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Robert Commandeur has seen many things. Through his enterprise ‘Elephant in the Room’ he hopes to share that knowledge and enable solutions with, and for, his clients.
Hi, Robert. You have had an interesting and varied career! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I was born in the Netherlands before immigrating with my parents when I was 12. It was the early ’70s and I arrived in Australia just in time for high school, not knowing the Aussie culture or English language. Needless to say, that was a difficult time. I am now 59 years old and the oldest of eight siblings. I have been married for close to 36 years, have four children and four grandkids who are loads of fun.
I have always liked people and started in the ministry in 1980. It has taken me all over Australia, the Netherlands and India. I’ve been a salesman, a church Minister, a Christian school CEO and an evangelist. I am also a creative and have expressed that throughout the years in various forms – I’ve been a musician, an entertainer, a jeweller, a gem cutter, a photographer and cinematographer.
I have taught leadership both in Australia and overseas, conducted seminars, worked among Indigenous Australians (I actually married one) and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for humanitarian efforts overseas. I have always been in the “people business” and feel energised when I work with them. If you were to ask what my life slogan is, it’s “making a difference”. I am vision-driven, am a little intense, have some OCD issues when it comes to delivering a product (being fussy has been both a blessing and curse) and my speed is usually 100mph!
You have spent most of your life as a church pastor in a number of ministries across Australia. What led you to the church to begin with?
As a young man, I was looking for some kind of purpose. I knew there was more to life than what I was then experiencing and I was searching for it. I remember buying books and learning about eastern religions, the supernatural and so on. I had a hunger for knowledge. At the age of 18, I heard the gospel for the first time and decided to serve God and people for the rest of my life. I have never regretted that decision.
You must have seen some amazing places and incredible things. Can you tell us about some of these experiences?
Over the last 20 years, I have been very much involved in India. Our involvement is raising funds to build orphanages, schools and to teach destitute women how to sow, so they can earn a living. The travel industry uses the slogan “Incredible India” and it certainly is. The colours, the sights and the amazing food (if you like chilli!) take your breath away. I remember seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time and I just stood there and cried. It is the most imposing, amazing sight. I have seen colourful temple structures with thousands of little statues on them. There is a place called Kumbakonam, “The City of Temples”, in the state of Tamil Nadu – it has some temples that are over 2,000 years old.
Then there are the sheer crowds of people everywhere! Hundreds of millions of teeming humans. The population in 2017 was 1.34 billion and it’s continually growing at an exponential rate. I have seen people so incredibly happy in spite of their poverty (whilst secretly wishing I had that kind of joy). I have seen real deal gurus with their amazing body paints and watched the pilgrims who travel all across the land to visit the temple of their God once a year.
But at the same time, I have seen the poverty profoundly impact so many people… children living under blue tarp on the side of streets and buildings or living next to dumps. If you fly into Mumbai, you will see people living in the slums and they have built their huts right against the runway fence. From the air, they look like a massive flattened deck of cards. I have seen mothers with their tiny newborns tapping on the windows of the car begging for food. India has left an indelible mark on my life and after seeing it and being personally involved, my life has never been the same. I am very excited to be filming a documentary there at the end of this year.
Speaking of filming, after many years in the church you had a career shift towards cinematography. Why did you make the change?
Seven years ago, I needed a break from what I was doing. Most of my life has been trying to positively change the culture within churches and organisations and it took an emotional toll on me. Don’t get me wrong, I loved what I was doing, but I knew I couldn’t keep doing it at the time. To be honest, because work was so full-on, I felt my kids did not always receive the attention from Dad which they needed. What I did not want to do is be successful at work but at the same time lose my family. As a result, I’m now very close to my kids and family life is fantastic! Making a big switch, career-wise, also taught me a ton of things about managing emotions, burn out, and how to make the hard decisions like giving up something that you love for a time, for the greater good. These lessons I am now able to pass on to others. I know that sometimes the only way we learn is through the school of hard knocks, but it is preferable to learn from someone who has gone through it, so you don’t have to!
I was looking for a change and, being a creative person and loving photography as a hobby, it seemed a natural progression to start a photography business. I began photographing weddings, families and individuals. I have a friend in Alice Springs who needed a promotional video for his business and this led me to the cinematography side of things. Enquiries for wedding videos came, as well as businesses that wanted me to film their business for marketing purposes. The rest, as they say, “is history”.
You’re still filming but you’ve now decided to focus on helping people and organisations overcome challenging situations. Tell us a bit about your business, Elephant in the Room, and the inspiration behind it.
From an early age, I wanted to always “fix things”. I have always had a passion to help people. I discovered that when we took over a church that did not have a minister and was in trouble that there were some very clear reasons why the difficulties were there in the first place. Sometimes it was poor choices the leadership or boards made over time, or, leadership and direction itself was lacking. We had to constructively deal with lack of finances, negativity, obtuse influencers, insolvent companies and so on in order to turn things around.
Over the years, we have seen incredible turnarounds where a church or an organisation was deeply in debt and the culture and morale was low. Through systematically dealing with the issues that were responsible for their current state, we were able to turn things around. Every place we left were out of debt completely and the overall culture positively changed. Consequently, every church we left is now thriving. The reasons why churches, organisations and businesses suffer are because of issues that people do not want to face, or issues that have not been properly tackled. In our Aussie culture, we find it difficult to confront others, and we often tiptoe around the proverbial “Elephant in the room”. We know it is there, but we don’t know how to tackle it and we try to avoid it. We want people to like us and we certainly do not want to “rock the boat” so to speak. What became glaringly obvious to me over the years was that dealing with the “Elephant in the room” dealt with the influences that limited financial or numerical growth at the same time. Not that this is easy to do – on the contrary – some people would rather walk on hot coals than deal with or confront a difficult issue, or an uncooperative employee (or volunteer) and I totally understand that. I know the personal challenges of having to drill deep to deal with the “Elephant in the room”.
What Elephant in the room is all about is three things.
Firstly, it’s about is equipping decision-makers and leaders with tools that will help them move their organisations and businesses forward by effectively and positively changing their culture.
Secondly, it’s about developing leaders. I have taught leadership development both in Australia and overseas and have a passion to help others be exceptional leaders, producing change in both the workplace and society. Leadership can be incredibly challenging, because it is the person out in front who not only sets the direction, but also has to pave the way.
Finally, I also teach leaders and organisations how to raise funds for their various projects. This is one very difficult but relevant area: I know that many organisations and churches struggle with this, but it can absolutely be done. There are elements in raising finance and having people “buy in” to a given project, and I teach those.
The way Elephant in the Room works is through one-on-one consulting, staff training or in a more public forum like public speaking. We are also setting up a Facebook group where individuals can sign up and receive information, help and accountability.
In all your years, can you tell us some of the more challenging situations you have faced and how you have helped resolve them?
I remember we took on a church that was made up of a number of groups, each with their own agenda, each full of strongly opinionated people, and the church was going in all directions and at the same time heading nowhere. What it needed was one leader taking them in one direction. During this time of transition, there were people who opposed and even publicly challenged me. I have always been amazed at the lengths to which some people will go to have their own way. In this particular situation, there were some pretty big elephants in the room. This was quite an extreme situation and over a period of time things settled down, and that church is now forging ahead.
The way we resolved the impasse was effectively dealing with the individuals who were stubborn and did not want to change. It is inevitable that those kinds of people will keep things toxic unless they either give in or leave. I know that some people find it hard to dismiss or sack employees, or to let volunteers go, but not effectively dealing with these people only makes things worse.
There was another situation where the church did not have a leader, but a small group of people who thought that everything was OK. What they did not know was that there were significant issues present, but they were “under the surface”. There was significant debt and when we began analysing the way administration was done, we began to uncover some major flaws in their dealings with the ATO, local council and so on. They also had a company trading insolvent, not to mention incompetency issues with some of the staff. Firstly, we were able to uncover what was actually happening. We then devised clear plans with timelines to tackle each issue. Change within an organisation or company takes time, as there are many factors in play, as well as the personnel that need time to adapt to new mindsets and situations. We were able to turn everything around with all debts and staffing issues resolved. That church is thriving today.
What sort of issues can Elephant in the Room help sort? What do you hope people gain from working with you?
Elephant in the Room helps by identifying, uncovering and effectively dealing with issues that have individuals, organisations and businesses bogged down. For instance, issues like:
- Lack of finance and debt;
- Staff and management incompetency;
- Difficult and resistant people/volunteers/employees;
- Lack of vision, direction and passion;
- Lack of leadership skills;
- Established negative cultures within the workplace.
People will gain the following:
- They will identify where change is needed;
- How to constructively confront others;
- How to set direction within their lives/business;
- How to “work the problem” effectively;
- How to effectively plan;
- How to successfully raise funds for their projects;
- How to effectively lead with vision;
- How to train and mentor others;
- Succession planning.
What we are teaching are not mere theories, but lessons learned and applied over many years. There is no doubt in my mind that if people apply what is being taught and remain accountable, that they themselves will see the outcomes they are seeking. It is my sincere desire that those in charge of companies, businesses, organisations and churches will not suffer in silence but reach out to us.
To learn more about how Robert can help you, visit www.robertcommandeur.com.au/elephant-in-the-room.