#41: Virginie Gonzalez

Dit is Leaders in Finance: een podcast waarin ik op zoek ga naar de mens achter het succes. Ik praat met leiders van nu en later over hun drijfveren, carrière en privéleven. Waarom? Omdat er meer gesproken moet worden in de financiële sector. Leaders in Finance wordt mede mogelijk gemaakt door Interim Valley, FG Lawyers en Bizcuit.

Dit was Leaders in Finance. Elke week weer een nieuwe aflevering, elke week weer een mens achter het succes. Ik vind het belangrijk om te zeggen, deze podcast zou er niet zijn zonder onze partners: Interim Valley, FG Lawyers en Bizcuit.

Welkom bij een nieuwe aflevering van Leaders in Finance. Voordat ik mijn gast van vandaag welkom heet en introduceer wil ik u, jij, de luisteraar erop wijzen dat er over iedere aflevering van Leaders in Finance meer informatie te vinden is op leadersinfinance.nl. Er is een korte beschrijving van de CV te vinden en ook worden termen opgesomd die door de gasten zijn gebruikt en ook zijn er bijvoorbeeld alle boeken te vinden die genoemd zijn door de gast. 

Jeroen: Gegeven dat onze gast bij voorkeur Engels spreekt zal ik de gast van vandaag ook in het Engels introduceren. This week we have Virginie Gonzalez on the show, she is the Head of the Strategic Transformation Office for NN Group. Welcome, Virginie!

Virginie Gonzalez direct na het gesprek met Jeroen Broekema van Leaders in Finance

Virginie: Hi, good morning, Jeroen!

Jeroen: Great to have you on the show! And it’s great to be here together in the Vondelpark studio. Virginie grew up in Lyon, France. Virginie has so far had a very much international career in the world of banking and insurance. However, she started her career in the year 2000 at media agencies, but after a few years she moved to work for ING as Head of Brand and Communication at ING Direct in France. After holding positions of responsibility at the company’s Central Office in Amsterdam, coordinating 9 countries in the area of marketing, advertising and brand management, she moved to Spain as Marketing Manager at ING Nationale-Nederlanden, moving from the business of banking to the business of insurance. A few years later, she became Spain’s CMO and became part of the countries’ Management Committee. She led the rebranding of the company within the process of separating the banking and insurance business of the ING Group and the transformation program that laid the foundations for making Nationale-Nederlanden or NN. The last 3+ years she is back in the Netherlands as the Head of the Strategic Transformation Office globally. NN Group is active in 18 countries, with an especially strong presence in Europe and Japan. To give you a grasp of the size of the NN group: it had in 2019 a whopping 20 billion total income with a net result of 1.9 billion. In the first half year of 2020 NN group has an operating result of almost a billion and therefore, for now, the insurer has done relatively well in the light of the corona virus crisis. Back to Virginie, she holds a Master’s degree in Management, with a specialisation in marketing from EDHEC Business School in Lille, France. In 2016, she also did an executive leadership program at THNK leadership called “creative leadership”: this is a six-month part-time program comprising of four weeklong intensive modules. Finally, Virginie runs marathons and she ran the NYC marathon in 2008 and 2019. She is 43 years old, lives in Amsterdam and is married and has a daughter of 8 years old. Virginie, that’s a lot but it gives the listeners at least an idea of what you do. Maybe we can start with your job. Can you tell us a little bit more about what it is? Could you maybe give us some numbers; how many people work there, where do they work, what do they do?

Virginie: Within our team, what we do for NN is that we are leading the transformation of the company. We are exploring new business models for the future. As an insurance company, we made the choice that we didn’t want to be pushed to the back of the value chain but really own the customer relationship and beyond financial banking topics. So, right now, we have team of 50 FTE’s and I like to say we have two legs to connect with the running part. So we have one leg of people that are running and developing the new proposition, validating them, testing with customers and making sure that we can build viable propositions for the business and scale them with the business. And the other part of the team is more on the capability part, so the core capabilities we need to really run our transformation program. We now have IT-people, that is very important for us. It’s different to attract the right talent. We also have an innovation specialist and also what we call business development. Those are people that can help us to partner with the relevant scaleups or different partners in the market.

Jeroen: And where are they?

Virginie: There are many based in the Netherlands; most of them. Although we have a global scope, so we also support international markets. In terms of background, they are many Dutch people with also a few international experts. We are bringing more and more international people in the team, I have to say. It’s quite diverse. It’s way younger than what you would see within NN. You have a range of maybe ten years younger than the average age of NN employees with a more entrepreneurial background. Not that much of a finance background, I have to say. And people that have been working in the field of innovation, sometimes people that also created their own start-up and are now working for a big corporate. So that is a bit of the team we have today.

Jeroen: And you are talking about a transformation program. Is it something that has a beginning and an end or is it continuous?

Virginie: Well, I think it’s continuous. NN has 175 years of existence in the market, so we are a very old company. I also like saying that it’s a transformation, of course it’s happening; it has been happening since NN was born. So maybe ‘program’ is not the right word. But at least we have a clear focus and that was maybe not the case in the past, as you mentioned. In our previous history within NN, we had to separate from ING, we also took over a big insurance player in the Netherlands. We had an international focus and I think that this year, with David Knibbe our CEO, we will go into the capital market; he has announced our new strategy. And we really like building the new NN; it’s really part of our focus today and was maybe less of a priority in the past year.

Jeroen: Back to the people one more time, are these mainly people from your organisation or are they also from outside?

Virginie: I would say they are mainly people from outside, because it simply requires new capabilities and new skills that we didn’t have as an insurance company. As I said, we really aim to build a proposition or services that are beyond our core business. So, it requires a different mindset and a different skillset. So, most of the people are from outside, but we do have a few people from the business who can also help us to breach and connect to our business challenges.

Jeroen: Steering your own sub-organisation, how does that work? Do you come up with your own plans or is it coming from the board? How does that work in a larger organisation you are in?

Virginie: What we have learned in this journey, because we started our innovation journey already quite some years ago, is that you really need to be aligned at the beginning, what we call a ‘strategic alignment’. The first part of the process is to really have a strategy discussion with the board, to really top down where we define our strategic focus; the lake where we want to fish as NN. So that’s the work that we have been doing intensively at the beginning of this year. And then they let us follow our own approach, our own method to really grow that proposition and we come back to them once we have validated something and we think “Okay, we are ready to scale”. There are a lot of touch points, but the most important part is really the beginning, to make sure that we are aligned in the long-term direction.

Jeroen: In terms of transformation and the adoption of new things, if you take the broad name of Fintech, would you say that the insurance part of the financial technology development is at the forefront or is it lacking behind or is it somewhere in the middle? Where would you say it is?

Virginie: I sometimes have the feeling that it is lacking behind, I have to say. But maybe I’m a bit tough with that, so maybe in the middle. For one reason I think it’s because it’s mainly happening in the back office for us as an insurance company. So, you see a lot of Insurtech or Fintech that are really helping us in the part of the value chain that’s not that visible for the market in claims management and in risk management. So, it’s a bit more of a black box for most of the people. While if I take banking for example, you have seen a lot happening in the front; all the customer or user interaction with the new banks coming in. So it’s maybe more visible. I would say that maybe also the insurance business – in my perception – sometimes is way more complex than the banking business. It’s catching up, at least that is my feeling.

Jeroen: In banking, we’ve seen competitors in certain pockets of the bank. In all kinds of pockets, there are competitors that started. The last few years, I’ve also seen people I know well that started what you called Insurtech companies. Does NN see that as serious competition?

Virginie: No, I don’t see it as competition. There is a place for big companies like NN where you can also rely on your own assets and we have big legal and compliance teams. So, we are running a different operation than Insurtechs. I really see a lot of complementarity. That’s something we learned in the beginning of our innovation journey, that we wanted to build everything ourselves. Sometimes you are arrogant as a big corporate, but what we really believe is that it is complementary and to bring those assets or that knowledge from the market within NN. So, we are partnering more and more. On specific business challenges that we have as a big incumbent, we can bring those Insurtechs to new companies and we help them on something and they help us on something. So, there is really this win-win-approach that we didn’t have at the beginning.

Jeroen: Do you also buy?

Virginie: We did. Last year, we bought a company called HCS: Human Capital Services. It’s really this idea that beyond insurance for companies, we can also bring HR-services, which is something we did. We are doing strategic investments, last year we invested in Crunchr. That is again a company for HR-people for an HR-director that is helping them to use all of their data that might be very fragmented across the company and give them good insight to manage their workflows or sometimes well-being of their employees; those topics. So we have strategic partnerships. We also invested in Klup, a Dutch scaleup that is helping 50+ people to stay connected and not be lonely. So it is matching people for activities and finding buddies. It’s also close to one of our topics where we want to help people to reach retirement, not only financially speaking in a good shape, but also everything that goes on in your life.

Jeroen: That’s interesting. We also spoke with Yoram Schwarz, the CEO of Movir, about Crunchr a long time ago in one of the previous episodes. About focus, I guess the people in your teams all have loads of ideas, they read a lot and think “We could do this or that”. But ultimately, you can’t do it all. How do you as the end responsible person manage that you guys stay focused?

Virginie: What we did well this year is defining our framework. So we defined key topics where we want to be relevant for our customers. I mentioned retirement, workforce management and the well-being of employees. I think it’s really clear for the team now that those are the boundaries they can explore. They have the topic clear and what we call the customer friction or the customer problem that we want to solve. Within those boundaries, they are completely free to bring new concepts as long as there is value for the customer and value for NN in it and also sometimes value for our partners.

Jeroen: Do you often say ‘no’?

Virginie: Not enough. I think that’s one of the issues we still have. It’s what we say in innovation: It’s tough to keep your babies. You see the ideas growing and the proposition and people get excited. The more data you can bring and make it more data-driven and stay away from the subjectivity, I think that’s something we need to improve.

Jeroen: What are one or two things you are most proud of?

Virginie: Within NN, if I look at the last three years that we have built this team and are now part of the strategy of the group, we are one of the strategic commitments to build the engagement platform for customers for the future. We have clear focus, clear scope and now we are just moving into execution. So that’s something I’m very proud of. It comes with a lot of responsibility, but I’m very proud that we can move forward and build anew for NN. Personally, when I see the team, I’m always very proud of our people because they have different backgrounds, people that would have never joined an insurance company in the past are bringing a lot of diversity and high collaboration. The way they faced the Covid period, it’s really an output-driven type of team. We are also used to have a post-it everywhere in our meeting room and suddenly you have to do everything digitally and they really kept a lot of motivation to deliver the objective and defining the strategy. I’m always very proud of the team, I have to say.

Jeroen: That’s great to hear. In terms of something you have implemented or something tangible where you said “This is something we have achieved that we are very happy with in the firm”?

Virginie: Yeah, the recent Klup example; the partnership with them. And also around this concept, to match people that are alone at home or feeling lonely. Roughly 90% of people above 60 years old in the Netherlands sometimes feel lonely. During the Covid period, we could also help them to stay digitally connected to someone. And also, with Klup they have a companion. Sometimes I’m running around and I can see the poster. It makes me proud to do something for the firm, but also for society in general. That’s a good example.

Jeroen: If we move a little bit to you, I was a bit confused because I thought with your last name you are Spanish. But then I started to prepare and figured out that you are actually not. Can you maybe share a little bit about how you grew up?

Virginie: Yeah, of course. I’m indeed French, but my father comes from a Spanish family. My grandparents immigrated to France during the civil war in Spain. I’m coming from a very simple family; a blue-collar type of people. My father was a self-made man. He started working in factories and then he built his own small company. So I guess I got a lot from him.

Jeroen: What kind of company?

Virginie: It’s in the building industry, he sold tiles. They were very specific tiles, very light, that you can use to refurnish your house. You don’t need to get rid of the roof; you can just put a new roof on top. That was also kind of disruptive in the market, at least in this sector. I think we have a very loving family with very simple rules like “Work very hard and then you will go somewhere”. So that’s basically where I come from. We live in a small village close to Lyon in the countryside, so I also had a lot of freedom when I was a kid. Not like in the Netherlands, but biking everywhere in the hills. That was really nice.

Jeroen: What found your parents, apart from working hard, important?

Virginie: What they taught us? I think education. They didn’t get a chance to go to school, so we had to work very hard at school to get educated. I think my father was also pretty modern, because he taught my sister and me to be independent; especially financially speaking. That you can just make your own choices and to not always go for the easy choices but the tough ones and the ones that will make you happy. He gave us a lot of opportunities to test, to travel and to investigate what we wanted to be as adults. He was also very good with my mother; he was working very hard but also always helping at home, doing things that for me were normal but I found out he was maybe not the typical dad from this generation. And respecting people, equality. They come from a blue-collar family, so for them everyone should have the same chances in life to succeed and you should treat everyone as equals. That is also something they gave me as a value.

Jeroen: Why did you go into marketing and business as an education?

Virginie: That’s funny, because I was quite a good student after high school. I was good at math and science and I wanted to be an engineer. I had no clue, I just wanted to do that. So I went to visit the preparation for the business school in France with my father, that is the way it works. I had a lot of discussions with people and conversations with students and teachers. When I left, my father asked me “How does it feel?” And I had this gut feeling, I said “It seems like they are very smart, but I didn’t have any connection with people”. So we decided to visit the business school part and left the engineering school on the side. I had great discussions with most of the people and I didn’t want to leave. So at the end, my father said “Just change your mind. No one is forcing you to go this way”. And I ended up studying marketing and business administration thanks to that.

Jeroen: Are you happy or do you still feel like you should have done the other engineering topics?

Virginie: I can always try to do that now, but I think it fits my personality very well. So it was a good choice.

Jeroen: When was the moment you thought “I’ll go into financial services”?

Virginie: I didn’t plan for that. I was working, as you mentioned, for media and communication agencies. I was really enjoying my jobs. I got called by someone and he said “We have a job for the banks”. So I started having fun with my colleagues back in time, saying that I would never fit in a bank; that’s not for me. But that guy I didn’t know managed to convince me to go for the interview, so I was intrigued and I imagined going into the centre of Paris in a big building and a big bank. I ended up outside of Paris in a very popular neighbourhood, it was only one floor with a mailroom, a call centre and a few desks. I directly had an interview with the CEO and that was ING Direct, so they were an online bank; the first one in the market. “Those guys, they’re not running a bank. That can’t be!” That was not an interview that I had with the CEO, it was mainly a conversation. He shared the challenges, their vision and what they wanted to achieve. I think also pretty much in a Dutch way; very direct, very open.

Jeroen: Was it a Dutch CEO?

Virginie: It was a French CEO, but working with Dutch people, I think he adopted a lot of the Dutch way of working. I like the directness: “I don’t know where it will go, but if you want to join the challenge, that’s a beautiful challenge”. And I said “Yes” and I was at first very surprised to join a bank.

Jeroen: That’s a perfect bridge, because one of the questions I wrote down is: Given you’ve worked a lot with Dutch people, you’ve worked a lot in the Netherlands and in Spain as well as in France, it’s always tricky because there are stereotypes but are there certain things you have learned that we as Dutch people can learn, that we need to be careful with or do or not do?

Virginie: I don’t know. I can’t really take a lot of French examples, because I left Paris many years ago. For me, the most difficult thing about working with Dutch people at the beginning was, as I mentioned, the directness. You need to get used to it. It doesn’t always come with the right form to say it, so I think maybe being French and also Spanish where people really take care of not hurting each other, and we are also a lot in a personal relationship, I’d say “Don’t lose your directness, but put a bit more softness into it; that will help people from outside”.

Jeroen: So if I’d go and work in France, that’s the one thing I’d need to be careful with? Are there other things?

Virginie: I don’t know for France, but if you go to Spain, I would commend it that Dutch people speak on the personal side. That’s super important for Spanish people; you need to get to know them and their life, what they like, their family. And then you can talk business. But don’t start talking business immediately, that will not work.

Jeroen: Are there particular people in your career so far that have been specifically important for you?

Virginie: I reflected a bit on that question before coming and I have the feeling that if there are actually people that are very important for you at one point in your life, they are always important. I’ve been changing jobs and now, with Covid, I’m always looking back at those people and what they would be doing and what they taught me and demonstrated to me back in time. So I think that’s very important. There are many people I’ve been working with. I’m not a fan of a big guru or marketing guru or an innovation guru. I really need to get to see the people in real life and connect; to have this real-life connection. If not, it doesn’t work for me. My CEO in Spain, he’s a Dutch guy, Robin Buijs. He also worked for NN for many years. That is someone who taught me how to be a boss or where I’d like to be a boss, managing the personal and professional life, giving me a lot of trust. He appointed me at the board at a moment in my life personally where it was very challenging; my daughter was really sick. So I couldn’t really work fulltime, but he gave me a lot of trust. He knew that I would be capable of delivering and I think he trusted in me before I trusted in myself. But also the way he changed the company, he transformed this really old-fashioned insurance company, salesforce-driven, put the customer in the centre, aligning people around him and around his long-term vision, that is something I really learned. And on the personal side, the day I announced that my daughter was sick, he came to my house with a small gift for her. So that is also very vulnerable of him, he was also connecting to the people. That’s something I always look back at.

Jeroen: Does that also mean that you learned to be vulnerable towards your team? Or did you always do that?

Virginie: No, that is a very good point, actually. I think at this point in time in my life, I always worked very hard. I think I’m ambitious, but I just like reaching my goals. I don’t like stepping on people. I also really had this eagerness to move forward in my job. I think at the beginning of my career I overlooked the human relationship at work. When this moment happened in our life, the support I got from my team back in time from the management team and from the whole organisation really made me aware of this human being relationship. And I was really amazed that I got the support they gave me. I think that I’m a different type of manager since then. I care more about my people, also on the personal side, understanding also what’s happening in their lives. That’s something I will definitely value in my next job; the people that are around me.

Jeroen: It’s very interesting, because we often discuss this topic of: To what extent do you need to be just a boss and separate private/personal life from your work? I remember very vividly a conversation with the CEO of ASR, the other large insurance company. He said “I’ve always strictly done either work or personal life. I didn’t talk about work in my personal life and I didn’t talk about my personal life at work”. After 20-30 years – he’s now in his 60’s, I think – he said “I really started to see that I can’t separate the two and I shouldn’t separate them”. But it sounds like you also – but maybe not that rigid – had this moment where you opened up more. My question is: What did that bring you?

Virginie: I think I’m just a better person, more aligned. So I don’t believe in the Chinese rule; you can’t really separate your personal life. I’m quite authentic, so I also don’t believe I was very different at work than I was at home. But I didn’t really share my struggles and I think by just sharing and opening up, people will open up as well. Then you become better at understanding each other, collaborating and not making assumptions. Most of the time you see people grumpy and you make assumptions on their life but you have no clue what’s happening behind the walls. I think working as a team and unlocking the value of the teams, if you are not capable of opening up, don’t expect people to open up. And then if you speak about your personal life, you will also speak about your professional challenges and it’s also what you gain, if you really want to develop people. I can really grow talent better since I’m opening up and I can tell stories better and people just get to know you and connect with you better. You build a lot of trust in this way.

Jeroen: You have people that have influenced you and helped you, do you feel like you are that person now for other people?

Virginie: I wish I could say that. It’s hard to reflect for yourself, but if you ask me what I’m really proud of, I’m proud when I see people that have been working with me growing out and reaching out for a mentoring or coaching for advice before making a big choice in their professional life. That really also makes me very proud. At my scale, I hope I have an impact on some people.

Jeroen: Which added value do you want to have for society, broader than just a company, if there is any?

Virginie: It’s really a marketing-type of speech. Like getting to know your customer and their challenges, but I have always believed in that. I started working in agencies and when you work in communication agencies, you serve your customer. At this point in time, in 2000, it was sleeping, weekend; everything was around your customers. Preparing pitches, really serving your customer and getting to know them has played a real part at the beginning of my career. I then moved to ING Direct and it was the same online business. Customers give you feedback every day if they like it or if they don’t like it. So that also really shaped me. And I think society is not that far. At the end, it’s getting to know people around you and helping them on their main challenges. I really believe that any type of company, an insurance company or another sector, you can do good for society if you have good values. So if you think that you are the good guy, that you really want to solve important problems, that might be a problem for you but also for society, it will have an impact. Today, we work on this target group of 50+, we started thinking “We are a big pension company, so it’s a really relevant target group”. So that was really corporate-driven. But now looking at what’s happening with Covid, with loneliness, with access to healthcare from home sometimes, a lot is happening and we are already working on that. So for me, I’m amazed, it’s what I believe: if you start from a really true customer or personal problem, you will also add value to society as a consequence.

Jeroen: You said the organisation exists for 157 years, there are thousands and thousands of people. Many of them have done the same thing every day or more or less the same. Don’t get me wrong, but they’re still used to working in certain structures. And then you have this transformation office; you changed things. It must be really hard to get maybe a lot of red tape, get rid of that?

Virginie: Yes, I think that’s indeed one of the biggest challenges. But it’s just human nature; I also don’t like changing. I can say “I’m a junkie, I like change, I like speed”. But on the other hand, if they’d change the software from my HR-software one day, I’m the first one complaining on Monday morning when I need to change the platform. So I’m like everyone; that’s just human nature. Yes, you need to do a lot of educating and explaining and getting to know them. What are their fears, what are their concerns? It’s just human nature, but that’s indeed a big challenge. We learned a lot at the beginning, the innovation team was really separated from the business and we were in some other places, working outside. And after a few months, we are going back to the board or to the management team of the business line saying “Look at that, those are great ideas”. And they said “Yes, it looks nice, but that’s not solving any of my issues”. So we also have learned to work all together way better and it’s helping to also change the mindset and getting closer to each other.

Jeroen: I often get questions from listeners and a couple of questions that in some form or fashion always come up like this: You work for a big company and at some point, you agree with 70-80% of what the company does. But then there is this part where you just don’t like it or you don’t agree with what the company is doing, which makes sense if you work in a large organisation. How do you deal with that? Do you leave the company or not? Should you try to change it? Do you need to talk about it and with whom? Do you have any ideas or tips for these questions?

Virginie: I have two tips. I learned the 80/20% rule from ING Direct. So if 80% is okay and 20% is not okay, just focus all of your energy on the 80% and eventually the 20% will just be fixed. So I also believe in that in your job. I did that; if 80% is okay and I feel aligned with what I’m doing, I just go for it. And I also think sometimes “Let’s just agree to disagree”. So voice your disagreement on what you don’t like or what you would like to change about the misalignment with the team and let’s just agree to disagree and then you can maybe tackle that later. But I think the most important thing is to get the full commitment at one point in time and just get the chance to have people express their concern and disagreement. And as a team, let’s agree to disagree and review that in the future.

Jeroen: Also, I wouldn’t say maybe direct every day, but you are relatively close to the board. Do you feel like you can be quite influential on the direction of the company?

Virginie: Yeah, I think there is a lot of openness in the conversation on what we are doing. There is way more awareness that we might be wrong and that we might need to adjust and improve the strategy. But it’s happening everywhere. So we just deliver this new strategy and now it’s time to move into execution and learn what will be working and what might need to be changed.

Jeroen: We said it earlier, you are a marathon runner, which is very impressive. Can you tell us a little bit more about why you do that?

Virginie: It’s funny, because I started running in Amsterdam, when I moved to Amsterdam the first time. Basically, I didn’t know anyone a lot of times, it’s a flat country, so at the end of the day I started running. ING was also sponsoring New York and by then I loved running for the peace of mind it gives me. It’s emptying my mind, I sometimes listen to podcasts, so that is really my me-moment. And I can’t really stand still, so that also fits me a lot. And now I’m sharing that with my husband. We are not running at the same pace, but just the fact that we share the journey together, we challenge each other and we are really sharing; being in New York last year and knowing that there is someone that is waiting for you on the other side of the line is also very special. Sharing all of the training together, sometimes the ups and downs. You get injuries and these kinds of things. That’s very special and there are also more people that are running. We have a group of people that are running with us and we became very close with people who might have never been friends of ours but we really share this special emotion around the running moment.

Jeroen: You know what they say; couples that sport together stay together. So that’s a good thing!

Virginie: Let’s meet again in three years!

Jeroen: Exactly! Are you also running with a little bit of competition in you or are you just running to relax and have peace of mind?

Virginie: I think I also have a bit of competition. I can see that this year, because of the Covid period, you can’t really go to any races, I was supposed to race in Berlin this weekend. If you don’t really have your target, it’s hard to keep your training and get the motivation to go for your 20 km or 30 km over the weekend. I do also like competing with myself, so I have my Garmin watch and I set my target. That’s also something that’s quite important for me.

Jeroen: Once you’ve done the 42 kilometres and 159 meters, is that the maximum or do you feel like “No, I once want to do a 100k” or whatever crazy number?

Virginie: No, I think I do like the distance. I think after 30 km, that last 12 km gets a bit tougher. I think I would like to do different marathons around the world. That was the plan, now I don’t know. Maybe having six medals won there, that’s part of the plan. So let’s see. No more kilometres, but different places to run, different marathons.

Jeroen: That’s great. I was also wondering about what I said in the introduction around the THNK leadership program that you did. Was that something you would recommend to people?

Virginie: Yeah, to people like me with this type of profile I would highly recommend it. I’m a learner from real life, so I like books but I like learning by doing. That fits me really well. And I think what I really enjoy in this training is that you put a lot into practice. So you have a bit of theory but you get a chance to immediately experiment and learn and use the tools and the thinking they are bringing to you. What I also really enjoy – these are the two sides of the training – is that you learn a lot about yourself; your own leadership, self-reflection, where you want to go, where you want to have impact on society, maybe also working for a corporate. And also more on the theory, on innovation, scale-ups, etc. This program fits me very well, I think it’s more my type of training than maybe a traditional MBA. I also connected with people from very different backgrounds. So when you work in your own bubble in insurance banking, we always see the same types of people. In this program, you have people from ONG, with very different types of career and life. That was also super interesting to me.

Jeroen: Interesting. As you know, we also have a teaser and a pleaser at Leaders in Finance. The teaser is pretty close to the previous topic, coincidentally but not really. But it’s very short and it says: Real innovation, so actual hardcore change, only happens when there is a crisis within the company in your case and not from “We’re trying to change”. And this will lead to some change, but actual change will only come from crises. Do you agree with that?

Virginie: I think you need this awareness call sometimes, to really get the people engaged and aligned in the direction. I do believe in that. I believe you sometimes need a kind of electroshock to move ahead. We are a regulated company, we have a lot of obligations toward our stakeholders in general; customer shareholders, etc. I don’t think we are the type of company that will really bring this very disruptive innovation. I think we learn from people that have the space and the mindset to do it and together we can really help each other in bringing the change for society.

Jeroen: Terrible teaser, but do you see certain mini-crises that have helped and changed certain things? Change you wanted to see?

Virginie: Just look at Covid and the way we are working. We suddenly decided to work from home in one week and amazingly, everything went super smooth. I’m impressed having this big company that has been running for years with a certain way of working that is managing a giant transformation for many years with a lot of challenges and in a few weeks, we started working from home with hardly any impact on our customer processes or business processes. It’s amazing! I believe that really has happened.

Jeroen: Given you have a marketing background, would you say you are still somewhat in marketing? Or do you feel like you are more on the transformation? Is that your new kind of topic that you want to stick with? Or do you want to be in marketing again?

Virginie: No, I don’t think I want to be in marketing or innovation or HR again, that’s not really my way of thinking. I did marketing and in Spain, I also managed a call centre, back office and front office. So I also learned a lot on the operations side. I really enjoy working with people. And within this transformation innovation parenthesis, I don’t know how long it will last, I learned to work in a very different way with different types of people. That’s really something I enjoy. I wish I can go with being a people manager in the future, not a marketing manager anymore.

Jeroen: So if a really interesting company calls you and says “We want you as a CMO”, that’s probably not going to go anywhere?

Virginie: It depends on the project. If it’s a greenfield, something that you have to build from scratch and I can indeed bring the right people around me, then I might get triggered to join.

Jeroen: Would it necessarily have to be in finance for you in the long run?

Virginie: No, absolutely not.

Jeroen: It could also maybe be a media agency?

Virginie: Yeah, that’s funny because I was thinking about that this week and listening to the CEO of Publicis in France, that’s the main advertising agency. She’s quite an inspiring woman and I was thinking “Maybe one day I have to go back to the origin”. I think there is a lot to do as a woman in this sector. Maybe, who knows!

Jeroen: Okay, because that was also one of the things I was wondering about. You have been here for a while, in the Netherlands, and I guess you also miss France. Or are you international now, given the Spanish background and being in France and the Netherlands?

Virginie: I don’t miss my country anymore. Of course, you always miss your family and friends and the places that you like. Especially now that we can’t really travel, I miss them a lot. I don’t see myself working in France again, at least the way I imagine France today. But maybe I need to be confronted with that. I wish to go somewhere else, I have to say. That was the plan before Covid, to discover a new culture, a new country. It’s really rich and it helps me a lot to grow as a person. I wish I can keep discovering new countries.

Jeroen: We learned from the introduction that Japan is a really big market for you guys. Maybe that would be a next step. I almost forgot the pleaser on the teaser and the pleaser side. On the pleasing side, we always ask if there are particular books that have inspired you or books that you would like to give to people?

Virginie: In the last three years in innovation, I have two books that became my bible. The Lean Startup from Eric Ries. Check your assumptions, validate, test, go outside, get to know your customers. That’s a very obvious one. And The Corporate Startup also. That’s an innovation framework. I started looking at it at the beginning on the theory part and I think on a regular basis, I check “Where are we in terms of maturity? What are our gaps?” Those are two books that I would really recommend if you step into this innovation field.

Jeroen: Are these also books that you go back to? Do you often look at them?

Virginie: Yeah, a lot. Especially The Corporate Startup. I use it a lot in my work.

Jeroen: What is an important lesson from that book?

Virginie: I think the complexity of your innovation framework. I don’t know, maybe I was very arrogant moving from marketing to innovation. I just had the feeling “You get people in the room, you do a brainstorming session and you have a great idea”. But it’s a very structural approach, you need to have everything in place and if one part of your framework is missing, even the brightest idea will not be able to scale in the market. So I think you need to assess yourself every time: “Is my portfolio healthy? What are the decisions I’m making? Do I have the right criterium in place? Am I aligned with the business? Is my communication clear?” There are a lot of parameters that are not the usual business parameters, so it’s not part of your system. If you are like me, I’ve been working for a big corporate, we took our premium and financial indicators every day. But innovation criterium metrics are not our cup of tea. That’s really useful for me every day in my job.

Jeroen: And in your personal life, do you also read interesting books?

Virginie: Yeah, I do read a lot. I like a story about life. So people that are telling about their challenges or about their own life. I just read a book from someone in France that is a teacher of yoga. She was a journalist and then she changed her life completely.

Jeroen: What’s the name of the book?

Virginie: La réconciliation. Making up with yourself, let’s put it like that. Reconciling with yourself. That was super inspiring, I have to say. It came at a good moment in my life. I read Michelle Obama’s book. Those types of books are the ones I really enjoy.

Jeroen: Is that a way to stay mentally fit? Because we already learned how you stay physically fit; you run. But what are you doing to stay mentally fit, apart from reading?

Virginie: I wish I could read more. I cut back on my reading if I compare it with when I was younger. Having a family and a busy job is not enough, but I have a very strict routine. I need to wake up early, I exercise every day in the morning, that is my time. I meditate, I started during the lockdown.

Jeroen: So you exercise every morning?

Virginie: Every morning, yes.

Jeroen: Five or seven days a week?

Virginie: In general five for sure. Sometimes a bit more. But I need that during the morning for me. Sometimes it’s yoga. I do kundalini yoga, which is a mix of meditation and yoga at the same time. That is something I started very recently because I also needed it to manage the stress and having time for me. I also think I have a very balanced private and professional life. Maybe with what happened to our daughter, I don’t want to lose sight of what’s really important. So I also really make sure that we have dinner together and that we have a moment during the day. I know everyone says ‘quality time’ where we are fully available for each other and have a good conversation on “How was your day?” So that’s very important to me and reading a book to my daughter before going to bed. That is a very special moment, I think. They just help you to rebuild yourself and to go through the next day.

Jeroen: But it also sounded earlier that you work a lot. How do you do that, ultimately? Because you can say “I have a very healthy balance”, but what are the ‘how’s’ here? How do you do it?

Virginie: I think I work all the time. I think my brain is always busy with something from work. And I like it; it’s not something that’s bothering me. I was working for the interview and I was thinking “This thing tomorrow and maybe we can do that better”. Even during the weekend I can do that. I think if you really enjoy your work, I don’t really feel the pain. I’d rather spend twelve hours at work with a very busy day and I’m very proud to share that with my daughter. So I can explain to her “Today I have less time for you but I did that and that”. I think that’s also where you balance your life.

Jeroen: You now have about twenty years of work experience, if I’m not mistaken.

Virginie: Yes.

Jeroen: What are the tips you have for people that start now?

Virginie: Don’t be afraid of change. Don’t always stay in the same function, the same sector. Like I did, I really enjoy actually changing sectors and learning. So change as much as you can, especially at the beginning of your career. Because I think it’s a bit more difficult after a few years. International experience, I think I am way more professional but also personally. I think it’s really enriching, as I said. You connect the dots; you look at the different cultures so you see the similarities and the differences. And in my financial sector, I can also see that customers are behaving the same way on one part but you can also see where the differences are and where you can have an impact. If you have the chance and if you can, just change countries, change industries. Build a lot of memories for when you will be old, because I think it’s what you need. As I said, sometimes when I’m stuck I think about situations from the past or a boss I had in the past and then it’s helping you to unlock. Then I also feel when I will be a very old grandma somewhere, I can just open up my memory box and pick the one I really like. So build all of those memories professionally and also personally. That will make your old days maybe a bit less gray.

Jeroen: That’s great advice, that’s really good! Before I will thank you, I always ask the question if there is something I should have asked or something that you would like to share that I missed or is there anything else that you would like to add to the conversation?

Virginie: No, I think that was a great mix of personal and professional questions. I really enjoyed it and I don’t see any questions that I miss.

Jeroen: Thank you. Thanks to Bloomon, the online flower company, you will get a small present after this conversation. Thank you very much! I especially loved the comment that you would be the first that would actually complain if there is a new software of program coming in for an important change manager. That was very honest but also very good to know. Because it actually works on the small scale, but it must also work on the bigger scale. Thank you very much for your time and your openness about your personal life and work as you said yourself. Thank you very much!

Virginie: Dankjewel, Jeroen! Fijne dag!

Dit was Leaders in Finance. Elke week weer een nieuwe aflevering, elke week weer een mens achter het succes. Ik vind het belangrijk om te zeggen, deze podcast zou er niet zijn zonder onze partners: Interim Valley, FG Lawyers en Bizcuit.

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