On a more personal note: After being in “the business” for more than 20 years now and having seen it from both sides, which skills or experiences do you find most useful in your line of work?
It is not exactly a skill, but in order to be successful in what you are doing, you have to be passionate about it. I like to believe that my passion is still trying to make the world a better place. I used to have this really idealistic, broad vision about eradicating poverty and conserving nature. I still have those ideals, but I think of them more as long term goals now.
Next to having passion in what you do, the value of just being a decent human being is often underestimated. Be nice in your personal relationships, and also have respect and decency in your professional life. There is a Dutch saying: “Die goed doet, goed ontmoet”. The one who does good, will encounter good. I have really benefitted from this over the years.
I am no fan of the conventional wisdoms of lobbying and networking and all that comes with it. For example, I really dislike it when at a reception or at similar events you are talking to people and you know that they are not really interested in you. They are simply on the look-out for the best opportunity to make a connection that is beneficial for them. They constantly look over their shoulder to check whether there is a more “valuable” person available. At such events I often find myself standing with just one person for the entire time, having a real conversation about a certain topic. If you are genuinely interested in your interlocutor, and you come back to that topic in an email a day or a week later, that is highly appreciated. Then you have new contact on which you can really rely on. Do this more often and eventually you will have a strong network.
Also, you have to be authentic. I live by the Calvinistic ethos of duties and rights. Work hard play hard. This means that also like to enjoy life. I have met too many people with an attitude of “I am doing what I do now (and may not like) so that I will be at a certain spot on the ladder in five or ten years.” You should not forget to live life in the here and now. Right now I am being made aware of this, as I spend time with my wife and my three sons and I catch myself thinking: “Well they are going to leave our house in a couple of years.” For me, that means that I have to enjoy this time as much as possible.
Many people who are holding senior positions within organisations compromise on their integrity. You really should not. Tell your superiors not what you think they want to hear, but what they need to hear. You are being paid for taking a stance, for taking responsibility. Good leaders surround themselves with people who are critical and speak against them regularly.
When speaking about integrity and sticking to ones ideals, are you not very much in privileged extraordinary position? Human Rights, Sustainability and European Integration are goals which most people would see as very laudable, and you have found a way to strive for those within your career. Is that not a luxury that many people will not be able to achieve?
Everyone has his or her personal drivers. I believe that those drivers are constantly developing. By now I practice a style of leadership that is very different to the one I exercised when I was first head of a unit, 14 years ago. I work with my team members in a way that I would like my superiors to work with me. In my case that means trust in the abilities of every co-worker, individual responsibility, initiative, appreciative inquiry. Towards my superiors I will never ever put the blame for a certain mishap on one of my subordinates, because it is my responsibility to enable them to do good work. Therefore I am to blame and if you do not like our work, that is on me.
On the other side, keeping aside having a huge drive and sticking to ones ideals, you also have to be realistic and pick your fights carefully, since you cannot win them all. In the end, if after a reasoned discussion your boss decides not to go through with your opinion but to pick another option, than you have to accept that as well and follow suit. So far this for me has never meant to execute a decision that I could not live with.
Mr Kempeneers, thank you very much for this interview and even more so for coming to the Clio Conference.
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