As professionals move up the corporate ranks, the more they tend to specialize. This is not the case with Maarten van Neerven, former CFO/CEO of companies as Bugaboo and CarNext, who has always been at the forefront of driving transitions throughout his career. After fast-track university and corp life (Philips) and becoming VP of Finance at age of 33, he shifted to working for start-up and scale ups. Currently he supports boards and CEO/ CFOs in complex transitions as advisor and non-exec.
On a rainy Wednesday morning in July, we sat down with Maarten in his home in Bilthoven to discuss how insights from understanding our (own) nature can help CFOs become better leaders. A story about (re)trusting your intuition as an analytically trained professional, getting to the essence fast and building great -high spirited- finance teams.
When did finance and understanding nature more deeply spark your interest?
During my time studying business economics in Rotterdam, I always intuitively felt like something was missing in economic theories. They seemed incredibly disconnected to basic human nature; very one-sighted, oversimplified and control-based. I ended up developing a deep interest in everything about how (our) nature works and areas like evolutionary biology, cosmology and psychology. Understanding only a bit of these areas, it became clear to me that the way we are trained in our economic thinking is too disconnected from nature and our own human spirit and design. We often act in the way we are trained. So making sure you learn from these insight is crucial in becoming an effective leader. We know already for a long time that the nature around us has a more intelligent design of organizing than we created in our society and organizations. Next to that we know we are wired to trust each other and cooperate together as human species. This gives a different worldview versus the rational economic approach. Insights from evolutionary biology contribute to our understanding of how life evolves and adapts over time. This you can apply to our business and organizational environment.
In the first ten years, my predominant approach was mainly rooted in analytical thinking. This method had granted me success up until that point, and I had great confidence in it. However, I learned quickly my approach proved ineffective in more complex settings. In fact, it seemed to create a disconnect between me and the organization. Realizing this, I embarked on a journey with coaching and self-reflection. I had to learn to embrace and use my intuition again, next to my analytical skills. This brought, next to the analytical part, the interconnection part. True connection creates openness and transparency. That’s what you want in an organization. Important is to create awareness within you of your thoughts, feelings and actions. Creating more consciousness on how you are as a leader.
What role does intuition play when you enter a company in transition?
I deliberately give ample room for my intuitive side, especially given the analytical nature of my work environment. Over the past years, I’ve increasingly learned to trust my intuition. So my rational part of the mind is much better balanced with my intuitive part. Intuition and creativity relies on divergent thinking, which is essential for generating new ideas and solutions for complex problems. As CEO / CFO you need to be able to understand the analytical part and the connection with the whole of the organization. Intuition brings valuable insights and awareness that go beyond logical reasoning and analysis. Intuition provides you with a deeper understanding of the world around. When harnessed and integrated with reason and imagination, it leads to a more holistic and comprehensive understanding of the complexities. This becomes particularly evident when I step into a new company or organization. My initial move is now both the analytical part (strategy, roadmap, cash and balance sheet etc) and the intuitive part. Very powerful. That’s also the feedback from others, it has very strong impact when leading complex transitions.
Furthermore, I employ intuition to pinpoint areas of concern within the company I’m stepping into. I adopt a holistic approach to organizations, meaning that if there’s an issue, I don’t restrict in understanding the root cause only financially or non-finance KPI based. Instead, I take a step back and consider the entire organizational landscape. This comprehensive perspective, transcending one’s individual role, holds immense value in the business world in understanding the root cause throughout the organization and it delivers the most optimal solutions for the company as such. No fragmented approaches. It fosters collaboration, a principle deeply rooted in evolutionary biology. Cooperation is inherent to human nature and a key factor contributing to our species’ success. It thrives on trust and gets stuck in fear.
How has understanding our (own) Nature influenced your leadership style?
It enhanced and enriched my worldview, which opened up for more creative problem-solving insights versus the only rational approach. Furthermore, I became more of a team player. A pivotal lesson I learned was the importance of assembling a strong team. Cultivating a positive and safe team dynamic is essential, as it enables us to collectively strive towards achieving our objectives. For instance, during my time as CFO, I was fortunate to lead an exceptionally strong team that felt comfortable providing direct feedback and advising me to slow down when necessary.
Over the last 10 years, I began to involve my teams more extensively, instigating regular brainstorming sessions in addition to my personal analyses. This approach resulted in a surge of ideas and fostered a greater sense of ownership among the team members regarding their tasks. Of course, there’s a delicate equilibrium to strike; guidance and leadership still remain vital.
How do you build great finance teams?
Each finance team I build is unique; I assess what the organization requires. Then I assemble a team based on that, which often varies in character and types. I am always looking for people that are experts in their field and who are able to connect with the organization.
For instance, at Bugaboo, I gathered a smaller, creative, intuitive, and younger team. CarNext involved a more intricate carve-out from a scale-up; thus, I brought together some more experienced individuals to whom I could impart a lot. It's crucial to place capable individuals in roles that align with their expertise.
In building teams and organizations I definitely made mistakes, and I've learned a lot from them. It's crucial that your team collaborates well and establishes strong connections. As a leader, you quickly sense whether someone can catch on with a bit of coaching or extra attention, or if they simply don’t align with the current dynamics.
What advice do you have for people (in finance) with leadership aspirations?
For finance professionals aspiring to become CFOs, the leadership and connecting aspects are crucial. Yes, having strong expertise is important, but you also need to effectively convey information and absorb insights from your organization and lead it. This requires a deep understanding of yourself and maintaining your independence. Striking a balance between being supportive and connected while retaining an independent role is key. Often, you'll need to bridge the visionary CEOs perspective to the rest of the organization, all while staying true to yourself and not getting pulled in every direction.
Furthermore, stay abreast of innovation. We're currently in the era of AI, which I foresee being as significant, if not more so, as the industrial revolution. As a future or current CFO, you must anticipate these changes and deeply understand them, as the world will look different in just a year from now.