Story 1 - Rotterdam
That March morning would be particularly cold in Rotterdam, the seven degrees Celsius, predicted by the “Koninklijk Nederlands meteorologisch Instituut“ (KNMI) as maximum would feel zero degrees for the evening because of the 30 km/h wind and the few rays of the sun. In addition, the characteristic late winter fog made it difficult to see on the A4 freeway. Happily, Simon had always taken the same route to the office for five years, so he knew it by heart. Therefore, he never wanted to explore the options that the navigator offered him, even though his colleagues had told him on several occasions how convenient they could be.
He liked the convenience of listening to his favorite music during the average thirty-minute commute (although it could be over forty on a busy day) from his home in Delft to his office in the city center of Rotterdam. Despite the weather and occasional traffic, driving in the Netherlands is generally a pleasant experience due to the excellent condition of the highways, always well signposted and rarely closed for repairs. As a result, one can drive 180 km between the extreme east and west of the country in just over two hours.
Simon was a person who loved his routine, and he always did everything possible to avoid unforeseen events that could alter it. From Monday to Friday, he got up at 6:00 am and left the house at 7:30 am. After saying goodbye to his three children and his wife Isabella, he began his workday around 8:00 am, paused at noon, and would leave back home around 5:00 pm. On weekends allowed himself to sleep until 8:00 am or until his children woke him up to take them to their respective sports clubs.
The possibility of having a predictable and calm life made Simon appreciate his job as head of logistics. Having a team of ten people under his charge greatly facilitated his work. It allowed him to dedicate only the necessary time to day-to-day problems and concentrate on what was most important to him, his family.
Simón was never a person who liked politics or competition within the company. Still, thanks to his loyalty, obedience, and good results, he had been considered by the owner and therefore promoted a couple of years ago. However, his biggest challenges as a boss were dealing with his department’s fast-paced dynamics and handling awkward conversations with subordinates.
According to company regulations, the parking spaces of the offices located in Laan op Zuid (South Avenue) were not assigned to anyone in particular, so that any employee with access to the garage could take the place they please, even the owner. Despite this, Simón always parked his car in the same spot and always tried to be the first to arrive at the office so that he could make sure that no one else occupied it before him. After all, he knew that discomfort would bother him throughout the day if someone else occupied it.
That morning, Simón had barely turned off the engine of his Škoda Octavia when he heard his phone. It was a call from Doa, his right-hand man and the person in charge of purchases within his department. Just by hearing the tone of voice when she said hello, he knew something was up.
—Hi Simon. Have you already arrived at the office? —asked Doa with her characteristic firmness—. Well, it’s after 8:00 am now, so I’m assuming you’ll be on your way to your desk… You know… I need to talk.
—Good morning, Doa. What happened? Why do you sound so agitated? —asked Simon as he walked toward the elevator.
—I’d like us to schedule a meeting this morning, I know it’s not in your plan for the day, and that’s why I’m calling you so early. It’s urgent —replied Doa.
—I understand. I think I have a slot at 11:00 am. So we could meet at that time. If this is also convenient for you, of course —consulted Simon carefully.
—Thanks, let’s book it that way —said Doa curtly—. I’ll be in the office in about twenty minutes.
—Could I know the subject of the meeting? Do you need me to help you with something right now? —insisted Simon.
—I’d rather tell you in person; I’ll see you later —answered Doa quickly, then cut off the communication.
The two had worked together for five years, and therefore they knew each other quite well. They made a good team and jointly managed to move the department forward. Simon was a calm person and had difficulty making decisions, so Doa’s fast pace and confident nature were a good combination. He openly acknowledged every time he spoke with the company’s owner. The fact that she wanted to talk to him so suddenly caused him great concern. The conversation he was going to have would be difficult, and he knew it.
Simon was almost two meters tall, and despite being relatively fat, he always felt like a healthy person due to the little time he had to ride his road bike. However, the racing pulse, the feeling of cold, and the sweat on his hands that he felt every time he got nervous reminded Simon of looking for excuses not to see his family doctor and undergo the necessary tests. Also, to verify that he did not have heart problems.
Sitting at his desk, he looked at his laptop but couldn’t focus on what he was doing. He was distracted, worried. He didn’t know what had happened to Doa and how serious the situation was. Furthermore, he wanted to know if there was any way to reassure her. After all, he cared about his colleague’s well-being, and he also wanted to make sure that nothing in his environment was disturbed.
Every five minutes, he glanced at the clock on the wall. According to the owner’s instructions, all bosses’ offices were to have a minimalist design and painted cream-white. Therefore, and against Simon’s wishes, he only had a small beige sideboard next to his desk, which matched the rest of the furniture, and a couple of beige chairs in front of him.
The only decoration allowed in the offices was a painting of his choice, so Simon had chosen a photo of the tulip gardens at Keukenhof, the best-known flower park in Holland and usually visited by thousands of tourists each spring. His father had given him this painting many years ago when he got his first job, illustrating how beautiful work efforts could be.
Fortunately, he also had a window with a view to the Maas river, which made the twenty square meters space where he worked feel a bit more welcoming. When he felt distressed, Simón would go to the window and look at the landscape for a few minutes, observing what people were doing in the street to feel accompanied. All this ritual gave him the necessary security to prepare for tense situations.
He could see the reflection of his face in the window, and he realized that he looked nervous. The pupils of his blue eyes were very dilated, his blond hair was messy, and his enormous nose was glistening because of the sweat. Happily, he had shaved that day; otherwise, it would look even worse. Deciding to do something about it, he went to the bathroom and washed. After all, he wanted to demonstrate security.
From his office, Simon could see his subordinates. Grouped in a large room were ten desks glued to each other, unlike the boss’s office; in that environment, chaos reigned. Tons of papers, messy files, backpacks, and briefcases were scattered everywhere. From dispatch coordinators who talked all day on the phone, fleet leaders who fought day and night with shippers, and operations people who typed sales orders nonstop in the middle of all that. He was already accustomed to a chaotic environment, which would cost him a lot to change; what’s more, just thinking about it made him lazy. After all, as it was, the department worked well, so why change it?
Simón went to the bathroom, and when he came back, he looked for Doa at his desk to invite her to go to his office. It was already almost 11:00 am. Like most Dutch people, Simon highly valued punctuality.
—Are you ready for the meeting? —asked Simon.
—Yes, give me a minute to send this email, and I’ll go to your office —said Doa, a woman about ten years younger than Simon, dressed in traditional Moroccan clothing and with excessive makeup. She looked up, seeking to verify that her boss had understood the message, his brown eyes shining behind his large black glasses. Then, without showing any particular expression, she continued typing.
Simon sat at his desk and went over his strategy, the same as always in those situations, let Doa speak and be empathetic. He needed to understand what had happened to her and first verify that she was OK. Then he would process the information and make the necessary decisions. Just then, Doa came in and sat down.
—What lousy weather today! With so much fog and rain, don’t you think? —asked Simon, trying to break the ice.
—Yes, the day is hideous… Listen to me, Simon. I appreciate you very much as a boss and friend, so I’ll be honest with you —said Doa quickly—. I have decided to leave the company and take another direction in my life… I understand that this must be a surprise for you. Not only that, but I am still processing this decision myself, but I have thought about it a lot, and this is what is best for me.
—And … may I ask the reason why you made this decision? —asked Simon with a subtle tone.
—I don’t want to give more details about what I want to do, my decision is not related to you as a boss or to my work here, I like my job, but I want to do something else in my life, and I hope that as a friend you would understand it —started Doa to say—. I can tell you that I have decided to get married, and I want to be a full-time mother. Forming a family is something fundamental in my culture and religion. Also, you know me, and you know that once I make a decision, I stick to it.
—I understand. Please tell me that you are not resigning because something happened to you. I would like to know that you are well and … obviously, I would like you to stay … I would not want you to leave the company —insisted Simon while playing nervously with his fingers—. Have you considered working part-time? We can discuss this with HR. I mean… the possibility that you work only three days a week like many other mothers in the company.
—Thank you for your proposal, but I assure you that I am fine, and I feel happy. I already told you that nothing you tell me would make me change my mind —concluded Doa, taking her notebook and getting up from the desk, but not before finishing her message—. You know that we will continue to be friends, and Isabella will undoubtedly continue to invite me to the barbecues you organize, even though I have already told her several times that I don’t like them.
Although quite direct, that comment somehow calmed him.
By the end of the afternoon, Simón was still quite restless, even more, because he could not drink his coffee at 3:00 pm as every day. He was turning off his laptop when suddenly a message came on his cell phone. It was the owner of the company. The funny thing is that instead of the usual long texts that he used to send, this time he had only sent a line, actually a question.
“I am retiring from the company, and I would like you to be the new CEO. Would you be interested?”
At first glance, Simon thought that he had misread, so he looked at his screen again. This message was something he did not expect either. The day couldn’t be stranger.
“Are you talking seriously?” —wrote Simon.
“I am very serious, think about it and we will talk in two days when I go to the office. Have a good afternoon,” —concluded the owner.
As he drove home, Simon tried to process everything that had happened to him that day. First, his right hand had decided to quit, and he had been unable to convince her to stay, which made him feel somehow incapable of doing his job well. And then he received a proposal to be the CEO of the company.
But how could he be the company’s head if he couldn’t even stop his employees from quitting? He felt that he still had a lot to learn. He was 45 years old, had only worked in two companies since leaving university, and only five of them in the company that now asked him to be CEO. Furthermore, he was aware that his area was the backbone of the business and that he handled it very well, but he knew other people in the company he admired and believed could be better candidates for CEO.
As Simón was not a person with many friends, he decided to discuss this situation only with his wife and coach.
Most Dutch families are used to having a light lunch and an early dinner, usually between 6:00 and 7:00 pm. The curtains of his house (like the rest of the block) were always open. Simon could see they were all seated at the table. He was aware that he had arrived a few minutes later than usual, so he would barely have time to wash his hands, greet the family and sit at the table to enjoy his Stamppot with sausage.
The house where they lived was small and simple but cozy, like most in Delft or the rest of The Netherlands. However, maintaining a family with three children, a mortgage for another ten years, and donations to various institutions were expensive, so there was not always enough money to decorate, expand or modernize it. Furthermore, Isabella jealously guarded the family’s savings and rarely spent on things she deemed unnecessary.
The family liked to sit at the table next to the kitchen. They could barely fit five now that the children had grown up. The oldest of them had just turned twelve, the middle one was eight, and the youngest had just started elementary school. On extraordinary occasions or when they had guests, such as December 5th (Sinterklaas), they dined in the dining room.
As a household rule, dinners were not a place to talk about work issues or relationship problems, but instead to talk about school, homework, vacations, television programs, or family. Simon and Isabella were open and sincere people, so there were no forbidden subjects in the house.
After putting his children to bed, Simón went down to the living room again. This room was also small and decorated with various furniture and ornaments acquired in the flea markets that appeared during the king’s day throughout his thirteen years of marriage. Nothing really fit; the colors of the furniture varied between black, brown, and even green. Some chairs were excessively worn, and the walls had not been painted in the last six years so that you could see various stains or scribbles made by the children. Some ornaments represented the Dutch culture and others, Asian or Middle Eastern cultures.
He saw that his wife was sitting. Isabella was a tall, slim woman with long hair as blond as Simon’s and his sons. Her gaze conveyed energy, always full of life, and her husband loved that. The woman didn’t need to put on any makeup to look good.
Simon sat next to Isabella on one of the small sofas in front of the television. She was chatting with her friends on her cell phone.
—Do you remember my friend Alida, from Suriname? —asked Isabella—. She just gave birth to her second child at home. The midwife has just left, and her husband tells me that she is already resting and that the baby is fine.
—Well, please send my congratulations … I’d rather tell you something … you don’t know what happened to me today, two things that I would never have imagined —said Simon, leaving the remote control on the coffee table.
—Let’s see, tell me —said Isabella, putting her cell phone aside—. I already knew that you had something because you looked terrible. The last time I saw you like that was when you fell on the canal and made a fool of yourself in front of my parents last Christmas.
Simon told her the two events, Isabella constantly intervening with questions. First, she was very happy for Doa and her decision to get married and jumped with joy when she heard about the CEO proposal, then she said:
—I can’t believe it! You know you deserve it, imagine everything you could do for that company! With your new salary, we could move house, go on vacation outside of Europe, buy another car so that you can take the children to school and … so many other things!
Isabella began to scream more and more ideas, speaking louder and louder and not listening to what Simon wanted to say.
—But don’t you understand that I don’t know if I’m capable of handling that challenge? —exclaimed Simon with an annoyed expression—. Look what happened to Doa. I couldn’t even do something to make her stay!
—Stop worrying about her, I’m sure she’ll do well, and you know what you’re capable of. But you don’t want to admit it! —demanded Isabella, looking directly into her husband’s eyes—. You should rejoice, celebrate that they have proposed to you such a challenge, in fact, I’m going to organize a party, we must tell all our friends… I’ll call my mom right now!
—I don’t know if I should take the position, there are other people with more time than me and who are indeed more valuable to the company, they should be the first to be considered! —said Simon, feeling somewhat embarrassed.
But Isabella, who was already calling her mother, only said:
—Go ahead and think about what they have told you. The owner knows who you are, and there must be a reason why he considered you. Take the position, and you will see that you will do very well… Hello, Mom! …. —And then left the room to talk on the phone.
The next day, Simón scheduled a session with his long-time mentor, Christiaan De Vries, a coach who was also a recognized investor in many startups in the city. Christiaan lived in a beautiful lakefront house in Hillegersberg, an upper-middle-class neighborhood in the city of Rotterdam.
That afternoon, as he drove to his appointment, Simón began to look at the various properties in the area. Very modern houses, with American-style architecture, where, unlike his house, space and gardens predominated. Each family seemed to have two or three cars, which is not very common in this European country since taxes are pretty high. It was raining a lot, but still, the view was beautiful.
Simon was pondering whether he should accept the CEO position. There was only one income in the family, as Isabella was dedicated to taking care of her children full time. Because of this, and like Isabella, Simón had not had the opportunity to do everything he would have liked. For example, taking his wife around the United States, buying a caravan, taking his children to Euro Disney, or even living in a bigger, more modern house. The money was tight and should be spent only on things vital to the family; everything left should be savings.
In reality, his greatest desire was to be able to celebrate his marriage again. Although they never discussed the subject, Simon knew it was Isabella’s dream. Thirteen years ago, they got married on any given Monday in the municipality of Delft, wearing jeans and sneakers, invited two friends as witnesses, and together they went to have dinner at a restaurant near the municipality. If he had more income, he would be sure to celebrate his marriage again, but this time with a big party.
Christiaan was a very organized person. His meetings were scheduled in advance and lasted precisely sixty minutes. The appointment for that day would be spontaneous and was planned for 5:00 pm. By the time Simón arrived, the advisor was already waiting for him in his office. A spacious room on the first floor of his house, decorated with a couple of comfortable designer armchairs, Persian carpet, designer lamps, and of course, a wall full of diplomas, certifications, and other recognitions. After all, Christiaan was a very experienced person, a professional with a deep understanding of business and investment, who had decided to spend the last ten years helping other professionals in the pursuit of excellence.
After offering him coffee, they sat across from each other and began to talk about their families, a custom they had had for several years. Christiaan was a reserved man but resembled Simon in many ways. Although he didn’t talk much about his personal life with other people, he knew that the human connection was essential to Simon, so he always took the necessary time.
Unlike Simon, Christiaan was a skinny man and somewhat short for the average Dutchman. He had an almost entirely white beard and hair the same color, which revealed his age. However, the man always dressed elegantly and tastefully, which inspired confidence and experience in those who saw him.
—Simon, how’s work going? I wasn’t expecting you for two weeks —said Christiaan as he invited him to sit down—. Has something happened? You did not give me many details in your message. I would have liked some more information to be able to prepare myself for our meeting. Is it this horrible weather that has motivated you to come?
—Indeed, unlike the previous one, this is a week with terrible weather, but it is not the reason why I have come. The truth is that many things have happened in the last twenty-four hours. I feel a little lost and even scared, and that is why I decided to make an appointment and ask for your advice —answered Simon, sitting in the chair—. You know that I admire how you handle things and that the advice you’ve been giving me all these years has been precious at the time.
—Tell me what happened, and together we will analyze the situation —replied Christiaan with a curious face.
While Simon recounted all the previous day’s events, Christiaan took some notes and occasionally asked questions to find out a little more about certain specific circumstances before and after each news was received. It almost seemed like he was trying to put together a puzzle with the information Simon gave him. He wasn’t shocked when Simon told him that he had been offered the CEO position.
The meeting lasted more than the expected sixty minutes. Both Simon and Christiaan liked to digest things slowly and reflect on possible scenarios and how they affected the current situation.
After taking some final notes, Christiaan said:
—I would like to ask you a few specific questions, and I want you to think carefully before answering each one because the answers can help you find your way to a decision that makes you happy —he took some paper and began to draw something—. However, you must not forget that, in the end, there is no right or wrong option. Each option has its risks and benefits, and we must be aware of this. You don’t need to answer the questions right now. Take your time to ponder each one.
—Are there correct answers to the questions? —Simon wanted to know.
—Tell me something, Simon, how would you describe a perfect tulip? —blurted Christiaan to Simon’s surprise, who was waiting for an answer.
—The perfect tulip…? —After thinking for a few seconds, he continued—. It’s funny, now that you mention it,… my father was a person who was obsessed with tulips. He took me every spring Keukenhof and told me how gardeners and farmers redesigned the park every year, seeking perfection … I think the perfect tulip is the one that looks even more beautiful when it is next to another. I don’t believe it has to do with its size or color. It has to do more with synergy.
—I loved your answer —said Christiaan calmly—. It reflects your way of thinking. For you, the whole is significant. More than the individual, I wanted to tell you with this simple question that each one will define the perfect tulip as they see fit, according to their perspective, and therefore there is no single answer.
—I understand. Please continue —suggested Simon.
—The first question I want you to reflect on is related to change. I know you like your routine and the stability it gives you. —Christiaan leaned in a little more, and using his hands; he continued saying—. How would you rate the level of change that would come if you accepted this job? Do you consider it a moderate, manageable change, or is it rather a significant change to your current life?
The expression on Simon’s face hinted to Christiaan that the question caused him some concern, so he decided to dig deeper.
—I know what you’re thinking. The truth is that not all people like sudden changes and uncertainty. Remember that, as I have already told you on other occasions, change can be perceived as unfavorable for certain people. However, that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong position —clarified Christiaan—. But it is essential to be honest with yourself. Think about how you feel.
— If I don’t take the job, then there would be no change, and I would be able to maintain control over my life and my routine —began Simon to consider—. The idea of having to change and being at the mercy of uncertainty torments me a bit, but I am also aware that there could be no improvements without changes, or rather without risks.
—OK, you will have to think about it and be honest with what you want —Christiaan picked up a calendar and continued speaking—. The second question is reasonably linked to the first, because it is about the time, rather, the speed with which these changes would occur if you took the position of CEO —pointing to the calendar he said—, would it be a week, maybe a month, or do you think a year?
There was a silence in the room that lasted about a minute. It was clear to Christiaan that Simon had not thought at this point.
Short, medium or long-term changes can have different levels of impact depending on your personality —said Christiaan quietly, seeking to calm him down—. I know you, and I know that you have some difficulty or resistance to handling abrupt or sudden situations, so you should analyze how comfortable you would feel with the time frame that you would have.
— It’s true. It happened to me before. Sudden things paralyze me —said Simon humbly—. And you are right; it is somehow related to the previous question and the level of control I have over my life.
—Finally, for the last question. I want you to think about your relationships and your concern for the good of others —continued Christiaan—. Have you thought about your family, colleagues, or friends and how they would benefit if you accepted the position? —Seeing that Simon wanted to interrupt, he made a subtle sign of silence to conclude his point—. I know what you think, that you could also negatively affect others, but I want you for a minute to believe, as I do, that your strengths are more significant than your weaknesses, and therefore that you can be a good CEO.
—That being the case, that question would be the easiest to answer —said Simon firmly—. My wife and children would greatly benefit from the new position. And for me, it is imperative that they are happy. I could sacrifice anything to see them happy. If I become the CEO, I could also help other employees, and who knows, even give opportunities to those who deserve it.
After a few minutes of reflection, Simón asked:
—One thing that affects me the most is knowing that I could not prevent Doa from leaving the company. What if other people also wanted to leave? —He paused and then continued—. I don’t know if I could handle that.
—As a CEO, much more challenging situations would await you than seeing a single employee step aside. Some entrepreneurs I know have had to deal with the decision to fire half their staff, which is hard. I can’t tell you that it would be easy, but I will tell you that I believe you can do what you set out to do, and I know other professionals who think the same.
—Christiaan got up from the seat and escorted Simon out as he continued to say—. I would not hesitate to recommend that you take the position, but of course, you should meditate on these questions and then define what are the most important factors when making your decisions. The level of change, the time in which they will occur or how other people are affected, and consider other variables such as the new economic income, the amount of work, responsibilities, etc … Compare each option you have with these points. And with that, discover what would make you happy. Tell me later.
The questions were hanging around Simón’s head for about twenty-four hours. He was confident that seeing his family happy was the most important thing for him but was not convinced that he could deal with all the changes, especially with the aggressiveness. He thought it would be much easier to decide if there was only a way to visualize the two options he had (accept or not the job) and somehow relate each option to the questions.
The frustration of the situation did not change in the following days. Finally, on the fourth day after receiving the proposal, he decided to take the afternoon off and walk through the Rotterdam Marina. He bought a Kibbeling to eat and sat watching the yachts and boats passing by on the river. He was trying to clarify his thoughts.
The minutes passed, but Simon could not find the answers he was looking for to Christiaan’s questions. «I have to accept that changes are inevitable and that they are not always for the worse. I can’t have everything always planned. I’ll have to take risks sometime!» He turned to see the building looking for the CEO’s office. «Everyone thinks I’m ready for the position, and the truth is that I manage my department well, but I wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t for the people who work with me.»
Suddenly a fear crossed his mind. «As CEO, I would have to be the face of the company, and I don’t like exposure. Besides, I would have to make decisions more quickly, and I like to take my time for everything», he felt somewhat embarrassed by those ideas. «Perhaps, it is also an opportunity to grow.» He started walking back to the office. «You know that the most convenient thing for your family is to accept the position,» Simon thought, «how could I tell Isabella that I would not take it? She would be so disappointed». He decided to force himself to answer the questions, even if he felt uncomfortable with the answers.
At the end of the day, he picked up his phone and called Christiaan.
—I understand that you are still undecided, but tell me something, have you already answered the questions? Do you know what the decision-making factors are for you? —asked Christiaan calmly—. If so, I will send you a tool that will allow you to evaluate your options.
That night, while watching television with his wife, Simón took courage and said,
—I have decided that I will accept the position of CEO.