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On Leadership, Vulnerability and the Dangers of a Sticky Floor

Bijgewerkt: 12 jun 2019

Interview with Zhenya Starkova, Business Development

Interview with Ilja van Haaren / Women in Business Series

Ilja van Haaren is a business strategist, who has held many executive positions in her career, among which N.V. Royal Delft and Kinderpostzegel (a child welfare foundation). Her most recent position was with The Hague Business Agency and she currently holds several board positions. In 2002 Ilja received national recognition as Business Woman of the Year for the transformation in business and reputation that she carried out at The Royal Delft. She resides in Delft, The Netherlands.

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Ilja steps out of her office to meet me at the reception. As always, I am magnetized by her soft charisma: an intriguing fusion of generous openness and respectful restraint. I am excited to talk to her – even a little timid – eager to be a student again and learn from someone who has been in the business of leadership for several decades.

I am observing her body language: a graceful economy of movement that projects unobtrusive confidence. I ask myself if I will have the opportunity to witness that elusive concept of vulnerability, a seeming must-have of the LinkedIn-approved modern-day leadership. “Would you like some coffee? We have good cappuccino here.”


We are making small talk, with the coffee machine efforting in the background. Earlier that month Ilja had agreed to meet me for a chat about leadership, business and success, just days after she announced her decision to step down as the director of The Hague Business Agency to pursue a new path in her career – a study in organizational change (at AOG / Groningen University). I was quick to ask, because I saw a chance to talk to Ilja during a time of personal transformation, a time when most of us present ourselves to the world unguarded, real, timeless. And yet, I have my own agenda for this conversation.


In my late 30s, a proud achiever of many professional successes and a resume edited vigorously to a snug 4 pages, I have recently felt the need to validate my own beliefs and values about success and leadership. These values represent something that I have been unequivocal and uncompromising about since the time I entered professional the workforce – at the ripe age of 9 years old. I was never interested in the feminist agenda, gender bias, or equal rights for women, because my post-soviet upbringing taught me that hard work is the answer to all the problems. After living all over the world, I moved to the Netherlands together with my husband and son, where I didn’t find resistance to any of my values and in many ways enjoyed an appreciation for who I am.


And here I am 10 years later, waiting for my coffee in a posh office of The World Trade Centre The Hague, looking for a connection with other women – stronger, more successful, more experienced, more in many other ways – to give me guidance and a new understanding of Ambition that will inspire the next 30 years of my career.

I first met Ilja in 2016 – when my company was hired to help with a project – and I remember making a note to myself about her striking the perfect balance of strength and femininity that didn’t seem to be in conflict with each other.

“Such a pretty jacket you’ve got on,” Ilja says casually, smiling as we sit down to talk, and my Russian soul rejoices. While I hardly fit into the stereotypical box of an Eastern European beauty, I do occasionally wonder if, since moving to the Netherlands, I have subconsciously decided that “too much femininity” is bad for business.


I first met Ilja in 2016 – when my company was hired to help with a project – and I remember making a note to myself about her striking the perfect balance of strength and femininity that didn’t seem to be in conflict with each other. During that first encounter, and all our subsequent meetings, Ilja would speak sparingly, shifting the narrative of the conversation every time she did. More than anything else, she made me feel heard. Now too. I came over to hear her story, yet Ilja is all ears. She hasn’t had the time to prepare the answers to the questions I had sent her, but now I have her attention. I know that as soon as the office door closes, her story will unfold.


“I have been a CEO for so long. Always on top of the mountain, always working very hard, forever pushing to get results.”

Despite my expectations, we get straight to business. Our context – the common knowledge that Ilja is making a turn in her career, an unexpected one, perhaps even misunderstood by some.

“As you grow older, you become softer. You are open to far more subtle possibilities of triggering impact. With my experience in business development, background in marketing communication and current interest in change management, I see myself as someone who could wield transformation and help organizations succeed in the reality of today’s business.”

I ask if the reason for this career switch is driven by the need to have a powerful creative outlet for the skills, intelligence and experience that she has accumulated over time. The sort of outlet, that is not always available to the residents of mountain tops, who are too busy keeping it all together. Ilja doesn’t answer my question directly. She pauses to think: “I guess I just want to work with very specific challenges now, while understanding the broader perspective. There is great value in that.”


As Ilja continues to share her study plans, with a controlled anticipation of someone who has already had many an opportunity to elaborate on the topic, I can’t but compare her story to my own journey. A marketing communication background, a venture into entrepreneurship, an eagerness to learn. I readily recognize many parallels, my head nodding at her sharp observations.

Nevertheless, I am surprised to find a touch of dissonance in my own reaction to her story. Do I resent the fact that I seem to be looking for evidence that validates my own career path? Or is it my uneasiness with the fact that I am unnaturally comparing the incomparable?

As a child Ilja was ambitious, creative and eager to take the world on. She would take on difficult tasks, she would be a class leader, she would stand out: “I knew that I could have added value, that I mattered – and this really motivated me.”

She remembers herself as someone who was not deterred by difficulties. If anything, inspired and challenged to beat the odds. She had a powerful role model, her mother Francine.

Ilja describes her mother as a source of inspiration and her father as a source of support, the two conditions that enable positive growth and a mentality of life-long learning.

Francine came from a very poor family and didn’t have many opportunities in her youth. She married Toon and together they had three children. It was a strong family, and in contradiction to the expectations of society in those days, it was also a solid foundation for Francine to pursue a career. She managed to combine a full-time study and a full-time job while raising three children.


“You couldn’t wish for a better role model.” Ilja smiled. “She was so happy, you know.”

“She always said to me – I couldn’t have it then, but I can have it now. It’s never too late”. Ilja describes her mother as a source of inspiration and her father as a source of support, the two conditions that enable positive growth and a mentality of life-long learning. “My mother taught me a lot about leadership.” Ilja’s left hand is resting on the table, her right – occasionally tapping with soft precision to accentuate the rhythm of her narrative.


“There are enough leaders, managers out there, who are forceful, aggressive even. That’s not my style – I believe a lot can be achieved with respect, interaction, the act of listening. I’d like to think that we can all be nice to each other.”

This suddenly reminds me of a book I read a few years ago – Women Don’t Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. The research presented by the authors hit several sore spots in my psyche and had an empowering effect on me. At the same time, I appreciated the empathic approach which did not necessarily advocate that women overcome gender stereotypes by employing traditionally male strategies, and instead develop effective negotiation tactics that worked comfortably for them.


I catch myself wondering whether I am being complacent by not challenging my own preconceptions and immediately labeling Ilja’s approach as a trait of successful female leadership. To be honest, it is hard not to have the bias, for I have a history of working with Ilja – close enough to observe her leadership style, but always from a superficial distance: strategic meetings, project briefings, events. She formulates her thoughts carefully, and presents them as conclusions, summaries, bridges and directives – rarely have I had an opportunity to see her thoughts play a loose game of brainstorm.

“Very quickly in my career, I realized that all the interesting stuff happens at the top and that I want to be there, but of course you start where everyone else does.”


Ilja is 59, a beautiful woman, always impeccable in style and bearing. When talking, she looks you in the eye, her expression revealing both keen interest and a degree of guardedness. I am hesitant to ask uncomfortable questions. I raise the issue of age and age bias. Is it more difficult to exercise a leadership ambition in a professional environment when you are younger? Or can these challenges be written off as lack of experience?


According to Ilja, leadership – in its different forms – is needed at all levels of an organization, so even in the early career we have the opportunity to fulfil a certain level of that ambition. She laughs: “Very quickly in my career, I realized that all the interesting stuff happens at the top and that I want to be there, but of course you start where everyone else does.”


In her first job, Ilja was a sales executive in a hotel chain, recruited directly from a hotel management school. A little while later, the hotel launched an international traineeship program, to which only her male colleagues were invited. She didn’t think twice about asking for an invitation to compete for a place in the program, ultimately getting a spot.

“You simply ask. You take that initiative, even when it is scary. It is also a form of leadership. They say the worst that can happen is a ‘no’, but in my experience even that can often be avoided if you present your case intelligently”.

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