and passion. However, not everyone needs to share or do things for a specific person or group, or work pro bono. But I discovered quite early on that I am only fully satisfied when – besides doing my regular job – I am able to do things that serve society. I actually found this out by accident: the first McDonald’s in Kraków was located at 55 Floriańska street, in a building that had been gifted to missionary priests by a dying woman who had no children. She wanted it to be used for charity. Based on this founding stone, which was the income from the investment, SIEMACHA was created – it’s an association that helps support young people who need some guidance in life. The goal of the organization is strengthening mutual trust, social bonds, civic engagement, teaching people to feel responsible for themselves and for others. Suddenly, in 1993, we found that we could put income from this and from other commercial investments to good use. We used it to help children whose parents had trouble adjusting to the change from a socialist to a capitalist economy. The socialist system, though poor, took care of everyone, while the new capitalist reality gave many more opportunities to those who were active, but nothing to those who were less dynamic, or who were used to having the minimum they needed to survive given to them, whether they worked for it or not; these people were pushed to the margin of society, the system had nothing to offer them. Children whose parents did not know how to adjust to this new reality started showing up at SIEMACHA, and I became a sponsor of the organization and financed the association’s reactivation, and then took part in its day-to-day development. This gave me immense satisfaction because it wasn’t all only related to finances, I was active in many different ways. For example, on the day that Poland was admitted to the European Union, I spoke to the children and teens in SIEMACHA about what this change would probably mean for them. I was involved in various projects organized by SIEMACHA: renovating buildings, furnishing them, planning educational and developmental activities for children.

WO: Did you ever think – looking at the young people who participated in the SIEMACHA projects, people whom you inspired – that they would like something more?

RS: This is what was the most amazing in SIEMACHA – and I think it’s probably a lot the same today, though at the time it was more visible – that children whose parents didn’t know how to adjust to the new reality, or didn’t really want to adjust, wanted more out of life. They were the ones who had the strong „drive” to get out of the stagnation they had found themselves in, they wanted to become leaders, and not complainers who disapproved of the world that had so suddenly changed before their eyes. Those kids wanted more, and were willing to work and fight for more than their peers who grew up in comfortable, privileged homes, and this is also true today. Kids with fewer opportunities – oftentimes coming from poor, or even very poor, homes – want to move forward, grow and develop, learn, look for new opportunities, passions, skills. At the time the most interesting thing SIEMACHA had to offer were programs that helped young people discover their natural talents. Schools have a curriculum that, regardless how great it happens to be, is just a set of “suits” children have to wear, have to fit into. For some kids the suits are great, they are the right shape and size, but for many they are not. But in SIEMACHA, kids followed their talents and passion, they found that the growing SIEMACHA offer met their interests. Of course SIEMACHA did help on the most basic level, with homework or school basics, but most of all it offered kids the opportunity to discover their talents. If you wanted to draw you could draw, if you wanted to hike you hiked! If you liked geography, or played an instrument, you could concentrate on that. Young people organized themselves in SIEMACHA around their interests, passions, strong points. So, on average, if you compared a sample of the SIEMACHA group to a sample of their more privileged peers, the poorer kids actually achieved more. For one – they tried harder, two – they had more opportunities to discover themselves and their interests and passions earlier on.


WO: You created a space for people who care and want to improve themselves and the world around them, who search for their passion, grow and develop, and work together to give more to others. Can you transfer this model to your professional life as well, and how do you do it?

RS: A good example of this “transfer” would be my most valuable experience from hiring people. I have been doing this for over thirty years – I hired my first fulltime employee in 1986, and since 1990 I have been employing a large group of people. The most valuable experience from hiring people is this: if the recruitment process is done carefully, you essentially do not hire bad employees. You may only hire people who are not doing what they should be doing, what they are best at. Therefore, if you are then unhappy with the result of their work, you should not fire them, but rather reallocate them, change their responsibilities, their scope of duties. When you have done this once, or even twice, you may find that this “suit” fits the person perfectly, while the previous roles were simply wrong for them. This is the best feeling, implementing this new job or role, where the person is finally in the perfect place after having gone through two or three changes. After some time of working together we communicate without words, we understand each other so well. The time you need to devote to communication to help this person do the best job is nothing compared to all the time you need when the person is not well-suited for the job you have assigned them in the first place. For example, let’s take a look at my mechanic. I know that to many people being a mechanic seems like a simple job, but it isn’t. It’s actually a very hard job to do. Remember that my mechanic is responsible not just for the quads, but also for the whole car fleet: the service cars, the trailers, the accompanying vehicles. If you take just the quads themselves that is a few vehicles right there, and we don’t just use one all year, we build new ones, take the old ones apart, improve and modernize them. I communicate with my mechanic once every few weeks. He spends the spring in the United Arab Emirates, then he’s in Qatar, then he moves to Europe, and finally he travels to South America. He works in five or six countries every year, and we race in eight or ten, yet my contact with him is sporadic because I know that he – like I – is doing precisely what he loves, this is why we understand each other so well. And one more thing: in general, his job is making sure I have no technical problems with my equipment, but you need to remember that in my area of sports things look very different than in basketball, for example. A basketball player is part of a team, everything is organized: hotels, travel, flights, training session, rehab, regeneration. Every player is part of a huge organism, the team, especially if we’re talking about one of the top tier teams. It’s a corporation, all the details are taken care of and well-managed. Things are very different with us, we build everything ourselves. We’re like micro-corporations, micro-companies, which compete with each other mainly with the level of preparation and with equipment reliability. In order for me to fight for the world championship I need a mechanic who is the champion in his area of expertise.

WO: You recruit well, you give someone a good job, and he becomes a world champion at it. And this is when something very important comes up, something that is mentioned very often both in sports and in business: trust. You trust someone’s talent, their engagement, you trust someone with your fate to some degree. What is the role of trust?

RS: I distinguish between two types of trust. One is the trust I need to give someone, a particular person, and that they give me in return. This type of trust is built over time. In this case you need to be vigilant, careful, every decision, every move, every action has to make sense, and I need to know what this decision is and why it makes sense. The second type of trust is trust in the “environment”, in those who surround you. You don’t build it over years, you need to give trust at the very beginning, take that risk. When this happens people either grow that level of trust you’ve given them, or show you that you need to be more careful and that they don’t deserve that trust. For example, a mechanic does not get my trust “for nothing”, he is on a team and needs to work to earn my trust over time, by his actions, decisions, behavior, and the quality of his work. However, the people I work with closest I trust from day one, I trust them by definition, otherwise I would keep feeling like there’s an enemy behind my back. If someone turns out to be an enemy that is how I treat them, but until that happens I approach them as a potential ally. I assume that people don’t work and communicate with us in order to rob or cheat us, but rather that they share our values, that they need these values in their lives, and that this is a fair game. It’s only when I find out that the game is unfair that I start controlling, checking, verifying – it’s a very simple philosophy. If you approach people with distrust as a filter through which you see life, you don’t sleep well. You constantly think about what bad things can happen to you, what harmful things other people can do to you. But if you approach people with trust you sleep well in general, and only poorly when you find out someone betrayed the trust you gave them.

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