Trailblazing leaders and visionaries: Showcasing the evolution of leadership
In the fast-paced world of digital transformation, Natascha van Boetzelaer shines as a prominent thought leader on all things related to digital talent and organisations.
As a seasoned expert based in the Amsterdam office of global leadership advisory firm, Egon Zehnder, she has been instrumental in guiding both disruptive start-ups and established companies through the intricacies of digital capabilities on a global scale.
With a diverse portfolio of clients, Natascha collaborates with a wide spectrum of talent, ranging from visionary leaders driving transformation in traditional enterprises to trailblazing entrepreneurs leading pure-play ventures. She also partners with domain experts in critical areas like product and technology, growth, artificial intelligence, and data science, enabling companies to stay ahead of the digital curve.
We speak to Natascha about the difference in leadership over the years, the benefit of hiring talent from outside your sector and much more.
Watch our exclusive interview with Natascha van Boetzelaer
Could you give us a bit of a summary of your career to this point?
When I graduated from McGill University, having studied econometrics, I was mostly interested in studying abroad because of my curiosity. I didn’t have a dead-set idea of what I wanted to do. This was in the late 90s, an age of with difficult strategy, consulting, and investment banking options, and I was lucky enough to be offered a choice.
My father had been in banking and said that strategy consulting would be a better fit, so I joined a company called Mercer Management Consulting in London and loved it. It was later acquired by Oliver Wyman, but I got access to many different types of sectors. After two years, I felt that I wanted to be closer to the action than being a strategy consultant. One of my colleagues, and now dear friend, had moved to a company that was backed by a venture firm called Arts Alliance.
He introduced me to the Founder, and I went to see him with the idea that he’s got something in his portfolio that would fit me. I met him and heard about what they were doing, and it was so exciting. So, I actually said to him, “look, I’d love to work for you,” and he said, “well, that’s great. But I don’t have anything available right now. But I’ll call you if anything comes up.” A week later, he calls me back and he said, “look, we’ve actually got room for an analyst. Come and meet a few more people.” So, that started my six-year career in venture capital.
We were working with businesses and entrepreneurs, such as lastminute.com, Kiala, and lots of exciting companies in Europe and in the US. After a couple of years, the bubble burst and we looked in a different direction. I had two young kids at the time. My husband, who’s also Dutch, and I decided it was time for the family to move back to the Netherlands. I got in touch with Egon Zehnder after the move. At first, I wasn’t too interested in doing search or headhunting, but they introduced me to a private equity firm, as an investor relations officer.
I did that for six months and found that I really wanted to do something more dynamic and work with people rather than assets. They agreed to pivot my role, and that was 16 and a half years ago. So now at Egon Zehnder, I work with everything consumer internet and a bit of SaaS too. I have amazing colleagues and love what I do.
What was it about the entrepreneurial spirit that hooked you?
It is the passion and the drive. I love to meet people who are so convinced about a product or service, and that are fiercely determined. In the Arts Alliance days, I spoke to people, with families, who would take a second mortgage on their house, sell their car, and had an unwavering belief in what they were doing.
On the other side of that, you meet some people who are working in large corporates and they came across like they were just doing a job. They were basically just ticking through the hours. This was in stark contrast to entrepreneurs who had committed their whole life to making their dream happen.
What kind of differences have you noticed in leaders that you placed at the start of your career to the ones you’re placing today?
A lot, of course, has been driven by the world that we live in today. We say that the world has become a lot more complex, rather than complicated. Complicated problems you can solve in linear ways. Complex problems, you can’t. A basic example of this is when people first went to the moon. That’s complex. But today, where there are macro and geopolitical challenges, you need to think of digital transformation, sustainability, diversity and inclusion, etc. As a leader, there are so many things coming at you that operating in a complex setting requires a different kind of leadership.
What does that mean, in terms of a leader? A leader is no longer an autocratic, top-down leader who has all the answers. Someone who can set a three-to-five-year strategy, not necessarily on their own, but even with just their core leadership team. A leader today is someone who enables an environment where people can innovate, where people can experiment, and where you inspire the people in your organisation to come up with ideas.
The second is that there is that degree of honesty, maybe even vulnerability, required. A leader will get much more respect if they are willing to say, “look, I don’t have all the answers, and we need to find the answers together. Here are some of the questions I’m asking myself…” When you create that kind of openness in your organisation, it also makes it psychologically safe for others to want to come up with ideas and to feel comfortable enough to suggest things. Whereas in the past, they were just kind of taking orders and executing.
And then, of course, there’s sustainability. Most talent, especially younger people, will only join organisations that have a purpose. I’m not saying that purpose only needs to be around sustainability specifically, but companies need to be purposeful. People can really sense whether it’s authentic or not, so the organisation, and the leaders specifically, need to be a lot more authentic. The talent also wants to know about diversity and inclusion. Not just talking about it but having evidence to back it up.
We’ve spoken to people who believe that hiring someone that’s completely outside of their sector can give their company the edge. Is this something you’ve noticed?
This is definitely something we’ve noticed, and there are reasons for it. It goes back to my point about the type of leadership required in this day and age. When you stick to hiring in a specific sector, often you cannot find the person who is that evolved, in terms of leadership, because there are some sectors that started evolving in this direction earlier on. If I just think about digital transformation, the sectors that were closer to the consumer had to change early on, because the consumer expectations were changing.
If you think about media, retail, and banking, those were some of the sectors that were affected by digital transformation much earlier than the others. There are some sectors that are only now bringing in leaders to drive their digital transformation, just because they didn’t really need to, and there was no real sense of urgency.
We really encourage our clients to open the candidate pool and look at different sectors. We also ask them to establish clarity on what of the requirements are ‘must haves’, and what are ‘nice to haves’.
What improvements do you feel leaders need to focus on making?
We did a big study amongst CEOs two or three years ago and, for us, the biggest insight there was that leaders are saying that in order to transform their company, they need to transform themselves. They’re starting to say, “wow, this is really so demanding on me. I am not equipped in how I show up as a leader today.”
Over the past years, we’ve developed quite a few transformational programmes where we work with leaders, put them in a group of 15-20 likeminded people, and work with them to really develop much more of an understanding of who they are, but also what has made them into who they are. Looking into questions like “Why do I feel triggered by this?” etc and often those are patterns that are developed in their childhood.
We work with them and help to unlock access to the much broader range of leadership capabilities they have. I think that’s a massive opportunity for many leaders, but it requires a willingness to work with someone, without judgment, to really understand yourself. It also requires you to be much more open to feedback. I really wish that more companies had more of a feedback culture so that people can learn about themselves. We’re seeing this more in younger generations. They want feedback on the fly, not just a once-a-year, formal feedback survey.