Often the best advice goes against the herd of public opinion. That’s certainly true when Bianca Tetteroo offers her tips on being a successful leader, since the Executive Board Chair of a leading Dutch insurance company, Achmea, says that woman can be most successful by “showing their vulnerability” and “building a more balanced life.”
Although her advice may contrast with glossy leadership books you find at airport newsstands, Bianca explained to me how she learned these insights the hard way, amidst the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. And, she continues to live by them, to champion pressing issues facing women professionals in financial services.
Showing your vulnerable side to build trust
As an 18-year-old student with an urge to “learn and make an impact wherever I went,” Bianca quickly realized she had to adapt to succeed, as she juggled her accountancy studies and accounting consulting clients in sectors ranging from hospitals to factories.
“I had to learn quite fast to adapt in different companies and cultures, and I kept saying ‘yes’ to new roles – not because it would help my career – but because I wanted to learn new things and help these businesses succeed,” recollects Bianca. Her assignments often involved strategic turnarounds and driving change management, where Bianca would encounter deeply-established teams or stubborn, change-resistant leaders.
“I learned to deal with people from different backgrounds, and with conflicting objectives. Being a woman sometimes made it easier because I was focused on cooperating with them and finding common ground, rather than trying to force change,” explains Bianca. “I wanted to collaborate, and I didn’t mind asking others for help. They saw that I was focused on completing the assignment, and that getting the right results was important to me, rather than my career. That helped bring everyone onboard. Ultimately, being a bit vulnerable can make you more successful.”
Acknowledging that ‘exposing your own vulnerability’ is not easy, especially for a woman, Bianca points out that, “It takes a bit of an independent mind to do so. In addition to that, at some point you realize and accept that you will never be one of the men – they will continue to exclude you from guys’ dinners – so you just have to accept that you are different and know that, sooner or later, others will respect that you are striving for the same results.”
At the same time, Bianca admits that women can learn from some of the guys’ tactics: “I tell women, ‘Don’t be a ‘lampshade’ that only focuses light downward to improve your team atmosphere. You also need to shine the light upwards, towards leadership above, so they really see you and what you are accomplishing’.”
Great leaders make time for balance
As we chatted, Bianca debunked another supposed leadership ‘truism’ by stating that, “In my experience, you can only be a good leader if you have a balanced life, and sometimes that means putting your personal life first.”
If it’s surprising to you that the Executive Chair of one of the Netherlands’ largest insurers sets aside 20 minutes daily for mindfulness meditation, runs twice a week, and schedules nature walks with her family, Bianca can explain her rationale: “Early in my career, my work/life balance was not okay, even though I thought it was. Then, I had two very difficult years when I realized that you must take care of the people around you, including your family, yourself, and your mind and body, or you can’t be a successful leader.”
If you’re wondering, Bianca is alluding to the events of the Global Financial Crisis, when her former employer faced financial insolvency, Bianca’s marriage ended, and she assumed a new senior role with Achmea. Reflecting on that time, she says, “My friends tell me now that ‘You are more human after what happened to you.’ It made me a better leader because I have a clearer appreciation of people and what all of us need to be happy and successful.”
This philosophy also nicely complements the mandate of Achmea, a company whose mantra is “Sustainable living, together,” reflecting its focus on bringing longer-term value to employees, customers and society.
Bianca emphasizes that she continues to apply these learnings: “I really love my job, but now I take time each day to care for other parts of my life. That’s a present for myself, which helps me start the day very well, and I think everyone should dare themselves to do it.”
She also continues to embrace her vulnerabilities, to drive workplace change. “Once we become executives or directors, we must not underestimate our ability as female leaders to play a role in encouraging a more inclusive environment,” says Bianca. She notes how she recently accepted a request from Achmea’s HR department to speak at a corporate meeting about the impact of menopause on the female workforce. “This was delicate, because it's not the ‘typical’ issue one wants to talk about in a strategy discussion, but it was important to raise the matter. Women’s vitality is not talked about enough, and yet it can greatly affect women after age 45, just when they are poised for the next level of their careers. If we are an inclusive company, we have to decrease the risk that women leave the organization, or miss career opportunities, due to menopause.”
After we wrapped up our conversation, I marvelled at the way Bianca puts herself out there, both as a role model for taboo conversations that men would not raise, and for sharing contrarian, but invaluable career tips for women. As Bianca herself summed up: “I always wanted to make an impact, and now in my role, there are so many challenges in this rapidly changing world. There are enough topics where I can make a difference, so I think I am in the right spot.”
More about Bianca Tetteroo: In April 2021, Bianca was appointed Chair of the Executive Board of Achmea, a Dutch-based life and non-life, pension and health provider in six countries. She first joined the Executive Board in 2015 and earned the role of Vice-Chair in 2020. Currently she is responsible for strategy & transformation (including IT), human resources/management development, administrative office, media relations, public affairs and internal audit. Bianca first joined Achmea in 2009, where she held the position of finance director at pension administrator Syntrus Achmea and, starting in 2012, she headed the Pension & Life division. Previously, Bianca held senior positions at Fortis Insurance and Fortis Investment Management Netherlands. She began her career at the accountancy firm Mazars. Bianca is a qualified Chartered Accountant and has a university degree in information management. Today, Bianca serves on the Supervisory Board of Netspar and De Kunshthal Rotterdam as well as the boards of Garanti Emiklilik (Turkey), the National Executive Council and the Dutch Association of Insurers. In 2021, Bianca joined Fortune Magazine’s Most Powerful Women International list.