A woman in the upper echelons

Work hard, persevere, and stay who you are

Greta Thunberg is hot these days: a girl who, by herself, seems to have gotten the sluggish issue of environmental policy moving. In our interview about humble leadership, former Vice President of the internationally successful chip manufacturer, NXP, Renée van der Burg, mentions this 16-year-old Swede as a shining example: “This is what one person with confidence can achieve.” Believe in what you are doing and getting in there to do the dirty work – these are the most important lessons Renée can impart,as a woman in the male-dominated world of management. And – making your own success; seizing opportunities, even when you are not 100% sure of them.

Leadership – but different

Renée van der Burg

In this series of profiles, we – Bert Smeets and Christiaan Neeleman – examine the signs of future-proof business leadership: moving away from the ‘Boss’ culture to one of truly collaborating on a product or service. In this first interview, we immediately address a burning issue of women at the top. Burning may be too strong a word, because, in all honesty, this has been a problem for some time now. Smouldering is more appropriate for what is happening in daily practice, given the ongoing discussion about the glass ceiling. We met up with Renée in the environment where she received her practical leadership training: The High Tech Campus in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. This is a Campus that sets the tone in technology worldwide. It is the Brainport’s pride and joy and successor of the electronics giant, Philips, renowned Natlab. We are concentrating our efforts on renewed management.

Speak up

Van der Burg (61): ‘The most important lesson I have learned in 25 years in management in a beta environment is: speak up. You cannot just do your best, deliver good work, and then wait for someone to think, “Hey, that Renée can do her job well’. As a woman, you find that you doubt yourself more often. So, you sometimes wait until someone else sees your worth. That can take a long time. Fortunately, my first boss gave me a powerful boost. He believed in me and proved it by promptly giving me a lot of responsibility. And, when management commented, he stood by me 100%. This gave me the support I needed, although I, of course, had to make it happen myself.”

Confidence

Renée studied psychology and started in Philips’ personnel recruitment department. “It was actually not so easy because I did not know much about technology. In any case, certainly not at the level at which I had to find suitable candidates, those at Technology Institute level. ‘For me, it is not primarily about their technological knowledge’ my boss stated, ‘it is about their personal skills’. The department would soon enough assess the technological part. This was unusual in the 90s. It was, however, a sign that things were changing. There was plenty of stuttering and sputtering, but it worked out in the end. That job was the foundation of my successful career. That was lesson 1: give your employees solid assignments, radiate confidence as a manager, and stand behind your people, both externally and internally.”

Nursery school

Another step in the direction of confident management came from Renée’s next boss. “He bluntly said, ‘you are not in nursery school’. That came across as curt, but the message was clear: do not hold your boss’ hand. He – indeed, I only ever had male bosses – gave us the responsibility of doing the job ourselves. Tasks were divided and we had to solve our own problems. I call this ‘ownership’: your job, your responsibility. Set your course, and ensure the task is completed within the set frameworks or amount of time. Then your boss can carry on with his own work. Lesson 2 is, therefore: solve your own problems. This may seem easy enough, but how do you accomplish this from within an organisation with all kinds of written and unwritten rules, and in which diverse interests all play a simultaneous role? I had to learn to deal with this; things did not always go as I had envisioned. It comes down to setting your priorities and, at least, realising them. In other words: pick your own battles. You do not simply transform a business culture; it is a very lengthy process. I learnt that I needed to protect my colleagues against internal resistance too, since, otherwise, they would simply be burned down.”

Mirror

‘And then there are the upper echelons, full of men. Most of the time, I was the only woman in the management team, and then, things were out of balance. On their own, men and women have their own distinctive atmosphere and culture. When you come into that environment as the only representative of the opposite sex, then you must know how to deal with that. If someone asks, “And how do you manage that with your children?’, I immediately cut them off with, ‘How do you?’ You have to draw boundaries and safeguard them. If their behaviour becomes obviously arrogant, I also react sharply; otherwise, you lose credibility, and you will not be able to get things done. This is quite a change because I am about listening, asking questions, and resolving conflicts by finding common ground; by cooperating and approaching people with respect. So, at the same time, you have to stay true to yourself, because as my father always said, ‘You have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror’. This demands courage when you find yourself in an environment where status and competition play leading roles. In the upper echelons, then. There you must work hard, wholly as a woman, to gain, and maintain your position. On the other hand, there are also men who welcomed my presence. One man stated it, loud and clear: “It is good that you are here because now the macho-rubbish will finally stop.’ Lesson 3: Trust in yourself and in what you have to offer.”

Renée: ambitious and authentic

Her persistence paid off because, in 2011, Renée’s long-standing wish for a job abroad came true. In Singapore, Renée gained a great deal of knowledge about cultural diversity. Or rather, the lack thereof. “In particular, I was told, beforehand, that people in Asia are much more aware of money and status. However, I also noticed that people there are just as much in need of respect and meaningful employment as elsewhere in the world. Basic needs. There is also no relationship between what teams get done and what they are financially rewarded. My most engaged teams were those where the people were also strongly connected to each other, and who were proud of their work. Moreover, those were not always the teams who were paid the most.”

Van der Burg eventually came to the conclusion that meaningful employment and a deep-seated respect for each other is also possible in a results-driven technological organisation. Her job as NXP’s HR Manager in Asia was the crowning glory of her ambition. “An important milestone. And, after returning to the Netherlands, I decided to pass on my experiences from the past years. To help the next generation of female managers with the lessons I learnt. In this way, I can also still do relevant work in the years to come; my will to bring the best out in people is a long way from being done.”

What we learnt from this interview

  • Learning how to become a leader takes up a large part of your life. And, it is influenced, considerably, by good examples. For example, Renée was in the fortunate position to have managers who instilled confidence in her and supported her, but also told her to solve her own problems. In this way, she learnt to stand her ground in difficult situations. Her first boss was a fluke; later she deliberately decided on which manager she worked for.
  • A leader must determine boundaries and must communicate. For a woman in a male-dominated technological environment, this is even more important. In a ‘macho’ environment, it may be necessary to retort in a language they understand.
  • You will not advance on good work alone. Many women tend to stand up for those around them, but not for themselves. This, however, takes practice. Renée learnt to explicitly voice her wishes; otherwise, she would never have had the opportunity to work in Singapore for five years.
  • Even in a competitive environment, Renée stayed true to her values and principles. You must be able to use a wide range of behaviours to be able to retain these values in diverse situations.