HOUTHOFF ENTERS A PARALLEL UNIVERSE WITH THE THEME OF CULTURE, COCKTAILS AND CONNECT
Feeling part of a greater whole brings a unique form of energy. Who doesn’t want to discover the large common denominator within different ‘worlds’, the common ground that binds us? In order to feel that sense of belonging, we first have to step back from the affairs of the day and make real contact. But what does ‘connect’ really mean, and how to you use it to achieve success?
By asking this question on the same day, in the same setting and in different time zones to a select group of top women from various sectors, Houthoff entered a parallel universe with the theme of Culture, Cocktails and Connect. A universe in which diverse women leaders working at a considerable physical distance from each other, nevertheless agreed in their conviction that a genuine ‘connect’ based on intrinsic interest underlies every successful contact.
The theme connect is a broad one that was deliberately chosen for that reason: it means not only for the connection between women themselves and within different roles – how do you behave towards your peers at the corporate level and towards stakeholders in the broadest sense – but also for connections at an international level. After all, contacts are made in no time within the global village, but how we interpret these will always depend on cultural mores, a personal approach and perhaps gender too. We all know the cliché that women know just how to make an unmentionable topic open to discussion and possess a good dose of empathy, so the method of their approach is different to that of their male counterparts. These style differences are there to be championed. In the words of Cecile Eijsink-Bonnier, who represents Houthoff in Tokyo: “The world has so much to gain from recognising and embracing those differences.”
As the venues in Amsterdam and Brussels filled up with corporate ladies at five o’clock in the afternoon, London was still in the starting blocks, Tokyo and Singapore were already in full swing, and New York had not yet begun. It’s that same feeling we have at New Year, when some countries are already gazing in wonder at the fireworks while others are still counting down to midnight.
Lawyer and counsel Marloes Brans said during the start in Amsterdam: “The first reactions we are getting from Tokyo and Singapore are very positive. Doing business there is closely coupled with investment in relationships. But there are differences too. We have put together the same questions for all the international panels, but while we in Amsterdam and Brussels expect to be able to talk freely about failure – after all, making a connection is all about giving each other space, which also means you can make mistakes – that is a somewhat more sensitive issue in Asia.”
The event kicked off in all six cities with an initial question for the panellists: “What does ‘connect’ mean to you?” And straight away we could see some parallels. In Singapore it would seem that authenticity is at the top of the list. In one of the panellists’ view *: “You can only make real contact with a healthy dose of self-awareness. If you can show something of yourself, you call on others to show that too.” Often this is fairly automatic among women, another panellist says: “You won’t often hear a man introduce himself as ‘I’m a CEO and father of two children.’ Women do, and that makes it easier to approach them.” That’s the preliminary phase – followed by ‘connect’, which is mainly to do with listening, and even altruism. “Saying less is connect more”, was the somewhat poetic interpretation given by one of the women on the podium. “Try to ask questions and ask for someone’s opinion. Really listen, with an open mind.”
In the meantime, similar conclusions were being drawn in Tokyo. The ability to connect was compared to a Lego brick. “It’s about building trust. Alignment of your personal goals and business objectives, with a balance between logic and emotion, is essential.” Without reciprocity it will quickly grind to a halt: “I have really benefited from the advice and support from others, and realise how important it is to do something in return. That’s the only way to keep the connection healthy.” Another panellist took it a step further: “It’s about giving and giving, not giving and taking.” But you must have the courage to let go of the traditional. “In Japan, being quiet is still regarded as something very good – if you are loyal and hardworking you will be promoted until you become the CEO – but that will become less common. It’s increasingly about diversity and the individual within a mixed group. In that sense, the individual is becoming more important. You must contribute as yourself, express yourself. Only then will you create connections.”
If you can manage that with the people around you, can you do that with those at a distance? How does your company enable you to make contact with colleagues and stakeholders abroad, is a question that moderators wanted to explore with their panellists: after all, technology brings many new ways of bringing us into contact with each other, and with it opportunities. One of the panellists echoed that, but with a critical caveat: “The professional world is becoming ever more individualistic. And connection is queen when it comes down to contact between individuals.”
In Amsterdam and Brussels there was the feeling that the ease with which we make contact online or by phone also brings with it the risk of deterioration. And who knows what the future will bring; according to various media we will soon be holding meetings with 3D avatars of those who can’t be there in person. One of the Brussels panellists travels by plane every week and believes that the importance of bringing people together cannot be overestimated. After all, only through close contact do you learn to understand each other. “The late Charles Aznavour once said that he was a good artist because he understood his audience. And that’s no different in corporates. Know yourself, know your public.” Another frequent flyer added: “Also because it is essential to integrate certain values – walk the talk, for example – if you have offices in several different countries.”
In Amsterdam, however, one of the panellists took precisely the opposite view, preferring to stay put. She views technology above all as providing positive opportunities to connect with people in far-flung places: “It’s unusual in the cultural sector to fly a lot, so I am actually putting my faith in technological progress.” But in the Netherlands too, not everyone is satisfied with contact that is not face to face. A woman in a senior position at a company with worldwide operations: “Take conference calls, for example. Those are evil. The calls suggest connectedness, but that is pure pretence. I travel a lot, also because I want to avoid these calls.” This panellist subconsciously adopts the words of a London participant, who also calls PowerPoint presentations ‘evil’. “In such a situation, all we are doing is sending things. We would never communicate like that in our private lives, and it doesn’t help the atmosphere at work either.”
Back to the panellist running a global company: good cross-pollination occurs above all in real life, she believes. “What connects me to colleagues abroad is professional skill, and I prefer to talk about that face to face. Not just with people on the same level, by the way. I also feel that I and my colleagues should want to make contact with those in levels of the organisation other than our own: after all, those at the bottom feed the top.” Another panellist completely agreed: “A brain is just not a brain. Seeking connections is the same as a worthwhile existence, whether you look ‘up’ or ‘down’ to do so.” The panellists also agreed that a real connection is not always achieved. A member of the audience had a useful tip: “I always begin a meeting with a check-in, when I ask each participant whether there is anything that prevents him or her from giving his or her full attention to the meeting. This may lead, for example, to someone saying that they are stuck between two projects. So you can talk briefly about that and reach agreements on it. It really helps to know how everyone feels.”
In London, the feeling was that it is also important to put oneself in another’s shoes: “You must understand that the recipient is occupied with me, myself and I. So you really have to put yourself in that person’s shoes. If you not go along with this, the message will never get across properly.” But what if things simply don’t click? A panellist advised you to listen less to that inner voice telling you that you can indeed figure someone out in just a few minutes. “Ignoring your initial thoughts pays off. Often you were too quick to judge, and it is better to grow towards a relationship that will benefit both parties.”
New York agreed, the last city to host the event. An opinion from the audience: “If you feel resistance, you mustn’t give up but build bridges.” A panellist took the view that you must feel comfortable in your own skin to take the first step. “It demands courage and self-confidence.” The audience agreed – “You can only receive if you show vulnerability, if you have the courage to open up” – but wants above all to add creativity to the list: “You can always find something that connects you to someone. Sometimes you just need to look harder.” After all, it’s all about making an effort, and not just with the first step. “Connect is a verb for good reason. A connection dissipates if you don’t nurture it.”
These were the similarities so far between the mixed group of top corporate women from different cultures. One of the invited participants in Brussels hit the nail on the head with this remark: “I have learnt that despite their different cultures, people don’t differ that much at all from each other.” But is everyone on the same page as far as the big problems in the corporate world are concerned, such as the minefield that is remuneration? In the run-up to the event, the Amsterdam panellist Leni Boeren (member of the executive board of Van Lanschot Kempen, CEO of Kempen, supervisory director at Air France-KLM, Tata Steel Nederland and Transtrend ) came up with the idea of investigating, by way of an in-depth analysis, to what extent there is agreement on issues relating to contacts that will be of importance in the long term. After all, to measure is to know. Boeren selected a few questions, drawing on material from FCLTGlobal (Focus Capital on the Long Term), a non-profit organisation that wants to encourage a long-term focus in strategic decisions and examines to what extent exectuives of organisations succeed in looking beyond the issues of the day. The audience was able to vote using an app, and did so en masse.
It is striking how varied the opinions were: to the question after how many years the remuneration of the CEO is adjusted, most answered after 1-2 years, but the percentage of women who believed this happens after 3-4 years was not far behind. Perhaps they are looking through overly rose-tinted glasses: wage increases after 1-2 years is the correct answer – that suggests a balance that carries through to the short term. Surprisingly enough, despite all the discussions on the issue there is not much empirical evidence to proof a causal link between the short-term remuneration and the pursuit of short-term profit. Boeren: “However, there is empirical evidence that rewards linked to long-term objectives and long vesting periods mainly occur in organizations that have a long-term orientation, more growth opportunities or higher R&D investments or better equity returns. In short, the connect with the future. Do not forget; we as executives have an influence on this.”
The majority in Amsterdam, Brussels, London and Tokyo felt that during conference calls with shareholders on profit figures, the management spends less time on long-term objectives than short-term results, while Singapore and New York believed that the attention is the same. The majority are right, explains Boeren: “The management’s focus on the long term is pushed aside because of the need to get down to the nitty gritty, the short-term key figures.” In New York the audience expressed the view that this Rhineland explanation was too negative, and the question biased: “What do you mean, pushed aside? There is nothing wrong with short-term thinking. Profit figures are simply important from a shareholder’s perspective.”
Just as interesting were the responses from the audience when presented with provocative questions. What is the situation, for example, with experiences of failure and blunders? Marry de Gaay Fortman, lawyer, partner and moderator in Amsterdam, gave a helping hand by sharing an experience from which she learnt a lot: “I can sum up my more negative qualities concisely: I certainly do not have unlimited patience. Once I gave a person a public dressing-down. There is nothing wrong with a well-aimed, quick comment, but humour works better than snappiness. The latter damages the relationship for a long time and you only have yourself to blame.”
Such directness for which the Dutch are renowned often produces some tense moments. A comment from the audience: “Recently I had a conversation with someone from the same sector. She wanted me to make my network and knowledge available to her. Normally I am open to sharing, but not if it’s one-way traffic. ‘You want something, but what are you actually bringing in return?’ I asked. I was shocked at myself, but my directness didn’t pull us apart, in fact it made it clear that the woman in question fell short in her knowledge of market needs. I will soon be submitting an offer for an advisory process.” There were some answers too that showed vulnerability. Someone said she had been given feedback that she was perceived as being a robot at her work: inflexible, strict and serious. “I’m working on that now. I’m trying to be more playful.”
The women events are not new to Houthoff: the law firm began hosting women events in 2015 on the initiative of lawyer and counsel Marloes Brans, currently working for the Amsterdam office but previously based in New York. Brans regularly attended networking events in New York and was inspired by the vibe that is created when you bring together ambitious top corporate women and give them a chance to have their say in an intimate setting. She imported the idea of such an event to the Netherlands, putting her own spin on it: at each event, Cocktails and Culture & C… are central. The last variable is interpreted freely each time: ‘Compliance’, ‘Commissaris 3.0’ and ‘conflict’ have already been themes for discussion.
What is new for Houthoff, though, is the simultaneous rollout of the event in all countries where Houthoff has an office. An operation that took quite a while to get off the ground, but at the same time seems logical because coincidentally the offices in London, New York, Tokyo and Singapore are all headed by a woman. The Brussels office is run by a man, but the second in command there is a woman – so there’s certainly no lack of enthusiastic moderators.
What is striking is that only in Amsterdam were experiences of failure discussed with some relish, although one participant in Singapore said that you don’t need to be scared if you are a little too sharp on occasion. “If a situation is awkward or embarrassing, who cares. It’s just a moment.”
The reluctance to share practical examples is certainly no reason to conclude that the women in the other countries don’t engage in a bit of soul-searching. At most they prefer not to discuss the results in public. Following the plenary session, we don’t know whether this subject was actually discussed in greater detail while getting together for the theme’s second ‘c’: Cocktails.
An easier topic for discussion was the question as to what ‘connecting styles’ we use at home are also suitable for the office. It produced some extremely honest responses. In Brussels, a CEO pointed out something that we all know but don’t act on enough: “Switch off the phone when you’re together, both at home and with colleagues. Go entirely offline, that really helps.” Intuition can also be used on the work floor. Lawyer and senior associate Greetje van Heezik actually doesn’t understand why she regularly follows her gut feeling at home, but follows it less at the office.
Parenting styles are also readily recognisable by the group. A member of the audience: “One of my children needs to be handled completely differently from my other child. At work I also try to be aware of different needs.” A woman made a comment that garnered some laughs: “I prefer to hold sensitive conversations with my 12-year-old son in the car. You look at each other less and you’re not so distracted. It also works with younger colleagues.”
In New York this question was taken up more broadly. “In the subway you see the slogan ‘see something, do something’, everywhere: a call for more cohesion and involvement together. If you see something that’s not right, say something about it. That’s exactly what I’m like at work.” In Amsterdam the answers to the questions on the differences between home and work produced gales of laughter. A woman at the helm of a successful family business: “My colleague frequently laments that I am much nicer on business trips than at the office. Well, on business trips we actually talk to each other – at the office I have a job to do.”
Whoever concludes from all those moments when the power of attention, putting yourself in another’s shoes and intrinsic interest are highlighted, that the general consensus is we must above all be nicer to each other is wrong, judging by this parting shot from a member of the audience: “At home I’m often very direct. I really should do that more often at the office too.”
GO ENTIRELY OFFLINE, THAT REALLY HELPS
*Taking into account the Chatham House Rules, this article does not contain any names of panel members and invitees, with the exception of Houthoff staff and the Amsterdam panellist Leni Boeren, who played a very special role at this event with the compilation of survey questions.