ECWO: Hetty Brand-Boswijk's Bold and Inspiring Career Move

What does it take to change the course of your career at the age of 55? And then go on to become a leader in your new field?

For Hetty Brand-Boswijk, this is not merely a scenario she sketches out to provide inspiration for her clients seeking or facing changes in their careers. It’s her life story. In this interview, Brand-Boswijk talks about how, in 2013, she switched gears, from being RSM’s Director of Business Development to earning her qualification in executive and leadership coaching. Just two years after making this bold move, she took on the role of Director of Coaching at Rotterdam School of Management – one that includes being ECWO’s Lead Coach, coaching women clients from organisations that support gender balanced leadership and women empowerment.

You were recently appointed chair of the International Coaching Federation Netherlands. It’s a powerful endorsement of your standing as one of our leading coaches. What does this honour mean to you personally?

For me, it was a unanimous acknowledgement of my leadership, and I really appreciate the ICF Netherlands’ acknowledgement of, and faith in, me.

In fact, you didn’t start your working life as a coach. Yours is a journey of transformation. Can you take us back to your early working years.

Actually what I really wanted to be was a musical theatre actress. I did a lot of musicals when I was a teenager and was part of many professional theatre productions. But my Dad said it’s not a stable career so I went off, got some secretarial skills and landed my first job as a management assistant at Unilever in London in the late seventies.

So at that time you didn’t have a career plan sketched out?

For the next dozen or so years, I just fell from one thing to the next. I had worked with computers while at Unilever and they fascinated me so I when I was headhunted by Nexos Office Systems I took the job and spent the next phase of my career working in IT marketing. During that time I moved from the UK to the Netherlands, and I was also made redundant four times, through no fault of my own as each time the company was reorganised or involved in a merger. But it gave me a huge lack of confidence that would manifest in not standing up for myself as I was always in a state of angst about losing my job. At that time coaching wasn’t something you could access but, looking back as a coach, I can see that I was not working aligned with my values. I was frequently very unhappy but I kept telling myself that I should be grateful that I had a job at all.

How did you cope at that time?

Music! In London I performed with the BBC Symphony Chorus and then in the Netherlands with different choirs. Looking back now, I can see how courageous I was – coming to a new country at the age of 23 and facing so many challenges. A turning point came in 1989. On December 23rd I was called into what I thought was my yearly appraisal but it turned out to be another retrenchment. I was so exhausted and just didn’t have the energy to look for yet another job so I went on the dole. But this is where having your posse is so important. A friend of mine had recently completed her MBA at RSM and when I saw there was an opening for a Programme Manager there I called her for some advice. She instantly said they needed someone like me and her belief in me helped give me the confidence to apply and I got the job.

You’ve been at RSM ever since, moving into different positions in the organisations over the years. Tell us a little about this part of your journey?

Well one of the reasons I think I got the Programme Manager job is that I was a native English speaker and RSM was transitioning to an English institution. In fact, at the time Dianne Bevelander was also appointed as a Programme Manager – I started just a week after her as my choir was involved in a performance of Aida in Den Bosch and I had committed to that. As the years passed, Dianne moved more into the academic side of the organisation and I continued to move ahead on my path, eventually becoming Director of the International MBA Programme in 2000. Starting at the same time as Dianne has meant that my journey at RSM has been not been alone and she has consistently put new challenges in front of me when I was in need of them. It wasn’t always easy to recognise that change was needed but, if I look back, Dianne was excellent at seeing when I had finished building something new and so I moved from Director of the International MBA Programme to Director of Financial Aid in 2005 and then Director of Business Development five years after that.

Looking back, what are the most important aspects of this part of your career?

I am grateful that I had a posse, that I had allies who would always see a gap that I could fill – and that I was able to grab hold of each opportunity with open arms and take on the challenges.

Do you remember the moment that you realised that coaching was what you wanted to do?

I had been working with the MBA programmes for 25 years when there was an internal change that took away fifty percent of my job. Dianne was then Associate Dean and she said to me “You’re such a good coach, why don’t you get your papers?” So, in 2013, I registered for the Co-Active Coach® Training programme, to become a certified executive and leadership coach and I finished in 2015. During my first training module I felt like I had come home.

What gave you the determination to move into a different career? What challenges did you face – especially as a woman?

Curiosity is what moved me forward. When Dianne said you’re such a good coach, go get your papers I was really curious to discover more. I had always gone with the flow, driven by the subconscious resignation that comes from assuming that I had no other choice in my next career move. But here was a chance to actively explore something and I grabbed it with both hands. As a young woman, I had been told I would not amount to more than being a wife and a mother. In fact, I had a school teacher who once told my parents that nothing would ever become of me. But I must give him his due because many years later he said he was sorry he’d had no faith in me.

How do you use your own life journey in your professional life as a coach?

I often encounter MBA students or women who are mid-career saying “I must be a CEO before I am 40 because before I know it I will be retired” and I say to them “what’s the rush?”. I made a complete turnaround at the age of 55 but I never see all the years building up to that moment as a waste. It made me who I am and I would probably not be as successful as I am if I had come to this 20 years earlier.

Can you share some of the things that you have learnt?

We call ourselves human beings but we are so focused on human doing. You might have been told your whole life that you are really good at something, but is what the world wants you to be really resonating with you? Women are often doing what the world wants them to do, but if it is not their passion or aligned with their core values then it’s not going to resonate with them. A coach can help you tap into your creativity, to your inner values, to what is important to you as an individual, and really dig deep into your own DNA so that you understand that, as a human being, you are enough. Then the doing becomes more powerful and all the skills, qualifications and positions you take in that direction are far more resonant. Even after all these years of coaching, I sometimes need reminding of this. Last year, I faced burnout symptoms because I was focusing all my energy on doing and not enough on being. I was building a fortress that was just too big for me to maintain on my own.

What do you love most about your work?

I don’t have a job, I have a purpose - and that is changing the world one person at a time. It is helping people clarify who they are so that they can go out there and do what they can to be a force for positive change. When RSM changed its mission statement a few years ago, I jumped for joy. Coaching is a force for positive change – it’s as simple as it comes.

Do you have any advice for our ECWO sisterhood?

Sometimes you don’t need an official mentor to make a change. Look around and identify the person who really does have your best interests at heart. Having someone who believes in you is important. Dianne was a mentor to me, long before I recognised it and we created a partnership that also saw me playing the role of mentor to her at times. Find a partnership with a woman that enables you to empower each other. One thing I know for sure is that you can’t do this life journey on your own. Find someone who has your six, as they say in the military – who has your back, who you trust will be unfailingly honest with you.

How do you keep close to your own human being?

By being in nature. I am a horticulturalist’s daughter so I was brought up in the country, with a love for animals and nature. Nature is of great importance to me as it is hopeful. Springtime always carries the promise of renewal. Walking or cycling with my own thoughts, looking at the sky and the trees gives me that feeling of “aaah” and I try to do it every single day.

More information

The Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations (ECWO) is committed to women’s continued advancement into leadership positions across multiple sectors – from multinationals and start-ups to not-for-profit organisations. ECWO supports gender-balanced leadership through its management educationresearch and events about gender equality, and by coaching female business leaders. Its strong network leads to women empowerment and gender equality to the benefit of business and society.

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