As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Svenja de Vos.
Svenja is Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of Leaseweb Global, and responsible for the Product Management, Product Engineering, and System Administration departments. Prior to joining Leaseweb, Svenja was working in the telecom industry for almost 20 years. Apart from technology, her other passions are spending time with friends and family, interior design, and Formula1.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My career path in technology dates back to early childhood when my family brought home our first personal computer. I was 8 years old, and back then, owning a PC was considered a luxury. I immediately fell in love with computers and started learning to code BASIC, which was the popular programming language at the time.
My first job was at a telecom company, where I started in customer care answering phones. A year later, I was offered the opportunity to work as a system administrator trainee in a department full of men who had all been in the Internet business for many years. I was 20 years old, and my job was to go around and fix people’s computers.
I later moved to another multinational telco where I advanced my career quite nicely, taking on progressively higher-level leadership roles. During my tenure, I worked on the mergers & acquisitions team, served as CIO for two of the company’s national offices, and was head of transformation for the parent group.
After spending most of my career in the big corporate world, I decided I wanted a change — but wasn’t yet sure what that looked like. Then, serendipitously, I was approached about the CTO position at Leaseweb.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Every week something interesting happens at Leaseweb, but I will share a story about one of the coolest learning experiences we had. Leaseweb was founded by pilots almost 25years ago. As a result, so many of the things in this company are related to aviation.
Three years ago all employees went through training in order to learn about their own individual stress reactions and to improve overall communications under pressure.
The company conducted the training by putting it in a flight simulation, where after two hours of information on the particular aircraft you were suddenly the pilot of a 737. In the training, you had to land the plane as both of the pilots suddenly became ill.
Despite all of us clearly being aware we were not in an airplane, all of us believed it. It was funny to watch the mistakes that were made in communications with colleagues. In the end, it was really helpful for all of us and we still use the lessons learned in our day to day work now.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Like many industries, tech is still heavily dominated by men with women representing less than one-third of IT employees. The disparity leads many women to go into the profession believing that they have to be “bossy” or the other “b” word to earn respect, let alone survive. I was one of them.
One particular story that comes to mind was when I was in telco working on a big project in another country. One night at dinner, two of the senior leaders cornered me and said, “Look, you have a lot of potential, but you need to lose the attitude.” They called me out, but also took the time to explain the issues they were seeing, and I realized they were absolutely right. The lesson I learned from that experience is that I can be great at my job and also still be kind.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
So many people, from my parents, to different bosses, to numerous colleagues, have helped me achieve success and contributed to the person I am today. Specifically, I think of one manager who gave me the opportunity to make a leap toward a big project. I’m even grateful for the “bad” bosses who perhaps weren’t as inspiring or brilliant, but still taught me a lot. My fundamental belief is that we can learn something from everyone regardless of position. This is especially true for leaders.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I’m a productivity fanatic, and I try to optimize my systems to get the most out of every day. It starts with waking up every morning at 5.30 a.m. and making sure everything is in order before I start the day. If I oversleep, which happens two times a year at most, my entire day is turned upside down. Also, anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m famous for my lists. I make a list for everything, and I hold people, myself included, accountable to them.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
We first need to acknowledge that diversity is not just about gender or race. It also refers to age, education, religion and any other characteristic that makes us unique. From a business and leadership perspective, the way I look at diversity is that our customers, while we like to segment them for marketing purposes, are never really homogenous. They come from many different parts of the world and backgrounds.
In order to make the right decisions for your company, you need to have a workforce and an executive team that are representative of the world in which we live and do business. You want to have differing views and belief systems. It’s what pushes a company forward. When you bring diversity into your teams, and can manage it well, you get the best out of every member on the team. That’s when you see the real growth.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
As business leaders, we need to make a conscious decision and commitment to embracing diversity. You want the people on your team not just to complement one another, but to also challenge each other. One of my biggest pet peeves is when you have a team made up of five men, and someone says, “We need to add a female.”
We shouldn’t be making staffing decisions because of gender or because we’re concerned about the optics. It’s about building teams based on character, skills and potential. Diversity should be a core value in every organization, and I believe it has to be taught and learned at a young age.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
As an executive, you have to take the 30,000-foot view, making sure that the decisions you are making are for the greater good of the company — even if it feels uncomfortable within your own team. On the other hand, if you are a director or manager of finance, sales or IT, the context and purpose of your role is typically more focused.
I’ve worked on a lot of projects that theoretically were not part of my job, and people will ask me, “Why are you doing that?” I think it’s instinctual for me and many others at the C-level to want to be part of the solution in order to bring the company forward. Of course, we have to set the vision, mission and strategy for the organization, but we also have to show our leadership every minute of every day. There is no strategy without the execution. To me, leadership is about facilitating and inspiring people, making the tough decisions to reduce the risk of the company overall, as well as pushing for innovation and growth.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
One of the big misconceptions is that when you’re in the C-suite, you delegate everything. People think we sit in meetings, make decisions, but don’t do any of the actual work. Of course, there is a fair amount of delegating you have to do at the executive level. What people often don’t recognize is the amount of time and work that goes into articulating the vision and ensuring all the pieces are in place across the company to get there.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
As much as people might dislike the term, “mansplaining” is a real thing, and it’s an ongoing challenge for women. The other day, I was talking to someone outside of the company who started explaining cybersecurity to me and how I shouldn’t believe anyone who says you’re 100% secure. As the CTO of a large IT company, that can be pretty maddening.
More than once, I’ve been asked “So, how technical are you?” and “What do you think from a female perspective?” If I were a man, people wouldn’t ask me these questions. It’s often not intentional, which just shows how much work we still have to do to break gender-based stereotypes.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
This may sound ironic coming from a tech executive, but the work I do at Leaseweb is more technical than any of my previous jobs. For the first couple months, I realized I had to up my game and learn things I didn’t know. Working for a large hosting company, you need to understand every nitty-gritty detail, inside and out, to make high-level decisions.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
People from all walks of life can become successful executives, but no, it’s not for everyone. I think in many cases, there is a certain level of sacrifice you knowingly have to make once you get to that level of leadership.
Every day, you have to make choices, and as we say in the Netherlands you need to, “step over your own shadow.” It means taking yourself out of the equation when making decisions for the business, which can be difficult to do. You also have to be ready to respond to a crisis or unexpected opportunity on any given day, at any time. When your phone rings at 5 o’clock on a Saturday, you need to be willing to take it, and even embrace it.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
If we, as women, cannot express our enthusiasm for a career in technology, how can we expect more women to be involved? It is critical that we teach them that women are successful in the science and technology realms because unfortunately, at the moment, being a female manager in the tech world is considered “abnormal.”
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
For me, giving back is about finding different ways to help as many people as possible. One of my passion projects is helping young girls find their love for technology. I strongly believe that when girls learn mathematics at an early age, they are more inclined to consider a job in technology later on. Currently, I tutor four to five girls in math at different levels. I also enjoy mentoring and coaching women in the companies I’ve worked for to help them find their voice and achieve success, whatever that means to them. What I do is on a small scale, but over time, those tiny drops start to fill up the bucket.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- You have to learn new things every day; if I knew that, I would have jumped into the ship earlier and even focused my studies on IT.
- I wish someone told me that IT wasn’t an exact science and that it takes a lot of creativity to solve tech problems.
- You can be yourself in this environment, it is a much friendlier environment.
- Make sure you take your downtime; Taking a day off, or just an afternoon to reflect is sometimes better then pushing to finish the job.
- Patience is needed; Although this is a part I am not good at yet, some things grow or solve itself over time, all you need is patience.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
If I could devote myself to one global cause, it would be gender equality. I’ve talked a little about the disparities that working women face in the U.S. and Europe, but in other parts of the world, women are not having even their basic needs met for education, healthcare, and personal safety. We need to find solutions to eliminate discrimination against women and do more to empower them. Because if we bring together the world’s greatest minds — of both women and men — we become much stronger and can tackle our other biggest issues, from world hunger to climate change.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care about who gets the credit.” (The credit for this quote goes to U.S. President Harry S. Truman.)
Especially in business, you’re going to encounter a lot of people who only want the credit, even if they didn’t earn it. What this quote says is that our eyes should be focused on the outcome. It doesn’t matter who did what, or who was right vs. wrong. It’s all about the end result, and for me, the collective good.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I don’t do breakfast, so it would have to be either lunch or dinner. I am an extreme Formula 1 fan, which isn’t so hip in the U.S., but a big deal in Europe. If you would let me break the rules a little and invite two people, they would be Christian Horner, the Team Principal of Red Bull Racing, and Adrian Newey, the lead engineer who builds their cars. It would be bringing together the best of both worlds — Adrian’s technical side and Christian’s brilliant strategy and tactics.