Leadership: Women Empowerment – John Verhees: Overcoming Gender Biases
John Verhees, Global Governance Director and Managing Partner of Central Europe, has been a part of Kaizen Institute for almost 12 years. His current roles include deploying KI’s strategy, organizing and promoting collaboration to transform KI into one organization, supporting our professionals in Gemba, and building and nurturing relationships with our clients and partners globally.
John is a strong supporter of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). Throughout his personal life and professional career, he has witnessed inequality, but he has also experienced and initiated efforts that support equal opportunities for everyone. In this article, John explains his personal stance on DEI and provides insight to how colleagues can support each other in the workplace to create a better sense of belonging.
Professional Career vs Personal Life
Everyone is familiar with the idea of keeping work life separate from personal life, but for many people it can be difficult to keep the two independent from another. John claims that every day his work life affects his personal life and vice versa. Working as a consultant demands a lot of traveling “…mostly at the cost of private time, family time…that’s a huge sacrifice,” John says. Working remotely was not an accepted way of working when John started his consulting career, unlike today. “In hindsight, I would do it differently. I have huge dreams, but not at the cost of everything.”
“During the weekend, I almost never do any company related work. I think if you need that time, then you are not well organized. I need a different focus during the weekend to recharge the batteries and enjoy my family, working in the garden, being at the football club, and spending time with friends.”
By working hard, having clear ambitions, and continuously developing strong capabilities, John has gotten to where he is now. Becoming a parent of twins was an especially important aspect for his work-life balance. Twenty years ago, John started taking one day off every week to take care of the children, which “…had no negative impact on my opportunities or ambition or capabilities because it was a clear, firm decision.” John’s employer at the time was supportive of opportunities for everyone and taking care of people in the organization. He says that the Netherlands’s society is very modern and open to new developments, but this is simply the culture of where he lives and is not something that he created. As we learn, we should all be comfortable changing our habits in our work life, as well as personal life.
Everybody has their own personality, capability, character, contribution, and added value, regardless of their gender, or any other personal characteristic. John personally believes that some characteristics and capabilities are gender related. Of course, this could result from gender roles that were assigned by society. He thinks that women are better listeners, better at understanding and trying to understand, asking questions, and reading the air. These are all very important capabilities that would help Kaizen institute become a better consultancy firm. He trusts that having a gender balanced leadership team will help Kaizen Institute become a better consultancy firm, making better decisions with utilized strengths.
“We should have a global presence, but most of our organization is from Europe. Most of it is white and most of it is men. So, this is not good.”
Looking at Kaizen Institute as a whole, there are not that many women, especially in leadership. However, John thinks that our organizations’ gender balance should be a mirror of society. This is an important issue that John wants the whole organization to address to support equity and equal opportunities, as a part of ESG.
Conflict in the Workplace
Since 2008, John has overseen five harassment cases that required his attention as a manager. In most cases, they concerned language sensitivity and rudeness. Regardless of their level of employment, the offender had to demonstrate improvement in their behavior to stay in the company; if they didn’t, or if their case was severe, they were fired. For John, it doesn’t matter what the perpetrator intended to do or say, the issue lies with how it was perceived by the victim. “It doesn’t matter who you are or what job position you have. Was your behavior perceived as being offensive?” If somebody was offended by the behavior, then the answer is simple: yes, it was offensive.
John says there are two things that challenge achieving gender balance in the workplace: biases and working fewer hours. John says, “Most of the time, women are the ones to stay at home and take care of the kids”, which also often results from societal roles and being less present at work.
“Leading by example is the best way to overcome biases,” John says. When discussing the Business Unit Leader promotions of Carmen Beernaert and Boussra Argoubi, he said, “I believe in going to Gemba and looking for the facts, and I think they’re the best people for the job.” Women throughout the organization feel empowered and supported with women in leadership. “The results will count and be transparent,” he says.
Some people are open to change, but they need proof or evidence to support it. John encourages people to share their experiences if they want to see change. Colleagues in position of influence, including women, should be challenged by others to empower women in the organization, with clients, and beyond.
“Ask questions, ask for change, and be conscious.”
The roles of men and women and how they interact vary throughout cultures globally. While it’s important to respect cultural differences, this is one reason why John believes that giving the stage to women is so important. To support and empower women, John tells business leaders and project teams to give women the stage to present their work. Doing this for everybody is important, but it is especially necessary to provide women with equal opportunities. Interruptions are, unfortunately, common in the workplace, but it’s especially frequent for men to interrupt women, even if unintentional. While it can be difficult to break routine, John says, “Please listen. ‘She didn’t finish her sentence. What did you say?’ … Tell some other men to stop talking sometimes. Just listen.”
“Be a more active listener to women and make sure that they feel heard.”
John’s advice to women is to always ask your team for support. In this currently male dominated industry, he says making yourself small won’t be seen as professional. “Believe in yourself, be self-confident, and behave like yourself.”
Sense of Belonging
Having a clear feedback culture is important to understand if people are satisfied in the work environment. John says that Kaizen Institute is a people’s business, so it is important to spend a lot of time to create an open atmosphere for colleagues to communicate and develop a working environment that suits their needs. He recommends finding a location where the team is comfortable discussing their feelings, not only project reviews or revenue. He is positively surprised how people open up in the workplace. Often, we miss something and do not realize someone is struggling at home, John says. “But it’s true, if I have troubles at home, it will affect my working life for sure.”