Transcript: Jens Pöhland
This is Leaders in Finance, a podcast where we find out more about the people behind their successful career. We speak with the leaders of today and tomorrow to discuss their motivations, their organizations and their personal lives. Why? Because the financial sector could use a little more honest conversation. We’d like to thank our partners for their support. They are: Kayak, EY, Odgers Berndtson executive search and Roland Berger.
Like all young Norwegian men at the time, our guest this week was conscripted in the army. How did Military Officer School change him as a young man? “I remember my captain said to me, ‘You came in a clown, you left as a man’.” The military also kickstarted his love for nature. A love that was rekindled much later in his career. “When I was in the army and being very close to nature, being at the infantry and spending about 200 days per year in a tent outside and really feeling the nature, it made me very happy. And recently, I went to this trail in Norway with a group of other leaders from the financial sector and rediscovered what nature means to me.” And you’ll hear what book inspired him to look differently at the goals of our economy. “Less is more. We as a capitalist system are always thinking ‘growth, growth, growth’, but we just need to start thinking a bit differently.” Our guest this week is Jens Pöhland, Chief Risk and Financial Officer and executive board member at Mizuho Bank Europe N.V. Your host is Jeroen Broekema.
Jeroen: Welcome to a new episode of Leaders in Finance. This week we are joined by Jens Pöhland, the Chief Risk and Financial Officer and executive board member at Mizuho Bank Europe N.V. Welcome, Jens!
Jens: Thank you very much, Jeroen! A pleasure to be here.
Jeroen: Absolutely, likewise. I’m very happy you are here to talk with Leaders in Finance. I will introduce you first. As said, Jens Pöhland is the Chief Risk and Financial Officer and executive board member at Mizuho Bank Europe N.V. He has been with Mizuho for about 12 years of which 10 in his current role. Before, he worked with various organizations as Legal counsel for among others NYSE Euronext and The Bond Market Association and as a General Affairs and International Trade Lawyer for Corus and started his career at the Dutch Central Bank. Next to his job, he is the co-chair and board member of the Foreign Bankers’ Association in the Netherlands. Jens holds a Bachelor degree from the University of Essex in English and European Law and a LLM from the Radboud University Nijmegen. Also, he has been for two years with the Norwegian Army. I did want to mention that one. Jens is 50 years old, lives with his partner and daughter in Bloemendaal. So once again, Jens, welcome! I’m very glad we have this short introduction, we will learn much more about you. What I love to do is first learn more about Mizuho Bank, because I think there are definitely listeners that will know about Mizuho, but I’m sure there are also quite a lot that don’t know about Mizuho. Maybe we can structure that by running through the different stakeholders. I would suggest we start with the customers, the clients. Can you tell me more about who Mizuho’s customers are?
Jens: Absolutely, thanks again for inviting me for this podcast. Mizuho has been here in the Netherlands for close to fifty years. Primarily, it was established to support and service the Japanese corporates here in the Netherlands. The trade relationship between Netherlands and Japan goes back more than 400 years, so it’s a very important country for Japanese corporates and Japanese society and the trade relationship with the Netherlands. So we have been here almost fifty years, as I said, and really servicing our Japanese corporates who have established here. It’s quite a big number of corporates here in the Netherlands. Amsterdam was a good location, providing all types of banking services to those clients over the years.
Jeroen: So you serve only Japanese corporates or all kinds of other corporates?
Jens: Primarily. We are also serving non-Japanese corporates, more the large global corporates who are Dutch from origin or Benelux from origin, but who also trade in Asia. Particularly in Japan, but also in China and other places in Asia. We like to have the footprint there, we like to enter into these markets. So we help them and support them from here as well.
Jeroen: Right. So if we go to that next stakeholder, your colleagues, your employees, are they mostly Japanese then? Or are they a lot more diverse than my suggestion?
Jens: It’s interesting you’re saying that. In fact, we are about 120 staff here in the Netherlands and with more than 25 nationalities. Our Japanese community within the bank is actually more than about one third or less even. We have a lot of different nationalities from all over who may have worked even outside Japan or elsewhere, but also who we have just hired locally. It’s really interesting to see that dynamic over people in the organization.
Jeroen: So what about your own nationality?
Jens: I’m a perfect example, I guess. I’m half Norwegian, half German. So I have nothing to do with Japan before I joined other than my father, who the year I was born was part of the Olympics in Japan. So it has always had an interesting attraction to me to work with Japanese because it was the year I was born and my father was in Sapporo in 1972. So that’s how I see the connection.
Jeroen: I will definitely come back to that point, because that’s really interesting. But let me first finish the stakeholders. So we have had the colleagues, your employees, as well as the customers. So maybe to the owners, because as I said in the introduction, it’s an N.V., so I guess it’s a subsidiary of the group?
Jens: Correct. We’re part of Mizuho Financial Group, which is one of the largest financial institutions of the world and we’re number 16, I believe. They are one of the three mega banks from Japan, have a long history both in Japan but also outside. It’s interesting, because whenever we’re interviewing people here in the Netherlands and including myself, I remember when I started and had my first interview in Mizuho, it was barely known to me as well, as a financial institution. That’s the same what we’re seeing with all the people we’re hiring here. We ask, “Have you ever heard about Mizuho?” Most of them have not and it’s quite interesting. But it’s still so big on a global basis.
Jeroen: I read in my preparation I think 55.000 employees, so it’s a large institution. But is it important for you to have brand awareness? Because you only want that with corporates, I guess, right?
Jens: That’s correct. So our brand awareness outside Japan is probably not underdeveloped, but we’re not really busy with that. We are known to every household in Japan, you see it on every street name, everywhere. But outside Japan, we are not as active.
Jeroen: Have you been traveling a lot to Japan over the years?
Jens: Yes. Certainly before corona, it has been very difficult with the corona. But before corona, I was regularly in Japan either for meeting the stakeholders, hearing the group strategy and so forth. But also for training purposes.
Jeroen: Right. Because I know quite a bit about American companies that have subsidiaries in Europe or in the Netherlands, how that is structured from a hierarchy perspective. How is that with the Japanese owner?
Jens: The good thing is, given that we are a subsidiary, we have local governance and local control. We belong to the group, of course, and the policies and procedures. But we take a lot of autonomous decisions on a local level and have much more freedom than maybe a typical branch of Tokyo.
Jeroen: Right. But that’s a good segue, this autonomous decision-making, because that means you’re also regulated here, clearly. Can you tell me more? I guess it’s DNB plus AFM?
Jens: Correct. Primarily, our relationship was with DNB (linked to president Klaas Knot) and we have a very good relationship. Like all the foreign banks, I think DNB has always been welcoming for the foreign banks and diversity in the market here. They understand and we have built a very good trustful relationship with them and are able to demonstrate our local and corporate governance here at a local level.
Jeroen: Do you also have to deal with the ECB, given it’s such a large institution?
Jens: No, we are not large enough on the European continent and in the euro area yet to hit the threshold where we get ECB supervision (linked to board member Frank Elderson). But time will tell.
Jeroen: Right. But I actually also meant the group, I don’t know if this subsidiary is active in Europe from here?
Jens: No, we are the only subsidiary from the banking side.
Jeroen: The other stakeholder, competitors, who are your competitors? You don’t need to name them.
Jens: Obviously, you are talking about the three mega banks, MUFG and Sumitomo, they are all three also present here in the Netherlands and the continent. So naturally, given that we are all pursuing to service the Japanese corporates here, they would be our competitors. But we have a very healthy competitive landscape.
Jeroen: Is the ‘battle for that competition’ in Japan? Because these are large corporations from there, so is it your colleagues in Japan that do the competition or is it actually you are also here with the local CEOs to talk about business?
Jens: The Japanese landscape, at least traditionally, has the house banks and so forth. So it was very obvious which corporates went to which bank. That has changed over the years and Japan is competing for these customers very strongly. Also at local level, we are competing for the different customers and the deals that are out there.
Jeroen: Right. Maybe the last – or maybe not, depending on you – stakeholder, I love to talk about society at large. How do you look at your role in the Netherlands and how does the group look at this globally or in Japan or wherever?
Jens: It was the big thing when I first came to Mizuho, how they are trying to really service the customers and be aware of their position in society. That has only been enhanced with the ESG and all the things that are going on in this context as well, taking an important leading role when it comes to protecting the environment and social and governance and so forth. So yes, we are very much aware of our position. We want to ensure that we maintain a very good reputation here in the Netherland, not only towards the regulator, but also particularly towards our customers and society at large.
Jeroen: Right. You said, “When I came to Mizuho”, that’s exactly what I’d like to talk about. How did you get to Mizuho?
Jens: It was coincidence. I was working abroad and had been commuting for more than two years back and forth to Germany and to India when I worked for one of my previous employers. I was deciding, given that I have a daughter and not having seen much of her over the years, I wanted to have a more permanent position here back in the Netherlands. This was something that came across the road. I had a very good conversation with Mizuho as Head of Legal Compliance back then. I really could see and feel the long-term strategic direction they were taking that I could support them as a local professional. What strikes me when I joined Mizuho particularly, it was a very administrative office. A lot of people had been there for many, many years. Most of them have worked there for 20 or 30 years. The average age was about 55. I was the first professional lawyer they had on staff back then. We have done a lot since then. So we have professionalized the organization across the board when it comes to all the different departments and the age has really reduced down.
Jeroen: Starting with you!
Jens: I’m starting to get the older one there at the moment, so that’s a good sign we are embracing the young professionals and really making big progress there.
Jeroen: Right. When I looked at your CV, I saw you are in and out the financial service industry. Is that coincidentally or was that on purpose?
Jens: It comes back to the time when I was a student. As you said correctly, I’ve done English and European law in Colchester, university of Essex. And then I went to a bachelor master program here in the Netherlands, Pallas Consortium, which was really a European trade law program. So I’ve really been focusing on national financial law, but I’ve also been looking at trade law and so forth. So I have taken a conscious decision when I moved in and out because there were great opportunities that felt right. But ultimately, I’m very settled on the financial sector now and have been there for most of my career. But I thought it was very funny and interesting to work, for example when I worked for Corus on the international trade law and dealing with all the world trade organization disputes that were primarily dealing with steel back then and I wrote an article about the trade measures that the US imposed against the Netherlands and so forth. So it were very good times to deal with those topics.
Jeroen: What interests you in financial services?
Jens: First of all, clearly the professionalism within the financial service industry. Although it has not always had a great reputation among society about what the financial sector has been doing. But ultimately, and this comes down to driving an economy and supporting an economy, it of course sits in the financial sector. And yes, there have always been good practices and bad practices. But overall, they have been very professional and really driving to support the economy at large, but also the customers that are being helped. Too often in the past there have been some bad practices, no doubt about that, but I think overall, it has been about supporting the customer.
Jeroen: Right. Makes total sense. You seem to me quite a global citizen, right? You’ve lived in different places, you’re half Norwegian, half German, you work with Japanese. You did a degree in the UK, a degree in the Netherlands and so forth. Is that a correct statement on how you feel as well?
Jens: It’s a very correct statement. My mother was Norwegian, my father was German and when I was about five years old, they split parts and as a small little child I had to travel by myself between Norway and Germany. I have always enjoyed the cultures and learning about all the ways of living outside your normal comfort zone. Over the years, I’ve just been traveling more and more, seeing the world both privately but also professionally. I really enjoy that. I think that’s also a little bit why I ended up with Mizuho. I really was intrigued by the Asian cultures and the depth of that and so forth. So that’s why I also had a great time doing that over the years.
Jeroen: The danger with talking about culture is obviously that it very quickly runs into stereotypical thinking. But if we try to go that path a little bit, do you have particular traits or character traits or the way you act that are Norwegian, German, Dutch or Japanese?
Jens: Good question. I always look at the traits of others. I haven’t really seen myself as having very typical Norwegian traits or German traits. I look more at others, but it’s a very good point. I think I’m just a mix of them all over the years.
Jeroen: And language-wise, do you speak all these languages?
Jens: Yes. I don’t speak Japanese, although I know a few words. But I do speak Norwegian and German and English of course.
Jeroen: And Dutch very well, which I figured out before. That’s amazing! Do you mix these languages up sometimes?
Jens: Yes, particularly German and Dutch. Having not lived in Germany for many years, I notice when I’m speaking to family or friends from the past, I often bring Dutch words in between them and struggle a little bit.
Jeroen: Right, because you have offices in Amsterdam, Vienna, and a third one as well, right?
Jens: Yes, Madrid and Brussels.
Jeroen: So you travel a lot to these different locations?
Jeroen: So it’s helpful you speak German, but you don’t speak Spanish then. Or you do?
Jens: Not sufficiently good enough. I had Spanish many, many years ago in school. But I wouldn’t say I speak Spanish.
Jeroen: How did you end up with the Dutch Central Bank as your first employer?
Jens: That was during my time at Nijmegen at Pallas Consortium and one of the professors who held lessons there was René Smits. He was Head of Legal Department back then. Coincidentally, I joined DNB the same day as Frank Elderson. So we also shared office for two years, traveling back and forth between Amsterdam and Frankfurt. This was the time before the euro was introduced as physical money. We were working with René Smits to support regulation enhancement on guidelines and so forth.
Jeroen: Interesting, because René and Frank have been on this podcast. Also, Frank Elderson was the most recent one of the two and he spoke about René Smits as well. It was quite an interesting person to work it, he told the podcast, right?
Jens: Absolutely. Both Frank and I still have very good contact with René today. For me at least, he has been a very important role model and figure and got me introduced. And the interesting thing, I remember having been many times to Frankfurt and sitting in the legal committees and so forth, people were so amazed that René had hired a non-Dutch person to the Dutch Central Bank. I was the second one back then. But also who was allowed to come to Frankfurt to sit in the different committee structures there.
Jeroen: So diversity and inclusion were already topics for him before it was for anyone else, apparently?
Jens: Absolutely. Because the French had said that would never happen or the Belgians. I heard that very often.
Jeroen: That’s very interesting to hear.
This is Leaders in Finance with Jeroen Broekema.
Jeroen: How did you like it at the central bank?
Jens: I thought it was a very interesting place to be as my first, having studied and just graduated. This was my first place to land. I had not yet really experienced the Netherlands as well. Amsterdam was new for me as well, and then coming to the Dutch Central Bank. But they were really, really welcoming me and it was a very interesting time with Nout Wellink and being in this position from the legal department providing all the preparatory papers and so forth. As a young professional, it was really mind-opening. And the diligence and learning that professional trade was a good start. I also had a very interesting time meeting Wim Duisenberg when I was in Frankfurt, allowing to get direct advice as a very young professional. I still look back at that as a moment that I will never forget.
Jeroen: But you decided not to stay very long with DNB ultimately, right?
Jens: That’s right. Ultimately, I stayed there for two years. I was only offered initially a two-month traineeship, but that was extended to the two years. But ultimately, I wanted to see something outside as well and got an offer in London to work for the Bond Market Association, European Securitization Forum as a lobbyist. I wanted to experience London as well.
Jeroen: You needed a new country!
Jeroen: What was your link to the Netherlands? Was that the study or was it something else?
Jens: That was the study, that was the opportunity to do the master degree here. That was my first ever visit to the Netherlands. And that was also Nijmegen. Then moving to Amsterdam and then finding my partner back then, we’ve been together since and I’ve really enjoyed the Netherlands very much.
Jeroen: So you’ve been living in the Netherlands now for about?
Jens: Since 1998.
Jeroen: It will be hard for you, not to live in a different place again? Just in the Netherlands.
Jens: Exactly. Although, I must say, in between all of those years I have lived some years abroad as well.
Jeroen: If we then go all the way back to how you grew up, you already told us a little bit about the Norway-German-connection, your parents that split. You mentioned, and I said I was going to come back to that, that your dad was at the Japanese Olympics when you were about to be born?
Jens: Yes, that was the year I was born. He was an Olympic sportsman, he did Nordic combined, which is ski jumping and cross country. He was at the top in late 60’s. He actually escaped the East-German regime in 1967 and had a very turbulent career because of the political risk that he had escaped, the DDR. In 1972 he was finally allowed to participate in the Olympics because in 1968 he was banned from participating due to the political attention. So he participated then. He was over his height as a sportsman, because he was German Meister, he was really at the top of the game back then. But the year in which I was born was when he was participating in the Olympics, in Sapporo.
Jeroen: So no medal that year?
Jens: No medals that year. I still have a medal, I think everyone in the top ten received a medal anyway.
Jeroen: He went out for the DDR, right?
Jens: No, for West-Germany.
Jeroen: And then he was a West-German citizen?
Jeroen: But he also lived in West-Germany?
Jeroen: But first he moved to Norway then?
Jens: No. When I was born in that year, we moved immediately to Germany with my mother and father
Jeroen: So you have not lived in Norway?
Jens: Only after my mother and father separated, I moved together with my mother back to Norway.
Jeroen: Right, okay. Is there anything else you’d like to share about how you grew up?
Jens: Of course, due to the situation, due to that, I had two parents living in two different countries. It was quite unique back then. Not too many of my peers had divorced parents, that was quite unique, but also having them in different countries. But I really enjoyed having those two bases, it gave me a very interesting insight. I always say that the Norwegians generally look a bit too much inwards and I like to look outwards. I felt like this felt right for me, even as a child traveling. I really enjoyed that.
Jeroen: Right. And you said your dad was a sportsman. And your mother?
Jens: She was a teacher at the high school gymnasium. She took care of me in a very difficult situation, being alone and moving back to Norway. She had fully integrated in Germany. She protected me as a child and made sure I got all my opportunities and supporting me. She did that very well in that.
Jeroen: How did you decide to then go to the UK and study in Essex? Where did that come from?
Jens: Coincidentally, at the gymnasium that I went to in Norway, one of my best friends was half-English, half-Norwegian. So he wanted to study law in the UK, so that’s how I got interested in this university of Essex and the international European program there. It felt very right to me because there was a time when Norway wanted to do a referendum to become a member of the EU. I thought, “Let me do that study, because if Norway ever becomes an EU-member, I’ve already prepared myself and taken the right steps.
Jeroen: And they never did.
Jens: They never did, exactly. But I managed very well and enjoyed staying abroad so that was fine.
Jeroen: Right. And why law?
Jens: I was always very intrigued and even as a child, understanding the different laws about the different countries, the different behaviours and so forth. I thought it was a very intriguing interesting thing. I was maybe less good also at school in some of the physics and these other types of subjects. But I was pretty okay at languages and that side. So law felt very natural.
Jeroen: Right. And if you would not have chosen law, what would you have liked as well?
Jens: I wanted to become a pilot. That was my childhood dream, travel the world and sitting in the cockpit of airplanes. As I said, having travelled so much between Norway and Germany and flying, I was always as a child allowed to go into the cockpit back then, that was never a problem. I was always very impressed by that. It gave me then the upside to maybe travel the world. I couldn’t become a pilot, but I still have travelled the world in the meantime.
Jeroen: Most of the listeners of this podcast are either Dutch or are connected to the Netherlands. I’m really curious about this outside perspective which we have discussed a couple of times today. How do you look at the Dutch? Although you are half Dutch yourself now, but do you have any idea? Again, this is dangerous because it’s always going very quickly into stereotypical directions. But still, I’m curious.
Jens: I think the Dutch are very similar to the Norwegians. The only biggest difference in the way you like to socialize, how you interact with each other is in a very direct and friendly way. If I describe the Dutch like that, I mean it from the heart. And I think they look very much like the Norwegians in that context. The only biggest difference between the two, as I referred to it a little bit earlier, The Norwegians have a tendency to look inwards and the Dutch look outwards in the context of trade, in the context of really bringing the different nationalities and different perspectives together. Whereas the Norwegians have a tendency to look at, “We know what we do.”
Jeroen: Right. Is your partner also Dutch or is he of one of the other countries you have been to?
Jens: No, he is Dutch. He grew up in Ridderkerk and he’s very much from a Dutch background.
Jeroen: Right. So you’re also at home in the Dutch culture.
Jens: That’s right. Although our daughter was born in New York, so she maybe has the international flavour.
Jeroen: Right, I’m not surprised anymore that there’s another country coming into the mix! Maybe we should talk about traveling and where you have been, but maybe not. I was curious to also ask you about the financial services industry in Japan, because you know it quite well and I don’t know anything about it. Also, compared to the Netherlands, is it very different?
Jens: Yes. What surprised me the most when I joined Mizuho, I think when we all talk about Japan, talking about technology, everybody has this perception that when it comes to technology and so forth, Japan is very advanced. But in the financial sector, because Japan has been very protected when it comes to the financial sector, financial industry with banks who are operating in Japan and so forth, the evolution or the development of that technology within the banks is probably way behind the Dutch. When you look at ING or ABN AMRO, they have really taken steps to embrace the technology. It’s not that I’m saying that the Japanese are not, because they are realizing they have to do that. But the speed and the differences between the Netherlands and Japan is clear.
Jeroen: That’s interesting. So that’s indeed not how we feel often, I think. Or at least how I feel. The Japanese seem to be very technologically advanced, and they are in many ways, I guess.
Jens: It’s all to do with that they have been so protected and they didn’t have that outside competition to take the necessary steps. And I think the other big difference is tilting to the other side, in Europe we have this general tendency that the customer is king, we are going to serve the customer. But what surprised me when I joined Mizuho, that notion about the customer and serving the customer is much, much deeper and is more felt in a Japanese organization than a westernized financial institution.
Jeroen: That is a very interesting statement. Can you elaborate on that, why is that the case?
Jens: When I look at what the Relationship Managers do for their customers in a Japanese bank, and this is also a little bit cultural, it’s very difficult to say ‘no’ to a customer. They will really try to ensure that they can service and do anything that the customer needs, within boundaries, of course. But having to sit in a conversation with the customer and actually saying ‘no’, that is very different.
Jeroen: That’s definitely the case here, you do say ‘no’ to customers.
Jeroen: That’s right. With Leaders in Finance, we always have a pleaser and a teaser. The pleaser is always about a book, we’ll come to that. And the teaser I’ve written down, what we have just discussed is actually a good segue, the teaser is: With the very good reputation that the Japanese have in business – at least in business, generally I don’t know – but also a strong capitalization, global players, Mizuho bank – or any other Japanese large conglomerate that’s active in the Netherlands, it doesn’t matter, you can talk about Mizuho or broader – could actually be much larger here. Maybe it should be much larger, it could also maybe serve other groups than just corporates. Do you agree with that?
Jens: Yes, I agree that they could serve much broader. When you look at the global trade, global economy, they are so intertwined. As you say, the Japanese having so long well-established not just the business model, how they service the customer and so forth, there is a great potential for growth. I think when it comes to the retail and trying to look outside their comfort zone, I think that becomes a little bit trickier. I think the Japanese banks abroad generally, having that knowledge and that legacy and in-depth understanding, I think where the Japanese have been very, very good and successful at is the long-term relationship they’re having with their customers, that they really understand the depth of the customer and the customer businesses and so forth when it comes to corporate banking. And it’s not just about you having a customer for five years and then maybe they look somewhere else. These are long lifetime relationships and how to support them, how to jointly grow together. There’s so much data and so much knowledge, at least for Mizuho for those banks. Yes, there is more opportunity to grow there, but going into the retail would be a much different path.
Jeroen: Maybe not retail, but what about for example serving Dutch smaller corporates? Let’s say corporates, I don’t know if that’s a corporate or a larger company with a thousand people working there or something. That’s probably way too small for you at the moment. But why not serving customers that for example have 10 or 20% of their trade with Japan, the rest is European, you could be an interesting player for them, right?
Jens: Yes, of course. But when you’re looking at the low risk profile, low risk appetite of the Japanese corporates and again, coming back to having that long term data and relationship and really truly understanding the customer better, I think it’s difficult to open too wide with new customers that don’t have that long term relationship.
Jeroen: Right. It doesn’t sound like you’re going to broaden any time soon. Although I think for the Dutch financial services landscape it would be good to have a couple more players than just the three banks. Maybe some people don’t like to hear this, but as a customer, I think it would be good to have more diversity.
Jens: You’re right, but I think the Dutch financial industry and looking at also the culture of the Foreign Banker’s Association, if you look at how many members and how many financial institutions there are here in the Netherlands, it’s quite impressive for such a small country. And yes, you have the three big players or four, if you take Volksbank in that game. So the foreign banks here are playing a very important role to capture and to make it a bit more competitive and a little bit more diverse. We all service different pockets, different niche markets. But if you look at the deals that we are also participating in, particularly when it comes to the non-Japanese customers, the more global corporates, we are competing with the ABN AMRO’s, ING’s and so forth as well.
Jeroen: I think actually it’s even the other way around, with the very large banks, some of them are not even able to compete. I get that. You’re also on the board of the Foreign Banker’s Association in the Netherlands, as I mentioned in the introduction. I think it’s about fifty members, so a lot of players. Why are you doing this role, actually? What’s interesting about it?
Jens: Like we talked about earlier, I love to engage with these players from different countries, from different places. I love to engage with our foreign bank colleagues, hearing what they are doing and driving and also helping to set the agenda. As I said earlier, ESG is something that is going to involve us all and be very much a part of our business model, business as usual, going forward. I think we’re all struggling in the same way at the moment to find how to implement that and at one side, we’re being pressed by the regulators and so forth to take a position. But this is something we should intrinsically want to follow and support and protect the world that we all live in.
You’re listening to Leaders in Finance with Jeroen Broekema.
Jeroen: Then not on the teasing side, but on the pleasing side, I always have the same pleaser. I first tend to ask, do you like reading? And if so, do you have a particular book that you find interesting to share here?
Jens: I read quite a lot. I must say I read very much work-related and so forth. But recently, being more and more active in the ESG and from a climate point of view, sustainability point of view, I recently joined Natural Internship trail in Norway, thinking about how we can better protect our climate and world. And so, in preparation of that, I read a book, Less is more from Jason Hickel. I thought it was very interesting and also provoking. Because it talks about less is more, we as a capitalist system are always thinking ‘growth, growth, growth’, but we just need to start thinking a little bit differently. We need to think about how we can deploy our economy in a different way than what the traditional capitalistic system about growth pursues. Although that is very confronting as well, working for a bank, working for the financial industry, trying to promote and steer also to growth. So that was a very interesting thing and it got me to start thinking about how I as a person, as a leader within my bank and in the financial sector as well, how to transform that and to actually help thinking differently, how to support the transition into less is more.
Jeroen: That’s very well put, thank you. Is this thinking around ESGs and sustainability and transitioning into a society that works for both humans as well as all the other things at our planet relatively new to you or has it always been with you in your life?
Jens: I’ve always been very close to nature, but you’re making a very interesting point. I have been working in London, I’m working across the globe so much over the last twenty years that I forgot a little bit about that. But when I was in the army and being very close to nature, being in infantry and spending about 200 days per year in a tent outside and really feeling nature made me very happy. Recently, as I said, I went to this trail in Norway with a group of other leaders from the financial sector and rediscovered what nature means to me. I did that this summer and in the fall school vacation, I took my daughter again to go back to Norway. She has been to Norway many times, but we’re always going to visit my mother in Oslo or we go skiing. But we haven’t really gone and explored Norway, so we did on a father and daughter moment to discover Norway. I notice how happy it makes me.
Jeroen: That’s very interesting, how you found it very important and then became this traveller and living in hotels and everything and you kind of lost it and now you’re getting back on track. That’s great! I was going to ask you about the army and you just mentioned it. You had to go there?
Jens: Yes, partly. In Norway, you had to go one year to the army. But I wanted to do a little bit more the professional side of it, so I did officer school. It is a very reputable school in Norway, a training, where most leaders in Norway have actually attended that once in their career. So you graduate as a sergeant and second attendant. I graduated when I left the army.
Jeroen: How old were you when you were doing this?
Jens: I was twenty.
Jeroen: So very young.
Jens: Very young.
Jeroen: Was it formative? Did it change you a lot as a person?
Jens: Yes, it changed me a lot. I remember when I graduated and I remember my captain said to me, “You came in as a clown, you left as a man.”
Jeroen: Why did you come in as a clown?
Jens: Because I always made the people around me laugh and I was the unpolished, the unprofessional who liked to make jokes and so forth and make people happy and laugh. But when I left, I was much more disciplined and knew how to lead other people and tried to really elevate myself to that leadership and take command in difficult situations.
Jeroen: You did not forget about the clown part of you?
Jeroen: You still love to joke.
Jeroen: Alright, that’s good. What else did you learn there? So discipline, more structure, leading, what else?
Jens: Also learning about how to survive. This was close to the Finnish and Russian border of Norway and surviving in the winter there is or just in nature full stop is something that has brought me a lot of insight to who I am today and how to manage and tackle difficult situations. I think I’m a typical doer. When there is a crisis, when there is a situation in the company, I always refer back to my army time. You have this issue, you have the crisis, you get it done.
Jeroen: So you stay calm?
Jeroen: And internally, you are also calm? Or is that to the outside world?
Jens: To the outside world particularly, but I don’t get easily stressed in those types of situations. I actually get very concentrated and concise and my thought process is very fast and quick.
Jeroen: You go into war-mode, in military mode.
Jeroen: So you’re maybe even better in crisis mode than in going concern mode? Because I guess Mizuho is pretty much in going concern mode, right?
Jens: That’s right, but that’s the other side of it, the leadership side and looking at how to bring the people together, how to come up with the longest strategic solutions and bringing the ideas together. That is the other side. Also in the military time, in the normal operating model, you try to get the different ideas and the people together. So I like to do that very much.
Jeroen: I can imagine that your trail with these bankers or financial professionals was quite easy compared to your stay in the north of Norway, close to Russia, or not?
Jens: Yes, it was easier.
Jeroen: Thirty years later, right?
Jens: Exactly thirty years later. And instead of sleeping in tents, we were just sleeping under tarps.
Jeroen: That’s great. This diversity in you, I knew you a little bit before this conversation, but I really got to know you now, is that also something in your private life? Are you doing a lot of different things? Are there particular hobbies you’re always focused on?
Jens: No. Of course I live with my husband, we have adopted a daughter from the US many years ago. She came to us when she was five days old. That is my diversity and my thing. At home, I’m very traditional, I like to work in the home, trying to deal with things and support the family. Because they are supporting me over the years so much with all my travel and things like that. So I want to try to give something back to them.
Jeroen: Right, nice. How have you and how do you combine your busy jobs with your private life?
Jens: As I said, my husband has been extremely supportive over the years when I was both living and traveling a lot abroad. I could sometimes call and say, “I need to leave to India this afternoon, do you mind?” And he said, “I’ll drop everything and I’ll support you.” So that has been immense in everything I have been doing over my whole career, he has been very helpful and supportive. I travelled a lot when my daughter was younger, that was a big miss for me. But I also feel the support from her now.
Jeroen: How old is she now?
Jens: She’s now fourteen.
Jeroen: And maybe one of the last questions in this interview, staying fit, staying healthy in a busy job, I’m always curious about that as well.
Jens: I used to be much better going to the gym and really actively doing more sports. Unfortunately, that has – also with age, but also with the role and responsibilities and getting less time for that – suffered a bit. But during the corona, we got a dog, a Rottweiler, and it gives me the pleasure every day to walk in nice surroundings and in nature with him. So I’m trying to do that as much as possible, to stay a little bit fit.
Jeroen: He forces you to go outside, even when the weather is not great!
Jeroen: Wonderful. I had the pleasure to talk to about 120 leaders in the financial service industry, I’ve always asked them the same question, I’m collecting the answers to this question, basically. Which is: Do you have tips for people that start their career today in financial services?
Jens: My tip and advice is that the finance service industry is a great place. I think it has suffered a little bit over the years when it comes to reputation and so forth, due to some of the public discussions. But it is an extremely dynamic and interesting place to work. Yes, there is regulation, there is scrutiny, that is making things difficult. But at the other side, we are really in a transition. You are talking about ESG and so forth, there we need the young people, we need the true believers, the real understanding. If you look at what is happening, when you see the engagement and mobilization of the younger people when it comes to taking care of our planet, it’s much more. And we are going to be at the forefront, I want them to come back into it and really engage and join the financial industry much more.
Jeroen: That is more a motivational speech to work in this sector, but what’s the tip?
Jens: My tip is…
Jeroen: Come and work in this sector!
Jens: In this world where we’re becoming so very much focused on taking positions and so forth, we sometimes forget to listen to understand. But we are more listening to react. I think one of the things that I would give advice to all the new ones particularly, we need that within the financial industry, is people to open up and listen and be inclusive of the different opinions that are being held.
Jeroen: As a starter in your career, that’s probably even harder than when you are in your current role, where you have much more confidence about who you are, what you can and what you cannot and all these kinds of things. But if you start, most of us are quite insecure, right?
Jens: Exactly. It’s a very good point you’re making, this also applies to the people like myself who has been there for a long time as well, to really open up the mind. Because that is how we as a financial industry can also move forward in the right direction.
Jeroen: Right. Do you have any idea, because that is maybe really the tip then, because I think this is a great point, how to do that? I’m just imagining this, I’m starting my first job, I’m insecure, I want to achieve something, I’m ambitious, but I then I get the tip to be very open and listen to people. How do you do that?
Jens: You need to feel like you can speak up and don’t let these presumptions or these feelings… You have to speak up and then you can hear and listen.
Jeroen: Great. That in itself could be an amazing end of this podcast episode. However, I do always ask before I wrap up everyone if there is something that I should have covered, I should have asked or that you otherwise would like to share?
Jens: I think we have talked about a lot of subjects and maybe more than I had expected before I came into this conversation. I have nothing additional, thank you.
Jeroen: Wonderful. Thanks so much, Jens, for being so open and also to have this really interesting conversation. I enjoyed it a lot, both the business stuff as well as the personal stuff and everything in between. I’m pointing now at two small presents I brought for you, which I will give to you after this episode. One of them is to buy a book and the other one is from Bocca Coffee, a B-corp certified coffee producer, a coffee merchant. So you’ll probably enjoy that as well. Thank you so much, Jens, for your time.
Jens: Thank you, Jeroen. My pleasure.
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