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7 Questions on Leadership with Erik VAN ROMPAY


Title: Chief Operating Officer

Organisation: TwoTwentyDots

Graduated as civil engineer with INSEAD training, Erik has acquired strong international entrepreneurial experiences to become one of Europe's leading innovation and financing advisors for family businesses and family offices. After 5 years at Walt Disney Imagineering, the realization of several industrial projects for Ford Motors Co, Volvo, Daf Trucks and the launch of INSEAD in Singapore and Middle East, he ended up by launching 5 different start-ups. This all allows Erik to master the different aspects of business development including the so critical financial aspects to make projects happen. A skillset that creates confidence and reliability for global family offices.

Thank you to the 2,000 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 Questions on Leadership!

I hope Erik's answers will encourage you in your leadership journey. Enjoy!


Jonno White

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader?

The most challenging for me is when you arrive in a company, you are always introduced as a director/manager and you have to gain the confidence of the teams so they can see you as a leader.

A leader has to be an example to follow for everyone at any time of the day and under any circumstances. It starts by giving everyone the feeling that I can manage the different aspects of the business and guide them to new frontiers (as business evolves constantly). It is also about motivating a maximum of people so they know how they can engage themselves to do excellent work.

If team members start saying “we follow you as you are the leader”, I know I made it. If they say “we follow the boss”, I know something went wrong and I need to adapt urgently my behaviour.

2. How did you become a leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?

I believe people can become leaders by gaining lots of professional experiences (knowing the job), a high personal engagement and the ability to communicate the corporate strategy in easy understandable phrases.

At my first job as an intern, my boss forced me at my arrival to work 2 days in each service of the company before starting my job. This allowed me to understand every aspect of the business – and at the same time, I knew people in every service. I even learned how to unload trucks, moving a 10ton lorry on the parking lot, store pallets, follow deliveries, track production, create invoices, assist the sales people… and I also noticed that this together with the high social engagement of my first boss motivated everyone in the company.

Even with my engineering degree, I understood the different tasks and complexities of each division - knew how to listen to people and improve daily functionning. Little by little, I became a 360° manager knowing the different aspects of each service.

When I got promoted many years later to run an ailing business, I could streamline all the internal processes of the company and it was my high personal engagement that would do the rest to make me a natural leader.

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

I have a rather ordinary work day taking care I am one of the first ones to arrive in the office and being the one that leaves late in the evening. Showing I am there is key.

I refuse to have a coffee machine (or fridge) in my office so I am obliged to go to the coffee machine like everyone else – giving me the opportunity to have informal chats with team members on what they are working on and if they have some specific issues that I can solve. So the coffee machine is my informal “social” connector and operational facilitator.

Also very important for me, what happens in the office stays in the office meaning I don’t bring my work home and this allows me to sleep well every night (and arrive fresh in the office each morning). A leader has to be in a great shape !

4. What's a recent leadership lesson you've learned for the first time or been reminded of?

Empowerment through listening and suggesting.

During a recent technical team meeting, I listened actively to the different discussions. Even when I knew instantly the solution to solve the issue, I asked the team questions so they could little by little discover the solution I had in mind themselves.

So I empowered my team with something I knew was going to work... but they created officially the solution that I imagined before to be the right one.

5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

I worked several times in ailing companies and due to the extreme crisis situation, teams did not longer work together. Even the board members and shareholders were all playing their own game creating confusion and demotivation throughout the whole company.

So the book that had a profound impact on my leadership was “The Art of War” of Sun Tzu.

Not the easiest one to read and understand but when having internal struggles, departments working against other departments, negative buzz everywhere, strikes, unions that block everything… there is only one solution and that is “go to war” against all things that go wrong.

Sun Tzu guided me in how to occupy the field, how to enable initiatives and disable attacks while starting to motivate the teams so they could work together again. Sun Tzu also guided me in structuring my communication channels, my messages and even found some “influencers” to repeat my messages throughout the company. As in war times (and following Sun Tzu’s recommendations), this also included sending around some false information to distract people allowing me to have the space to do the job.

And of course, as Sun Tzu indicated, show you are everywhere on the battle field (particulary on the frontline).

6. If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?

At everything you do, ask yourself if you could have done it smarter. As a young leader, you know you are with your brain and 2 hands extremely efficient.

But imagine you can add for each action some extra brains and extra hands from your team, the same job can be done better, smarter and faster.

It requires to listen carefully to each person in the team so you can motivate them to extend their skills and by working with you on new things, they receive extra motivation. From your personal brain and 2 hands, you suddenly have an army of brains and hands, all working in the same direction.

You are not longer a young leader but a senior leader, the one that gets a maximum of brains and hands work in the direction you defined.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader, so far?

The story is a little long but it shows clearly how I became as a temporary manager a fully respected leader at the FIRST DAY on the job.

I was hired by a large group for a 6 weeks turnaround mission to restructure one of their subsidiaries – a company that delivered desktop services to their 2000 seats network. Due to the bad situation, the board had fired the directors and had send previously an interim manager that didn’t stay 24 hours. So I was arriving in a company without directors or managers and a team of 20 demotivated people.

And this is what happened on my first day.

8:30 am: I arrived in the office and took my first cup of coffee… without sugar. A guy told me ironically that sugar will perhaps arrive by Christmas. I noticed he used the word "perhaps" but I didn't take more attention to it. I was then guided around to meet my team... but I met lots of people, much more than the 20 people they announced me. So I started wondering who were all those people sitting in my office space. And then one of the desktop technicians greeted me by saying "welcome number 8". I suddenly knew I was the 8th interim manager in a row on this mission. This is going to be very HOT.

9:30 am: First emergency: three people in the hallway informed me that there was no longer toilet paper on the premises and this for already more than 2 weeks. I wondered if this was a joke to test me but after a quick verification, I found out it wasn't a joke so I walked to accounting who told me there was nobody anymore in the company to sign a bank check so I asked them to give me one that I signed instantly. I knew it is illegal as I had no signature on the bank account but our supplier wasn't aware of that so he would deliver it while putting the things in place with the bank. A union guy asked me if I was aware I was taking decisions beyond my authority but I replied I would be honoured to be the first manager in history arriving in jail for buying toilet paper for his team.

9:40 am: The whole IT network felt down… very embarrassing as more than 2000 people stopped working. First emergency to handle – took 12 minutes to reboot the network.

10 am: I called the bank to send me the documents to get the signature on our bank account. The bank employee announced me they refused everything as our bank account was closed since several days. We were in red for several millions of euros. I took an emergency appointment with the bank director at 2 pm… meaning I had less than 4 hours to present a rescue plan. I suddenly felt very lonely as with all the directors/managers fired, I had nobody to rely on and how to create a rescue plan in less than 4 hours when I was only 2 hours in the company! I tried to call the group CFO but had to leave a voice message as he was in a meeting somewhere.

10:30 am: I wanted to make my first photocopy for my meeting with the bank and I discovered that there was no more paper. I asked around and received a cynical reply "How do you think we survived 2 weeks without toilet paper?" Indeed, I had noticed some empty reams in the toilet room. One minute later, I signed a second "illegal" bank check to buy paper for the photocopy machine.

11 am: I now discovered that the wages of the previous month hadn't been paid. As we are already the 6th of the month, I had to move extremely fast to keep my staff on board.

11:30 am: I noticed that people were betting on how long I would stay in this position. I now knew I was the 8th one on the premises in the past 4 months. I discovered some weeks later that the average time they expected me to stay was … 48 hours and the maximum was 10 days.

11:45 am: I noticed the offices of all directors and managers were completely empty. They took all documents with them. I wondered how to find documents or even elements to use during my meeting with the bank.

0:30 pm: I got the Chief Financial Officer of the group on the phone who told me he was not responsible and had no time available. I asked him why I was told that the subsidiary had 20 people as I counted a lot more in my office space. His answer was clear: “you are missioned to reduce in 6 weeks’ time the staff from 55 to 20 people while increasing the number of interventions by 20%”.

I suddenly felt as Bruce Willis in his “Die Hard” movies. A nice day in hell with everything around me burning.

2:00 pm: I arrived at the bank - without real documents. I presented myself as a heavy change manager and I managed to negotiate a period of 7 days to present him a complete rescue plan. The bank validated my proposition and decided to unlock the bank account so I was saved for the day as I could pay last month wages (and not to forget … the toilet paper).

3:30 pm: I arrived in the office and we had a second crash of the whole network. Within the same minute, the sound of the fire alert pushed us out of the building… unable to touch the network backbone and the file servers while all the 2000 users in the buildings around us didn't had any network access anymore. As all was down and we standing outside, some of the 2000 users went outside screaming the fire alert was caused through our lack of IT skills and we were completely incompetent. Not easy to be in the middle of 80 screaming people on your first day on the job but I managed to calm things down. Turning around, I then noticed my team wasn’t longer standing behind me. They were too scared by the angry crowd and decided to return inside the building (with still having the fire alarm ringing so not allowed to do so).

4:00pm: The IT network was up again and I called accounting to sign the most necessary invoices I had to pay so the company could operate again. I received on my desk a stack of 30 centimetres of pending invoices… Clearly, this wasn't the way to move forward and I dedicated 3 people to select for me the 20 most important ones.

5:00 pm: I heard people shouting of joy… the toilet paper arrived and they congratulated me as if I was their hero of the day. I thought this was a weird IT company to have a “toilet-paper-hero”.

6:10 pm: I closed my laptop, that was enough for my first day on the job so I went to see the people on the help desk - just to have a quick chat and to learn to know them.

6:15 pm: Arrival of a truck full of 24 brand new desktop computers that had to be installed for the next morning as our client was giving a major training session for external partners. The team was panicking as they had completely forgotten this job and they all wanted to go home. But the job had to be done as we needed to keep our client happy so I decided to help the team. I shouted “let’s all together go to do this job as a team” and I took off my jacket, tie, shirt – big applause of the women of the help desk to see a man stripping in front of them - and I put on a white T-shirt. It worked as 8 people followed me to install and configure the 24 desktops in the conference room.

10:45 pm: End of the day. Everything was installed, connected and working.

Leaving the building, it was raining heavily and it took me an ever-lasting 15 minutes’ walk as I didn't found a nearby parking lot in the morning. I told myself that after such a day in hell where everything was burning, the rain is now cooling things down so tomorrow could not be worse than today.

When I arrived the next morning in the building… I was the leader everybody wanted to follow blindly – and this even beyond the company as some minutes later, I received a call from the Group President congratulating me for my personal engagement as he heard the news of my “chippendale” performance in front of the helpdesk.

In the end, I stayed 3 years leading this "so-called" temporary mission.

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