Interview

Peter de Prins

Professor at Vlerick Business School


“There is a huge amount of literature on the different phases of leadership,” Peter states. “I can give you a quick overview, with the risk that I will talk for forty-five minutes.” As a professor at the Vlerick Business School, Peter de Prins has not always been this fascinated with the academic side of leadership. Although his businesses were successful, there was still this eagerness to better understand the psychology of a human being. After selling his company in 1998, he asked himself a question. “What could be the one thing I should improve on? It turned out to be my people skills.” His journey started out with a single book to aid his improvement. That book turned into another and another and many more. Today he can recite the origins and history of leadership all the way back to the early 1700’s.


Your message must be understood and replicated.

What does good leadership look like? The first thing to remember is we live in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world which has led us to the inclusive leadership era where leaders need to have a so-called, high octopus intelligence. It is the sum of five intelligence measures: IQ (Intelligence), EQ (Emotional), SQ (Social), TQ (Technical), and PHQ (Physical). So with that, a leader must have a high level instinct and be very action-oriented. Doing is much more important than telling and a high creativity factor is needed to make things happen. Giving clarity as a leader is very crucial nowadays. Your message must be understood and replicated. Clear messages are even more important than fully right messages. Additionally, a leader should be highly skilled in dilemma flipping; they need to make the impossible seem possible and have an immersive learning ability. The worst leaders always say ‘I know how to do that’. Instead of this you have to put yourself in a learning capacity and say to your team: ‘I might be the CEO, but I need to learn as much as you’.

And last, you must have bio-empathy. Every leader needs to have an idea of interest in ecology and nature and make sure you’re change- and tech savvy. So basically you should spin VUCA in a positive way to describe the traits you need as a leader: vision, understanding, clarity, and agility.

Peter de Prins

Professor in management practice on change management, leadership and coaching at Vlerick Business School.

Co-author of the best-selling book ‘The Six Batteries of Change’.

What should a leader be focused on inside a scaleup?

Growth, and especially hypergrowth, is chaos. With that being said, keep your obsession and focus on your core business. Meaning, focus on what you’re good at as a company and on what is making money. The temptation would be to try and innovate and try new things while you are still scaling. But the key is to focus on what is making you successful. Successful and professional scaleups are the ones that keep themselves from doing too much and focus on their core business; the alternative is you become scattered in the market. It is also important that you start looking at company culture, which needs to be grown and fostered.

Traits you need as a leader: vision, understanding, clarity, and agility.
The first thing to remember is we live in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world. Leaders therefore need Octupus Intelligence:
IQ (Intelligence), EQ (Emotional), SQ (Social), TQ (Technical), and PHQ (Physical).
Six things leaders need to own: 1. Communication 2. Sensemaking 3. Change 4. Results 5. Culture 6. Organizational Hierachy

On a personal level: scaleups are all about growing revenue, products, expanding to new countries, and growing customers portfolios. As these continue to grow, you should grow as a person too and make the shift from entrepreneur to leader. Let go of your overall view, where you know everyone and speak to everyone. Allow yourself that other people do things you are not the most knowledgeable about anymore. You either have to grow with the company or find a different leader who is more suitable to do so.

Which topics can you never let go of as a leader? There are six things research has shown leaders need to own themselves otherwise their company’s impact will be decreased. 1.Communication, people want to see leaders who communicate.

2.Sensemaking, don’t delegate sense making, it needs to come from the leader.

3.Change, all the why’s and how’s need to come from the leader.

4.Results, including financial results, objective results, and process results.

5.Culture, a leader needs to focus on a healthy culture, changing the culture, and fostering culture.

6.Finally, the organizational hierarchy needs to be decided by the leader.

What is a scaleup?


Professor Peter de Prins: "We like to refer to a company that has seen a growth revenue of at least twenty percent over three years and has at least ten employees as a scaleup. It evolves from a startup of course, but the growth is very chaotic and will not be linear. Results tend to rise tremendously with a very small increase in resources."

Choose a context that will nurture your strengths.

What is the difference between being a leader and being an entrepreneur? Ideally, as a leader you should focus on the above mentioned six elements at the same time, which can be quite challenging. More important than being great in all these elements is to behave in a holistic way. Have a genuine interest in all elements of the organization, understand what’s going on and know what your strengths and weaknesses are. Choose a context that will nurture your strengths, because if you try to hard to overcome your weak point, you will become mediocre in general. As a scaleup leader you can’t do everything anymore. If you want to stay involved in all areas of the organization instead of focussing on your strengths, stay an entrepreneur.

What type of leader does a scaleup need during times of crisis? The type of leader needed during a crisis is what we like to call an Affiliative Commanding Leader. A person who has both a high EQ (emotional intelligence), but also a very strong decisive personality. As far as actions go, a leader should be focusing on data from credible sources. Once you have those facts, you need a consistent message. Make sure your audience understands what you say. But don’t be afraid to look vulnerable and communicate as soon as you get new information. Finally, a leader should be communicating what the organization is doing about the crisis. How it has been impacted by the crisis, and what it is doing to avoid similar crises in the future.

Leaders in crisis: don’t be afraid to look vulnerable and communicate as soon as you get new information.
The difference between a flat and hierarchical organization is built upon a myth.

What are your thoughts on a flat organizational structure? Hierarchy is primarily made for communication, which cascades down via several management layers. In a flat organization you don’t have these layers, so people can work side-by-side and communication should flow easier. But, in reality, the difference between a flat and hierarchical organization is built upon a myth. The idea is that there is no power structure in a flat organization and therefore the people believe the power is dispersed. This is supposed to empower them and promote productivity and creativity. However, if there is no formal power structure then an informal one will form based on who has been tenured the longest, who is the most experienced or who closed the best deals with customers. Flat organizations even tend to favorize extravert people. An informal structure has actually been proven to be more toxic than a traditional power structure and besides this, people are more motivated by a clear message given by one person than via more people. In a well-managed system you don’t need a leader cause it’s run by itself, like breathing. An organization will never run fully automatically, so leadership is always needed and people will always look for a leader. Ideally, you only want to create flat structures in subsections of the organization. Teams that handle creativity or need empowerment for quick decision making thrive better within flat structures. Other teams like production really do need more of a structure to perform at their best.

How can you ensure you are getting enough feedback from your team? You need to feel safe in order to give feedback and you have to trust the person you give feedback to. Trust is something that is built between two parties, a trustor and a trustee. To create trust, you need trustworthiness, the personality trait that is built on 4 elements: credibility, reliability, intimacy, and self-orientation. Showing the first 3 will increase your trustworthiness, but a high level of self-orientation will decrease it. The more trustworthy you are, the more you will be trusted and the more you will be able to trust. You can’t work on trust as a leader, only on your trustworthiness. If your trustworthiness is high, your team will trust you and their feedback will be accurate and genuine.

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