Interview with Simone Filippini: What It Takes to Be A Great Leader

Blog | Leadership Development | Rise and Lead Women
August 19, 2020
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The Former Ambassador of the Netherlands to Macedonia and President of Leadership4SDGs Foundation Talks About What It Takes to Be A Great Leader

This interview is an excerpt from the interview that Simone Filippini did for the Inspiring Women Leaders online series. It was facilitated by Ebere Akadiri, Founder and CEO of Rise and Lead Women.



Ebere: Welcome back to the brand new series of Inspiring Women Leaders with me, Ebere Akadiri. Today, I am joined by Simone Filippini. She is the president of Leadership4SDGs, which supports government political leadership to help achieve the UN sustainable development goals, the climate goals, and to promote increased quality of governments. She was a former Dutch ambassador to Macedonia. She has also served as the head of the Gender and Women Rise department in the Netherlands’ ministry of foreign affairs and was the CEO of one of the largest Dutch humanitarian and development organizations Cordaid.

Looking through your history, you’ve come to the top of your career Simone, and I’m sure you’re still moving forward. But tell me, how have you gotten to this level of your career?

Simone: That is always difficult to answer because it is ingrained in yourself; it is connected to who you are. So it is not that I planned it beforehand. I don’t have this ambition to become rich or whatever, but there is an internal drive in me to contribute to something bigger than myself, and that drive has become stronger and stronger the older I get. 

It is interesting that you say I am at the top of my career, because I hope not. I hope to get further; I hope to be of more added value than I had been before, using the experience and the years of doing different issues so far. Using that knowledge and experience.

If we go back to my youth, my father was a person who always took responsibility. He was a Catholic. When he was younger, there was still quite a strong Catholic circle in the Netherlands. So he always took responsibility wherever he went and became connected to specific issues. He took responsibility, so he became a leader. That’s probably how some people become a leader — they see leadership from the parents and others in their close environment that inspires them. 

I also always say to my kids that when you’re raised into something you can’t escape that upbringing. I couldn’t escape my upbringing. I am from a family of 8, and we’re quite all strong characters, 4 boys 4 girls. Maybe it is my Italian ancestor’s blood or DNA; perhaps I have African roots, but it’s this drive and passion. I also make more noise than many other people. I use my hands in talking so something must still be there of my Italian ancestors. That, mixed with some Belgian and Dutch blood or whatever makes me into the person that I am.

Ebere: What has been the most vulnerable moment for you in all the years of your career?

Simone: There are some vulnerable moments, but I think what my most vulnerable moment was when I left as the CEO of Cordaid because that meant that I had to stand on my own feet for the first time in my career. As a diplomat I was, of course, a member of the diplomatic core of the Netherlands and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and I had a fixed job. Then I became the Director of Cordaid and I left that fixed job. But I didn’t feel it so much because I immediately fell into another job. 

When I left, all of a sudden, I realized that now I am on my own out here. So that was a moment of quiet vulnerability. You have to get used to such vulnerability to stand on your own feet and to build up to something of your own. I became an Interim Director of the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy. Hence, there was a safe position set and afterwards unsafety again.

You have to learn to deal with insecurity. That was quite a lesson I must say. It is also a form of self-care. How do you get from that vulnerable position and fall back on track in a way that you again feel empowered about what you’re doing and about yourself?

Ebere: What would you advise to those who are struggling at this point of a career change or loss of a job and don’t know how to go out there to start their life again?

Simone: Well, of course, there are no fixed recipes, but I think you have to start early in life building up a network. Many women work but that’s not enough. You have to build up a network; you have to diversify your network, you have to undertake actions and activities outside of your direct working environment, build friendships, develop ideas. 

I am an “idea” person. I always say, “Put me somewhere and give me an issue, and within 5 minutes, there is something going on in my head that starts bubbling and moving, and I develop ideas.”  That helps because the minute you have ideas, and you build a dream, you can hold onto your dream.

I like dreaming and I love dreaming big, and I like taking people along in my dream. The minute you have a dream and people come along in your dream then you get that feeling of empowerment. Being able to make people believe that what you think is the right path forward is an empowering feeling. That helped me a lot. 

Now I’m developing this Leadership4SDGs’ idea, and that helps me big time because I believe in it. I think it needs to happen, and others believe in it as well. 

There are no leaders without followers because what do you lead? Yourself.  Well, that’s important because I know ministers who were former leaders of ministries but who had never properly led themselves. So how can they lead others, right? It is difficult to develop something into action, and I’m still working on that, but it’s also a process, and it’s exciting.

Ebere: I follow you, and I see that you’re a strong voice not only for yourself but for society. You speak about environmental issues, political issues and you care about society and human beings and our environment. How did you develop such a strong leadership voice, and what would you say is your leadership style?

Simone: Well, I think I developed a voice by looking at the situation of people in this world and especially when I left the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

When I was in Macedonia, I saw the people and if you look at people, sit with them, and even if you don’t speak the same language but you look at them in the eyes, you can recognize each other. 

I have also discovered that we all have the same dreams wherever we live, wherever we come from and that’s especially true with women. I believe in international sisterhood because we recognize one another on many issues that we face together wherever we live, in whatever different circumstances. But the basics are the same.

In Macedonia, I really felt for the people. I felt with them and I felt that urge to stand with and for them. I became a little bit of an anchor for many people. I don’t know how that happened but maybe the right message, the right person, the right moment, the right place, that kind of thing. 

Ebere: Did you ever receive any form of mentoring or support? What type of mentoring or support did you receive as you climbed up in your career?

Simone: Not too much, too be honest. I’m a kind of self-starting, self-energizing type of person. You know when there is one ray of sunshine, I already feel that energy to keep on. 

At this moment I have a fantastic supporter, and that is Helen Clark, she is the former Prime Minister of New Zealand and the former boss of the UN Development Programme. Hence, she was the third person in the UN. She also ran to become the Secretary-General, and she is a fantastic person. She said, “Simone this is a niche that has to be filled and I am going to support you big time!” And she does. So for me, that means the world that somebody like her trusts me and has been willing to help me from the start, and believed me to be the person to drive this kind of message. Everybody needs somebody; you can not do things alone.

Ebere: I agree. Everyone needs someone. What do you advise to our audience, especially those in the public sectors, when it comes to finding mentors?

Simone: I think you have to look inside and outside the organization to find somebody and approach that person. I had people approach me and ask if I could have coffee with them and answer a few questions. Of course I do that. I drink lots and lots of coffee. 

I think that the main thing is to be yourself, to keep your spine straight, to develop yourself, to build that network, to reach out beyond your direct working environment and to be strategic. 

You know if you think small, you are small; if you start dreaming big, you start behaving bigger. I believe women sometimes have the tendency to be precise, conscientious, to be the perfectionist. It’s not about that because good is good enough; you don’t have to be perfect. I think developing big ideas, and then following through with them are important. Then you get to follow in yourself, and you also appeal to strong women who like to see other women become bolder. We understand this domino effect of strength and power, and I mean, look at women in the world.

Ebere: Usually, women leaders are judged harshly more than men. For example, you never hear anybody saying the man is bossy but would say, “That woman is a bitch. She’s bossy!” What do you think about that and how can we start changing these narratives?

Simone: I didn’t believe it existed until I ran into it myself. I’ve been raised by parents who didn’t instill this feeling of inferiority in me but I realized that the higher you get the more you run into something like this. 

It has something to do with jealousy, lack of tolerance for intrinsic diversity. People have to be able to be different from others. There’s a certain box that you either fit in or you don’t and I thought I didn’t totally fit. It’s a miracle that I become an ambassador with my type of character. But I felt that function fit me like a glove and I did very well in Macedonia. So, it’s not that impossible. It’s in the eye of the beholder. I noticed the same thing with some other positions. 

People look at you, judge you in a certain way, instead of judging what you’re doing and the results you achieved. And if they cannot cope with the type of personalities that they think don’t fit the picture of leadership, they have a problem. That is from the lack of understanding and acceptance of intrinsic diversity.

You need to be able to be different from me and still we look at each other, we talk together, and respect each other for who we are and what we do and what we try to achieve. Even if you do things different from what I do and I do things different from what you’re doing, you should still be able to say, “Oh, I look at Simone and she’s doing it like this. That’s interesting. Maybe there’s something to it.” And vice versa of course.  But if you think that it needs to happen in a certain way, that there’s no other alternative, then that’s a problem.

I think we have an issue these days with organizations that are stuck in systems, in ways of working and functioning that don’t fit the 21st century anymore. 

In my perspective, the 21st century is a change of era. It’s much more horizontal, much more into networking. It’s more out of the box. It relies more on people and less on institutional frameworks going through the motions of bureaucratic rules and regulations and thinking it will be enough to solve the issues of this time which isn’t the case. 

Why are some organizations in crisis? It’s because they are not able to change fast enough. We are in an age of transformation and these organizations are lagging behind in adjusting to that transformation. Many of the organizations won’t attract young interesting people if they go on like this. 

Ebere: You talked about intrinsic diversity, can you tell me more about that? 

Intrinsic diversity is about this frame that you have to fit in. It’s a kind of cloning system that you fit in and if you don’t fit the margins, you are not accepted. You’re being shut out.

There’s a huge diversity out there and we need to use it. People are still thinking in this small box that you have to fit in. That box is killing lots of creativity and passion and drive in young people. They come in and are brought up in that professional box instead of being encouraged to grow, to expand, and become more creative, they’re being put in a box.

Ebere: There are so many reports about gender imbalance especially in the top leadership. We’re talking about gender equality even at this time. What do you think women can do  to really take matters into their hands so we can close this gender leadership gap?

Simone: It’s never going to happen if it’s just women. Who are the power holders of today? That’s not the women unfortunately. I believe in a much better balance between men and women. Yes, women will fight much harder and they have been doing that for decades. We have come far from the 60’s but there’s still a long way to go. In many countries, there’s so much injustice against women; they are being put in such a detrimental position. So we have to work with power holders. 

Let’s encourage women and help them become stronger but at the same time we have to work with men in power by making them see that it’s a win-win situation; that they can learn better themselves, can have better results and become better leaders if they share that leadership with women. That really needs to happen. 

Women are being trained and supported yet the message is, “you are responsible for your own career.” You cannot be solely responsible for your own career. You need support. If you’re stuck in the mud, how can you get out of it? You need support from men and men need to create a space for women.

Ebere: Tell me a little bit more about Leadership4SDGs

Simone: Leadership4SDGs has to do with the facts that I mentioned before. I saw that we need different leadership in this world to make it a better place. We want to achieve sustainable development goals, which basically refer to this beautiful, holistic, people centered agenda, where inclusiveness, gender equality and broader equality issues and people’s rights are in the centerpiece next to peace building. So sustainability, inclusiveness, socio-economic development. Those are the core of Leadership4SDGs. Leaving no one behind. If we want that to happen, we need to work on leadership of countries. That’s my USP.  Nobody does it. 

I just cannot understand that there is no system for support of political government leadership. That’s how I came to it. These ministers are out there with these huge and complex challenges and we just leave them there. We don’t really help them in a sustainable manner to become better leaders. 

Ebere: How can our audience get involved with your project for Leadership4SDGs?

Simone: I need access to governments in the world. I need people who have capacities to help me there. I need people who know how to work on political issues, know how to lobby, who can help me set up an organization. They can always address me and we can see if we can work together. At this moment, they need to volunteer because I don’t have funding as yet but I would like this to eventually  become a sustainable business model. 

Ebere: Before I let you go, what pieces of advice would you like to give to our future leaders?

Simone: Keep your spine straight. Don’t be lured into becoming somebody you are not. Be yourself. It’s also important to have guts and courage. Develop dreams and ideas. Hold on to them, live for them. Build strong networks and cooperation with others. It’s very empowering to work in teams, to interact with and learn from others. It helps you to not only grow but also to keep hope in times of difficulty. Life goes as it goes. You need to deal with disappointments sometimes. Then stand up again, straighten up your shoulders and then go!

Ebere Akadiri

Ebere Akadiri

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.

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