Merel van Vroonhoven, AFM

Merel van Vroonhoven, AFM

Improving leadership through community action

Merel van Vroonhoven, chairman of the executive board at Netherlands Authority for Financial Markets (AFM) said her leadership journey is in some ways comparable to that of the main character in a novel called Night train to Lisbon by Swiss writer Pascal Mercier. In the novel, a teacher decides to break his routine by taking a long train journey. Last summer, Van Vroonhoven also took the night train to Lisbon with her two teenaged sons with the same intention as the character in the book: to meet new people and encounter new countries. She says the journey in the book, her own trip and her leadership journey represented departure, meeting, experiment and return.

Balancing autonomy and connection

Van Vroonhoven said at the point of departure, she asked herself what she stood for. “As chair of AFM, and as a divorced mother, my mission is to make connections to people and to myself,” she said. “Without connections the world is not a good place, and things often go wrong in society. You can’t have a connection without autonomy. Otherwise, you connect too closely; you lose your own values, and identity.”

The balance between autonomy and connection is what leadership is all about, said the AFM chairman. “Many organisations and leaders have difficulties in striking this balance. It should be a natural equilibrium.” Van Vroonhoven, who is also vice-chairman of the board of the Dutch Association for Autism (NVA), added that this connection seems easier when people work in voluntary organisations.

Building an inclusive world

“Leadership is all about meeting people; you never travel alone,” said van Vroonhoven, adding that connections are about being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. “I learn a lot from my own family,” said the chairman whose son has autism. “People with autism see the world differently. My son taught me to look at things in a new way.” She wants to contribute to building an inclusive world in which people can be themselves and are valued for who they are, not for what they bring. “People with autism often fall outside of the system,” said Van Vroonhoven, adding that the challenge for people with autism is to understand social encounters and to communicate.

Avoid rigid protocols

“Look at the talents of the person you’re dealing with. People with autism might not be good at everything, but they’re good at IT and planning. They can be a good employee in times of change when you need innovation.”

The chairman has learned a lot about herself through this work. “I tend to view things in my own way, and think that others think like me too,” she explained, adding that it’s important to show vulnerability and give things a personal touch. “Define boundaries, but stay away from rigid protocols,” said the AFM president. “Employees want flexibility, and a ‘human’ leader,” she said.

Feedback experiments

Van Vroonhoven uses her volunteer work experience in AFM. “We need to understand what’s happening in the financial markets by putting ourselves in the shoes of people like Dorothee van Vredenburch.

“I also need to develop myself as a regulator, and stay autonomous and tough,” said the chairman. “I also have to think from the outside in, because it’s different on the other side.” Van Vroonhoven previously worked at NN Group and ING Investment Management Europe; but now has a different relationship with financial services as a regulator. “People don’t tell you everything anymore, in this new role at AFM. Earning their trust can only be done with a lot of feedback.”

To address this, Van Vroonhoven created a stakeholder arena in which people were asked to ‘gossip’ about management for two hours. “We weren’t allowed to say anything. As management, we had to listen,” she said, adding there was good feedback, but also criticism about industry knowledge and communication. “It’s very powerful when your stakeholders give you this kind of feedback.”

Striking the right balance

After returning from the trip to Lisbon, Van Vroonhoven evaluated what she learned. “I thought about employees at AFM, and how important it is to strike the right balance,” she said. “It’s a fairly young organisation full of smart people who are regulating very experienced people. It’s tricky for a 25-year-old supervisor to find the right balance so they’re not insecure or become arrogant. Can you teach someone resilience? Or is it just life experience?”

Van Vroonhoven addressed the students in the audience, saying a ‘zig zag career’ would enrich their professional lives. “You’re at the beginning of your journey. My advice is to become ‘human’. Instead of hopping immediately into a new job and working stressfully in a corporate company, draw your inspiration from voluntary work,” she said.