"As a leader your role is to give others space to succeed."

July 1 2021

Authority Magazine had the pleasure of interviewing Koen Becking, Rector Magnificus at Nyenrode Business University. As an experienced leader, Becking insists that you should stay close to your people and be there with them. As an optimist he knows that better times are coming: "Even in the midst of a pandemic it’s still important that we enjoy what we do", says Becking.

Can you tell us a bit about your 'backstory' and how you got started?

"Since 1 October 2020 I am Rector Magnificus at Nyenrode Business University. I am a political scientist, Honorary Professor of Stellenbosch University and since October 2012 I was the Chairman of the Executive Board of Tilburg University where I was responsible, among other things, for strategy and policy, internationalization, student affairs and external relations."

"I obtained my doctorate in 2001 at Utrecht University on the theme of labour relations and in 1999 my Master of Public Administration at the Netherlands School for Public Administration. From 2003 to 2017 I was a Professor by special appointment at the Stellenbosch University in South-Africa where I am an Honorary Professor since 2018. In 2019 Becking was appointed as a member of the International Advisory Council of the School of Management of Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China."

What motivates you?

"Working with people. Helping organizations develop, motivating other people and enabling them to do their job well. I like to help make things possible and give people direction. For 25 years I have been helping organizations move to the next stage of development. In addition, I get motivated when there is a match between me and the people at the right place at the right time. I have that with Nyenrode Business University and the people that work there. I would say I practice 'Servant Leadership' but that is not the whole answer. It does not cover everything, because sometimes you just have to dare to make unpopular choices. As a leader your role is to make things possible for others and give them space to succeed."

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

"Being there for your team. Over time, working with so many different people, I have learnt that you always have to be there and remain calm, even in crisis. You have to keep going and not be afraid. If you keep to that mentality, you will be successful. As well as being there you also need to inspire and give direction. Ask yourself where we are going: helping and inspiring others gives people perspective. Just like in politics: radiate peace and perspective and show that you are doing what needs to be done. Preparing for a new era and running a business at the same time is my specialty. Keep the business running and get ready for the next phase. Essentially that means you have to be financially healthy, but you also have to be ready for the digital world with competent people."

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate, and engage their team?

"Keep close to people and communicate. Small things are important now.  This could mean sending messages or flowers. I also think it is nice to have a leader with energy and enthusiasm. One who knows how to have fun."

"Not seeing people because of the pandemic puts a lot of pressure on morale. Experiencing work pressure is also difficult. Especially the transition to online with all the bumps that come along with it. I expect that when restrictions are dropped there will be a lot of demand for our products and we have to anticipate that. And be careful not to cut too much. But the bottom line is: not being able to be together is the hardest thing right now- we just have to get through that by communicating."

Which three words best describe your approach to leadership and why?

"The right people at the right time in the right place is absolutely essential. I do 3 things: setting the tone, the team, and the agenda. The latter is strategy. Be clear, honest, and accessible. Say it like it is. If it is hard to say, do not beat around the bush. Stay close to your people, be there with them, also in difficult times."

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

"You are the one who determines your own path in life, you as a leader must support that journey. But you are only human. Through experience and knowledge, you learn the confidence to say what you think and trust other people. Always remember in crisis to stick to your core business, innovation is great, but stick to what you are good at. In this new world we have had to get better at online testing. For example, a fully online MBA. But despite this we have remained true to ourselves, making sure we have the right resources to do this and maintain our customers."

Is there a 'number one principle' that can help guide students through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

"Above all, do what you want, don't be guided too much by what others say. Clarify for yourself what you want: what motivates you. Find an environment that suits you. Spend your time on your studies. Make sure you stay fit and exercise and get out there. Try to reach your full potential, reach for your limit on what is possible."

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most mistakes you have seen other leaders make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

"I have often seen reorganizations, so I’ve seen a lot of change. But leaders regret? Implementing new practices too fast and not paying enough attention to the people it affects. If your work is your life, your identity is strongly linked to it, you have to pay attention to that. I also think some leaders don’t get sufficient feedback on their own performance and that can be damaging."

If you could tell your younger self one thing what would it be?

"Not much has really changed over the years. I have stayed true to myself, I am having fun and if it that is not the case, I will try to change the environment. Do not run away, I will finish the job even if it is difficult. If you go back after 2 years and you are still welcome, you did well. You are your upbringing, and my upbringing and parents helped me a lot. As well as luck and running into the right people at the right time in my work experience. That is important: find a first boss who is a little crazy. That gives you space to develop yourself and where you are allowed to make mistakes. My first boss was a bit crazy, they called us the young dogs. Work hard party hard. I would tell myself to look for people who are outside your comfort zone, you learn from people and situations outside your comfort zone."

What are your hopes for the future and Nyenrode Business University?

"Nyenrode Business University will celebrate its 75th birthday upcoming academic year. I hope we will stay as personal as we are, remain the number one business school for students and clients with innovative programs, campuses in Amsterdam and Breukelen, and also be very good online. Hopefully, it will also be the place where you really want to be and work because of your colleagues."

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