Did you already know which direction you wanted to go after graduating from Delft?
“No. As far as business was concerned, I was inexperienced. I was a mechanical engineer, so I was great at solving differential equations, but I knew nothing about companies. I decided to look for a place where principally I would be able to learn a lot and I was very consciously looking for a good mentor. I was uncertain as to whether to go for a traineeship at a large organization or go into consulting. I wrote a few letters to several companies including McKinsey. Before I’d even been invited for an interview anywhere else, McKinsey made me an offer and it seemed to be the right place to start.
I was right. I spent seven fantastic years at McKinsey, during which time I got my MBA at INSEAD and worked up to Engagement Manager. I had been in that job for a while, when the time had come for something new.”
What was it that made you leave McKinsey?
“I would have liked to have stayed there another six months, but eBay came along. McKinsey would have preferred to hold on to me, but I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in consulting. What’s more, I couldn’t really come into my own as a consultant; I much preferred being in charge; I reckoned I’d be better placed to reach my potential.
Consulting is a comparatively risk-free existence. There is less pressure on results than there is at a normal company and the risk of damage to the company’s image is lower, which makes things a little less exciting. Besides, as a consultant you really have to enjoy watching other people do better than you. You’re the coach, not the athlete. You have to get your kicks from watching others get the medals. I believe I want more than that.”
Was e-commerce already part of your profile when you want to eBay?
“Not really. When I was at McKinsey, online projects were scarce. My transition to eBay hadn’t been planned. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to stay at McKinsey anymore and when I looked online, I saw a business segment had a lot of growth potential. I talked to eBay and felt good about our discussions. It remained a gamble for me to make the move, though. Nevertheless, I think that if you’re offered an opportunity, you have to take it, as chances like that are few and far between.”
At eBay, you specialised in classifieds. Did you have any idea at the time that you wanted to continue working in this field?
“No. Actually, I thought that I would stay at eBay and do other things. When the time came for me to start looking for those ‘other things’, we couldn’t agree what they should be. I was given a number of options but nothing really matched what I wanted. What I’d really been hoping for was a step up, otherwise I preferred to look for another position of operational responsibility. This was offered to me by Schibsted” [at the time, the only other major power player in classifieds, ed.].
Your career was played by the book. Did you plan things deliberately?
“I haven’t really examined my career that way. I would have liked to have stayed at eBay, but we couldn’t agree on what my next job should be. It was then that I started to look around. The most important thing for me was that I still wanted to choose a meaningful move that was substantively different. At McKinsey I realized that I needed to gain some operational experience, then I had to make sure I was given responsibility. Once I had been allocated responsibility at Schibsted, I thought: I want to do this on a larger scale.
I didn’t plan every detail of my career, but I did think about it. I kept asking myself the question: Is my next step going to add anything to the long-term picture?”
You were the one who set up the classifieds branch at Naspers. Did you propagate that idea yourself?
“Before I came, Naspers was already interested in classifieds, but not particularly actively, more as an investor. Intuitively, Naspers had the idea that classifieds had to be an interesting field but they didn’t know anything about it. That was when I arrived. There was no overarching strategy, so I drew one up. I built the classifieds unit up from the ground up and it has great potential. In the West, the market has already been divided up with dominant positions such as the one held by Markplaats in the Netherlands. You can no longer compete there. However, there’s no reason to assume that they don't need a similar website in India or Argentina.”
Did you have to start the job completely from scratch?
“Well, of course, I did inherit some things. We already had OLX and there were a number of platforms in other countries, so I didn’t have to start off with a blank sheet.”
In your book 'Thinking backwards', you describe the art of problem solving. How did you implement this here?
“Where do we want to be in classifieds in a few years? That’s the question I put forward. Do we want to be the biggest in the world, do we want to be in the top 3 or do we want to be a regional- or niche player? Do we want to earn money quickly or do we have plenty of time? If you can’t agree on the answers to those questions, then you need to stop talking. If you want to go to Tokyo and I want to go to Cape Town or Paris and we can’t even agree on where we should go, how can we ever agree about whether to get there by boat, plane or bicycle?
You start with ambition and only then do you start looking for what you need to get there. Running a marathon, for instance, isn’t an ambition in itself. It only becomes an ambition when you determine you’re going to run one and set yourself a time limit. ‘In a year and under three hours’, is a different ambition than ‘within a month and I’ll be happy if I finish’. Both ambitions require a training program. It was using this process at Naspers that resulted in a vision, in terms of figures and a number of steps."
How is this approached reflected in your management style?
“A global job like mine is only tenable if you work with local people who are able to act out the plan according to their own context. I agree on targets with all the different countries, for example: we want to be the leading website in 2016. Then we establish how to get there in terms of people, marketing, sales and product.
I make sure there is enough money and I take a step back and let the local people take over. What we do is what we have agreed upon, but how it’s done is left to the Indian or Brazilian manager.”
How do you then keep an eye on whether things are going according to plan in each country?
“The best thing you can do is build a proper understanding of the local situation. In each country, employees have different working hours, they have a different relationship with their boss and their own way of bringing bad news... It isn’t easy to keep an eye on all these different countries. I don’t visit most places more than two or three times a year and if I go, they tend to put a positive spin on things. I try to look beyond that and read a lot about the countries I’m dealing with. However, eighty percent of what I do is learning by doing."
Earlier, you said you made a conscious effort to find a good mentor. How does that apply here?
“Outside consulting, mentoring is much less structured. You’re not simply allocated someone whose aim is to help you develop. I chose Naspers with this in mind. There are a few very experienced executives here who can still teach me a lot and are prepared to invest in me, so the job itself was secondary to me. When I came here, I relied purely on the people I spoke to without any objective or strategy. There wasn’t even a job - I had to create one myself.
I think everybody needs someone to pull them up. I hardly ever look at money or the work itself; I always have a look at the people I’m going to be surrounded by and wonder whether I can learn anything from them. I consider whether that person will have confidence in me and we will get along together at work every day. If the feeling isn’t right you mustn’t take things to the next level. When you work with pleasant and talented people you get on with, you will always be able to do great things. If something looks good on paper but has to be implemented by the wrong people, it won’t work."
Are there less appealing aspects to your job? For instance, are you ever afraid of failing?
“No. There is pressure and I have to get results but I don’t see that as a personal burden. We are doing well and I can’t do more than my best. If we are taken by surprise while we aren’t expecting it, then that’s just the way it is. One small drawback is that my job has been chopped up, making it hard to maintain an overview. The chances of something going wrong is greater than if I were only responsible for one country."
As a leader, where does your strength lie?
“I’m good at thinking in terms of concepts. I see the difference between a variation on a concept and something new. What’s more, I think I’m good at written communications. I can express myself well in writing. Finally, I am very capable of getting people to improve. I cannot improve the grades of people that lack motivation but if they are motivated, I can help them go from B+’s to A’s, which is something I find hugely energizing. Working systematically also comes naturally to me. When I was young I used to make my Sinterklaas presents (a Dutch holiday held in December) during the summer holidays - I had time then.”
How do you do that?
“It all boils down to being able to look at things reflectively so you can view the situation from a distance. Setting an example is another way of improving people. I’m also good at asking the right questions.
An important lesson I taught myself is setting priorities straight. I see people around me trying to think how to organize ten things they need to do, but that doesn’t work. What does work is choosing five things and forgetting the other five. Do things at full throttle and never half-baked because then you’ll burn yourself out.
Do you do everything at full throttle?
2012 – present
CEO Classifieds, Naspers
2009 – 2012
SVP & General Manager Southern Europe, Schibsted Classified Media
2008 – 2009
VP Operations, Schibsted Classified Media
2005 – 2008
Finance Director The Netherlands, eBay
1998 – 2005
Project Manager, McKinsey & Company