The Power of Professional Closeness with Govert Van Sandwijk

Steve Rush: I am joined today. By best-selling author of The Power of Professional Closeness.

Founding Partner of Time To Go Global. Who has had assignments, in over 50 countries already.

So truly is an international leadership development coach, Govert Van Sandwijk. Welcome to the show Govert.

Govert Van Sandwijk: Nice to be here, Steve. It is a pleasure and an honour.

Steve Rush: So you started your journey, not in a traditional business sense, but coming from a neurological background. You started your journey, right. As genius psychologist? So tell us how you ended up from genius psychologist to international leadership development coach.

Govert Van Sandwijk: Okay, I will go further. Let’s say the comeback journey and I can talk hours about this now. Actually, when I was just from university, the market for, you know, psychologists or this kind of background was really limited. Basically I found myself at the opportunity to have a job as a junior psychologist with the firm that was doing some work for the judiciary system. And basically, the task was to assess whether or not a suspected criminal was suffering of any kind of ontology, and basically, that was my first job out of the university. And one of the things actually, when I got into it is that I found it was super, super difficult to kind of maintain a more distant position in trying to do an assessment based on objective data and facts while all the time my gut was telling me something else. I kind of just started to become a little bit of a problem back then where I found and I really kind of got the meaning of it much later in my career.

But at that moment I found, hey, there’s so much going on emotionally with me when I do this work, but I’m not able to use these emotions and to use these feelings about what I’m seeing, what I’m observing, etc. Because I am always being told, you know, you have to maintain your distance. And this was basically the mantra as well that we learned in a UNI. Created kind of attention and a feeling where I thought I am not doing my job in the best possible way, and that led me to think, okay, then probably this is not for me, you know. I went on to the next job where essentially I stepped into the headhunters game, so to speak, where I could use my psychological knowledge.

But I started to learn more about, let’s say, a business context, which was a huge step for me. And also super interesting because as a recruiter or a headhunter back then, you have to learn a lot about a certain organization or a certain business in the shortest possible time. So you get to know a lot of different businesses and maybe on a pretty superficial level, but still you get to see in a lot of different kitchens, and basically that got me hooked, really hooked on, let’s say, the organizational life and organizational practice as an area to work in.

Steve Rush: There is a massive shift there isn’t there between being in a psychological role where you’re faced with lots of emotions that you haven’t express? Conversely, then moving into a role where you reliant on that gut feel and using that intuition and emotion, can you recall a time where that really played out for you?

Govert Van Sandwijk: Yeah, to be honest, I remember this very distinct moment and I was sitting in this…I think it was an old nunnery converted into a, you know, a place where they had young criminals, let’s say between 18 and 22. It was not a prison, but it was somewhere in between, like a holding, and I was interviewing I was assessing this guy, and he must have been three years or four years younger than I was at back at that moment.

The guy was suspected of pretty heinous things involving kids, and for me, this was kind of a turning point, and I was really young, to have kids myself. I just had father, my first daughter, well, first daughter, my daughter. But that moment for me, that really is the example where I felt I am really not able to do my job without properly listening to my emotions as well, and I felt at that moment, this is not the place for me, so I have to do something. So basically it was a fleeing of a certain situation that kind of let me start to look around me again, and then I ended up into the recruitment classic practice. But I wasn’t that aware at that moment kind of the awareness about what was happening, that came much later.

Steve Rush: When was it you found first relying on that kind of professional closeness that you’ve come to create as almost your own now?

Govert Van Sandwijk: Yeah, that is a good question. The emotions, of course, you know, really working with the emotions that came actually in the job right after because, you know, you look at people’s resumes. You look at their backgrounds. You talk to them and you know a lot about your client’s context as well. Then there is only so far that you can really kind of tick boxes on. While a lot of it is also relying actually on all your senses in terms of yeah, will this person be a right fit for this context? So then, you need to start to sense and to listen to your emotions, which was completely different I would say from before when the mission was, you know, use all the instruments and then maybe afterwards try to listen to your emotions as well. But the awareness, the real awareness about this, actually I think that started to develop pretty late, actually, after I started my own firm, which was probably five or six years later when I was 32. In the meanwhile, I have progressed from this recruiting firm to a Consulting Company, where I was leading the assessment centre practice, and at some point, they asked me, hey, do you want to become partner with our firm? And that was for me to triggering moment to say, okay, if you guys think I can become a partner in this firm, maybe it’s time for me to consider to become partner of my own firm. I am 32, so I am young enough. If it all blows up within a year, I will have a huge experience to learn from, and then I can just pick up where I left off and I will find a job. Basically, that never happens, and now we are, I think what it is, 18 years almost down the line. I am still super happy with that start back then, when I was 32.

Steve Rush: And super busy, of course, if folk were listening around the whole concept of professional closeness, how would you describe that to somebody you would never really experienced? The whole philosophy of professional closeness before.

Govert Van Sandwijk: For me, professional closeness, first of all, it is a sort of a concept, but it’s also really a lot like a mind-set. The concept or the mind-set itself in terms of what it really is, for me still maturing, but what I think helps is by looking at the opposites, first of all, and this is a well describes concept, which is called professional distance. You know, doctors, lawyers, a lot of people in professional roles, they get this mantra of you need to stay objective, meaning don’t let you let your emotions get the best of you, don’t get drawn in.

Don’t feel basically I mean, to a certain extent, I can completely understand this, but my learning of these last 20 years is, is that your emotions. What you feel is not only making you able to connect better to the people around you and that you work with, but it also serves as a, let’s say, a prehistoric radar for things that might be happening all around, but you’re not yet 100 percent aware.

So listening to these emotions, using them, and leveraging them in order for creating better workplace relationships, having a better sense of what is happening in your contexts. Yeah, for me it has become, let’s say what I describe, the power of professional closeness and as a leader

this starts with, let’s say, really, really daring to start to listen to those emotions, but also start to show those emotions and opening up to the people that is closest around you.

Steve Rush: I love the whole principle of prehistoric radar because we all have the same kind of brain that has evolved over the last fifty thousand years. Some parts of evolved a little more than others, right, but we this tool to use, don’t we. How do you use the kind of psychology background to help you understand how different parts of the brainwork and how the decision-making process is impacted by that with your clients.

Govert Van Sandwijk: Yeah, I love the question and to be honest, when I was studying psychology back, let’s say this is over 25 years ago. So back then, when it came to neuroscience, neuroscience was much less evolved than it is right now. We didn’t have that much less factual background on how the brain works and how that translates into behaviour and how psychology, which is, you know, the study of studying the mind, but not necessarily from a biological perspective. So how did came together, I think is only something that started to really, evolve over the last 10 years. To be honest, I started to read up on it a lot and started to become fascinated by the fact that now we start to understand our brain. A lot of those old school and old fashion psychological concepts start to make sense. Some others, you know. Absolutely not anymore, but nowadays, the knowledge we have is at the level that we can also use it to monitor our own behaviours, to use it in the boardroom, to use it when leading. I think, you know, having this background or having this knowledge, it is an obligation to spread that knowledge as well from a leadership perspective, when we are doing our type of work.

Steve Rush: In your experience Govert, of working with executives and leaders, how much value would you put on them understanding their own behaviours from a neurological perspective?

Govert Van Sandwijk: Yeah, I talk about this in the book quit a lot. I think for me it is a cornerstone that should be, you know, if that would be a university or a school of leadership, like like a proper MBA, something like that. Then I think neuroscience and what it means would be one of the cornerstones, because really understanding trigger points, the unconscious behaviours, the defensiveness, how the different parts of the brain work together and how this translates into your own behaviour. I think that is an invaluable insight for everybody useful to be honest. I think it is one of the most valuable lessons that you can learn and it helps, of course, also to understand what is it that I can actually try to steer and to control and what is it that I need to kind of monitor and to react to.

Steve Rush: If I was a leader of a team or a line manager and I was really struggling to create that professional closeness, the, you know, getting that connectivity and understanding my team at a much deeper level. What, strategies would you share with me, that might be helpful to make that happen?

Govert Van Sandwijk: Well, first of all, I think the first thing is the acknowledgement of saying, okay, if you are leading a team, let’s say as a manager, you always have a responsibility or a mission or an assignment or a task. What I always think is the first thing is understand that your task, your mission or your assignment is not actually the mission itself, but it is making sure you create a team that is able to perform or delivered that mission. That is the first task, so it is all about human interactions and it is all about having everybody be at their best. Also working together towards that same mission.

For you as a manager, your first responsibility should be looking at the people instead of looking at what is my mission. That is the first awareness I think needs to have before you can even start to think about developing anything that comes close to professional closeness. Second of all, I think once you have this awareness you need to start to be able to understand your own behaviour triggers or peculiarities in terms of your reactions. Once you understand that, I think the third thing is show the people around you who you really are. To kind of take off your office face or your mask and show the people around you who you really are, because once they start to see, you know, you as a human being instead of as a manager with an assignment and a role and a status, then you have the right starting point in place. Then afterwards, I think there is a lot of different things that you might be able to do, but that depends also on the context. So there’s tons of strategies and tips, so it comes down to daring to be you in front of your team.

Steve Rush: And I guess that also creates the more you give of yourself, the more people are likely to reciprocate, aren’t they?

Govert Van Sandwijk: Yeah, and that I think is the most important thing. It is really leading by example, you know, creating these conversations that have a certain depth and openness, which for me does not mean that you have to always be sharing your deepest secrets, but you have to be willing to share your real doubts about the things that you are doing and experiencing. And that can be about the professional context, but, you know, once you’re in that place where you can really say, hey, you know, we are coming across this challenge and I’ve never done it. I am really unsure on how to attack this, so I need the help of all you guys. You know, once you are really, really kind of letting go of this idiotic idea that as a manager, you need to know everything. You need to have all the answers and you can start to work from that place. I think you already have made a big shift.

Steve Rush: That sounds great, thank you Govert and in me, kind of get into a little bit more about you over the past few weeks and months. It is fair to say you have done quite a lot of research around the whole kind of getting smart people together. It is often referred to as collective intelligence, and you did some research that says really just getting smart people together is just not enough. What would be the reason for that?

Govert Van Sandwijk: Yeah, this was something kind of struck me while I was doing the research on Book, and I was thinking, of course, you know. You know, what is the point of professional closeness in a business context? It is about creating a better atmosphere and also about creating better results for the company, right. I started to look into this concept of collective intelligence, and basically it says, first of all, if you have a bunch of really, really highly intelligent individuals and you put them into a room and they start to work together, this is not guaranteeing that you will have the most collectively intelligence team. And a collectively intelligent team is a team that is able to respond and react, and let’s say be informed of all the challenges that they are facing. It is really the flexibility and the adaptiveness of the team to be functioning on a high performing level all the time, no method to call. What I found out actually is that there is three indicators being described as well in the book by Thomas Malone, which is called Super Minds.

Number one, it is social perceptiveness, basically social perceptiveness and the ability of the members of the team or the members of the group to read the emotions of others that are in that team. So being aware of the emotions of others in the team while you are working and while you are working together, which is the first indicator, and so if that is not there or if that’s, let’s say not there enough. You will never be able to tap into all those highly intelligence people because it will be still a fragmented bunch of very smart people together.

The second part is the degree of equality in participation, which basically comes down to if you have one or two people hogging the conversation all the time. This means that all the time, other people are basically not contributing to the conversation and not letting their brains work at the same problem as well, that was number two.

Then number three, as I think is the most interesting one, and also from the perspective that we’ve just had, the International Women’s Day, it is actually the number of women in the group.  It has been shown that the higher the number of women in the group, the higher its collective intelligence. To be honest, it is a bit of a combination of the first two factors, because women are a little bit more than men are generally more socially perceptive, and they are also less likely to harbour a conversation because they normally are already a little bit more about having everybody participate. I think it is very interesting if you look to these three points and you look, for instance, at your management team or your board. What is it that you see, how are we doing on those three indicators? Do we really see what is going on the faces of others? Do we monitor and do we see their emotions? Are we making sure that everybody has an equal say and that everybody is contributing? And in the end, are the women in the team, and of course, this is just the basic prerequisites. Well, it is a very, very strong starting point.

Steve Rush: It is really interesting, actually, because in my experience of having led board facilitation exercises and activities and coached executive teams where I see more diverse boards, I, you know, diverse in sexual orientation, in gender, and in thinking actually, the less group think, you also get right.

Govert Van Sandwijk: Yeah, the less group think, the more you need to really join forces and look at the situation at hand and trying to solve it in the optimal way, the best possible way given the circumstances, which is something else than letting your egos prevail, and I think that diversity in any sense will help a lot. Then again, diversity only is not enough, you have to also be willing as a leader to see, okay, are we using that diversity? You know. If it is still, you know, the most diverse group but it is only a couple of people who is doing the talking all the time. Then you are still stuck in not using everybody to their best.

Steve Rush: You are right, and I think it’s incumbent on us all as leaders however large or small our team is, is to just be aware and notice whether or not we have got full participation and unlocking that opportunity to have a broader conversations.

Govert, at this point of the show, we can ask our guests to share some of their top leadership hacks, so what would be your top leadership hacks? You could share with our listeners.

Govert Van Sandwijk: That is actually great timing for the question because the first one connects back to what we have been talking about just now. If you are a leader, a team leader or a CEO, it does not really matter. And you are leading your meeting or your bi weekly meeting and you’re looking at the team and you’re thinking somewhere in the back of your mind is this voice that is saying, hey, what a passive bunch. Once you hear this thought, you should be aware that probably you are doing too much talking. I have seen this over and over again. If you hear this, what a passive bunch in your minds, you need to sit down, zip it and really create space for others to start participating. That is for sure, my first act.

Steve Rush: What would be your next hack?

Govert Van Sandwijk: Yeah, the next one I would say it is actually connected to daring to listen to your gut feeling in a very literal sense. So let’s say you’re doing something and suddenly you start to get this turning feeling in your stomach and it makes you feel really, really uncomfortable, and your primary impulsive reaction would be I want to get rid of this discomfort. The heck I would say if you start to feel something like this. Train yourself to endure this discomfort, and to use this discomfort as an indicator. Of, hey, what is happening might be something new, so actually, it is super good because we want to innovate, so we are entering into a space that triggers me to become uncomfortable, but this is great because it really is an indicator that we are doing something new? But it can also be an indicator of that you are experiencing something that you don’t want to do, but still might be the best thing to do for the company or for a given situation. I think always listen to your gut feeling and to endure it instead of to, you know, get rid of it right away. 

Steve Rush: And I did some research when I concluded my book, actually, and research suggests that your got feelings is about four out of five times, right. Because it scans those unconscious thoughts and memories that we all kind of had for many, many years, right?

Govert Van Sandwijk: Yeah, I absolutely agree.

Steve Rush: We ask our guests to think about hacks that they have learned from times in the past where things have not worked out so well. Perhaps what they screwed up or they have been disadvantaged. Have you got anything that you could share with our listeners, which would be your hack to attack?

Govert Van Sandwijk: Yeah, so the hack to attack for me is basically be always prepared for the worst and be prepared emotionally. The first time that I kind of really, really experienced this in a bad way. The company was a couple of years old and then we had been working internationally on a huge assignment and we had like I think two and a half or three hundred thousand euros, which was in the pipeline of being paid.

And at some points the company said we have compliance issues and we need to stop every single payment until we have figured it out or if something is wrong, you can forget about the money. This situation really kind of stopped, but what I learned from it is really to prepare yourself when something like that happens that actually you cannot really anticipate.

Make sure that you train yourself to not be blown out of the water emotionally, because if you train yourself to be prepared emotionally and that you can handle, hey, yes, this is bad, but this means that I need to start acting in a different way. And instead of allowing myself to sit in these negative emotion of feeling victim to the situation, that is for me one of the biggest things and whether you are a leader, an entrepreneur or whatever. Make sure you are always prepared emotionally for the worst.

Steve Rush: It sounds academically dead easy, does not it, to get prepared emotionally, but how physically can I do that. What would be the one or two things that would help me train to get myself prepared emotionally?

Govert Van Sandwijk: Yeah, I think that is a great question, and it comes back to one of my hacks, actually. It is basically once something small, let’s say surprising and not so nice happens, and when you start to have this emotional reaction, really use those moments to feel what is happening inside of your body to make a note of it mentally and really, write it down. So what do I experience? What do I feel? Look at the contexts and see at that exact same moment what helps you to calm down or to mitigate that feeling?

And if you do that quite a lot of times in situations where the stakes are not so high, you basically train yourself to react in a certain way. Then when something happens, when the stakes are really high, you have I would say a coping making mechanism already installed that will prepare you for when that situation really happens.

Steve Rush: Got it, so it is about setting down some tactile foundations, really, that unconsciously you create over time.

Govert Van Sandwijk: Exactly, absolutely.

Steve Rush: Super. Last question for you today is. If you were able to do a bit of time travel, go back to when you were 21 and bump in to your 21-year-old self. What will be the one bit of advice that you would give Govert then?

Govert Van SandwijkThis is very much about my own journey. So what I would say to my 20-year-old self, I would say, hey Govert, don’t rush into responsibilities. Use the time that you have right now to learn about cultures, to learn about social skills, to look around you, to learn about the world, but don’t rush into responsibilities, trying to be, let’s say, trying to live the adult life. Use this time right now when you actually don’t have a lot of things to think about, when your backpack is relatively empty.

Steve Rush: It is great advice, thank you Govert. Folks probably listening to you speak, and we have mentioned your book, The Power of Professional Closeness. How can they find that a little bit more about the work that you are doing at the moment?

Govert Van SandwijkYeah, I would say always good to take a look at our website, which is a and if you want to check out the book, just hop on over to Amazon – The Power of Professional Closeness – Govert Van Sandwijk and it’s available. Read about it in the reviews to see if it is something for you, and of course, I will be happy to help if anybody wants to reach out directly.

Steve Rush: And we will also put a link in our show notes to make sure that people listening to this can go straight away. Click on those links as well Govert. Thank you for spending some time with us today. It has been delightful talking with you.

Govert Van SandwijkIt was it was a great pleasure, and I am really happy to be part of, you know, your first five or 10 shows and I will be looking forward to have the podcast will evolve over time. 

Steve Rush: Thanks Govert. Thanks for joining us.

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