My life changed the day my oldest son Bart was diagnosed with FSHD - the facio-scapulo humeral form of muscular dystrophy. Until that moment, life had been uncomplicated. Unilever made the decisions about what we should do next, which may sound somewhat negative, but I really enjoyed working for this great company and the family loved our international experiences.
My career was moving fast - much faster than I ever dreamt it would. My ultimate goal was to lead an operating company for Unilever somewhere in the world. This happened when I was asked to go to Switzerland in 1993, but theoretically, I still had 22 years to go to before retiring at age 65, so I had to rethink my future ambitions. But, by far, the most important reason to rethink my future was Bart.
Bart's diagnosis in 1992 opened our eyes to a different world - a world in which we became less self-centred and more caring of others. As a result, my lovely wife RenÃ©e and I started the FSHD Foundation to raise money to fund research programmes to understand this rare disease. We also got involved in a number of other muscular dystrophy related activities. A new balance began to take shape in our lives - the focus was shifting from being career-driven to being responsible for not only our children and my career, but also for our role in society. Subconsciously, I also began applying this notion in my roles at Unilever. I became aware that there was a real world out there crying for support from people who had the social position, the networks, the heart and, therefore, the capability and motivation to make a (small) difference. Words like social responsibility and sustainability began to have real meaning for me.
In February 2001, I met Professor Tom Malnight, from IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland. He had been involved with the two Chairmen of Unilever in designing a leadership journey to Costa Rica, the objective of which was to open the eyes of the 100 most senior managers at Unilever to a different way of relating to each other and to important stakeholders. Tom later helped me set up a major change process in Unilever Europe's Ice Cream and Frozen Foods business. For the following six or seven years, he and I worked together intensely to prepare the businesses under my responsibility for the future. In this period, I started to toy with something I called the "three-circle model".
Many people keep their family, business and society roles strictly separate. I have great difficulty with this approach because I believe the circles should overlap and that individuals should live in one holistic world rather than building concrete walls between their different roles in life. By allowing my three different roles - loving and caring husband and father, Unilever executive and President of the FSHD Foundation - to overlap, I was able to become more balanced and, therefore, more able to deal with the difficulties and issues that I was encountering in each of my different roles. The opposite is also true. When things go very well in one area, the energy garnered from that area spreads to your other roles, and as a result, you will be more effective in those other roles. In other words, if you view your roles in life holistically, I believe you will be more effective and you will be perceived as a more authentic person. The more authentic you are, the more respect you will earn from your environment.
One aspect that I initially overlooked in the model, which I later introduced, was the fact that you also have to look after yourself. In the last years of my career at Unilever, I engaged a personal trainer who would go jogging with me once a week. Unilever encouraged its senior managers to have a personal trainer because it is convinced of the importance of being in good shape. Since then, Pernette Osinga, a former Olympic fencing athlete, takes me out to the dunes once a week for an hour and a half of exercising. When you are in good physical shape, you can deal with significantly more stress. In addition to working out, it is important to follow a healthy lifestyle with a balanced diet. I am not suggesting dieting, just using a little discipline. If you practice moderation, you can still indulge from time to time.
During my last two years at Unilever, I was also introduced to self-reflection. I became much more aware of myself - my motives, my drivers and my deeper purpose. This helped me to make a few very important decisions, not the least of which was the decision to take early retirement from Unilever. This opened the doors for me to get involved in the Power of Balance project with Tom Malnight. As I had been toying with my three-circle model with Tom on several occasions, he encouraged me to consider joining IMD as an Executive-in-Residence, as this would provide me with an opportunity to spend time developing my model.
And so it happened that in November 2008, I took my place in the senior professors' wing at IMD. The concept was pretty straightforward. I would be paid for every hour of teaching in the classroom. The rest of the time, I could do whatever I wanted. And, it would be greatly appreciated if I could write a book during my time at IMD. I was supposed to stay a year. But a year became two, and it will probably become even longer. Why? I really enjoy the teaching part. But you can only teach if you have cases to share. So, initially, I spent a significant amount of time writing a few Unilever cases. The popular ones were about managing complexity, Unilever's corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities, managing change and the power of balance. I also love engaging with the MBA participants, which has resulted in several coaching and career counselling assignments. The sensation of helping young people move forward is a rewarding experience. But the real reason for extending my stay at IMD is the ambitious research project that Tom and I have developed to understand more about the motives and drivers of executives. The aim is to be able to draw conclusions about their ability to create balance in their lives and to cope with the challenges they and their organizations will face 5 to 10 years in the future.
The project initially began when we asked the 2009 MBA class of 100 students to write us a story describing a moment in their lives when they felt really good, when things had worked out well for them and they were in control of the situation. In the next phase, we asked the same question of about 150 middle managers who were attending programmes at IMD. Later we interviewed some 80 CEOs and former CEOs (many of whom were non-executive board members) from around the world. They represented everything from large firms to major multinationals and conglomerates - both public and private - with family, private equity or state ownership. We covered the globe from Brazil to China, visiting all kinds of industries and services. The two-hour interviews focused on how these leaders were dealing with the key challenges they were facing in preparing their organizations for the future, how they were dealing with different dilemmas and how they were preparing the next generation for their roles. We also spoke about the responsibilities of a firm vis-Ã -vis the environment and the impact of the company on society. They shared their successes and failures with us. Finally, we asked the 2010 class of MBA students what a company would have to do to gain their commitment to stay in its employ for a ten-year period. All this information is now being digested, coded and analysed, and the resulting insights will be shared through a series of articles produced by the IMD Global CEO Center - Leading in a Connected Future (LCF) - which I will co-direct with Tom Malnight. The aim is to enter into a dialogue with senior leaders and, together with them, develop ways in which leaders can be more effective in the future. Most likely "balance" will be an important element of the findings.
Shortly after joining IMD, I was asked by Professors Jean-FranÃ§ois Manzoni and Tom Malnight to give a lecture to a group of senior Philips executives. Jean-FranÃ§ois briefed me on the programme and told me what he expected from my lecture. He is a real believer in the power of storytelling, so he asked me to tell him what had impacted me the most during my career at Unilever. After hearing a few of my stories, he said that it would be great if I could share two or three of them with the Philips group. He was convinced that this approach would work well in getting a number of key learning points out to the participants.
It was not difficult to convince me that storytelling is an effective communications tool. During my days as the President of Unilever Europe, the leadership team was facing the difficult task of telling our organization that we were about to embark on the biggest reshaping and restructuring exercise in its history. It was a difficult, complicated and tough message. Our Communications Vice President recommended that we deliver a consistent message to our people but that we do it in our own words with our own examples. To help us with this task, we brought in an outfit to teach us the art of storytelling. It was a real success. Instead of showing the standard PowerPoint slides and Q&As, each member of the leadership team told the story about Europe in his or her own way - it was a more humane and memorable way to deliver a difficult message. The title that Jean-FranÃ§ois gave the session was simply "Defining Moments by Kees van der Graaf". The connection with the audience worked well and the feedback was surprisingly positive. Since then, I have continued to share my "defining moments" in IMD's classrooms. In fact, telling my stories has become a new passion for me. This has been fuelled by the positive feedback I have received from programme participants. On several occasions, they have asked if I had ever considered writing my stories down. It had not crossed my mind, but it inspired me to give it a try. And thanks to Jean-FranÃ§ois, I had a title for this book.
My passion for storytelling is also driven by my strong desire to help the next generation of leaders become more effective. By sharing the stories of some of the significant events in my life that have helped to shape and define me personally, professionally and spiritually, I hope to contribute to the development of the next generation. I do not pretend to know everything; the only thing I do know is that I have experienced deep learning over the years. I have made mistakes, but I have also had my successes, and I have become much more values-driven. Through this book, I would like to reach people who are interested in the heartfelt stories I have to tell and the lessons I have learnt along the way. My one big hope is that the next generation of leaders will be more values driven and more caring of humankind, the world, society, their loved ones and their businesses. And I believe that current leaders have an obligation to prepare and educate future leaders to put these interests above their own by spreading their knowledge, money and time to make the world a better place. I hope that I can make a small contribution to all of this by sharing my stories with you.