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Leadership at scale-ups

14 July 2021

0.4% of the start-ups grow into a successful scale-up. How does digital leadership help to scale impactful businesses? What is the difference between what is needed in a supervisory position and an executive role? And how do you ensure optimal cooperation between the board and management?

Newpeople organized the first of a series of knowledge sessions in the field of leadership at scale-ups on Thursday 24 June from 4:00-5:30 pm together with ScaleUpNation, both at entrepreneurial and board level. We set out the digital leadership model during the online event and went deeper into the skills involved. Speakers Lucas van Ardenne (Member of Supervisory Board @ Tiledmedia) and Chahna Gosrani (CTO @ Swapfiets) took us on a journey through their personal stories in recent years.

Hajo: “Welcome everyone on this beautiful Thursday. We have two amazing speakers lined up for you so that we can really dive deeper into the world of scale-ups. This includes their connection to board roles, the difference between scale-ups and corporates and how you can switch within your career. The whole idea of hosting these sessions, which are currently still online although the next one after the summer will be in person, is to share information, to share networks and to learn from each other. That focus on scale-ups is really important to us. Not only for us as organisations, Jolanda will elaborate a bit on the collaboration that we started with ScaleUpNation later, but also for the Netherlands. I think that everyone wants to be a scale-up these days when everyone used to want to be a start-up. What does that mean for us? What does it essentially mean to work with scale-ups and how can they pursue better growth if they have more support? Particularly the role of advisory and supervisory boards is something that we consider to be very interesting. This is not just because it is cool to be on a board, but because of the added value they can have in helping to make a scale-up more mature. We think it’s a fascinating topic and maybe Jolanda can tell us a bit more about the ‘One Single Hub’ and the collaboration we started.”

Jolanda: “Of course. My name is Jolanda Holwerda and I am the Programme Director of the board programme of ScaleUpNation. This board programme has been specifically developed to help advisory and supervisory boards of scale-ups to perform well so that they can be most effective. We know from research that the advisory and supervisory boards are very important success factors. You can do it right but you can certainly also do it wrong. In terms of scaling a company you should have a good supervisory or advisory board otherwise you ruin your chance of getting the next round of funding.”

Hajo: “That’s a good warning Jolanda.”

Jolanda: “Yes. So that’s what our programme is all about. We’re working together with the Rijksdienst voor Ondernemend Nederland which is the entrepreneurial subsidy of the Dutch government. They have a keen interest in allowing more scale-ups to grow in the Netherlands and they started up the One Single Hub initiative. This initiative unites the companies that are making an effort to grow the scale-up climate in the Netherlands. This explains why we collaborate with Newpeople, so with Hajo and his colleagues, namely to provide a matching between the board programme that you graduate from as a supervisory board member and scale-ups who need a qualified board member. That’s why we have a series on leadership and scaling of which today is the first. Hajo already mentioned that we have great speakers on the subject of digital leadership which is a very interesting topic. Perhaps all of you know what you understand the term to mean but for us to get a grip on it, it was a bit of a black box. So please write in the chat what digital leadership is in your view and experience. Some faces are looking puzzled which was also our reaction.”

Hajo: “As Jolanda said, at Newpeople we really look at digital leadership not as one box that is in one phase but also as something that changes depending on the phase that the organisation is in. Some people are more geared towards the early stages of an organisation with regards to their leadership style, whereas some people are better at the scaling phase.”

Jolanda: “I like the answer “the kind of leadership needed for digital transformation”, I think that’s spot on, as well as “mobilising digital transformation.” Another interesting answer is “delivering the needs of a client before they know they need it.” Let’s now hand over the floor to our speakers.”

Digital Leadership

Hajo: “It’s great to have Chahna Gosrani here with us today. She’s currently the CTO at Swapfiets and she is a true citizen of the world. She grew up in the UK, then moved to Switzerland for Ebay and is now in the beautiful Netherlands. Along the way she also did her MBA at Harvard. We’re very excited to have her on board here today alongside Lucas.”

Jolanda: “Great. Lucas joined the board programme a while ago and just finished. He has an intriguing title: he is the Growth and Happiness Officer at InView which is a corporate start-up within Wolters Kluwer. He is also a member of the supervisory board of Tiledmedia as well as being the CCO and co-founder. He has a large portfolio of roles so he can give a perspective on digital leadership from different points of view which is why we invited him here today. I think the first question for both Chahna and Lucas is “why did you start working in a scale-up and stop working in a corporate?” You really changed positions which we thought would be interesting for the audience to hear about.”

Chahna: “Hi everyone, nice to meet you, thank you for letting me do this in English as my Dutch is still a work in progress. I’ve actually switched between start-up, corporate and scale-up over the past ten years. After my MBA, I was working in a mid-sized company in an expat network marketplace. Then I co-founded a start-up. From there I moved to Ebay and now I’m at Swapfiets, a name you hopefully all know. We are the blue tyres on the streets making it really easy for anyone to get access to micromobility options. There are a couple of reasons that I switched between the two. One is finding a really exciting challenge that allows me to grow professionally and really develop new skills. The other is being able to grow something really quickly and really have that impact. Sometimes in a corporate that is a really difficult thing to do because there are so many processes and there is so much more that you need to do and you need to be a bit more risk-averse and go slowly. I have more energy than that and I like to go faster so I really like the pace and I like being able to create a calm in the storm within a scale-up environment.”

Lucas: “I’m 49 first of all. After my degree in Business Administration at the University of Rotterdam I started at Procter and Gamble. I did that for two years then started my own e-commerce or dot com company, as it was called back in the day, we did that for thirteen years. Aside from that I started more companies in that same period. After that I didn’t know what to do so I went to the US and checked out a new environment. I went to Facebook, Google, Silicon Valley etc. and saw the mobile-first strategies and the impact of the smartphone, which has new business models and new monetisation models and I started Skillseeker which is a marketplace for education. Eventually I came up with a corporate start-up within Wolters Kluwer which provides a new way of helping lawyers with an artificial intelligence product and in January we put that on the market. In all these workplaces I like the dynamic, I like the speed, I like to learn new skills and I like to work with young people to whom I give lots of advisory meetings or chats. These became more formal. With a group I’m currently investing in twelve companies and I’m now an independent member of the Tiledmedia company which is totally new for me, just giving advice without stakes or shares and I love it. What I love is people with passion, people working together, the learning cycle and really getting things done. I really like learning by doing and that is exactly what is happening in the tech industry. During the last twenty years, it has been amazing to see the diversity in directors. I really like that you are the CTO at Swapfiets which started out as a technical company from Delft, with lots of guys with bicycles, and that there is now a proper CTO who is a woman from abroad that can really bring the company further. I’m very enthusiastic about that.”

Different perspectives

Jolanda: “We’re swapping perspectives all the time because what we’re really interested in in this webinar is what is your perspective on digital growth as a CTO but also how do you deal with it from a supervisory point of view. The two of you are going to challenge each other on certain topics.”

Lucas: “Let’s assume, Chahna, that we are in a board meeting, what would you tell me? What are the subjects that keep you awake at night? What is your vision for the coming months and years?”

Chahna: “Of course I can’t share all of the answers to all those questions, those go to the supervisory board. Those are exactly the kinds of questions that I would expect from the supervisory board. The really challenging part is making sure that as the management team we have that really solid story of what is keeping us up at night, what are we doing about it and how are we going to make sure that we are moving in the right direction? Where you get a really great trade-off is being the devil’s advocate and saying “that’s good, but how confident are you that we are actually going to achieve this plan and have you thought through everything?” For me, those are the most valuable interactions to have. Whoever is presenting to the supervisory board, has to actually think about how we would answer those questions and make sure we’re prepared for that and to make sure that we’re moving the entire organisation in the right direction.”

Lucas: “Do you think this is only important in a scale-up or could it also be useful in a start-up?”

Chahna: “In a start-up phase, in Swapfiets but also in the start-up that I co-founded, there is a really hard trade-off between what you need to fake until you can do it for real. You figure it out and make it work. But also, what is the direction you’re going in? I think for both what’s really valuable is making sure that you have your enterprise and you’re clear on what direction you’re going in, so that every time you are faking it if you need to, it’s still going in the same direction. The hardest thing to do in both a scale-up and start-up environment is to ignore everything else that comes from the side and ensure that you keep going in the right direction.”

Lucas: “How do you do that? How do you feel what’s happening around you and what I’m curious about: how do you deal with founders? Because you’re the new kid on the block so how is that environment for you?”

Chahna: “Excellent question. For me, from a tech perspective, it’s really focussing on the why. The most helpful thing that I can receive from any of my colleagues or from the board is a really clear understanding of “what is it that we’re trying to do and why?”, “why is that going to take us in the direction that we need to be heading in?” We need to make sure that we’re really aligned on that. With the founders I think we’re in quite a lucky situation because Dirk, Martijn and Richard are still very involved so we can always make sure that we stay aligned to the original reason for starting Swapfiets. What is the aim? For Swapfiets that is leading the movement to having more liveable cities. Everything that we do should be backed up by that why. If it doesn’t, we need to make sure that we work out whether or not that’s going to distract us or take us in the right direction. Maybe it’s something we didn’t think of which is difficult.”

Lucas: “I understand. That mission you talk about, is that something that is created with the board? Or in workshops? How does that process work?”

Chahna: “Great question. I can tell you a bit about it but of course the founders were here six years before me so the vision was already there. Luckily, I totally buy into the vision. The big thing we did change for example, is that in the beginning the vision was much more focussed on getting a blue tyre in every bike rack, but as we grew we realised that not everyone wants to cycle. We’re solving the last mile problem. How do you travel short distances? The scooter is one option but that won’t be a tyre on a bike rack, that will be a tyre on the street. When we thought about it, we realised that we were thinking too small when in actual fact what we’re trying to do is make every city more liveable, reduce the need for cars and make it much easier to get around. That’s the evolution from start-up to scale-up. And now a question to you Lucas, how do we make sure that we’re growing together with the advisory board? How do we know whether something is critical to include or just a distraction and that we’re making the right decisions together?”

Lucas: “My opinion is always ask for help and that can mean help on different levels. At Tilemedia which is a technology company, they’re making VR live streaming events. It’s not my business to be honest, I’m not in the VR business. But what I do like is getting the opportunity to commercialise lots of tracks there. They’re doing the Olympics, they’re doing the Premier League, they’re doing the Champion’s league, they’re going live through VR, through British Telecom, through Sky Sports, through Chinese Telecom, all kinds of big companies that are using their technology but no one knows about it. So how can we gain awareness? Similar to Swapfiets’ blue tyre concept. It is now a real brand in Europe and that’s what we have to learn about. It is important to get domain expertises from other industries, to get people that have done it already and do it again and learn from it. Get expertise from things that are new for you. The fact that Swapfiets now has a CTO is something the founders couldn’t have dreamed of five years ago because they were in the bicycle business. Yet, it is now a technology company and has undergone a total transformation. It is mobility as a service, it is a bigger thing. That’s what the Netherlands especially has to learn. Scaling is so tough. A scaling mindset is even tougher and that’s where you come in with your knowledge and your experience at Ebay and other companies. The world is bigger than just the Netherlands and that’s why you have to find a supervisory board with members that could fulfill that need. Soundboarding is also really important, informal meetings with everyone. What I like a lot about the board meetings is the different disciplines within the meeting and the preparation of stuff to share with each other. The cash flow stuff that the CFO talks about is also important for the commercial guy. Engineers also want to tell their story. It’s important that it’s really a team effort and that everyone is involved.”

The Feedback Loop

Jolanda: “Chahna, do you have a last question for Lucas before we open the floor to the public?”

Chahna: “Yes, a question on a slightly different topic. One of the really interesting things that you’ve been able to do Lucas, is share the knowledge that you have which is really valuable. However, it can also be really difficult to take that step in terms of being able to share the knowledge, to go from being in that management team position and really focus on building to being able to then also be that sounding board for others. How did you make that step?”

Lucas: “Important is the feedback loop. The feedback loop started with customers but also within the team, the rhythm of the meetings, the rhythm to speak to each other, the subjects. It’s really also a cultural thing. In the Netherlands we are not used to sharing. We have lots of sharing companies because we like trading which is why we are specialised in marketplace. However, we don’t really share knowledge with each other or help people in getting to the next level. My suggestion is always to visit other companies. I went to ING with one of your founders, not for the money but just to share the tribe culture that is there. Perhaps it is already implanted in Swapfiets, I don’t know, but it is useful to learn and talk about and share that knowledge. To go outside the company and think of other things that could be helpful in really going faster in your own company and to also do it with your team. I found the board an excellent environment for myself, so that I could train and develop my leadership skills.”

Jolanda: “Is that why they call you a Happiness Officer Lucas?”

Lucas: “Within Wolters Kluwer, we had to pitch to Nancy McKinstry, maybe you know her, she’s an excellent CEO, top in the market. We had new names. We had the Chief Advertising Officer, we had the Growth and Happiness Officer, that’s me, I’m responsible for customers and business development, and it is the growth and happiness of our customers that makes our product better and better. Just for your information, we developed a product that was made by 800 lawyers and legal people. We did this through all kinds of methods which is exactly what made the product so impactful.”

Hajo: “So how about the audience? How do you see this and what kinds of ideas or questions do you have? After this session, we’ll dive a bit deeper in smaller groups into some questions we prepared. We also have a bigger Q & A at the end of this session to really tackle all the Q & As that are still out there. But feel free to ask questions at any time of course.”

Nicole: “This is less of a question but more of a remark to get another perspective. Lucas was my buddy in the programme and we spoke about what he touched on that it’s also about sharing knowledge. In the US, it feels like it’s more usual to share knowledge for free. We’re wondering if that’s maybe also the reason why there are more successful start-ups to scale-ups there in Silicon Valley vs in Europe.”

Lucas: “For sure, although it also has to do with the access to money, the question of capital. And, the conquering the world mindset in Silicon Valley is really quite amazing. We can learn from that. In Silicon Valley they always say that the Netherlands is a small Silicon Valley. So, if you’re making an MVP or a pilot, try it in the Netherlands and if you really have traction or a product market, then expand. That is what we can do. I’m very proud of Adyen, Mollie, all this stuff is on the rise. In the financial and the travel market we are big. Booking.com is also Dutch. It’s amazing what kind of companies we have in this small country. But, we really need to share more knowledge with each other and help out small companies, start-ups, and scale-ups to get to the next level. We have excellent people working in the Netherlands. Chahna is already an example since she came from Switzerland to the Netherlands. So, there are definitely people coming out here to work for excellent companies. On top of that, we have a nice work-life balance which you also know in your office Nicole. We have a good environment but the DNA is a little bit lazy, thinking that the Netherlands is doing great and that’s enough. In the US that is different because they really want to conquer the world and help each other. We can change that. Everyone can do that.”

Which expertise do I need?

Maurice: “A short question that I’m very busy with in our current operations is since we have portfolios through collective value transfer from other insurance companies and other management funds, my most difficult predicament is whether I’m ready to scale my organisation. How do I know which expertise I really need in this phase or in the next phase and what should be an inherent part of our team so not through contracting or picking it up in the marketplace? How do you solve these issues at Swapfiets?”

Chahna: “Excellent question. It’s something that we’re actually going through at the moment. If I think about how Swapfiets grew as a start-up, and the growth was incredible, it was very much about speed and execution. This involves thinking “how do I solve the problem I have today?” And not necessarily always thinking about what the implications are and whether they take us in the right direction. A couple of examples and two things that we’re actually working on right now is: a lot of our operational processes are not really thought through. So a lot of things we’ll bring in and then something breaks and we immediately have to think about fixing it. We’re mapping out all of those processes right now. In parallel, there was a view of looking at tech from that very narrow perspective too. We would call an agency and say “we have a very small piece of work with these features please help us.” We built absolutely everything including things that we are not the best in the market at doing by any means. In parallel, we’re also designing which processes are special to Swapfiets and which are not. We’re also defining the new development principles and tech strategy around what really drives enterprise and member value. If it doesn’t drive either of those things, we should not be building it. We will either buy it in-house or, if it does drive value, we will put all of our engineering effort on those things and make the best products that we can that really make a difference.”

Maurice: “Sounds very familiar, thank you, very good answer. We also have this first phase now behind us where problem-solving qualities were number one, but they get in the way of the next step to the target operating model, where you should be able to direct more work outside or direct work inside. It is indeed quite the balancing act, figuring out where to put in the most effort. Thank you.”

Lucas: “To add to that, sometimes it is very important to take a step back, make a vision or strategy plan and then get back in business and go.”

Maurice: “Part of my job is also trying to forecast it more. What will be needed next year if we grow at a certain pace? What should be in place? What do I use to scale up or down?”

Lucas: “Especially scaling down. No one likes to do that but it is certainly a scenario that should be considered and potentially implemented into the strategy.”

Anne Mieke: “Just to very briefly touch on an earlier topic, as a board member setting the pace is literally what I do sometimes. Also a part of my role is slowing the CEO and CTO down a little bit because you want to have your eye on the ball but on the other hand an eye on where you’re headed just like Chahna was saying. That is the dynamic and also the fun part of the job. But I had a question, I’m still chewing on that knowledge Lucas. Is it knowledge? What I see in a lot of scale-ups that are looking for new people to hire, is that the CEO and the HR manager, tend to look more at mentality and a specific mindset rather than people who have a certain background or expertise. So to both of you, how do you see that? I personally see a shift is what I’m trying to say.”

Chahna: “I totally agree and I actually also think it links back to the topic we discussed earlier of mentality. One of the biggest shifts that I personally see as looking at how the US has grown so quickly and so successfully in many areas, is how can you transfer and really maintain that growth mindset? Exactly as Lucas just said, the world will always be changing and one of the best skills you can have is being able to continue the focus and have the ability to grow, adjust, adapt and continue from that. A little bit of the trap that I have seen in the UK and Switzerland (I don’t know the Netherlands well enough yet to be sure), is looking too much at whether people have done something before and are thus able to replicate it rather than if they can bring in what they know, to do what we need to do faster. If you look at Swapfiets, I joined nine months ago and we’ve got a new CTO, we’ve got a new CEO, we’ve got a new CFO, we’ve got a Strategy Advisor now. It’s all about bringing in the right people that will help us scale and have the right mindset to figure out just how we get there and problem-solve.”

Anne Mieke: “Interesting, thank you.”

Lucas: “To add on to that, that’s also an important role for us as board members, really overseeing what kind of people are needed. Skills are important but also mentality. If you want to work in Mountain View at Google for example, both of the founders still speak with you as a last intake call. That means it is important for them to see who is going to work there. They want to show engagement with each other about how they are going to do things within Google. In the Netherlands, HR is not always number one within a company. And it should be. Especially if you want to play in the Champions League. That is what Chahna is doing in Swapfiets now, preparing for the Champions League. They are preparing to fit the whole team to win the Champions League final, that’s what they’re doing. That means getting the best of the best but there are also all kinds of tests that they use. You really need to challenge companies to look more broadly at people then just at their skill set. That is something that needs to change.”

Hajo: “That’s where we help as well. It is a hard challenge. I think the combination of skills and mindset is out there but of course if you’re looking for talent then it is common to look at someone’s LinkedIn profile and that’s only useful for getting an idea of the skill set. It is so important that there is a cultural fit to generate that conclusion after a couple of conversations and therefore we’re very happy that more and more job interviews are happening face to face again. That kind of synergy is difficult to get out of a video call sometimes. That internationalisation of the Dutch tech ecosystem is also improving quite rapidly and is important, very important. Thanks for pointing that out Lucas.”

Jolanda: “Great. I think some very interesting things were mentioned. For example how you, Chahna, mentioned that you are a calm in the storm of a scale-up. I think we can all agree how necessary that is. Lucas I also think that comparing running a successful scale-up to running in the Champions League is a very interesting metaphor that we can probably all relate to. That’s why we would like to put you into break-out rooms right now so that you can share a bit of your own experience.”

[Break out rooms]

Jolanda: “Thank you, I hope you all had some interesting conversations. Is there anyone who would like to share what was discussed in their breakout room before we go back to today’s guest speakers?”

Jop: “We had a conversation about how you manage entrepreneurship within a company. How do you manage corporate venturing within a corporate? What are the key factors to be successful? We had a short chat about people, how do you attract people to your company? What does it mean to be entrepreneurial within a bigger company? That’s an interesting theme in my opinion.”

Jolanda: “Also with respect to change, how can you have this growth mindset so people are willing to change with you rather than the change stagnating eventually?”

Nicole: “In our group we spoke about how to stay focussed when you scale internationally, because the tendency is to want to localise. In my experience it’s better to focus on where we’re the same and then look at how to build in the local element.”

Tessa: “In our group we mostly chatted around and didn’t focus on the questions so much. We talked about how important it is to have a mentor. We had Dave in our group who is a student and Lucas was asking “do you have a mentor who can guide you through the process of getting your first job and seeing what fits your profile and what doesn’t so you don’t make the same mistakes that other people have already made?” When you’re in the scale-up phase it’s also important to have a mentor to speak to and learn from someone who has done it before and who has made all those mistakes already. We also talked about how you can make an impact in your organisation and that is partially having the right mentality and skills and partially making the right choices for your company and how to achieve growth. There is also a balancing act between having more people in your company and having more clients. What do you place emphasis on? At what moment do you start growing your team or make the decision of outsourcing some processes? That is the challenge I myself am currently in as well. How can you use money from investors in making those choices? So a lot of questions from our side.”

Chahna: “For what it’s worth, our favourite saying is more money, more people, more problems.”

Tessa: “Yes that’s also true.”

Berry: “Our group had more of a discussion about dynamics. Maurice and myself, we both have experience as an executive and as a non-executive so we know how it is to be in both positions. It’s not really easy to be a good non-executive. You see a lot of different kinds of attitudes and it’s not easy because you don’t want to put yourself in the position of an executive. But on the other hand you want to do some controlling and some advising as well. You have different kinds of board members who all have a different way of seeing their position and the way that they see their own role. Some boards are quite large, it can be eight, nine or ten people. As an executive you really need to manage that well to have an effective board meeting. Our company has 100 employees so that gives you a certain level of control making it easier to transform to digitalisation and as a CEO it is easier to have an impact that way.”

Jolanda: “Interesting what you’re pointing out Berry, 100 people makes it relatively easy and there is some control. It’s nice how you describe it, does it feel that way for you?”

Berry: “No, there have been a lot of lessons learned on my end. I started in a non-executive role when I was 33 in quite a challenging environment. I learned a lot about stakeholder management when I was younger. I have now been in this position for 7 years as an executive. We have quite a mature board, most of you know Willem Sijthoff or Chris Ouwinga, the founder of Unit4, and some of other very seasoned board members. It’s very much learning by doing. Of course, a lot of mistakes are made, but if you’ve been doing something for twelve years, at some point you know how to do it. It is important to prepare yourself for board meetings because that really helps. If I expect an issue, I call a certain person. My non-executives are challenging me because I spend a lot of time on my shareholder and stakeholder management but I’ve learned that if you don’t do that you get a tremendous fireback which might put the company at risk which you should avoid. You always need to make sure that everyone is aligned. Stakeholders should also be aligned with shareholders.”

Jolanda: “I think that’s a beautiful lesson. Chahna and Lucas could you give your view on how you do that, if you agree with Berry that is? To create impact in a digital world it is important to manage relationships well. I also want to challenge you with one more thing: what is your biggest learning moment or the biggest mistake you made before you learned it? Berry, maybe you can start?”

Skills vs. Behaviour

Berry: “The biggest mistake I made pertains to the hiring of employees. Coming from a corporate, I was really looking at skill set and not at behaviour so I can only agree with what has been said that you really have to look at people’s behaviour; you need people with a strong character. In my previous company we had 7000 employees so it was a completely different kind of hiring process than when you start a new company. It’s really a matter of considering what stage you’re in and what kind of people you need in that stage. Particularly in the beginning you need two things: people with a strong character and a network. You need to have a network to create launching customers. If you have that, you can use them in your marketing and things will become easier. A network is very important and it is something I didn’t really do in the past. Another thing I didn’t do well is I was extremely used to just getting five candidates and picking one of them. That is one of my learning moments: one of the most important things I have to do is build a great team and then I am actually quite passive. Someone else selects the five candidates for me, I do interviews and then I simply select one of the five. I am literally spending five hours on finding the best person for a certain job. If you look at your own priorities and how you spend your hours, it doesn’t really make sense. You should spend much more time on finding the right people. Perhaps the good ones are not available at that moment which means you need to try to find them and encourage them to work for you which takes a lot more time. These learning points cost me a lot of money.”

Hajo: “And you Chahna and Lucas, how do you reflect on that?”

Lucas: “I wholeheartedly agree. I also spend a lot of money and time on that. My rule is, any doubt means it’s a no go. It happens too often that we’re in doubt about someone but we do decide to go with them because we need it in the short term but then it ends up going wrong eventually. It really has to improve in the Netherlands – that process of finding the right people at the right time and really making sure the team gets along. In the end we’re just not really a team-building nation and we need more of that. Nowadays I visit other companies more and exchange information about how to do that. Then I share those insights within the board or with other companies to really give them more clarity on that. For instance, in Silicon Valley, Steve Blank is always doing HR things for all the VCs in the area so they know exactly what people can do and what can help. We need something similar in the Netherlands so perhaps Newpeople and ScaleUpNation can figure something out. People are tough. Onboarding programmes are also important which is something that lots of companies actually forget to do. How does that work at Swapfiets Chahna?”

Chahna: “I echo everything you’ve been saying, particularly relating to the people side. It’s funny, a couple of my team members were on holiday or sick recently and I was doing some first round interviews because we needed to hire people and we needed someone else to be there in the interview. I had to really challenge the team members to say “if you’re not sure about this person, why would we spend time on a second interview?” Building in the culture of deciding what does and doesn’t matter and how to make fast decisions is really difficult to do, especially if you aren’t confident of the outcome. The second thing I would say is, which is again something I learned in the US, how do you make a safe environment for people to make mistakes? That’s a really difficult thing to do but it starts at the board and it starts at the management team and should be possible much more easily than it is now. It’s also one of Swapfiets’ learnings. The original way for us to avoid and make as few mistakes as possible was to try and take more control, but as you grow that’s simply not possible to do. The question remains: how do you make it so that we reflect and learn and don’t make the same mistake twice?”

Lucas: “And how do you do that because that is really a huge thing at the moment?”

Chahna: “It’s a really huge thing, we are spreading the tech way of working which is having retrospectives, it’s having moments to measure what we did and how that worked out and therefore what our next steps will be. We really need to embed the thinking of starting out small and simple with an MVP with the aim of learning and then moving on. That is what we’re trying to do across the whole company, educating on the way we should be doing things if we want to grow quickly.”

Lucas: “And what does it mean for the supervisory board? How do they have to act on that?”

Chahna: “That goes back to what Anne Mieke said, having a little bit of patience and having that balancing act. For us at the moment, there’s a little bit of sharing the right level of information with the supervisory board. You don’t have to share everything that we’re testing and learning, it’s more about sharing what we’ve learned and what that means about the next step rather than having a lot of information and potentially confusing people because we’re trying to do so much. For us, across 1200-1400 people, that’s a lot of information so it’s important to distill it down to a simple story. If we can do that for the supervisory board and for ourselves then we can make sure that we’re on the right track.”

Lucas: “Nice to hear.”

Anne Mieke: “What is nice about what you both share is that it really tells a story about the tone at the top and the culture that is created with your supervisory board also regarding what we should talk about and what we should not. Allowing this learning environment has a lot of consequences. In my experience, it should be on the agenda. We need to discuss “what went wrong? What are we facing now? What are we struggling with?” It’s really important but at the same time really underestimated. It’s key to discuss that with your supervisory board and with your investors. Human capital of the people is a big part of the success of the scaling of the company. The other thing is that you gave me an idea Lucas. I think one of the biggest problems currently is the way executive search works and dives into the same pool of people. They have a very narrow mindset regarding what kind of expertise is needed and what kind of skills and capabilities to be a good CTO or CEO. I always have trouble with that. Maybe we should set up a new executive search company.”

Jolanda: “Maybe Hajo wants to say something about that, these will be the concluding remarks.”

Executive Search in the Digital World

Hajo: “The world of executive search is rather complex because there are so many beautiful firms out there with American or English names and they tell you that they can find the best people. It’s extremely difficult to do this in a proper way and that’s why Newpeople does it very differently. We look at leadership styles instead of looking at if someone is in FMCG and should therefore get another job within FMCG. Also relating to myself, I’m 46 and I joined Newpeople in December. I don’t come from a HR/recruitment/executive search or interim background at all. I co-founded two small tech companies and I worked on leadership development a lot. At Newpeople we also have a lot of people that are not in the executive search business. I’m not the best executive search person when it comes to process but I look at the way that companies handle challenges completely differently and I think that’s really new in executive search. I totally echo your words.”

Berry: “Hajo, how can you find the right people if you look at skills because skills are not that well-pointed out on a resumé or on a LinkedIn profile so I think we all agree in this meeting. But how do you approach the search? I can imagine it might not be easy to find the right skill set.”

Hajo: “We interview a lot on leadership style so we look at what kind of leader someone is. We also really dive deep into the organisation. For example, if Swapfiets were to have a vacancy, we wouldn’t just say “we’ll find you a new Chief Product Officer”, but we really try and understand why that’s necessary. As Newpeople we can initially be a bit annoying because we’re really keen to understand the problem before we start a search and that’s also really important. It’s not just getting that vacancy and just running with it but it’s about understanding what’s necessary. Sometimes we reach the conclusion together with the client that now is not, in fact, the best time to find a Chief Product Officer. Maybe it’s better to wait, or to design the whole thing differently. The leadership style and the way you handle situations is really important. If you prefer building to scaling for example, that can be terrible once you start at a company, because you might have the education and some experience. But, if the company’s challenge lies in scaling and you’re more focussed on building stuff then it just doesn’t work. We also learn a lot from matches that don’t go the right way. Still, the process and the way you handle that is very important. We do a different process with scale-ups and with digital first companies than we do with traditional ones. We also try to build long lists that are very diverse. They are not ten people from the same background but we really build them in a way that is as diverse as possible. This is not only diverse when it comes to gender or background but also when it comes to the angle they would bring into the job. But, it’s still difficult, it’s human work.”

Jolanda: “It’s human work, in the words of Lucas, “it’s tough, people.” We’ve reached the last minute, so perhaps I can ask you to round it up Hajo. I would like to know two things: what is the insight you took away from this session? And, what is a subject you would like us to take up from here? Our main focus is empowering the ecosystem in the Netherlands for scale-ups, so what is a topic that you would suggest for a next session?”

Hajo: “Or if you have any suggestions for speakers, let us know. Our next session is planned for October, maybe that’s too late but we’ll see.”

Jolanda: “I’m seeing some nice answers like “future skills and mindsets”, “how to stimulate more scale-ups to set up a non-executive board”, “who should be on your board?”, “people are both key and trouble and how to deal with that dilemma.” I think that’s a very good summary of today actually.”

Hajo: “Thanks for an amazing afternoon. It’s been a beautiful Thursday with the perfect words. And for Chahna, it’s like Lucas said, how amazing is it that we were able to attract a talent like Chahna from Switzerland, from a job at Ebay, here to Swapfiets. It must have been funny to realise that not only will you be working for a Dutch company, but one with an unpronounceable name. And Lucas, thanks for all your wise words and experiences. Especially on the sharing knowledge part which I do think was the main topic of today. You’re absolutely right, there’s more work to be done there and we at Newpeople and at ScaleUpNation, will do our best to continue that hard work together with you all. Do reflect and chat and help us improve our programmes. Thanks to you all.” 


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