By Carolien Bijen, &samhoud women
In March 2011 the book ‘(S)Topvrouw, het glibberige pad naar de bestuurskamer’ (Women at the top, the slippery road to the boardroom) by author Carolien Bijen was published. The book is an appeal for diversity and feminization of organisations in order to help women advance in organisations. Through research and interviews, a lot of insights about ‘the Female Factor’ are revealed. Carolien conducted the research and spoke to many top women. This book is a must read, not only for ambitious women but also for men – basically everyone who wants an organisational culture where all forms of diversity can thrive.
Author Carolien Bijen works at &samhoud and is the founder of &samhoud women. &samhoud women consists of a network of highly educated and ambitious women in The Netherlands that meets on a regular basis in the Home of Connection. Her starting point is the women themselves. She helps them to move on in their careers by offering leadership programs, and also by introducing them to potential new employers. The women find advice, connection and the means to develop and realize their personal vision. Carolien’s message is “to stay close to yourself and be who you are, or become who you want to be”. She also noticed the struggle of many organisations to attract, retain and advance female talent and therefore decided to utilize &samhoud’s extensive experience in realizing cultural change to help organisations realize a company culture with high levels of diversity and connection. Below you will find a sneak preview of the book. It is an interview with Marike van Lier Lels who runs her own company Lels & Ko. In 2008, Management Scope declared Van Lier Lels the most powerful woman in the Dutch business community.
‘Leadership is about improving the world. It only succeeds if leaders remain close to themselves. Women are usually better than men in that. Many men work very hard for years to appear in the annual report with a good salary. Often, they only realize how unimportant it is once they have grandchildren. Women are different leaders. Where many men are sensitive to status and power, women often emphasise the individual and seek connection. Women are then less interested in financial results or in their salaries. Men sometimes have difficulty with these different values. They do not always understand why a woman makes a certain choice or does not accept a promotion. Women have to think more in terms of opportunities and realise that the top can be achieved, also under their own conditions. If it is constantly confirmed that women can only reach the top by making adjustments, ultimately no one will be interested any longer. That picture is wrong; that is my greatest concern. I argue for diversity optima forma in which people can be themselves. The result is what counts. Wish each other well and learn from each another. Then it will always be about trust, connection and consciousness-raising. At Van Gend en Loos, there were nineteen regions that made life difficult for each other. I like to compare it with an expedition to the top. If you want to go up a mountain together, you should not drag along any stones from the past in your knapsack since you will never reach the top that way. You need provisions. So throw the stones out of your knapsack and leave them behind you, or solve the problems. Then you will acquire different dynamics; which are no longer concerned with good or bad.’’
‘There are many advantages to female leadership. I often hear that the women currently at the top do not let themselves to be vulnerable and show male leadership styles. The more often we write that down, the more women on the road to the top are put off. You can also reach the top on your own strengths without sacrificing your own principles. The young generation also has to do that. “Stay close to yourself and follow your own heart” is my advice. There is always pressure, both from the bottom and from the top. The trick is not to let yourself be badgered, but to determine and sail your own course. Women have to make their own choices and should not be deterred by their surroundings. When I went to study shipbuilding, my grandmother said: “that is not a ladies’ profession.” I had never thought about that, but of course she was right. Still I continued because I thought it was a beautiful field. Your surroundings may be negative about your choices. Too bad. Do not give in to it and do it your own way. When I became managing director at Van Gend en Loos the company was making a loss. Someone from the Management Board called every week. Then I said: “If you leave it up to me, you have to accept that I do it my own way, otherwise you can come and do it yourself.” You need that type of autonomy, certainly if you want to go against the established order.’
‘Hardly any women work in shipping, certainly not in the days when I started to work. Still, I never mentioned my being a woman as a theme, others do that. I learned to find my way and never to make it more complicated than necessary. If everyone expects me to pour the coffee in a meeting, I do it. I also make myself vulnerable and I have never been worse for the wear from it. I earned respect for it. You should not put your values in writing but live toward them in good faith. At Schiphol and at Van Gend en Loos they have seen me in tears. Vulnerability is a strength. If you make yourself vulnerable, others will do that too. That is how emotion and passion develop.’
‘The world revolves around love and connection. Connection with yourself, your surroundings and the world. You have to bear responsibility with one another for what you do. Money is needed, but ultimately it only serves to improve life. That is why you are on earth. It is an unconventional message in the business community but I truly believe in it. I try to have the people in the boardrooms look at reality in another way. I try to bring back love, packaged in words like ‘respect’ and ‘involvement’. If I do not feel connected with an organisation, I do not devote any energy to it. When I started at Schiphol, I designated connection as the theme. I thought: people will understand what I’m talking about or I will stop. I made a trip with the top with ‘connection’ as the theme. The others were constantly asking: when are we going to talk about strategy? Connection did not fit in the culture. It was only when they understood what I meant that we were able to deal with each other differently.’
‘In 2005 I had an argument at Schiphol with the highest boss. It did not turn out well for me, but ultimately it worked in my favour. The fact that I am positive about my departure is particularly because I stayed close to myself. I stood up for my values and principles. That makes you relatively invulnerable. Schiphol is a beautiful company with nice people, where I enjoyed myself, but now that I am gone, I realise that I do not have to satisfy as many rituals. I am a professional supervisory director and I have advisory roles that I believe will help The Netherlands or that I enjoy. I have pleasure in my work every day; everything I do, I choose myself.’
‘My mother had to stop working when she got married. There was a deeply rooted view that you took care of your husband. That was only a generation ago. Fortunately that is starting to wear off. I meet auditoriums full of talented women. It has to work out sometime. Nevertheless, I often see that the second line resigns. They say it is because work and care are difficult to combine in the peak of their lives, but I do not believe that. At that level you do not have to wash and iron. You can farm out a lot and truly spend time with the children. I believe that it is all about interpretation. Women do not want to work eighty hours just to earn money. What they sometimes fail to realise is that they can set the tone at the top themselves, thereby improving the world. Look at KPN where Carla Smits is now on the board. With four children and a hardworking husband, she proves that it is possible.’
The top in part-time
‘It is often said that you cannot reach the top in a part-time job. But take a look at men. Many CEOs have additional functions. As if they do not take any time. I believe that you can do a top job in four days if you can be reached on the fifth day. At Schiphol, there was a female manager who worked four days a week. Her boss was not even aware of it. When he called that something had to happen, she organized it. Naturally, part-time work has also become easier thanks to the arrival of the virtual world. You can now work more flexibly. New generations have fewer hang ups about it. They are not tied to an eight hour workday. Nevertheless, it remains difficult to combine a busy job with a private life.
‘I have no role models. I never did. Even as a child, I had no heroes hanging in my room. Of course there are people who can do something that I would also like to be able to do, but it happens more often that I think: I do not want to be like that. I also do not see myself as a role model, but others do. Therefore I see it as my mission to show women that they have to follow their heart and that they can set the tone. That is why I am also working on this book.’
‘Women have to help each other to get ahead. If it is possible, I do it too, although I have to be convinced of their talent. In the organisations where I am on the board, I try to create the right mind set to appoint a woman. I am regularly called to ask if I know a woman for a certain job. Then I try to find someone from my own network. Here, too, what is important is: simply do it and do not make it all that complicated.’
Tips from Marike van Lier Lels
- Organise your work well, set priorities and keeping focus on your vision is more important than working a lot of hours.
- Follow your heart. If your heart is connected with an organisation, go for it and organize the rest around it. Do not be too obedient. People who stay close to themselves do not do strange things.
- Do not do things just because they are good for your CV. They will never be successful. They may be good for your career, but not for you as a person.
- You can reach the top on your own conditions. Be aware of that!
- Never sacrifice yourself; it is not good for anyone. I saw highly educated expat women who did not have a working permit in Singapore. They saw their lives as a sacrifice. I do not believe in that. You have to fulfil your personal vision. There is always a way.
- Do not wait, but start today and simply show that it can be different. The role model will be followed automatically. That gets you further than storming the barricades or going against the grain.
- Some things should not be tampered with. So your vision must be clear. You have to know where you want to go. You cannot keep shifting the flag, but you can change the route to it.
- Organisations, be an attractive employer for women. Open your culture and be aware that a peanut butter sandwich is not the same for everyone.
- All hands on deck are needed; there are shortages on the job market again, certainly after the economic dip. You pass over a large part of the work force if you do not utilise their talent.
- Participate in the Taskforce, Charter on the top, diversity policy, quota… all of that is not compulsory for organisations, but it does help, if only because the subject appears on the agenda.
Download the book free of charge at www.samhoudwomen.com or at https://itunes.apple.com/nl/app/s-topvrouw/id431211023/