Despite high-powered jobs at Shell, McKinsey and Unilever, Jacqueline Tammenoms Bakker has a surprising take on what a true leader looks like.
The greatest lesson of leadership is that it isn’t about you. When you’re young you put your efforts into working hard, distinguishing yourself, getting yourself noticed. But when you become a leader that’s not important – it’s about relationships and how you can get the best out of others in your shared goal.
I grew up aware of a strong responsibility to others. My parents were diplomats and we lived in lots of different countries – Turkey in the 1960s, Russia at the height of the Cold War – which was a very formative experience. It taught me the value of diversity and respect at a very early age.
School gave me a great work ethic and a taste for leadership. My schoolteachers belonged to the generation of women who had lost their husbands during the war, and devoted their lives to making us strong independent women. If you had the capacity to learn more, do more, they’d push you. I was astonished to be asked to be deputy head of school – I saw myself as a bit of a bookworm, and was really grateful for the opportunity to develop a different part of myself.
You build confidence through experience. When I joined Shell I did well but I often lacked self-belief. With every new job or promotion, I would think: “How dare they – genuinely, how dare they – give this to me when I know nothing?” But it was the best training I could have had. You learn to dive off the high board.
I was very conscious at Shell that being a woman was to be different. I did not experience negative discrimination; rather the reverse, as I felt I was given opportunities because they wanted to promote more women. However, always being the exception to the rule is very tiring. If you’re one woman in a group of 30 men you can’t let your attention slip, because you feel people are watching you – at least in those days.
Great leaders know their staff as complete people. At Shell, expatriate life was quite tough for a single woman. I wanted the opportunity to build a family and therefore live in a country where that might be possible. I shall always be grateful to my boss in Turkey – Mark Moody Stuart – who then asked head office to consider my personal needs in any future appointment.
It’s formative to (nearly) fail along the way. Dealing with setbacks makes you a more rounded leader and person. I very nearly failed at Unilever because I didn’t realise getting the best out of others was my main job. But one day someone said to me: “What makes you a success up to the age of 40 won’t make you successful after that.” That was a turning point and I realised I had to change something about myself – and it was hard. I’m a natural introvert but learned to be more extrovert, to go out of my way to talk to my team and get to know them as people.
Sometimes you just have to grit your teeth and get on with it. Daniel Goleman says in his book Emotional Intelligence that success is not down to brains but persistence. So many people say: “I don’t enjoy my job”, but you can’t expect to all the time.
You have to have clear direction but always be open to better ideas. Your team wants to know where you’re going. But be prepared to listen and welcome good ideas. During discussions I usually have a possible way forward in my back pocket – but if a better one emerges I’ll be absolutely delighted.
Help people be the best they can be. Make sure everyone knows what their job is and how it is contributing to the shared goal. People have told me I’m a tough boss but a fair one who helps them do the very best they can – which I hope is about right.
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Jacqueline Tammenoms Bakker was the Cambridge Executive MBA after-dinner speaker at Emmanuel College for our EMBA 2014 class. Learn more about the Cambridge Executive EMBA