After listening to the afternoon’s presentations, the audience was keen to ask speakers Dorothee van Vredenburch and Merel van Vroonhoven, and professors Joep Cornelissen and Lucas Meijs about leadership. This final Q & A session was moderated by Twan Huys.
Travel now, work later
Twan Huys asked how an early career could be combined with travelling. Merel van Vroonhoven said that as a student you have a lot of opportunity to study abroad. “Don’t just stay at the university, but travel. You can work your whole life still,” said the chairman of the executive board at AFM. “Even when going away for three days, it’s a change of scenery and learning new perspectives.”
Even Donald Trump has style
Talking about personal styles, Dorothee van Vredenburch said that when leading, people don’t remember what you said, but they do remember how they felt. “Personally and at work, when bringing bad news, you should do it in an empathetic way,” she said. Professor Joep Cornelissen said that a lot of gesturing is subconscious. “It’s a natural context of communicating, and people don’t normally register it. Politicians are skilful in using gestures. Even Donald Trump has his own style. Entrepreneurs should think about strategic gestures,” he said.
Festivals or old folk?
Prof. Lucas Meijs said we want to belong to communities. “In the USA, voluntary work is seen as unpaid work. Here, it’s seen as being part of a community or club and giving back,” he said. “People do volunteer jobs because they’re asked or already know about the job. For example, we don’t see young people volunteering as much to help the elderly because their parents don’t need it yet, so it’s unfamiliar. Young people often help at festivals and such.”
Becoming smarter and wiser
An audience member asked how to adjust to another culture while remaining authentic. Van Vredenburch said it is all about listening. “You can bridge a lot by listening, staying authentic, and not enforcing your opinion on people and telling them what to do.”
Twan Huys asked Van Vredenburch what it’s like to be the only woman in a seven-member board. “Women are better listeners,” said Van Vredenburch, who grew up with three brothers. “It’s not difficult to work with men. By adding people’s ideas, I become smarter and wiser. I think more men think they already know it all, so I can add their ideas too.”
Self-confidence, not arrogance
Merel van Vroonhoven said AFM’s management board’s gender mix is 50:50, but the organisation as a whole has a larger proportion of women employees. “As a CEO or chair, people expect things from you. So how do you get people around you who you can trust and be yourself?” she asked, adding that women tend to think about things they cannot do yet. “Insecurity is the biggest threat for female leaders. Women think self-confidence is the same as arrogance,” she said.
“Did you encounter negative experience in female leadership position?” asked an audience member. Van Vroonhoven said in former board positions she had been asked to write the minutes at meetings and in a previous leadership position nine times out of ten people would start a conversation with her male colleagues when they entered a room.
Controlling the contract
An audience member asked Professor Lucas Meijs how to control volunteers even though they are unpaid. Prof. Meijs answered: “You have to make sure that both sides understand the agreement. Your potential volunteers might say they want to start at 10:00, but you say 9:00. Ultimately, the volunteer controls the ‘contract’.” He added that you don’t have to accept everything from the volunteer. “You can intervene, but you have to take control to a lower level,” said Meijs.
Find a company that suits you
Another question from the audience asked if there was a place for those still developing as leaders. “Or is it a perceived leadership? If you go travelling and find a purpose, then what?” they asked.
Van Vroonhoven said: “It’s not that the company chooses you. You have to find a company that suits you, not the other way around.” She explained she learned a lot at ING, but she didn’t want to be there for the remainder of her career. “There are many roads; there’s not one travel route. Just jump in the water and be close to yourself to understand what you feel. If the gap is too big, well, you’re part of the equation,” she said.
Van Vroonhoven left ING after 16 years because she felt it focused too much on shareholder value, not because she didn’t like it there. “I didn’t have the courage to say I wanted to move. I was only looking for new opportunities when I was ready for it,” she said.
Value in people ‘not like you’
An audience member asked if the business leaders expected different leadership styles and traits from women and men.
Merel van Vroonhoven answered that we tend to think that everyone is like we are. “When hiring someone, we look at them through our own eyes. If I’m an extroverted person and the opposite person is introvert, I think he’s shy. The tendency is to not see the value in someone who’s different to you. But you want diverse teams to avoid falling into the trap of biases.”
Getting rich is a bad motivator
A student in the audience asked about having fun and finding a work life balance. “But they also tell you to have an impact. You also want to become rich and powerful,” he joked.
Dorothee van Vredenburch answered that getting rich is a bad motivator – you won’t be a good entrepreneur that way. “If money and power is happiness, I wish you good luck, but it’s hard to find followers if that’s your motivation.” Having a work life balance is crucial for success in your work – otherwise you forget about the long term, she said. It’s important to incorporate reflection.
What if the leader fails?
Another student in the audience asked: “Power is a strong thing, and so is inspiration. What if a leader fails? You can’t be a success in everything you do. How do you deal with that, as a leader and personally?”
Merel van Vroonhoven answered: “Life without failure won’t make you a good leader.” If you’re ‘all about money and power’ no one will support you, she said. You have integrate failure into your life in order to grow into a better person. “You don’t always fail because you did something wrong yourself. The most important thing is that you know for yourself that you’re a good person. If you’re honest to your people, you’re still a valuable leader.”