Petra Beekmans van Zijll

Sr. Director - Global Head of Communications at Nexperia

“I never considered myself a leader. I just focused on working hard.”

“I never considered myself a leader. I just focused on working hard.”

What is your personal story?

I’ve been in communications for most of my career. I studied communications at Fontys University of Applied Sciences and later completed my Masters in Business/Corporate Communications at Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University.

After several years on the agency side, as an Account Manager/Communication Consultant at Philips Design, I moved to the business side. My role was providing key communications advice to senior marketing and VP’s in complex B2B medical domains for Philips Healthcare. And then, all of a sudden, the strategic team that I was in ceased to exist. I saw a recommended job on LinkedIn, which led me to NXP, where I started as Director Marketing Communications for one of the Business Units, but also worked on branding and thought leadership programs as part of the corporate team. Then I joined Nexperia, a spin off from NXP and was privileged to develop and deploy the new brand identity for the new entity. As Senior Director Communications, I’ve been leading all aspects of Nexperia’s strategic global communications since 2017.

Looking back, part of my career journey looks like it happened by accident. But if I look closely, there was always a reason for each move I made.

Share the important challenges or breakthroughs in your career that led to where you are today

Learning and building on your strengths
Looking back, when my kids were little, I never really had a part-time job. I worked 4 days a week, and sometimes felt social pressure, especially from other mothers. In the Netherlands, we still seem to have a lot of history and old-fashioned beliefs about women working that we need to get rid of. I was raised with the belief that if you want to perform and achieve something you have to put in the effort. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

As the youngest child of four, the majority of discussions at the dining table took place over my head. I later realized this enabled me to develop a certain skill at identifying tension or arguments. I could see all the signals of a conflict a mile away. Early in my career, I would step out of a meeting with my colleague and ask ‘Did you see the dynamics in the meeting?’. My colleague had no idea what I was talking about, but I could feel that I was getting different output from a meeting. I learned to take advantage of my skill and even call it out.

Learning from behaviors that hold you back
In our interviews, we love to talk about ‘12 behaviors that hold you back’ – that were researched and published in the book ‘How Women Rise’ from Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith. We asked Petra if she could identify with any of these 12 behaviors that hold women back from moving forward in their careers.

I recognize several of the habits: the perfection trap, putting my job before my career, focusing too much on details and overcompensating. Believing that if I just worked hard enough, I would be recognized. But I have realized, that if you want to move forward in your career, you need to explicitly say what it is you want to achieve.

Another challenge I faced, was that I did not see myself as a leader. I worked with a coach at one point and she said, ‘You are a director, a manager.’ I said, ‘There is no way I want to be like that.’ For some reason I never considered myself a leader. I just focused on working hard. In my view, being a leader meant you had to be mean. Or, you had to get angry to get your way. That was actually suggested during one of my performance reviews. That just didn’t work for me. My coach showed me how to rely on my own leadership skills.

Leading by example
The women in my team work crazy hard. Sometimes it’s not even what I have asked them to do, but I see it happen. I don’t consider myself a leader who stands on the sidelines. I will run alongside my team as part of the team, leading by example.

When you find yourself in a difficult situation, what is your go to skill?

Take a step back to get perspective. Don’t get carried away in the emotion. Understand what needs to happen and manage expectations as you act.

When things get tough, I visualize myself in my abaya
I have developed my own way of empowering myself for a challenging day. I will for example carefully pick out the outfit I’m going to wear that makes me feel good and empowered. And I will visualize the role I am going to play in a certain situation. Then I visualize the situation as a big yellow coat that I put on in my mind before I go out the door to give me a boost of confidence. Also something my coach taught me, and it works.

But I once had the completely opposite experience. I had to travel to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia on business for Philips Healthcare. Even though I had read beforehand that women are not usually recognized in a professional role there, my colleagues convinced me to go anyway. That meant buying an abaya, a loose-fitting black dress designed to hide the body’s curves, and wearing a scarf over my hair. That put me way out of my comfort zone.

We met a delegation at a hospital. They shook hands with all of my male colleagues, but skipped me as if I was not even present. During the presentation, it came my turn to present my recommendations. I had to stand in front of a room of doctors and administrators, wearing my shapeless black outfit. I thought ‘The only thing I have is my story, so I’m just going to focus on telling my story as well as I can’. I told the audience why I believed it was important for their hospital to think about how they wanted to be perceived in their community, and how they could achieve that. And the mood changed. I made a connection with the people in the room. They came to me afterwards and talked to me. The only thing I had were my key strengths and my story. That’s when I learned, you can strip away everything around you, but you always bring yourself into the room.

So when it gets tough, I visualize myself in my abaya. It doesn’t get any tougher than that.

What advice would you give to other professional women who want to shine in their career?

Be authentic. Don’t try to compare yourself or compete with other women. Do not copy male behavior by becoming louder or more aggressive in leadership. Whatever comes out of your mouth won’t work because it’s not authentic. It will take more energy than it gives you.

Be aware that as a woman you bring diversity to teams, and the best teams flourish because of diversity. If you only have goal keepers on a soccer team you are not scoring. You need a good variety to make it work.

It’s ok to be vulnerable, I think many women fear that they are too emotional. But the truth is, most male leaders who can be loud and aggressive, can be vulnerable as well. If you talk to them about really basic stuff, you will make a connection. Don’t try to compete on their level. Just be yourself.

Take good care of yourself. Running faster won’t necessarily result in better performance. Get enough sleep, eat right and take care of yourself. Exercise or get your nails done, whatever makes you feel good. Take time for yourself. And a really small tip, if you have an important presentation, be on time. Don’t rush. The trick is making sure all of these elements fit for you. If you aren’t in balance or have low energy, you can’t perform well.

What was helpful to me was a technique I learned to help realize what my good points are. Every morning, I would put the things I wanted to pay attention to in the top right corner of my planner. Then I would internalize that knowledge throughout the day.

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