Winning with your back to the finish

Winning with your back to the finish

Ester’s VodafoneZiggo eight

What happens when you put the winner of an Olympic medal at the helm in a business environment? She will lead her department to the highest goal achievable. In the women’s eight, coxswain Ester van Eupen (45) won an Olympic podium place twice. Now, she gets the most out of her team as HR Director. Together, they set and steer an ambitious course for VodafoneZiggo.

‘When you’re competing at the top, one thing is inevitable, says Ester. ‘You learn a lot about yourself. As a female cox, keeping the boat straight with a heartrate of 200, giving the crew technical directions in an even voice and encouraging them to give that little bit extra – that is only possible if you focus on your goal and fully rely on your gut feeling. Once you learn that, you can also use it in other situations in life. I now apply it to my leadership and the teamwork in my team.’

Choosing a winning course
Even when she was little, Ester already had big dreams. ‘According to my mother I wanted to become business woman of the year. Or a lawyer. Or a soldier. Professions that require real personal drive. Olympic champion was not on my list. I’d done some serious rowing on second rank level, but had just quit when I was asked for the world championships. I said yes, because I wanted to go for the maximum. I gambled and won. Milestone after milestone followed and we ended up on the Olympic podium twice with the women’s eight. I’ve had the privilege to experience what it is to train really hard with your team and reach the top together. It affects you, as a leader and a team player.’

Teamwork makes the dream work
‘The best way to learn to rely on a team is by winning together without seeing the finish. Because rowing is the only sport in which you turn your back to the finish and don’t see where you’re going. You can only win by forging an excellent team, moving as one. For that to happen, each team member needs to listen to you and trust you completely. It works if you understand where each individual team member comes from. Some will perform better when they hear what the opponent is doing, whereas others become stressed. I adjusted my directions in order to bring out the best in everyone. At the same time I learned to trust my gut feeling. After some time, I knew my team so well that I understood with unerring instinct what everyone needed.’

The corporate sector = elite sport
‘The extremes you sometimes see in elite sport, I haven’t experienced yet in the business sector. But in business too, top-class leadership and a strong team are needed to steer a winning course’, says Ester. ‘I used to work at Defence, as an interim controller among other roles. I had no financial background but did have an excellent team. They needed a people manager. Someone who encourages everyone to bring out the best in himself and supports them in innovations. And thát is something I’m really good at. I understand the meaning of what someone is saying and on which needs it is based. I encourage every team member to focus on his goal and to go off the beaten track if necessary. And most importantly, I rely on my gut feeling. It tells me when I need to push or when it’s better to slacken the reins.’

Ester’s VodafoneZiggo eight
Now, Ester is again leading eight people to the finish, her HR team at VodafoneZiggo. ‘A very mixed team. Because of our differences we have lively discussions. Not always easy, but especially when we are at odds with each other, we arrive at strong and innovative answers. Issues that we look into: what is our long-term organisation model? And how can digitisation help colleagues? Results are, among other things, the self-learning chatbot we developed. The more questions it is fed, the better it can support the customer. And the smart algorithms that help us analyse the use of workplaces. In this way, we are increasing employee satisfaction. The implementation of the agile way of working at HR is also the result of our team. It has led to many colleagues now collaborating in a different way, leading to faster results.’

Leadership gaining momentum
Leading a dream team based on insights from the elite sport. Ester does it. And she believes other can do it too. ‘Which is why last year, I dedicated myself to the leadership programme of VodafoneZiggo. I will now share three tips for leadership at an elite sports level. First of all, determine a shared course, and understand the personal objectives of each team member. Secondly, it’s important that every team member realises he is responsible for the best version of himself. Encourage everyone to show that best version. And finally, always be prepared for things you cannot prepare for. If something doesn’t go according to plan, don’t focus on external factors. In a race, it’s useless to respond to an opponent. What does work is keeping a clear focus on your own tasks.’

Challenges ahead
In the past three years, Ester has made significant steps with her VodafoneZiggo eight. ‘People sometimes ask if the time hasn’t come for something new. Where my dot on the horizon is. But I don’t need an ultimate goal with an accompanying milestone plan; I prefer to rely on my instinct. This is a wonderful position. As soon as I get the idea I can no longer build, the time has come to take another plunge. In which capacity that will be, I don’t care. As long as I am able to build, transform and innovate. I simply enjoy working as a team to change the world. And I realise, to achieve incredible things the finish doesn’t need to be in sight.’