“To close the gender leadership gap, we need to stop talking about the glass ceiling but instead, step into the glass slipper.” Marguerite Soeteman-Reijnen Interviews for the Rise & Lead Inspiring Women Leaders Series
Rise & Lead Women is proud to launch the Inspiring Women Leaders Series, an initiative where we interview female leaders who are at the top of their field in their respective industries so they can share their experience, advice and insights that can help women all over the world unleash their full potential.
Our inaugural episode features four established leaders including, Marguerite Soeteman-Reijnen. Marguerite is the current Chairman Executive board of Aon Holdings, CMO of Aon Inpoint and chair of Topvrouwen, an initiative based in The Netherlands that gives visibility to board-ready women in the country.
In this episode, Marguerite shares her personal story, her leadership style, the value of self-care, what she thinks of fairy tales and Snow White, and what she likes about Tina Turner. Watch this insightful and compelling interview in the video below, or you can also read the transcript underneath.
What is your personal story? How have you gotten to where you are today in your leadership position?
I’m the oldest in a family of four, and my parents always made sure that both my sister and my two brothers were raised not only using our potential for our good, but also other people. So we’ve been raised in a very social context of making sure you’ve arranged not only right for yourself, but also good for others. That’s a very important backbone, besides the fact that they want us to use our potential, anyhow.
If you have talent, make sure you use it. Otherwise, it gets wasted. I was raised in the south of Holland so education was an important part of our family. My mom is a teacher, my dad was an engineer and so going through the stages of high school and university, then to work, there was always an awareness in the back of my mind to make sure I use my potential. When I started working for AON, that’s always been in the back of my mind.
There’ve always been challenges, but there’ve also been lots of opportunities. That’s the most important – make sure that you take what is being offered and if you don’t get an offer, create it for yourself. Use your potential, and you should be the master of your destiny.
Did you always know where you wanted to be?
No. But I didn’t buy my failings. There are some things which you experience that it doesn’t work out the way you want them to, but then you continue, and you show perseverance. The way is to look at the positive end of the situation, even though there are things that might’ve been bad or disappointing. But take a look at what you can learn from it. I think that the worst experiences in your life are the best teachers in the future.
Can you tell us a little bit about those experiences? Like what has been the most vulnerable moment of your life or in your career?
We’re living in a time where everybody thinks that they can influence everything. But it’s clear now, after all, we’re living in a time where the Corona Virus is happening around the world, that health is something that you can influence to a certain extent.
I’ve experienced situations where health was not on my side. In the ancient Roman times, they said “Mens Sana in corpore sano”, which is a healthy mind and a healthy body. Understanding the impact of that is extremely important. I think that we’re going to see more focus on that. It’s not only about financial well-being, not only about physical well-being, but also about mental well-being. So I think more and more attention is being paid to those three elements of being well.
What is your leadership style? And how did you find out about it?
I’m very close to myself. I’m not pretending to be someone else. I’m pretty extraverted, I’m very passionate about things that I believe in, and I think I’m very interested in people. So I look at how to create trust. To do that, it’s very important that you know what you’re talking about; it’s a given. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, you should maybe not speak at all or ask questions. But if you want to create trust, you need to know what you’re talking about, you need to be authentic, be close to yourself, and you need empathy for people, and I think that the empathy element for people is really important
Many people may have struggled with finding a mentor or support to help them in their career journey. Did you ever receive any form of support or mentoring as you moved along?
I think it’s really important that you find people whom you can confide in – not just the good stories but also the bad stories – who can give you some advice. I think the most important thing you can get is advice from other people and different perspectives to different situations. And sometimes, you might hear things that you don’t want to hear but then take it in and make the best of it.
Mentoring is important, but not only in the formal sense which can be in the business. You should also make sure that you have friends to surround you who can give you some practical insights or you can share opinions with. And don’t only look for those friends, but also be a friend like that yourself.
You’re mentoring other women as well. What do you look out for before you commit to such a mentoring relationship with any person?
I think the most important is the intent of the person. They should want to learn. I think it’s really important that you are able to adapt to change, adapt to other ways of thinking, other ways of being. Diversity in the form of opinion and openness to that is really important. If I sit in front of someone who simply says, “I know it all, I’ve been there; I know how to do it myself”, then that person doesn’t need mentoring. That’s not the way you should enter a mentoring relationship. You should have an open mindset, and you should be open to both criticism and praise.
What about formal training? For those who want to be leaders, do you advise that they get any formal training on how to lead?
Leadership, for me, is something that you can’t call upon yourself; it’s something which other people call on you. You are a leader who is followed because people follow you. If I call myself a leader and I’m completely alone, then I’m leading myself, which can be good too. But the point is you’re not leading for a bigger group or a bigger purpose. Leadership for me is that you’re set to go to a certain point or horizon, you have a certain ambition, and the way you take people along is where leadership is being defined. Are you able to have followers or are people leaving you?
Can you learn it? Of course, there are some elements of leadership that you can learn, like knowing what you’re talking about, getting different perspectives, knowing how to act or react in certain situations, being more culturally savvy. But there has to be something intrinsically within yourself to be a leader.
This month of March, we’re celebrating International Women’s Day. What do you think is causing the lack of diversity in top leadership? Why are women not rising to the top?
As we speak, the socio-economic council of advisors has been adopted by both our parliament and our government, so we’ll see a law coming up in The Netherlands in the next month. The law will actually enable stock listed companies to acquire women on boards. It also enables them to think more strategically about what diversity and inclusion mean because it’s important not only to have women on boards but also to have a strategy in place.
But if you look at The Netherlands, it’s still very culturally conservative. From early on, girls are being taught how to be a girl and boys are being taught how to be a boy. It’s interesting to watch young women still reading fairy tales. And I love reading fairy tales myself to kids, but some of the fairy tales are not what I expect the modern woman to be about. Snow White is one of those fairy tales. Any modern woman wouldn’t like to take care of seven dirty dwarves. Maybe the witch with the apple was some kind of a blessing in disguise.
The point I’m trying to make is to be aware of those unconscious biases from a very young age, which do play a role in the way you educate a complete generation about whom they want to be. It’s important to become more conscious about those little things that influence women from a very young age. There’s research from David Miller called ‘Draw a Scientist’, and it’s interesting that wherever you go, whichever country, until the age of ten, girls draw a female doctor and boys draw a male doctor. But when they reach the age of ten, it changes and girls actually draw a male doctor. And it’s the mindset, the bias of seeing doctors being male. Those things are changing as we speak. You do see more general equality coming up, but it’s still important to be aware of those situations.
What can women do to take these matters into their hands? To change these situations?
Fairy tales are done by storytelling. So you can influence a fairy tale and start telling it in a more gender-neutral way.
In addition, it’s about selling the state yourself, that when you talk to your children about certain professions that you make them aware that everything is possible. I don’t believe in the glass ceiling whatsoever. It’s something that men put on us actually to address why we couldn’t reach the top. I’m more inclined to talk about the glass slipper, and the slipper is for anyone who seems to fit that slipper, whether it’s a boy or a girl.
You’re a very vibrant and bold leader. How did you develop this leadership confidence and voice?
First and foremost, are you able to say in one minute what you are and what you are about? Knowing yourself is an important element of it. And second, take the stage if you’re not visible. That’s something that Topvrouwen has done – we’ve made a lot of very capable women more visible. This is something other people can do for you, but you can also do for yourself. Take a look at the power of social media and how you can actually spread your own message and your own content. It’s something that more women should pick up and spread their content. Don’t just spread the content of others, but start giving your insights about what you think of a certain story, why do you post it, what’s keeping you busy.
You said Tina Turner is a role model every woman should follow. Why do you think so?
Many people know Tina Turner for all the fabulous songs she has sung. But not many people know her life story, which has been quite an interesting one. I know because I went to see the musical. She had a very tough life; she was harassed by her husband, and then she had to actually overcome segregation in the US and only really became a superstar on her merit when she moved from the US to the UK. She failed, she has fallen, she has stepped down, but she showed much perseverance to get where she wants to be. It’s a sad story, but also a very positive story about how you can get where you want to be if you persevere and keep on the good spirits.
I’ve always said you’re the master of your destiny, so keep it close to yourself; don’t pretend to be someone else. We always hear that you should behave in a different manner to succeed. I say, no, you should behave the way you feel comfortable. If you’re in your strength, people will feel you in your strength. If you’re in your weaker position, people will feel like there’s something not making sense. Go in your strength, be willing to learn, and adapt to situations where you feel like you can learn something, and surround yourself with extremely good people who can help you grow.
Can you tell us more about Topvrouwen? And for those who don’t understand Dutch, Topvrouwen means women leaders.
Topvrouwen was initiated in 2016; an initiative started after hearing enough comments that there weren’t enough board-ready women in The Netherlands. We started a database and made them visible. There are over two-thousand board-ready women in that database. Topvrouwen also organized speed dates and network meetings where we meet both men and women. We meet with board members of companies to increase the exchange of experience between board-ready women and men who are already on board.
How can women get involved with Topvrouwen?
If they’re interested, please contact Topvrouwen.nl, and we’ll take it from there.
Can you tell us more about self-care, and how do you accomplish it as a leader?
Self-care is very important. I already mentioned “Mens Sana in Corpore Sano”, which is a Roman saying, and it’s about having a healthy mind and a healthy body. Give people the best of you instead of the rest of you. Self-care means that you’re able to give the best of you because you take very good care of your health and make sure that you’re physically fit. Make sure you have a balance in place about your physical well-being and mental well-being, and that will also enable financial well-being.
Looking back, what three pieces of advice do you have for your younger self?
- Believe in yourself because if you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will.
- You’re the master of your destiny. Take a look at which destiny you would like to achieve or where you would like to go and then start connecting the dots to get there.
- I’m a big believer in people. So, connect with the right people at the right moments in your life and give them faith and trust and then trust they’ll be your friend as well.
Ebere Akadiri is an accomplished entrepreneur and an advocate for women in leadership. Her passion to inspire others to achieve their goals drove her to found Rise and Lead Women along with her co-founder, Poonam Barua. Their mission is to inspire women to take the lead in closing the gender gap in workplaces and in business.