On Leadership, Vulnerability and the Dangers of a Sticky Floor
14th January 2019
Photos by Ilja van Haaren
Illustrations by Naz Costante
Zhenya Starkova
Business Development

Interview with Ilja van Haaren / Women in Business Series

Ilja van Haaren is a business strategist, who has held many executive positions in her career, among which N.V. Royal Delft and Kinderpostzegel (a child welfare foundation). Her most recent position was with The Hague Business Agency and she currently holds several board positions. In 2002 Ilja received national recognition as Business Woman of the Year for the transformation in business and reputation that she carried out at The Royal Delft. She resides in Delft, The Netherlands.

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Ilja steps out of her office to meet me at the reception. As always, I am magnetized by her soft charisma: an intriguing fusion of generous openness and respectful restraint. I am excited to talk to her – even a little timid – eager to be a student again and learn from someone who has been in the business of leadership for several decades.

I am observing her body language: a graceful economy of movement that projects unobtrusive confidence. I ask myself if I will have the opportunity to witness that elusive concept of vulnerability, a seeming must-have of the LinkedIn-approved modern-day leadership.

“Would you like some coffee? We have cappuccino here.”

We are making small talk, with the coffee machine efforting in the background. Earlier that month Ilja had agreed to meet me for a chat about leadership, business and success, just days after she announced her decision to step down as the director of The Hague Business Agency to pursue a new path in her career – a study in organizational change (at AOG / Groningen University). I was quick to ask, because I saw a chance to talk to Ilja during a time of personal transformation, a time when most of us present ourselves to the world unguarded, real, timeless.

And yet, I have my own agenda for this conversation.

In my late 30s, a proud achiever of many professional successes and a resume edited vigorously to a snug 4 pages, I have recently felt the need to validate my own beliefs and values about success and leadership. These values represent something that I have been unequivocal and uncompromising about since the time I entered professional the workforce – at the ripe age of 9 years old.

I was never interested in the feminist agenda, gender bias, or equal rights for women, because my post-soviet upbringing taught me that hard work is the answer to all the problems. After living all over the world, I moved to the Netherlands together with my husband and son, where I didn’t find resistance to any of my values and in many ways enjoyed an appreciation for who I am.

And here I am 10 years later, waiting for my coffee in a posh office of The World Trade Centre The Hague, looking for a connection with other women – stronger, more successful, more experienced, more in many other ways – to give me guidance and a new understanding of Ambition that will inspire the next 30 years of my career.

I first met Ilja in 2016 – when my company was hired to help with a project – and I remember making a note to myself about her striking the perfect balance of strength and femininity that didn’t seem to be in conflict with each other.

“Such a pretty jacket you’ve got on,” Ilja says casually, smiling as we sit down to talk, and my Russian soul rejoices. While I hardly fit into the stereotypical box of an Eastern European beauty, I do occasionally wonder if, since moving to the Netherlands, I have subconsciously decided that “too much femininity” is bad for business.

I first met Ilja in 2016 – when my company was hired to help with a project – and I remember making a note to myself about her striking the perfect balance of strength and femininity that didn’t seem to be in conflict with each other. During that first encounter, and all our subsequent meetings, Ilja would speak sparingly, shifting the narrative of the conversation every time she did. More than anything else, she made me feel heard.

Now too. I came over to hear her story, yet Ilja is all ears. She hasn’t had the time to prepare the answers to the questions I had sent her, but now I have her attention. I know that as soon as the office door closes, her story will unfold.