October 1, 2019

The Power of Professional Closeness: Govert Sandwijk

I’m here today with Govert Sandwijk, author of the book, The Power of Professional Closeness: A Guide to Taking a Holistic Approach to Your Business. Despite the fact that outdated professional norms might tell us otherwise, Govert argues that it’s increasingly important that professional teams be able to be open and vulnerable with one another. Not just on a business level, but also on a personal one. In other words, they need to cultivate real relationships.

This begins with business leaders, with the example they set, and the culture they establish. Without this, trust can’t truly be established, companies miss out on collective intelligence and end up with teams of individuals that are each moving their individual mountains, as opposed to collaborating to move mountains together.

Nikki Van Noy: Govert, let’s start by telling me a little bit about your company, Time to Grow Global.

Govert Sandwijk: Time to Grow Global is a boutique consultancy firm. Basically, that means that we have a small crew of trusted people I work with, there’s a couple of people on the payroll, and we do great things for the clients we work with, but we are really niche in that sense. So, we are super well-known by the clients that know us and outside of that, you will not have heard of us. What we do is we try to help companies become better when it’s about strategizing, leading, and building a solid environment for people to work in.

Openness and Vulnerability

Nikki Van Noy: What you’re writing about in your new book has to do with creating openness and vulnerability in companies, beginning with leadership, which is something that I feel most leaders are just not naturally inclined to do. There’s this level of professionalism and sometimes even a veneer that leaders feel the need to keep up with their reports and the rest of their company.

Can you talk to me a little bit about why you feel like that’s so important in a business sense?

Govert Sandwijk: A lot of people, they sort of have a need or an expectation that there should be some level of veneer, which is attached to professionalism. So, when you’re professional, then you should always also be a little bit distant, or at least that seems to be the mantra in a lot of cases. What I’m talking about and what I have been finding out over the years is that when you are working and trying to be professional, and at the same time, also acknowledging the fact that you’re a human being and that you have these emotions that also guide you as much as your analytical part of your brain, this all makes for a much more whole way of leading.

You’re actually using the totality of what makes you human, instead of only focusing on one part. I think business schools used to focus too much on only one part. Then it becomes mechanistic, it becomes plastic, and then sometimes people lose themselves in the process.

While I know and what I see around me, is that once you are truly opened up, and that doesn’t mean you have to share everything in your life with everybody, but really showing what you feel, what you think, where you’re coming from, what your thoughts are, sharing your doubts and doing it in an authentic way, this will open up the line of communication much more. It also creates a different context for the people that are around you.

Nikki Van Noy: You just hit on a really interesting point to me. It’s getting a little bit specific, but you talked about this idea of sharing doubts. And my feeling is that for leadership especially, there’s this notion that projecting confidence is always so important. Can you talk about how it’s okay for leaders to have doubts sometimes and to express that to their team?

Govert Sandwijk: Actually, it’s not only okay, it’s a necessity because it seems like all too often when you are in a leadership position, whether that’s the CEO of the company or a first-level frontline manager, when you’re always projecting this air of confidence, it’s also sending out the message, “Hey, I know everything and I know the answer to everything.” Which, of course, is just not a reality. You don’t know everything, and you don’t have to know everything.

One of the things I talk about in my book is becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. Because we live in a fast-paced world, everything is changing around us. When we used to talk about management, it was about predictability. We know now that’s nonsense because the world has become so much more unpredictable.

Instead of keeping up that you know it all, embrace the fact that you don’t know it all, but when you connect all those brains together, and you create the right climate, you might be reducing the uncertainty much more than when you’re only focusing on your own knowledge.  So, I think it’s essential that you learn this and that you start to be comfortable with not being certain all the time.

What Does it Mean to Be Human?

Nikki Van Noy: You just hit on such an interesting point to me. I’m making a bit of a jump here, but my feeling is that a lot of the lack of predictability in the world today is an offshoot of technology and the way it allows everything to grow and evolve so much more quickly.

So, it seems to me like there’s an interest juxtaposition here that in some ways, technology is also requiring us to be more human and how we interact in our professional lives.

Govert Sandwijk: That is absolutely one of the things I truly believe in, am exploring, and how I facilitate and coach the companies we work with–where you dive much more into what it truly means to be human. Also using the qualities which are sensing, and being able to read between the lines, but also being able to project or synthesize what might lie beyond.

So, connecting dots in a way that you construct the reality that might be or might not emerge, but you start to think about what might be possible. Of course, when you do this, you are actually leaving a little bit of the path of the predictable and knowing everything for sure, and analytically knowing what the next step will be, and knowing what the effect of that next step will be, and entering into an area where you are moving forward without knowing it all.

That again makes the circle come back and you need to be vulnerable in the way that you can say, “Hey, there will be a lot of mistakes and there will be a lot of learning because the path to it won’t be linear anymore.”  In order to still function in the right way, you need to be digging deep, and being more human, so to speak, in order to also keep on functioning as a team.

Nikki Van Noy: Your background is actually in organizational psychology. Do you feel like this has allowed you to look at business in a different way than other consultants might?

Govert Sandwijk: Wow, that’s a tricky question actually because when I was studying and especially in the last year of my studies, I was always thinking, “Once I am done with my studies, shit, what will happen? I will never have a job because nobody in this world–especially not the commercial world, will want to pay for the type of knowledge or the type of skills that I’ve acquired.”

Back then I thought, “This is much too intangible, this is too vague. What is it that we’re actually learning here?” I think it’s not necessarily the background from an educational standpoint, that allows you to have whatever perspective. I think it’s really that once you start to look at what’s going on and you work a lot with people, then there can only be one conclusion–that is how people interact, how people behave in their day-to-day working reality and professional roles are so connected to their psychological makeup.

Then, you have to look at the person behind the professional. I think that conclusion is not a conclusion of the psychologist per se, that’s a conclusion of somebody that’s just looking and observing, “Hey, what is happening?” I think this is also why if you look at a lot of consultants that have completely different backgrounds, they start to focus much more on, “Okay, who are the people in the room and what are they doing together?” They do this in order to make a company move forward, to get to great results, and also have fun while doing it.

So, I think it is kind of an undeniable thing which is going on, but the human part becomes more and more important and it’s also being acknowledged by more and more people.

A Holistic Approach to Business

Nikki Van Noy: This is a little bit of a chicken or egg question. When you first started working as a consultant for businesses, did you go in looking at individuals and human interactions and coming at the work that way? Or did you initially go in with more of an organizational perspective and then it occurred to you over time what we really need to look at here is relationships and how people interact with one another?

Govert Sandwijk: When you say it like that, I want to correct it a little bit. I think it’s about how people interact, but it’s also how people function as individuals, which is super important and then thirdly, I think it is how people find their way in business together. How they strategize, how they come from A to B, how they project what the future should be like.

I will come back to this a little bit later because your question was about starting from an organizational point of view or starting from an individual point of view.

My own journey was that I was a psychologist by training, then I started working for a small psychological firm, which was basically tasked by the court system to determine whether or not a suspect was, during the time of committing the crime, influenced by any form of pathology.

Kind of fast forward a couple of years later. I ended up with a consulting firm where my main job was running the assessment center practice, which is basically looking at the psychological and competence of individuals, within a job context and within an organizational context.

So, my starting point as a professional was more the individual route, and then when I started my own company, the main part of my business, in the beginning, was much more on the individual side and much less on the organizational side. Organizational is always there, but more as a context. While right now, I am trying to focus actually on getting those parts more together.

I don’t believe in leadership development programs that are focusing on personal leadership for leaders. I don’t believe in team development programs that are taking the team and looking at the team dynamics. I don’t believe in strategizing as a single activity. I think in the real day-to-day lives of companies, all those things happen together simultaneously, so why is it that when you look at a lot of organizational practitioners, they tend to fragment the problem into parts and then just focus on one thing?

What I like to do is actually grab a theme and look at all of those different things together.

Nikki Van Noy: That’s fascinating. I mean that truly is holistic, which is what you are talking about in this book­–a holistic approach to business.

Govert Sandwijk: I think holistic–I was actually doubting using the word in my title because it has this connotation of being kind of wishy-washy and not concrete–it might have a negative association for some people. But for me, I think it is about being holistic and approaching a company in a holistic way.

Because at the end of the day, if you want to run a business in the right way, you need to really tie those parts together instead of fragmenting everything and then hoping something whole comes out as an end result, which has been the path a lot of organizations have been on for a long time. Thinking that if they specialize enough, at some point, they will have a better outcome.

I think now, more and more we see the realization that this approach doesn’t fly.

Collective Intelligence

Nikki Van Noy: That makes sense. Another thing that you talk about in the book are these basic laws of influence and how they can be used to raise the collective intelligence of the team, can you explain that a little bit about that?

Govert Sandwijk: This is the part in the book where I talk about how behavior influences other behavior when it comes to interactions, and how you can use this to lead and to raise your collective intelligence. There is so much to say about this and in the book, I just scratched the surface.

Basically, what I am saying is whatever you do in an interaction, whether it is conscious or not conscious, you are always creating impact and there are a couple of laws connected to this. If somebody is in an interaction, and let’s say, is super enthusiastically sharing his views and you can hardly get a word in, then the effect–this is a behavioral law–the effect will be that it petrifies others in the room. For this person to create more balance in the conversation, they need to zip it–shut up and let other people talk, because otherwise, you create patterns that might not be so healthy in order to move the talk forward.

There are a couple of those laws. There is active behavior, the following behavior creates leading behavior, and leading behavior creates the following behavior. But when you try to talk about content, the fact of the matter you also create a conversation around that same type of content. So, if it is all about facts, then it becomes all about effect. The same thing goes for much more relational conversations.

When I start to be interested in, “Where are you coming from, what do you think is important, what do you bring to the table, and what moves you in life?” Then you create a dynamic, which is on the relational side, and once you know a little bit and you know your own preferences and you know a few preferences of the people around you, you can start to use it in a conscious way to move the conversation in the right direction.

Connecting that to collective intelligence is one of the things I read about in researching this book. The one factor that is determining the collective intelligence of a group is the distribution of activity within a group. If all group members are equally participating in the discussion or in the conversation, the collective intelligence of that group becomes bigger.

That is interesting, and when you tie that back to your question about self-confidence, I think a lot of leaders have this mindset that self-confidence means talking all the time and giving your vision, which is of course not creating what they want, but it is creating more pessimism in their team and it is not creating collective intelligence.

Nikki Van Noy: That makes perfect sense. And then of course along with that, the engagement has to skyrocket, I would imagine.

Govert Sandwijk: That goes hand-in-hand, I would say. Once everybody is participating in this equally and knows, “Hey, what I am doing and what I am saying and how I am contributing goes into our collective outputs.”

The Importance of Trust

Nikki Van Noy: Are there any stories that stand out for you in terms of shifts that you have seen in a company once they begin to utilize this idea of collective intelligence?

Govert Sandwijk: I have seen a lot of different examples and I have also described a lot of different examples in the book. But one which is pretty recent is this company, where we were asked by the CEO to help out. This guy put together a team of superstars, so to speak. So, everybody was in their role and everybody is on the top of their professional level in their role.

They moved mountains, but when he came to us, he said, “You know, I have this great bunch of people and they move mountains but what is lacking is that they are moving their own individual mountains.” There is no sense of what we are trying to achieve together. We started working with them, and in the first session, the word trust came on the table pretty fast.

I think we were a day into the session and people started to talk about trust and the lack of trust. Then fast forward a little bit, and it turned out that it was not this mistrust where people were personally not trusting each other and feeling unsafe, but it was more of a superficial trust of, “Hey, can I count on you to deliver your part of the process so that I can do my job?”  It was a kind of a superficial mistrust, and it came from not really making the hours together, and not really knowing each other much more than, “I know you’re a professional and I know you do your job in a great way.”

What we started to do is put the pressure cooker on the personal side to get them to know each other on a much, much deeper level, which had nothing to do with working reality, but everything to do with who they were a people, as a human beings–what they thought was important in the world. Once we started to do that, we saw a shift happen quickly where the word trust or mistrust completely disappeared. It was not even a topic anymore.

The conversations became much more real, also on the business side. They were talking business in a very authentic and real way and starting to connect dots in a way they didn’t do before. When you see that happen, you see how much more a group of people together can achieve with that level of professional closeness. It was just amazing to see.

Nikki Van Noy: The thing that keeps coming to mind to me is in this instance in particular, and more generally speaking also, how much happier people must be at work. It just feels like a huge exhale.

Govert Sandwijk: I think that is definitely the aim. It is a big part of it. I think once you are dealing with professionals that have the space and the room to really work on top of their game, and also learning from all the disciplines, and achieving cool projects and cool results and getting things done in the way that you want to get them done, without the negative competition, people are obviously much happier and much more fulfilled, but it is not the goal in itself.

Nikki Van Noy: Okay, so for business leaders who are listening to this right now, if they are feeling some resonance with what you are talking about and seeing that their own companies are lacking some of these things, what’s one small thing that they can do immediately to start facilitating more professional closeness in their own company?

Govert Sandwijk: There is not one thing, there is no golden bullet here. But I do believe in making sure that everybody has contributed. So, it is a little like that first thing, look at yourself. How do you lead? When you are having those conversations together, what is it you’re talking about? Is it the day-to-day reality? Or is it taking those numbers and is it why didn’t you get to those KPI’s, etcetera, etcetera?

Or is it asking bigger questions and trying to get away from the day-to-day reality? Is it zooming out? Is it looking at where we are going? That’s the second question–how am I interacting? Am I hogging all of those conversations? Am I always there? Or do I dare to shut up and listen and let others do the talking? To really, really put myself in their shoes and listen from their perspectives.

I think these couple of simple things. I dare to also say that a lot of leaders, if they would be honest, they would probably have to answer, “Hey, I am looking at the wrong leaders and I am too active steering the boat.” Instead of really thinking, “Hey, we need to steer this boat together. There are other people on certain topics that can do a much better job than I can, and I need to facilitate it.

Nikki Van Noy: Excellent. So, I am hearing at the heart of all of this is stepping back and cultivating an awareness of how things are operating around you, who is involved, and how much ownership you’re taking, and where perhaps other people can be contributing also.

Govert Sandwijk: Absolutely.