Work can be viewed as a daily grind or as a place of great creativity and enjoyment. CEO of Quirus NV, a European public IT firm, Leen Zevenbergen has authored the book, Rip Off Your Necktie and Dance, a book which emphasizes innovation and creativity in business.
SSQ: Leen, let’s start with finding out more about you. Can you tell us something about your background and what inspired you to write this book?
Leen Zevenbergen: I started my first company when I was 22 and have been creating companies since. In total, I have started about 20 ventures from scratch. Mostly in the area of ICT, but also in trade, cosmetics, golf and events. These companies were based all over the world: the Netherlands, US, Dubai, China, etc. Always I had to work with people, some of them who have been working with me in my ventures for more than 20 years. These people have to be stimulated, inspired, motivated-- and that is my strongest point, I think. All around me, however, I see companies with managers who do not seem to care about their people. They say they do, but how then is it possible that over 70% of all working people do NOT like their job and working environment? Besides my companies I also have found time to be a father to five children and am happily married for the second time. I realize that working and being "important" is very relative if you compare it to the real values in life, like children, family and health.
SSQ: You say the book is a “passionate plea for authenticity in entrepreneurship.” Is this book relevant for any size company or is it geared for startups?
Zevenbergen: The book is relevant for all size companies. It seems, however, that it would be even more relevant to larger companies, since it is my belief that the smaller the companies are, the more entrepreneurial they are. Startups would get a lot of energy out of this book, but my second book (which has not been translated yet) would even be more useful for startups. Making the step from leaving your job and starting something on your own can be greatly helped by this book. But larger companies and even public corporations are in great need to become more normal working environments.
SSQ: In promoting creativity and innovation, you encourage people to step out of the norm and break some rules. You admit this comes with risk. What if upper management is not on board? Might people be risking their jobs?
Zevenbergen: If upper management is not on board, and this often is one of the largest problems, people might risk their jobs. But then again, who cares if you are passionate about something? I personally always had the feeling that "the company I worked for also should deserve me." This puts more pride and responsibility on my own shoulders. I never wish to become dependent on any person or any company, so I take my destiny in my own hands. This means that if you really believe in an idea, a passion, a new way of working or a new way forward, you should do it. Even without asking management. Either they like it or they do not deserve it. This, of course, asks for a lot of guts and self confidence, which many people do not have. And in these cases, the first step would be to get top management on board.
SSQ: What are ways upper management can be persuaded to try new approaches and to encourage more creativity and innovation?
Zevenbergen: Upper management can be persuaded by the great results they see in companies who do it this different way. They can talk to me. They can also read my book. I give many, many speeches and small workshops to top management about this and help them to make this courageous move. But there are also many examples of companies (what do you think about Google?) who have creativity and innovation in their DNA and are extremely successful. Also, show them with small groups what creativity might do. So, just starting in small teams, small sub-divisions or divisions might show examples of success which then would persuade management.
SSQ: You mention that this type of leadership is a new trend. Do you see it gaining traction in certain industries more than others? In certain geographies?
Zevenbergen: Definitely I see traction in Europe, but then mainly in Northern Europe. Anglo-Saxon countries still have the "old-fashioned" form of leadership, where there is a "boss." In my opinion, it is sometimes unbelievable how old-fashioned some leaders and companies are. In Southern European countries, this old "pyramid-structure" is still in place. Young people in France like my book very much (it was translated in French), but the older managers just do not want it, because it takes a piece of their status away. UK is open for it and I am going to give speeches to the famous Institute of Directors forum, which might help. But there is a strong "old boys network" which does not leave much space for renewal. To me, it is just not understandable that we do not change our leadership styles big time, knowing how many people just are not motivated doing their jobs. The total results, quality-wise and money-wise, could be so much higher.
SSQ: Do you think this style of leadership will become the norm in IT organizations doing software development? Does it translate to an “Agile” style of management?
Zevenbergen: Definitely my style of leadership is best for IT companies and all other service companies because in these types of companies one needs freedom to perform best. One cannot force people into doing things…they have to believe in it themselves. In creative functions they also need the inspirational environment to perform and this environment needs to be created by management and by the staff. Agile management is needed there.
SSQ: You talk about the power of play. There are a number of Agile “games” that are used to inspire creativity and innovation. Are you familiar with these games, and if so, are there any that are your favorites?
Zevenbergen: I do not know what you mean by Agile games, but I assume that instinctively I use them. Most of what I do and ever have done in leading companies has been based upon gut feeling and not theory. My whole book is based and even written based upon gut feeling and not on theory. This, by the way, is something managers should do much more: dare to respond to their gut feeling. If I have to hire a new employee, and I speak with him or her, I know within five minutes if this is the right person. Dare to respond to that. See life as a play and act. There is great power in playing the game and playing life. And even much more enjoyment, than if you treat is as a punishment.
SSQ: Do you believe individual contributors who aren’t in traditional leadership roles can benefit from this book? How?
Zevenbergen: This book is actually written for anyone who works, so not at all for leaders only. Every person needs strength and support to follow their ambitions and passions. That is what this book is about. The soul of this book should give energy to people. Energy, they need to pursue their ambitions and DO, ACT! That is why this book is for everybody. Just for the reason that books are categorized it has become a management book, but it should have been titled a management novel, for everyone who can read!
SSQ: Who is your audience for this book and what do you hope will be their biggest takeaway?
Save 20% when you order Rip Off Your Necktie and Dance from www.gppbooks-us.com/necktie.us. Use code SSQ11 when ordering before 12/31/11. Leen Zevenbergen’s book is also available on Amazon.