Saturday, July 20, 2024

A Journey from Political Advising to Executive Leadership

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A Journey from Political Advising to Executive Leadership

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Elise van Zeeland
ACWA Executive Director : Organizational Effectiveness
Elise is a high performing individual whose career has taken her across continents and through diverse sectors, leaving a trail of impact. With a background in Public Administration, Crisis and Security Management from the Netherlands, and Global Health, Law, and Governance in London, Elise has always been driven by a passion for making a difference
Her journey began with a series of internships, including a notable stint at the World Health Organization. After that she honed her skills in public affairs and politics. Rising through the ranks, Elise eventually became the sole advisor to a prominent party leader, where she played a pivotal role in shaping the party’s image and strategy. Transitioning to the private sector, Elise brought her expertise to Shell, where she held various roles before ascending to the position of Chief of Staff for the EVP of Renewable Generation. Her time at Shell allowed her to broaden her skill set and deepen her understanding of corporate dynamics.
Currently residing in the Middle East, Elise serves as the Executive Director for Acwa Power, leading the organization’s design and effectiveness department. Through her leadership, she continues to drive positive change and champion female representation in the corporate world.
Driven by a commitment to female empowerment, Elise co-founded écrassée, a continuously growing network aimed at supporting young female professionals in reaching their full potential. She also led the Els Borst Network in the Netherlands, furthering her dedication to fostering inclusivity and diversity in politics and government.
Outside of her professional endeavors, Elise maintains an active presence on social media, sharing her experiences and insights as a female working professional through her personal blog on Instagram (@dutchielivingabroad).
With a solid track record of achievement and a passion for making a difference, Elise exemplifies the power of leadership and dedication in creating meaningful impact both professionally and personally.

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Your career journey showcases a diverse range of roles, from political advising to executive leadership in renewable energy companies. How have these varied experiences shaped your approach to organizational effectiveness?

Elise van Zeeland: Organizations are like plants, with people being the leaves. Without proper attention, they stop growing and flourishing, eventually losing their vitality. It is crucial to focus on the wellbeing of the staff while also understanding the evolving market dynamics. The quote from John Shedd, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for,” resonates with organizational effectiveness. It reminds us that we must continually evaluate whether our methods are optimal and effective, ensuring tasks are performed by the right people in the right places. This constant pursuit of improvement is essential.

Furthermore, individual and team effectiveness thrives on the trust and support of organizational leadership. Being pragmatic and decisive is vital to ensure tasks are completed promptly, and these qualities align well with my approach.

In your role as Executive Director of Organizational Design and Effectiveness at ACWA Power, you navigated through changing landscapes in the renewables sector. What pivotal moments or experiences have significantly shaped your career trajectory, and how have they influenced your leadership style and approach to problem-solving?

Elise van Zeeland: My career spans both the public sector and the corporate world, and through this journey, I have observed a significant disconnect between the two. Each side often makes assumptions about the other, but as my dad taught me early on, it’s essential never to assume—always ask. This principle forms the core of my problem-solving approach. I consider myself a fixer, eager to find solutions even in unfamiliar situations, and this mindset, combined with my diverse experiences, has proven to be powerful in driving results.

From the beginning of my career, I have been exposed to a variety of senior leadership styles and had the privilege of working closely with leaders. These experiences have shaped my own values and approach to leadership. I strive to retain the practices that resonate with me and learn from conflicts or misunderstandings.

A critical aspect of my growth mentality is learning from mistakes and reflecting on my behavior and actions, even when it’s challenging. As leaders, we must acknowledge that we don’t know everything and be open to continuous learning and improvement.

As someone who has worked internationally, including at the World Health Organization in Geneva and in various roles across Europe, how have these experiences influenced your perspective on global collaboration and cross-cultural communication in your professional endeavors?

Elise van Zeeland: Every time you join a new organization, you gain valuable insights that enrich your ‘toolbox’. Working across various sectors, countries, and cultures is profoundly rewarding. I firmly believe that global collaboration is essential for creating a better future and preserving our planet for future generations. This global approach offers significant impact opportunities but also presents challenges, as language barriers—both literal and figurative—can complicate communication.

To navigate these challenges, it’s crucial to always clarify and validate understanding in cross-cultural interactions. Assuming understanding can lead to significant miscommunication and derailment. Effective communication and collaboration require continuous effort to ensure mutual comprehension.

Transitioning from political advising to corporate leadership, how have you applied your expertise in government relations and strategic advising to drive business objectives within the renewable energy sector?

Elise van Zeeland: During my time as a political advisor, I learned to approach challenges with an open mind, work rapidly under pressure, and maintain a clear focus on our goals. The political landscape requires you to metaphorically play chess on multiple boards simultaneously, which fosters unique skill development that few other roles can match. This environment teaches you to swiftly switch between topics while keeping an overview of all deliverables, providing invaluable experience before transitioning into the corporate sector.

In the corporate world, I honed my ability to work diligently, delve into details, and navigate organizational structures. There is more opportunity to set and achieve long-term targets with fewer daily distractions. However, I find great value in combining both experiences. Even in the energy sector, adaptability remains crucial. We must be able to quickly adjust our strategies while staying focused on our long-term objectives.

Given your experience in public affairs and communication, especially in advocating for healthcare and gender equality, how do you work towards agreement and making a difference within companies, particularly in fields where being socially responsible is more important?

Elise van Zeeland: Achieving consensus and making a meaningful impact within companies can only be accomplished by engaging others in the journey. This involves sharing your thought processes and actively listening to their feedback. Working in isolation hinders progress.

Although it might sometimes seem easier to handle tasks alone for the sake of speed or confidence in your abilities, it’s crucial to recognize that you might not see the full picture or have all the best ideas. This is why it’s important to explain what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and involve others in the process. This is an ongoing effort, not a one-time exercise.

Your internship experiences range from the World Health Organization to NGO work focused on social issues like female genital mutilation. How do you integrate social responsibility and advocacy into your approach to leadership within the corporate sector?

Elise van Zeeland: I believe that making a difference begins with showing up. My presence, commitment, and stamina have consistently driven change, whether during internships or in my current roles. My two main areas of interest are healthcare and the renewable energy sector. Both fields share a critical theme: the sustainability of our planet and its population for the future. Every step in my career has connected with these themes, fueling my passion and dedication.

In addition to my professional work, I have always been active in other areas. For example, I created a platform for young female professionals in the Netherlands to support each other in becoming the best versions of ourselves, both personally and professionally. I have observed that many women face similar challenges across different sectors. By showing up and advocating for female empowerment, I inspire those around me to prioritize this in their professional lives as well. Advocacy extends beyond the workplace, and side activities can often influence discussions within your job. I am deeply committed to female empowerment and believe in the power of lifting each other up.

Throughout your career, you’ve managed teams across various sectors and geographies. What leadership principles do you prioritize to foster collaboration, innovation, and performance excellence within your teams?

Elise van Zeeland: For me, honesty, transparency, and optimism are critical in leadership. I trust my coworkers until proven otherwise and believe they deserve autonomy in their work, while being available to support them when needed. In return, I ask for transparency and honesty. I am understanding if someone doesn’t know the answer or how to proceed, but insincerity is difficult for me to accept. I recognize that I set high standards for performance excellence within my team.

I describe my leadership style as that of a ‘working foreman.’ I believe in modeling the behavior and performance I expect from my team, fostering a collaborative environment. Leadership is a two-way street; it’s about working together, not just managing a team.

When I joined ACWA Power, it was my first experience in the Middle East, and I was the first European woman in the headquarters. I understood that some might be skeptical about who I was and what I would bring. To address this, I made a conscious decision to demonstrate my value through delivery. I believe that proving your worth is key to gaining support and trust.

Innovation, to me, equates to personal growth. I once attended a leadership journey led by Caryn Vanstone, who emphasized the importance of understanding your own behaviors, thoughts, and triggers. Only by understanding yourself can you be an effective leader.

Outside of your professional life, what passions or hobbies do you pursue that contribute to your personal growth and well-being? How do you balance these interests with the demands of your career?

Elise van Zeeland: Honestly, it’s a running joke in my family that I don’t have any ‘hobbies’. I love my work and am deeply committed to my career, growth, and development. Balancing everything in life is a challenge I’m still figuring out, and I imagine many people, especially women with numerous social responsibilities, can relate.

In my spare time, I prioritize recharging. I enjoy listening to informative, educational, and political podcasts while going for a walk. Nothing makes me happier than diving into a book that offers new insights—favorites like ‘Think Again’ by Adam Grant or ‘Black Box Thinking’ by Matthew Syed provide valuable perspectives for personal development.

One of my key strengths for well-being is my ability to ‘log off’ quickly. I can transition from a highly demanding and stressful day to a state of relaxation and peace within minutes of stepping through my front door. This ability to recharge swiftly is crucial for maintaining my overall balance and well-being.

Looking to the future, what emerging trends or developments in the renewable energy sector do you find most exciting, and how do you anticipate adapting your leadership approach to capitalize on these opportunities?

Elise van Zeeland: What excites me most, whether in the energy sector, healthcare, or any field, is the opportunity to drive tangible progress. Contributing to organizations that shape our future on Earth brings me deep satisfaction and a sense of adding real value. One common thread across these sectors, particularly in renewables, is the absence of a clear path to solving our challenges. Flexibility, adaptability, and assertiveness are crucial in navigating this uncertain terrain and finding innovative solutions along the way.

A learner- and growth-oriented mindset is essential. I believe failure is not the opposite of success but an integral part of achieving it. Embracing what we don’t know allows us to continuously learn and improve. The sectors I work in are populated with visionary leaders and innovators, and I enjoy blending their forward-thinking with practical actions aimed at making a positive impact each day. Whether it’s brightening someone’s day or contributing to their personal growth, every effort toward making the world a little better is worthwhile and fulfilling.

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