Name: Klaas Ardinois
Current position: CTO at Azoomee, Independent advisor for early stage businesses
Even though I started as a developer a lot of my career has been more on the fringes of development focusing on team building, delivery and change management. I’m a few years away from hitting the 20 year milestone in my career, so it’s fair to say I’ve seen quite a bit of evolution. I was there in the early days of introducing Agile processes, I’ve also seen the rise of “the cloud” and the enormous impact that had both on technology as well as the organisational structures, to name just two big industry shifts. These days I focus mostly on the strategic side of technology as opposed to the implementation details, which is a nice way of saying I worry about budgets, long term technology stack choices, architecture, strategic partnerships and 3rd party vendors.
Other than that I have a deep interest in financial markets and actively invest my own money, both in public markets and early stage private investments. As a consequence of trying to do that well I read a lot about a lot, which satisfies my curious nature. In what little time is left I also try to get better at golf and I’ll always find an hour here or there to sink into videogames.
Tell us about your life before leadership – what kind of roles and projects did you work on?
After graduating with a degree in computer science I ended up working for a startup as their first employee and only developer. I was utterly unprepared for having to deal with the business side of development and about a year in I decided it wasn’t for me.
From there I went to Tele Atlas, a multinational digital mapmaking company headquartered in my hometown in Belgium. Ultimately, we were acquired by TomTom while I was there. My role was on the operational side making the actual data that was then shipped to car manufacturers for integration in their navigation systems. These days it would probably be called a technical product owner on a big data project, it really was a blend between some coding, architecture, deep domain knowledge and a large amount of requirements gathering and defining. It made me very conscious of good stakeholder management and the sensitivities of working with a team that was spread across 3 continents. All this was around 2005-2006 and the company was starting to explore Agile methodologies, and my project happened to be one of the guinea pigs. Because of that spotlight, I was surrounded by a couple of great people managers and a team who really cared about making engineering better, and I soaked up all I could from them. I have many fond memories from those years and in fact I still seek out some of those people for advice nowadays.
Unfortunately, the release of Google Maps and their navigation features led to some downsizing and I ended up leaving to join a small consultancy firm. That’s where my leadership path really began, though the foundations were definitely put in place while making digital maps.
How did your first leadership position come about, and was it intentional on your part?
When I joined the consultancy firm they were going through a transition and preparing for a carve out, where the Belgian unit would be split off from the Dutch mothership and ultimately be sold to some other company. So while I had my personal and team billable hours to look after, a part of my role was also looking at the strategic side and getting comfortable with the realities of that process. Including letting people go and winning strategic new business, both somewhat out of my comfort zone at the time.
Oddly enough, none of that really came up in the interview process. I really wanted to join to focus my career more on organisational transformation and helping other organisations get better at delivering well engineered products, using Agile methodologies and techniques. The internal changes and getting involved in that was really the cherry on top. So while I joined to focus on the first steps of leadership with transformation for clients, I ended up in the deep end internally.
How did you manage the transition? What came easily / what was difficult?
Years spent in a close-knit football team playing at a competitive level gave me quite some sensitivity to group dynamics, team and individual motivation, dealing with different characters, conflict resolution etc. So the people side came fairly easy to me. And while working with the team I discovered that I really enjoy mentoring people and helping them grow.
Where I struggled a lot more was on the commercial side. I’m not ashamed to admit I was incredibly naïve on that front. It took me quite a while to realize that commercials are a negotiation rather than a binary event, and that there are many levers to pull beyond headline price. In my idealistic world I would pitch what I knew I could realistically deliver, charge a price for that which made commercial sense (and wasn’t to be negotiated, because it was correct), and then deliver and get paid. If only… . It was only much later in my career that I started to find a good balance between those facets. I think two of the key events in that journey were getting an MBA specialized in corporate finance and running my own consultancy for a few years. It really made me appreciate “the business” a lot more.
What was your biggest failure in that first leadership role?
Thinking I was always the smartest person in the room. Part of being a consultant is giving your client and team faith that you are an expert in your domain, and so there is an amount of self-confidence needed. However it’s easy for that to spill over into thinking you know your client’s business better than they do. One particular engagement comes to mind where I could see what we needed to deliver to improve the client’s organisation however the internal resistance to change was so high it was in reality never going to happen. But because I was convinced I knew better than all of them I ended up steamrolling, quite disrespectfully, over the client’s project manager and most of her team. So rather than working with them and taking them on that journey, I ended up working mostly against them and almost blew up the relationship. It was a very humbling lesson in servant leadership and change management.
What made you keep doing it?
I’m a systems thinker at heart. My instinct is to look at teams and organisations through the prism of processes and interlinked structures, and to some extent try and bring order to the chaos or improve it. And a group of people is one of the most complex systems, both to understand and to change. So I’m very much enjoying that challenge and the chance to make things better for the people in the system.
Tell us a fun fact that nobody knows about you
My nickname, Don Ardonio, started at a summercamp in the late 90s where we played a “drug smuggling” game. Those were different times! A handful of friends still call me Don, and to this day I use it as my screen name on most social media platforms and in videogames. My own company is even called Ardonio Ltd.
What are the three key skills you think every lead needs?
Talk about a tough question! I think the key skills actually shift as the leadership challenge changes. That said, here are 3 in no particular order.
- Keep being curious.
It’s easy to fall into routine and do things “because that’s what I’ve always done”. From time to time stop and question what you’re doing, but also be open to new things. Anyone, no matter how experienced, can have good ideas. And never stop seeking feedback to see how you can improve.
- Emotional intelligence and communication skills
Leadership involves dealing with different people, and at times navigating difficult conversations. I don’t think you can really thrive in a leadership role if you can’t relate to others and relay a message, no matter if that message is positive or negative.
As you go up the corporate ladder one of the main things that changes is the delay between your actions and seeing the results. It can be tempting to make lots of changes without really understanding or observing the effect. I’m not advocating inaction, but some caution and patience often go a long way.
And lastly, this is less of a skill per se but I think everyone who wants to lead at the top level should run their own business at some point. Not because it’s incredibly cool or because you’re going to create a unicorn. Even just being an independent consultant for a while is enough. It will help see the challenges that come with running a company, cash flow concerns, basic accounting, finding clients, getting those clients to pay, marketing, … . At the end of the day, big companies quite often have the same fundamental problems.
What have you learned about acquiring and retaining talent?
I’ve had the good fortune of hiring people in a few countries and continents and so it’s interesting to compare small cultural differences. As an example, and without wanting to stereotype too much, Americans tend to be better at selling themselves and their achievements, Brits are more reserved on that front usually. Belgians on the other hand have a more hierarchical view of the organisation than either of those and will often not speak up as much to someone in a higher position even if they disagree.
I think as a manager being aware of those as well as your own intrinsic behaviour will help evaluate candidates better. I highly recommend reading Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory if you’re dealing a lot with different cultures.
No matter where though, it is absolutely true that talent knows and attracts other talent and often that creates a good basis for retaining talent as well.
How do you motivate your team and manage their stress levels?
At heart, for the environments I’m in, I believe everybody wants to do a good job and gets satisfaction from that. So I try to create an environment in which people get the best possible chance to do that. The specifics of that environment and how that is created will differ almost from person to person based on what they value. For some it’s around career development, others will want more flexibility on tools or office hours etc. None of that takes away from the fact that of course teams also have a responsibility to deliver, and so an amount of extrinsic motivation from time to time helps in that regard.
Stress and sensitivity to it are different for every individual, so there isn’t really a blanket approach to manage it. However I try to create a culture where people feel like they can openly talk about that aspect of working in a team as well. I generally try to be highly available for my team and randomly have coffees, without really looking for an update but just to have a good chat. It’s so important for people to not close up about these things. I’m hoping by leading that from the top and making it a clear priority, I make it easier for everyone else to have those conversations as well.
How do you manage your own stress levels and productivity?
Once I get over the hump of starting a task I’m quite good at focussing and getting it done. And so I try to structure my time with lots of little things and rituals that reward me for starting work. I also try and keep one or two days per week that are very light on meetings, or I will rearrange so it’s all in the morning and I have a solid few hours most afternoons.
I have a hard time checking out though. A problem, a conversation, or even preparing for a conversation can linger in my mind for weeks and at times even eat into my sleep. So one of the things I’m still learning is to find ways to get better at letting go.
How do you stay in sync with other parts of the business?
Because of the role I’m in I’m often less involved in the weeds of the pure technology and more in the strategic side of the business. So I naturally get a lot of input on what’s going on that way. In general though I make it a point to talk to people outside my department and ask questions. Partly because I am genuinely interested, and partly because it helps me keep in touch with what’s going on.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?
I’d love to join a VC or PE firm and focus more on the investment side.
One of the few constants throughout my career has been involvement in M&A activity. Anything from finding targets and technical and financial due diligence on those, to being acquired (twice) and more recently being the acquirer. I’ve seen the process and legal side of M&A but also the operational part of delivering afterwards.
I think that combination of experience and my corporate finance education could really add a lot of value to an investment firm.
What product do you wish you’d invented?
Lego. I know it won’t solve world hunger or stop global warming but it’s brought joy in the lives of so many people and it’s such a beautifully simple product. I feel we all need a bit more Lego in our life.
A closing thought, if you’ll allow me. I think the one thing that all leaders should do is pay it forward. I wouldn’t be where I am without the support I had along the way from people who freely gave their time, their expertise or otherwise looked out for me. So I’m generally happy to have a coffee and chat with pretty much anyone in the hope that I can help them on their journey as well.
Thanks very much, Klaas!