When I was 16 years old, I left my home, without telling my parents, and got on a bus to another city to take an exam for a scholarship. The exam was an opportunity for me to move to the Netherlands and experience another country. Another culture.
I ended up doing well and the next thing I knew, an envelope arrived in the post notifying me that I had been awarded the opportunity to study in Rotterdam. At that time, I actually didn’t know what I wanted to study. It was either biology or economics and, in the end, I settled on the latter, not really knowing what to expect.
I dove into econometrics, which I learned that it was economics on steroids. Four years later I had a degree and I was not sure what to do next. I knew that I needed a job, but like most first jobs, I had no idea what I actually wanted to become. Everything I had learned was in books and I didn’t have any inspiring role models in business to look up to.
We all have that experience in life where we are not exactly sure what we are going to do. We wonder if we are good enough. If people might see that we actually don’t know what we are doing. I believe it is in those first few months that we all feel like imposters. The thing that I learned then and carry with me today is a learner’s mind, that is able to adapt and learn. The creative tension that I felt at that time was exactly the quality that I have done my best to maintain in my business life. Somewhere between confidence that I am going to do a great job, while at the same time knowing that there is always something that I am missing.
I’ve also noticed throughout my career that it’s often harder for women to make peace with this “Impostor syndrome” because we often look at what we’re not capable of doing, rather than what we are capable of doing. In my experience, men often feel much more confident in areas where they have less experience, which has the effect that they are often given higher positions, even salaries, and a culture of “knowing” is given priority, over more creative cultures that invite exploration and creativity.
I worked for the next few years at the insurance company Aegon, where I learned the basics of business. I learned how politics work. How budgets get created. And possibly most importantly, how the best ideas will fail, even before they are started, if there’s a culture that isn’t able to maintain it. The statement work smarter, not harder is something that I have found more and more wisdom in as I have evolved in my business career.
In 2008 I was lucky enough to cofound the hedge fund Saemor Capital. There I learned the difference between working in the public and private sector. I learned that once you are spending your own money, you treat it differently. There’s no company flipping the bill. It’s your own money and you see that you spend it more responsibly. This has been a lesson that I carried forward the rest if my life. Just because you work for a company that is not your own, doesn’t mean that you should treat it as if it is not your money.
After working in this hedge fund for ten years, I had the deep desire to work in another market. It was always my dream to work in London, a global financial capital. I knew that the competition was high and the hedge fund industry was competitive. I worked at Aspect Capital where I learned another big lesson in life. Not everything is what you imagine. Sometime your expectations are far from reality. I worked night and day, never leaving work at the office. I was preoccupied with work, where results were measured day to day, not year to year. What I learned here was important. We must have humility in the face of challenges. Not everyone is cut out for every job and I saw that this job as great, just not for me.
I also learned that some challenges were even greater than making money. An example to that is creating teams who could achieve more together than any individual could create on their own. I transitioned back to the Netherlands, where I brought my years of experience back into the corporate sphere. Creating teams that flourishes is a challenge that requires a vastly different set of skills. How does one inspire the best in an individual? How does a group flourish without the need for micromanagement?
I learned that this journey is actually less about understanding others and more about understanding oneself. How is my behavior positively or negatively influencing the group? How can I support each person, with very different motivations, to become successful in their chosen endeavor? I don’t see my position as a one of authority. I see my position as one of how do I inspire others through my behavior. This has been one of the greatest learnings of my life.
If I had to reduce successful leadership down to three points they would be the following: Successful leaders reflect on their behavior and continually learn how to get out of the way of their group’s success. Successful leaders are not fearful of change. In fact, they invite it as a pathway to continuous improvement. And finally, there is happiness. If people are not enjoying themselves, it is not sustainable. That does not mean that people do not take their job seriously, rather they balance achievement and self-care.
As long as these three things are in alignment I feel like I am serving the groups I work with, as well as myself.