"Improve the world, start with yourself”
"Improve the world, start with yourself”
What is your personal story?
I grew up as the oldest of three sisters in a traditional Dutch family. My parents were part of the post-war generation: my father went to technical school and later night school to become head of an electrotechnical department at a textile company. My mom was a homemaker. Both of them did not have the opportunity to study and that is why they told us girls, ‘We want you to have all the opportunities to develop your talents, so you can determine your own destiny.’ They encouraged us to study and to keep on learning.
When I was young, I longed to explore other countries and cultures and wanted to be a stewardess. Later, when I had to choose a direction in high school, my father advised me to pick subjects that would give me choices. So I chose both languages and science subjects. After finishing high school, I went to the University of Twente to study chemical engineering and after that I did a PhD in applied organic chemistry. It combined two things I loved: learning about science and applying it to solve real-world problems.
That became the theme of my professional life. After my PhD, I spent the next 30 years working in material innovation. I started as a technical specialist and developed into a project lead at Shell Global Solutions. In 2000, I went to DSM and moved up into various management positions, including RT&D manager, manager global application development and department manager within the DSM Material Science Center (90+ people).
Throughout my professional life, I’ve been on a continuous journey of learning and growing – always trying to get to know myself better, and learn from my choices and experiences. My corporate career came to an end in 2022 due to the divestment of the materials business at DSM. Now I’m doing what I love doing most: using my experience and wisdom to help others to find their talents, build their careers and develop their leadership skills. I have recently started my own coaching business: WiNcoaching.
Share the important challenges or breakthroughs in your career that led to where you are today
Seek advice when you have doubts
In my first year at the University of Twente, I was struggling: the subjects we studied were very abstract and I missed the applied approach. I was the only woman in my group, and I asked the men if they experienced the same. They all said ‘no’ and acted very confident. At a certain point, I started thinking it was just me and went to talk to the Dean, ‘I think I’ve made the wrong choice.’ He was very encouraging and said, ‘Just get through this first year, you are doing fine and you will see it will all change after that.’ I kept going and was one of the few who passed all the exams. And indeed, I enjoyed the next years so much more. de decaan gaan praten: ‘Ik denk dat ik de verkeerde keuze heb gemaakt.’ Hij was heel bemoedigend en zei: ‘Ga dit eerste jaar maar door, je doet prima en je zult zien dat het daarna allemaal verandert.’ Ik ging door en slaagde als een van de weinigen voor alle examens. En inderdaad, ik heb zoveel meer genoten van de volgende jaren.
I came from a mixed environment of men and women and went to a male-dominated one. I had to learn their language and behaviors, so I didn’t realize the men were just acting differently to cover up their insecurity. That taught me how important it was to reflect on what I was experiencing, to try and understand others, and to seek advice from more experienced people who understand the bigger picture.
Check your assumptions
At the end of my PhD, I started applying for jobs. I wasn’t going to apply at Shell because I assumed it was a very traditional, hierarchical workplace. My professor encouraged me to at least go and have a talk. I did interview for a job there and actually found out it was a really cool place to work with a lot of freedom. I accepted their offer and worked there for 5 ½ years. It was a great working culture and I had many opportunities to grow myself professionally.
From this I learned how important it is to check your assumptions. You never know what something is really like until you go and find out.
Go out of your comfort zone
Before starting my job at Shell, I decided to do a postdoc on Vancouver Island, Canada. I really wanted to live and work in another culture. Working abroad was a challenging but fulfilling experience. It did cost me a lot of energy to find my way in a new culture and make new friends but it was all worth it in the end. I made some lifelong friends, learned to look at my home country in a different way, and fell in love with the nature and culture of Vancouver Island. It also gave me the confidence that no matter what changes happen in life, I will find my way.
At DSM I had another experience going out of my comfort zone when my manager asked me to apply for a management position. I said something I’ve come to recognize as being typically female, ‘I’m not ready. I don’t tick all the boxes.’ My manager said, ‘I’ve already had three men ask for this position, but I really want you.’ I had to challenge myself. ‘Am I selling myself short? Am I just being scared?’ I decided to take the job, and ended up loving it. That experience taught me to be more confident about myself.
Both of these experiences taught me it’s important to try something different and go out of your comfort zone. You discover so much you didn’t know about yourself and that makes you grow.
Follow your heart
After working at Shell for 5 ½ years and being perfectly happy there, Shell decided to divest its materials businesses. I was very disappointed as I had just bought a house and was anticipating a long career at Shell. This change really forced me to set my priorities. I decided to leave Shell as I wanted to continue working in materials innovation. It was important for me to find a position where I would have a more long-term perspective, and could keep developing myself personally and professionally. DSM offered me that possibility, but it meant I had to move from the Amsterdam region to Limburg. Privately that was not straightforward; we had to make some unconventional choices to make it all work out. Because I had clarified what was important to me, I had no doubt that this was the way to go.
I learned to follow my heart. Sometimes you have to make brave, unorthodox choices to be happy. A lot of people can’t or won’t do that.
Understand your strengths
One of my most challenging periods was when I worked for a manager who wanted me to be pretty much a copy of him. In every performance review he said, ‘You are really good with people, but I would like you to be more strategic.’ I asked him to let me use my talents to develop people. I knew that was my strength, and it seemed obvious to me that he could focus on being strategic, while I could focus on developing people. But he kept trying to make me fit his mold. In the end I decided to move on because I felt I was being put in a corner and wanted to get out.
I left that position and worked with a female manager who gave me full freedom to develop myself. That was such a revelation. It was my most satisfying period, when I really bloomed and flourished professionally. My manager was visionary. I was good at translating the strategy and implementing that in the organization. We appreciated each other and used our different talents effectively. We worked exceptionally well together and accomplished a lot.
Define your Golden Triangle
I believe you have to have a direction or red thread for your life. You don’t have to have a specific job in mind. Instead, you can define elements you are looking for in a job. That’s what I did and I call it my Golden Triangle. For me it is:
- Working with people from different cultures in multinational, global teams.
- Working in applied innovation: translating what a customer wants into a meaningful product.
- Connecting people and helping talented professionals develop themselves.
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 Wilma if she could identify with any of these 12 behaviors that hold women back from moving forward in their careers.
Expecting others to spontaneously notice and reward your contributions
I always thought, if I do my best, people will notice that. But it doesn’t work that way. You have to do stakeholder management and show them what you and your team have done. I had a director who said, ‘Why don’t you come to me more often?’ I told him I didn’t want to bother him as he was very busy. His response was, ‘Let me decide if I have time for you. Every time you come to me with a proposal, you have more buy in from me. I have thought along with you, so I already feel as if it’s partly my idea. If you come in more regularly, you stay top of mind for me. Then if there is an opportunity, it’s more likely I’ll think of you first.’ This was so insightful and valuable, something I had never realized as a scientist.
Failing to enlist allies from day one
In the struggle with my manager, I thought I had to be a big girl and handle the situation myself. I should have talked to my peers much sooner and formed allies. In the end, I did reach out to the rest of the management team and learned that they had very similar issues. This was a relief to learn and it also helped us to tackle the situation together.
At first, you can keep yourself endlessly busy trying to perfect presentations and other tasks. But as you gain more experience, you realize that often 80% is good enough. Once you build experience, trust yourself more, and dare to let go, your confidence will shine through.
Disease to please
It costs you a lot of time and you simply can’t please everyone all the time. Do what you feel is the right thing to do and if others don’t like it, accept it and move on.
When you find yourself in a difficult situation, what is your go to skill?
If I have a difficult situation, I take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Why are we doing what we’re doing? I ask for advice and support from my inner circle and my colleagues. I’m an independent thinker, but like everyone I also have blind spots. It helps me to reflect with people I trust and value.
Do you think personal branding is important for professional women?
If you take yourself seriously, you have to take the time to discover what you are all about, your talents, your drivers, what gives you energy, what drains your energy. Get that clear for yourself. Many women don’t make that a priority or take the time to do that, which is a real pity.
Stand up for yourself. Many women are too modest about their abilities and accomplishments for too long. If you know what you need and want, define a direction and take action. Check for yourself, why do you work? For me, it is the social aspect, the satisfaction I feel when I’ve achieved something, like helping people to develop themselves and become more successful.
What advice would you give to other professional women who want to shine in their career?
Make sure you know who you are and what you stand for. If you know that, you will make the best choices for yourself. Keep on learning, there is so much to discover. Find a buddy, ally, mentor or role model. Share, support, and find inspiration. Dare to step out of your comfort zone and try something different, you will learn so much. And last but not least, check your assumptions and limiting beliefs, we all have those and so often they are what’s holding us back.
All these years, I’ve tried to look at myself, learn from my choices, and learn from what I’ve done. As a person and a professional, I believe you are on a continuous journey of learning and growing. That’s how you become the best you can at what you do.
Want to know more about Wilma?
Go to https://www.linkedin.com/in/wilma-nijenhuis-06a9697/
Or get in touch via: Wilma@wincoaching.nl