Share
FacebookFacebook icon TwitterTwitter icon LinkedInLinkedIn icon Email
IG&H: Finding a new way to lead

CEO Circle

IG&H: Finding a new way to lead

Published 17 February 2023 in CEO Circle • 8 min read

When senior employees at Dutch firm IG&H walked away in frustration with the company’s leadership, founder and CEO Jan van Hasenbroek realized that things had to change. Susan Goldsworthy,Affiliate Professor of Leadership, Communications and Organizational Change, explores one leader’s transformative journey from controller to facilitator 

Headquartered in Utrecht in the Netherlands, consultancy IG&H was founded in 1988 by Jan van Hasenbroek and Kees van der Geer. Together, they created one of the fastest-growing mid-sized companies in the country; however, despite this success, van Hasenbroek faced trouble, felt he could do better. He wanted to learn how to delegate better, and to grow as a leader with a coaching leadership style; he understood that everyone has a need for recognition, safety and receiving compliments. His leadership style was coming under increasing scrutiny with persistent criticism of his “perfectionism” and his “red-pencil” controlling behavior. Some clients commented on their inability to build a rapport with him, characterizing him as impatient and a poor listener. Senior members of the firm started to believe that, despite having led the company to its current position of success, his personal leadership style constituted a bottleneck to future growth. 

When van der Geer stepped down in 2008 and van Hasenbroek became managing partner, these pressures mounted. The 2009 financial crash did not help. Amid those turbulent times, however, van Hasenbroek remained ambitious in terms of IG&H’s future growth. This determination to keep the company on an upward trajectory translated into his setting ever more exacting standards for employees. His constant micromanagement, checking others’ client presentations for instance, irritated colleagues, who felt that he didn’t trust them to do the jobs for which they had been hired.  

As one ex-director commented: “Jan always looks at how we can improve. You never get a compliment … After every client meeting, there is a discussion of what you did wrong.” Nevertheless, to van Hasenbroek, the firm’s progress seemed slower than it could be, leaving him frustrated, restless, and dissatisfied. 

Matters came to a head when a number of senior staff left the firm, taking clients with them. Van Hasenbroek regarded them as “brothers,” whom he respected, and he took their departures personally. At the time, he could not recognize that it was his hesitation in promoting them – again based on a disproportionate focus on shortcomings, rather than merit and achievements – that had caused personal resentment to build up. His marriage had also broken down in this period, as his unwavering focus on the business, constant restlessness, and frequent travel had left little time for his wife and two young children. An inability to talk openly with friends about his subsequent divorce exacerbated his sense of loneliness and isolation. 

Time for change 

After almost 25 years running IG&H as a profitable business based on his vision, van Hasenbroek could see that its continued success would require a change in leadership mindset. He contemplated but decided against selling the business and walking away; this left him with the daunting prospect of self-examination and change. On the advice of a friend, he signed up for a leadership course. The program helped van Hasenbroek to understand the roots of his perfectionist behavior and he started a journey of deep reflection and self-awareness. All senior leaders attend the program, and over time van Hasenbroek has brought the principles into the company, adapting them for the IG&H context. With the desire to transform the organizational culture, IG&H arranged trainings for all employees using a ‘Train-the-Trainer’ approach.  

This ongoing commitment to growth and learning has proved transformative both for van Hasenbroek and the business, supporting sustainable financial growth. Today, data science, business engineering, technology implementation, and best practices for digital transformation are all integral parts of IG&H’s service offering. As a result, they are now a market leader in complex end-to-end digital transformation across five industries: retail, healthcare, banking, insurance and pensions.  

IG&H now has around 400 employees in seven locations and is still growing. Since 2019, it has had a 21% CAGR. Van Hasenbroek acts as company chair, having brought in secondary management to run the business day to day. The firm has officially been a “great place to work” since 2019 (a certification based solely on employee feedback), and is ranked in the top 10 best mid-sized workplaces in the Netherlands. 

Commenting on the firm’s revised values, van Hasenbroek states: “Our business starts with great people. We must nurture our staff and meet their expectations. Of course, trust and camaraderie are very important, but our people-first ethos also means there’s a true feeling of belonging.” 

“Given that we are have been a top-10 great place to work for many years and that we take sustainability seriously makes us a sweet spot for talent. In addition, all employees benefit via Stock Appreciation Rights (SARs). But the benefits of the leadership transformation are even more impressive than the growth in employees.”

“Thanks to our diversified talent pool, we have been able to innovate our business model to stay relevant and ahead of the curve, using AI and advanced solutions based on having our own IP. IG&H is truly a special company that is expanding now internationally, as confirmed by the attention we are receiving from all kinds of international investors.”

Lessons learned 

Throughout the transformation from a ‘play to dominate’ fixed mindset to a ‘play to thrive’ growth mindset style of leadership, some key lessons have been shared and absorbed. 

“In order to be a ‘good’ leader, I used to work many hours. But, actually, the success of the company is based on three decisions I made last year,” shared van Hasenbroek. He learned to relinquish total control, allowed others to make more decisions, and saved his time and energy for those few critical decisions where he could add maximum value. Now, he sees himself as a sounding board for others who are wrestling with key business choices and believes he delegates as much as 90% of operational responsibility.  

This process of relinquishing control is analogous to a child learning to ride a bike: if a parent holds the saddle all the time, the child fails to learn, and the parent is left with backache. The parent must learn to let go, knowing that the child will wobble and fall a few times, but will ultimately be encouraged to learn and grow. At work, no one brain can see all the possibilities and make all the decisions – and no one person can hold everyone else’s saddle.  

IG&H needed to create an environment in which people felt sufficiently confident to step out of their comfort zones. The difference between just surviving or thriving is, to a large extent, the conditions in which each individual is placed. It is a leader’s role to create the conditions in which people flourish and to nurture an inclusive, non-judgmental culture. Google conducted an in-depth two-year study into high-performing teams and found the most common and significant characteristic to be psychological safety – encouraging a willingness to take risks without fear of failure or embarrassment. A contributing factor of IG&H’s incredible success stems from its switch from a top-down to a more diverse, inclusive, flat organizational structure. 

Looking back, van Hasenbroek’s high standards were not the issue – it was his method of delivery and negative bias that created tension and demotivated people. His past leadership style was outmoded and patriarchal, based on the assumption that one person can make the best decision in any circumstances. He has transitioned from this “power over” approach to a more inclusive, co-creating ‘power with’ model. IG&H is a complex organization where no one person could possibly have all the answers. A more inclusive, respectful environment continues to challenge people to raise their performance while supporting growth, innovation, and curiosity. It is possible to have high standards and a motivated workforce, which wants to come to work – and stay for the long haul.  

Despite having used the same leadership approach for over 20 years, van Hasenbroek was able to unlearn it and embrace a new model. To overcome such self-conditioning is not easy. It required continuous practice and an environment that encourages experimentation and allows for productive failure. It is a journey with no end, where improvement is always possible. What IG&H’s workforce needed was a visionary leader who would take them forward with knowledge won through experience, giving encouragement when the going gets tricky. As van Hasenbroek acknowledges, “There are many more mountains to climb, but I know the mountains now.” 

Leadership should not be a solitary pursuit. Van Hasenbroek initially felt vulnerable when sharing his personal leadership goals and failures with employees. But his gaining sufficient self-awareness and empathy to speak openly made it easier for employees to start a dialogue with him and provide valuable feedback, which now happens every three to four months, both strengthening business strategy and building a sense of mutual trust. 

Van Hasenbroek has no regrets at taking the tougher option of changing his approach, reasoning that he would have “missed the opportunity to grow as a person”. Having undergone a steep learning curve, he feels calmer and more relaxed in both his business and personal life. Meanwhile, IG&H continues its impressive growth trajectory – with people excited to come to work and contribute.  

Key takeaways 

1. Recognize that leadership is about relinquishing control.

2. Create an environment in which both self and others can flourish.

3. Move from a ‘power over’ to a ‘power with’ model of leadership.

4. Although not easy, everyone is capable of change, regardless of views or position.

5. Do not try to lead alone. The best leaders seek out and listen to secure bases who both support and stretch them.

Authors

Susan Goldsworthy

Susan Goldsworthy

Affiliate Professor of Leadership, Communications and Organizational Change at IMD

Susan Goldsworthy OLY is an Affiliate Professor of Leadership, Communications and Organizational Change at IMD. Co-author of three award-winning books, she is also an Olympic swimmer. She is a highly qualified executive coach and is trained in numerous psychometric assessments. She is Director of the IMD Executive Coaching Certificate.

Related

Learn Brain Circuits

Join us for daily exercises focusing on issues from team building to developing an actionable sustainability plan to personal development. Go on - they only take five minutes.
 
Read more 

Explore Leadership

What makes a great leader? Do you need charisma? How do you inspire your team? Our experts offer actionable insights through first-person narratives, behind-the-scenes interviews and The Help Desk.
 
Read more

Join Membership

Log in here to join in the conversation with the I by IMD community. Your subscription grants you access to the quarterly magazine plus daily articles, videos, podcasts and learning exercises.
 
Sign up

You have 4 of 5 articles left to read.