Written By: Industry Leaders
Ineke Botter is an author, consultant and a thought leader on the topic of leadership. In this interview, she shares insights with The Industry Leaders about how to navigate uncertainty as a business leader.
Could you please share a bit about yourself, your background, and the journey that has led you to become an entrepreneur? What makes your perspective unique on the subject of leadership and navigating uncertainty?
Part of it was pure luck; I was in the right place at the right time. The mobile industry had just started in earnest when I entered the telecom space in 1991, as Business Development manager. Our first project was UMC in Ukraine (now Vodafone). Most people in the West were still very hesitant and didn’t believe that people would pay a lot of money for a mobile phone, hence shareholders didn’t put huge amounts of money or big teams in, yet. Our Dutch team consisted of only three people and we had to do everything ourselves. I worked extremely hard under very difficult circumstances, but having said that, it was also a huge learning curve that prepared me for management positions elsewhere. I loved the industry, its enormous impact, and continued working in other countries at CXO level and from 2000 onwards as CEO/MD.
Over the years, more and more people said that I should write about this journey, but I really didn’t have enough time to do that. Still, I had given it a first hesitant try, but lost part of the story when my laptop was stolen. Logically, I was a little demotivated. But when Covid came, I finally sat down to write seriously. I was ‘trapped’ in Amsterdam in an apartment for 10 months, on my own, so plenty of time, and also a good time to touch base with a lot of former colleagues and get their feedback and input, it was fun. To me the book, my memoir, is especially about creating awareness of the huge global impact of the mobile networks in only a few decades. Without these networks we wouldn’t have survived Covid, or found people in the rubble of an earthquake, or kidnapped children etc. Having survived many challenging situations I developed a good understanding of what uncertainty, and danger, does to people. These lessons are really valuable and I have given many examples in my book, ‘Your phone, my life’; examples that might be helpful to people who find themselves in critical circumstances, especially the first time. The best preparation for disaster is to start with taking stock of the situation ‘as is’, next think about the most likely risks that can cross your path and then start working with your team to formulate ‘what if’ scenarios. Not having an emergency plan is not an option. You simply have to, that is the reality of life, even in the Western world now.
In the end, it really all comes down to being prepared as well as you possibly can, and for anything that can hit us. And almost always unexpectedly, like the conflict in Lebanon that developed to a full- fledge war within 24 hours. Luckily we had our plan that we could invoke immediately. Yes, it takes time to put it together, but without that plan it would have been very hard to stay calm and manage through such dangerous situations.
You and your business have presumably faced some interesting challenges and changes over the years. Can you describe a key moment when you felt uncertainty was at its peak?
There have been many moments where I had to manage through uncertainty but I think that July 12, 2006 was the worst day in that respect. I woke up at about 4am with Israeli fighter jets breaking through the sound barrier, people screaming, shouting and fleeing the apartment building I lived in and me thinking about the companies’ employees and my own faith. Would we survive this? My office was on the top floor of the HQ building and when I arrived there – having called an emergency meeting to start implementing our disaster plan – bombs were dropped on areas less than two kilometres away. I could see it all from my window. A mobile company being so strategically important could easily be a main target. I had to understand the strategy, what was at stake and would we be the next target. After about 2 days I understood that only sites with multiple use (mobile telecom, TV, radio transmitters) were the target. The plan turned out to be absolutely crucial, we had proactively identified who had to come to work, when and why. We, the Management Team, had several mobile phones and used different networks, in case part of our network would go down, which happened several times. But the plan was in place and the very resourceful engineers fixed the problems temporarily, with little means, but it worked ! We supplied SIM cards, airtime, answered urgent questions and ran the critical parts of the operation with about 15% of our, very well trained, personnel. My training, experience and character also helped me, I’m organised and I was well prepared. Two points that allowed me to be quick and decisive, which is critical. You have to be able to act immediately, there is absolutely no time to fiddle around.
From your experience, what are the core principles or values that guide a leader during uncertain times?
Be aware that you, as the leader, can’t panic or lose the plot because that means that people get confused and that will cause real chaos. In other words, try to be calm and composed. Get your facts together, as soon as possible. Be decisive and if necessary trigger your plan that should describe all steps to be taken; like the one in Lebanon when we had described five phases of disaster and identified all jobs that were necessary for the operation to run, in each of those phases. Make sure you have a ‘ward system’ in place; this means that you have predefined teams of about seven people. Number one calls number two, who calls three etc. and then the loop is closed when number seven calls number one to inform that all is OK with everyone. Hide your concerns but don’t take unnecessary risks ‘just to be brave’. Protect but also keep faith in your people, always and everywhere.
How do you cultivate a culture of resilience and adaptability within your team? Can you share a practical example where this culture made a significant difference?
It is important in any circumstance that people understand where they stand, and that becomes even more critical during a calamity. That is why detailed plans need to be in place and rehearsed, so that people get a grasp of what can happen and what to do. It helps us to be resilient. If people know what is expected from them and in what phase, they feel better prepared and it allows them to adapt quicker to serious situations. It’s like the Japanese proverb that says ‘Be like bamboo, it bends but never breaks. It’s flexible, yet firmly rooted’. When I arrived in Beirut after a turbulent time in war-ridden Kosovo, Lebanon looked so nice and quiet. But shortly after my arrival, the bird flu was coming our way. We immediately started to work on our emergency plan, which involved analysing every function in the company, who would be needed and in what situation. We never used it for its initial purpose, as the bird flu ‘flew over’, but when the 2006 war arrived we immediately implemented it, with very few changes only.
Many aspiring leaders struggle with the fear of failure, especially when the path ahead is unclear. What strategies or mental frameworks have you developed to overcome this fear and embrace uncertainty as an opportunity?
It was my father who was my coach sometimes, who taught me a great lesson when I wasn’t sure what to do in a particular challenging situation. He said ‘You’re smart and experienced, you have common sense; out of 100 decisions, 95% will be straightforward, 5% you need to consider carefully and 1% might pose a problem, but not taking decisions means that 100% will pose a problem, just keep that in mind.’ This ‘rule’ helped me to always analyse situations, prioritise and make decisions, some of which were creating opportunities in the future. The mere fact that you train yourself to do the analysis is already a positive.
In your opinion, what are the most common mistakes leaders make during uncertain times? Can you offer a real-life example where recognizing and avoiding such a mistake led to success?
Leaders who don’t have their plan in place are not well prepared and logically vulnerable. If they have a plan but have not taken the time to rehearse it with the employees it will be only half effective. If, on top of that, they don’t have an agreed stakeholder communication plan, that’s it. Recipe for failure. ‘The world’ never seriously considered the possibility of an epidemic like Covid and I think many companies suffered more than necessary. Those who did have a fall-back plan, including trained people and the tools – like fast internet connectivity – for personnel to work from home, were in a much better place, their people more resilient and the company more competitive.
Looking towards the future, how do you plan to continue evolving your leadership style to meet new uncertainties and challenges? What advice would you give to others looking to do the same?
As I’m semi-retired now, I think my contribution lies in the fact that we – Wyze2 – support people in challenging situations or when they meet obstacles on the way. We assist them in structuring and restructuring operations. Then I serve on Boards of Directors in East Africa and coach a FinTech start-up there. I’m also a speaker for BookTalks in the Netherlands, which is a boutique agency for seasoned leaders who have a real story to tell and are willing to share their experience in Board meetings, Master classes or lectures. All these activities mean interaction with interesting people, or as the Americans say it is ‘a way of giving back’ and I really enjoy that.
You’ve clearly demonstrated a willingness to learn and grow through experience. Are there any books, mentors, or resources that have particularly influenced your leadership style? How would you recommend others to approach their leadership development journey?
First and foremost my father, who always encouraged me and never said ‘you can’t’. He was my coach when business coaches didn’t exist yet and taught me many important lessons like the one I described earlier. And, then I had a very good boss in Prague, Bessel Kok, a famous telecom CEO. He is very pleasant and friendly, and knows exactly how to motivate his crew. I watched him conducting his business very efficiently, and I used all those lessons in my roles as CEO over the years. I certainly recommend you try and find mentors in the company or your immediate environment, people who you can watch and learn from. Actively participate in courses, attend webinars, like our free monthly webinars (Topics from ‘Your phone, my life’) and consult an experienced business coach when you want to spar about a certain issue. As for books; when I worked in London, the company invited Barbara Minto, a McKinsey partner, to talk to us about her book, the ‘Pyramid Principle’. This was a very long time ago now, but I have used that principle throughout my career. She explained how every situation can be captured into a pyramid: put the most strategic points at the top and those then cascade down into smaller and smaller issues, or actions. For non-business books, I’d love to read ‘War Stories’ by Jeremy Bowens and ‘Alone in Berlin’ by Hans Fallada, again. Both books give another perspective on war situations.