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

“I have been a CEO for so long. Always on top of the mountain, always working very hard, forever pushing to get results.”

Despite my expectations, we get straight to business. Our context – the common knowledge that Ilja is making a turn in her career, an unexpected one, perhaps even misunderstood by some.

“As you grow older, you become softer. You are open to far more subtle possibilities of triggering impact. With my experience in business development, background in marketing communication and current interest in change management, I see myself as someone who could wield transformation and help organizations succeed in the reality of today’s business.”

I ask if the reason for this career switch is driven by the need to have a powerful creative outlet for the skills, intelligence and experience that she has accumulated over time. The sort of outlet, that is not always available to the residents of mountain tops, who are too busy keeping it all together.

Ilja doesn’t answer my question directly. She pauses to think: “I guess I just want to work with very specific challenges now, while understanding the broader perspective. There is great value in that.”

As Ilja continues to share her study plans, with a controlled anticipation of someone who has already had many an opportunity to elaborate on the topic, I can’t but compare her story to my own journey. A marketing communication background, a venture into entrepreneurship, an eagerness to learn. I readily recognize many parallels, my head nodding at her sharp observations.

Nevertheless, I am surprised to find a touch of dissonance in my own reaction to her story. Do I resent the fact that I seem to be looking for evidence that validates my own career path? Or is it my uneasiness with the fact that I am unnaturally comparing the incomparable?

As a child Ilja was ambitious, creative and eager to take the world on. She would take on difficult tasks, she would be a class leader, she would stand out: “I knew that I could have added value, that I mattered – and this really motivated me.”

She remembers herself as someone who was not deterred by difficulties. If anything, inspired and challenged to beat the odds. She had a powerful role model, her mother Francine.

Ilja describes her mother as a source of inspiration and her father as a source of support, the two conditions that enable positive growth and a mentality of life-long learning.

Francine came from a very poor family and didn’t have many opportunities in her youth. She married Toon and together they had three children. It was a strong family, and in contradiction to the expectations of society in those days, it was also a solid foundation for Francine to pursue a career. She managed to combine a full-time study and a full-time job while raising three children.

“You couldn’t wish for a better role model.” Ilja smiled. “She was so happy, you know.”

“She always said to me – I couldn’t have it then, but I can have it now. It’s never too late”. Ilja describes her mother as a source of inspiration and her father as a source of support, the two conditions that enable positive growth and a mentality of life-long learning.

“My mother taught me a lot about leadership.” Ilja’s left hand is resting on the table, her right – occasionally tapping with soft precision to accentuate the rhythm of her narrative.

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