Exclusive Interview

To live many lives in one, that’s the goal: Katya Degrieck, Google

To live many lives in one, that’s the goal: Katya Degrieck, Google

In this exclusive interview with Dimitra Letsa, Katya Degrieck, leading Partnerships for Google in Northern Europe, talks about her extensive experience in board mandates and the best ways of securing one; about how to live many different lives in only one and how to build self-resilience and self-confidence without arrogance.

by Dimitra Letsa

Katya is a fascinating person: in my eyes she is the absolute combination of a corporate machine and an intellectual; of an artist and a scientist. She is leading a whole region for a multinational company, she is a ‘serial board member’ and her cultural knowledge could really challenge anyone.

The interview with her reflects all these aspects: from how to become a successful board member all the way to reviving historic gardens. I hope you enjoy the reading as much as I enjoyed the discussion!

 

Do you want to start with an introduction of yourself?  Who you are and what you do?

Ι have an engineering background and I started right after my studies in consulting. At the time it was Andersen Consulting – now Accenture. So, I would say a very classical start.

I actually spent 20 years in the media sector, mainly in two companies, Bertelsmann where I was a country director for a business unit for Belgium, then Mediahuis for eight years and I’m now since five years at Google; I am responsible for strategic relationships with partners – and as partners we mean publishers, distributors, broadcasters, commercial players, e-commerce players in Northern Europe. So six countries – and with specific attention to news.

Outside of Google, I also have three board mandates. One is Smartphoto, which is a large e-commerce player, actually the largest e-commerce player in Belgium with a presence in 12 countries, then I have a second board with Lannoo Publishing Group, the largest publishing group in the Benelux, doing traditional publishing. They have fiction and non-fiction, but they also have academic books.

And my latest one Unifiedpost group, a fintech – they digitalise actually different functions from invoicing to payments, processing identity, and they provide also working capital financing. All on a digital platform on a cloud based solution with artificial intelligence. It’s listed since September and I joined them in the summer. They are valued on the stock markets at one billion. So it’s a unicorn, they say, and it’s a fantastic story.

 And then I’ve always been part of the association ‘Women on Board‘ in Belgium since the very beginning.

 

As I know that lots of people at this level of seniority are very interested in having a board position, and you have an impressive experience in this field, I think it makes most sense to start from that end. So, first of all how do you find a board position?

I could say how I started but I wouldn’t advise that way really: basically, I rolled into a board member role, being an employee at one of my former companies. I was an investment manager. And in that role, I had four board mandates in companies where the venture capital fund of Mediahuis had invested in, and then I had other boards in companies part of the holding of the media group. So I was board member in these companies as part of my role. But this is not something that I would advise to copy…

I’m actually currently coaching a couple of women in the ‘Women on Board’ association and they had exactly that question: ‘how do I become a board member’.

 And the general advice includes actually two things:

  • One possibility is to start with smaller companies, startups where they have a more informal setting and the strict rules of being a board member don’t really apply: like a young company or a non-profit basically. Board members they are not remunerated, they are welcoming always experienced people. And it’s a good platform to learn.
  • The second possibility, the more traditional one I would say, is through head-hunters. There are head-hunters who recruit for the classic positions, but most head-hunting companies have specialised people who only recruit for board mandates.

And it also requires a specific CV. You know, we even have a special session on it – on how to write your CV when you look for a board mandate. It’s a separate process – very similar to job searching, but it’s different… you have to describe other skills, other things in your board CV and you would have other contacts and other networks… And then, when all is done, you have to network basically.

 

Thank you very much for this input – I think it is very valuable and not widely known. Everybody knows that you probably have to volunteer at first, but not how you do when you are serious and systematic about it. Is good to know where to start planning.

Well, that’s the path. For most of the people you meet as board members, this is always the story: you start, you grow, you go to bigger companies, to listed companies. It’s a story you write over 10, 15 years, 20 years…

 

And what do you think makes a good board member? What are the qualities you are holding yourself and that you preach when mentoring other people?

I would say a good board member is the one who can actually flex their style…

Ιt is possible, for instance, to be with a startup where things are not formal. I was at one time board member of a gaming company – where we were only two – the CEO and me. And it was an official board because you had to have one, for the venture capital fund. We were sitting often together; we were working on spreadsheets; I was even gaming myself. And that was a very atypical board membership.

The book publishing company is now run by the 5th generation – so it is a very established company. Very proud of what they do. They like the way they are, but also want to have independent administrators. So, in this case, you take a bit of distance and you have to look at what already exists and at what should the company do in 5 to 10 to 20 years? Because the 6th generation will come. Maybe also thinking along the lines of who would be a good next CEO?

And then there are the stock listed companies. Where you also think about the public who has shares. You have to think about the long term value that you grow. And in the board, you really need to step away completely from the management. You don’t meddle! You only talk about the direction.

Flexing the style is something that I had to learn over the years, because you actually do very different things. And that’s what I find fascinating.

 

So, the advice is to know your audience also in this context!

Yes, yes! Like I said, a small company would like you to be much more involved because usually they don’t have a lot of people in the top management. But if you are too intrusive in a larger company, the management would just provide you with the necessary numbers, nothing more. So that’s the most important skill: to really distinguish what the company needs and contribute accordingly: what actually should be discussed? How are you going to truly be helpful and inspiring in a board with the right questions?

 

Could you share any thoughts on how a CEO or a Chairman of a Board can promote all types of diversity both in the board and in the company? Can a company benefit from making all voices heard?

Yes, I think a company is actually more efficient if they would welcome the debates on the board on how  to give direction for the coming three, five years. A board is not there to talk just about the current year. A good board is really there to always think about a little bit longer term. And management is actually, I think, more efficient if they accept that role.

If that interaction is working, the management should welcome the board leaning in and use those two or three hours, a couple of times a year to really sit back and exchange views on strategy and welcome the change of focus on the diversity. Find the real issues and explain why they can’t do this or that right now, or why they can’t go faster.

That’s the real challenge.

 

And what about diversity from a sex perspective? How do you find the situation with women on boards?

Well… I don’t like quota; nobody likes a forced instrument. But the truth is that if we didn’t have it, I thoroughly believe it would take another 30, 40 years…  because that’s what is happening in the countries that do not have quota.

We see from studies in countries where they have implemented them, that the fears are less present than in the ones who haven’t. Norway for instance was one of the first countries to introduce quota and there was initially what is called the ‘golden skirt effect’ – but now diversity is at 40%. And there are other countries too with similar development: the ‘golden skirt effects’ are gone and they just became more creative in finding the right profiles.

All fears linked to the implementation of quotas have disappeared. There also was a fear for a stigma. And that has been proven correct when there’s only one woman in the board: studies have proven that she is indeed marginalised. It is not good to have one woman! You need to have two or three women on the board, and then that stigma issue is solved. It also has been proven to be a useful shock in the system.  

And it is also obvious, when I look that up, that the country’s culture will influence the numbers. So you have Norway, Sweden, Finland: Norway has 35% women in boards, Finland has 30%, Sweden has 29%. France has 29% of women in boards and Denmark has 22%, while Germany and UK are in the 20% level.

We have seen the impact: no quotas introduced, low percentages of women. So it’s really a choice associated with the culture and the choices that are made by the governments in those countries.

Another lesson learnt, is that we need to bring the narrative in a positive way, not in a negative way. For example, we’ve learnt that we need to expand again how we search for board members: to go back to the profile and to the question of what is the right profile needed and to expand that.

It has been proven again and again that companies with diverse boards and diverse workforce are more profitable than the have not: so the business case is definitely there, the business results are there. There is a difference and an impact in the efficiency of the governance. Women have a different approach when it comes to listening, talking, integrating. There is a different style. And that has an impact on governance, both in management or in the interaction between management and boards.

 

Yes, the positive impact of diversity has actually been quantified. But how do we proceed from here?

The impact is clear when it comes to people and the results, but also to the whole ecosystem. How we work with all stakeholders and also with the sustainability goals at large.

And again, it has been demonstrated that there is a strong positive impact of the women’s presence not only on the sustainability strategy, but also on the outcome of the strategy implementation on all different elements. 

 

Talking about diversity, efficiency and sustainability: you are a person who carries many hats. So how do you manage to cope with this very diversified workload? You have to be a board member at 9 and a manager at 10 and report to someone at 11 and then, I don’t know, an Italian language student at 5.  What’s your approach to having so many different goals? I mean, everybody has a work – life balance challenge, but when the work life is also so diverse, how do you approach it successfully?

Well… I think there are always some parallels; some parallels in the different colours that I brought in my career and that I actually try to bring in my life. There is in fact a pattern in both things. And if I look at life, it has always been important for me that you are, and that you can be, a different person for different people.

I’ve always been fascinated by people who have many aspects developed and achieved in their life. And it brings me to people that I also admire, like Benjamin Franklin who was a self-made man and he was working at 15, he traveled to London when he was very young, 18, and he started a printing company. He was rich when he was 40 years old, wrote articles and was a writer and we all know his political career. And he invented many, many things.

Katya Degrieck So for me, when I read his biography a long time ago, that was a role model. I mean, to be able to live so many lives in one life.

And Thomas Jefferson had done the same. He was an architect, created a university, made a political career (of course we should not forget that was typical of that era because of the slavery which luckily is not the case anymore).

There is also Marguerite Yourcenar, who divided her life in two separate periods: for six months she lived in Maine, where she wrote on an island completely isolated with her life partner. And then she came to Paris for another six months where she had this extravagant editorial life and met publishers and went to parties and had to sell her books and was very, very social and engaged. And again, when I read her biography, I found that also very fascinating. How she could split her year actually into two lives and be the same person.

So those have been my inspiration and but also Stephen Covey with his book ‘The 7 habits of highly effective people’. When I read it, it really changed my life.

I was in my late 20s and since then, I’ve always being writing and journaling and updating that plan for my life – I still do that today.

I have an one, five and twenty years plan from now looking forward, on different aspects of my life or my career or on financing, on my kids, on mental health, and on different interests and hobbies. For some this sounds nuts, but I like to think and plan and have projects. 

I have all those plans, and you can ask of course, well, did it all work out? And I can tell you: of course not, you adapt and you change… but there are red threads: so I understood along the way what I actually value; what and who am I.

And you learn to find all the common threads in your life, which then creates more resilience, more strength and power; self confidence without any form of arrogance. So that’s how I do it: I keep my red threads, I organise myself and that pulls me forward. Katya Degrieck

 

I know that there are even many writers who follow that organised approach. So I fully understand it. And though you didn’t mention it yourself, I know that you have actually written a novel as well. You are a person with a large and diverse education, spirituality, awareness.

So, I would like to also ask you about the diversity from an education perspective: can someone with no tech background hope to join and how they can contribute to a tech company or an engineer to an other field? As a hiring manager, how do you value the different education fields of an applicant?

Well, if we take me as an example. I am an engineer with an engineering diploma, so I could have worked in a chemical company or in construction and engineering. But I ended up in consulting and later in the media. I had no experience with books or managing a company in Europe, for that matter. Still, after consultancy I went straight into being a country director for Bertelsmann because they wanted me for my consulting experience. I was a strategic planner at another company before that.

So the fact that I had done consulting and strategic planning was the skill they needed for the job.

Then, later on, I had no experience in M&A or venture capitalism but I was hired by a venture capital fund because they wanted me for my media experience. All my colleagues had pure finance expertise and I represented the media expertise they lacked.

And then I went to Google and they hired me to do something with ads. Which I had zero experience in and I’ve never sold any ads, hadn’t work in that department. 

This has been the story of my life and that’s how I learned to be open and always learn. When you go into a new role, the learning curve is very steep the first year. You have to accept that. You actually have to want that and show it to the person who is hiring you.

So this is what I am also looking for when I am hiring: first and foremost, the absolute curiosity and observing absorption capacity.

 

You talked about your current planning and where you want to be. And I think that’s a part of an integrity that was shining through the very first moment I met you. It is a constant in your attitude and the career.

Well, it was not always like that… but like I said, you have to pause and ask yourself ‘what is my red thread?’

So, everything seems to come together and you actually start to keep on weaving the red threads that become clearer with time.

There is a red thread of publishing in my career and my personal life: the one we spoke of extensively on the different roles and functions in media companies, the book I wrote, the sites I created. There is another red thread with design and architecture: I have always visited design fairs, our best friends are architects and designers, we live in the first modernist house built in Belgium, I am active in a network called iconichouses.org. And today we are renovating an 18 century house in Italy so I get to spend time on garden history, rococo and grand tour nostalgia.

Of course -but that goes without saying- my third and most important red thread is my family, my three kids, my husband… and every element, every red thread, interlaces and weaves the story of your life.

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