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Read the interview with David Knibbe in MT/Sprout


In the 'Route to the Top' series, we ask senior executives about their route from primary school to the boardroom. David Knibbe, CEO at NN Group: The boardroom was never my ultimate goal. I had a lot of doubts.

This interview with David was originally published in Dutch on MT/Sprout.

In the 'Route to the Top' series, we ask senior executives about their route from primary school to the boardroom. We search for the lessons, mistakes and advice that shaped them. David Knibbe, CEO at NN Group (50): ‘No one still believes it, but the boardroom was never my ultimate goal. I had a lot of doubts.’

Little expat in Africa – teach children to form an opinion of the world

‘My parents, who were both engineers, were involved in development work. They moved around the Middle East, followed by North Africa. My sister and I were born in Tunisia, where my father had set up a school for agricultural irrigation. In contrast to the regular newspaper reports, I have a really positive image of North Africa, which is a warm and hospitable region. You can hardly take five steps down the road without being offered a cup of tea. When I was five, we swapped Morocco for Haren, in Groningen, but I think my parents did that for us. They were always so passionate about their work. And social awareness, yes, that’s something we grew up with. Our dinner table was one large discussion forum. No subject was off limits. We discussed abortion and immigration. My parents also excelled at challenging us. “Do you think that foreigners should be able to come to the Netherlands? Yes, lots of them, too many? And how should the system work?” Sometimes it also drove me mad, having G.B.J. Hiltermann on the radio every Sunday afternoon. We had to listen in dead silence and mainly it was deadly boring. It’s only now that I’m a father to two teenage daughters that I realise how difficult it is to pass on that awareness to children. Particularly in the times we live in, when we’re surrounded by polarising one-liners, it’s incredibly important to me that they learn to think about their position in the world and are able to form their own opinions.’

Brammetje Baas – With ADHD, your ‘weaknesses’ can become your talents

‘A few years ago, I watched a film called Brammetje Baas with my daughters. It was about a boy with ADHD. At one point in the story, Brammetje was sent on errands, lugging around all kinds of things from classroom to classroom. I was shocked. In a flash, I saw myself back at school. Delivering notes, beating the chalk from blackboard erasers. I’d never thought about why I was being asked to do these jobs – until I watched that scene. Shortly afterwards, I rang my mother, who half-smilingly admitted: ‘Yes, David, for boys like you, school was a nightmare.’ Boys like you. It almost made me emotional. In those days, in the 1970s, parents weren’t as involved. And nor were mine. They let me play lots of sports and also made sure that I had plenty of exercise at home and at school to get rid of my energy. And school, well, if you’re able to engage socially, the rest will come automatically, they thought. They always had a lot of confidence in me, and that was anything but self-evident if you looked at my worrying marks. I found it hard to concentrate, and even harder to find the enthusiasm to go to school. When I was in the fifth and sixth years of secondary school, my sister was still helping me with planning. Books, notes – I lost everything in my chaotic and messy teenage bedroom. “Dad”, my daughters joke even now, “it really is about time that you got a diagnosis.” Looking back, it also made me who I am. Lots of people find it tiring to switch from subject to subject quickly, but I don’t. I’m in my element if I can spend an hour talking about marketing, the next hour about investing and then about people again.’

Student of Monetary Economics, Erasmus University Rotterdam – Working hard also means taking hard time out

‘At primary school, I found it easy to make friends, but I found secondary school complicated. All those little groups that you belonged to if you wore the right clothes and did the right sports – not me, because I played football rather than hockey. I wasn’t too bothered about all that social pressure. After spending a year at a high school in America, I headed to university where I made friends who are still my best friends today. Our close bond proved itself during my internship at Unilever in Prague. It was near enough for them to visit, as it turned out. I worked from 08:30 CET to 18:00 CET and, after work, regularly took the metro into the city, where we sometimes spent four or five hours. Just a couple of hours later, I stepped over my sleeping friends on my way back to Unilever. As a young guy, I thought I could take on the world. I never stopped to think that I had physical limits. Back in the Netherlands, those limits had been reached and it shook me to my core. I had to write my thesis, but I was exhausted and restless. I produced very little. Of course it was due to a lack of sleep, but that wasn’t the only reason. It was also because my “on” switch was on all the time. Everyone needs time for themselves. And since my time in Prague, I’ve tried to recognise those limits and take my foot off the gas on time. That could be by taking a holiday, but also doing something very simple such as listening to music – without the television, without my phone. I also impress upon colleagues: have a break, we’ll be fine. Working really hard is fine if you need to for a short while, but you need to take hard time out, too.’

Head of Investment Central Netherlands, ING – If you want to see permanent change, invest more in the process than in your plan

‘In 1997, I started as a management trainee at ING. Even in those early days, I was encouraged to lead. It wasn’t something I was very interested in. I enjoyed investment and I also had some poorly developed ideas of management. I thought you had to spend all day chasing people or filling in holiday leave forms. My parents were also critical about that management step and they thought I was too young. Although my father (David’s father died in 2014 - editor) did say: “If you don’t enjoy it, you can tick it off your list and then you’ll know. It’s never a wasted effort.” You know the expression about whether you can explain a moral dilemma to a newspaper like De Telegraaf? When it comes to difficult decisions, even about redundancies, I think to myself: can I explain it to my parents? Yes, was the answer in this case, and as the Head of Investments, I found a compromise between management and my passion for investment.

The dealing room, ringing phones, share advisers and traders behind screens. Driven by competition – who’s got the largest clients? Who’s generating the most revenue? – team spirit was often hard to find. It had to change. I talked to people, made a plan to work together in smaller teams, discussed it. Everyone was happy and we started work. It was only later that I realised how ineffective this kind of approach was. And how naive I was to think that this was the way to make permanent changes. One or two months before I started my next job, the old macho behaviour of the dealing room had crept back in again. I was disappointed in myself, which is a horrible feeling. In the years that followed, I understood more and more clearly where the bottleneck was: it’s not so much about your plan but about the process. You need to make sure that you create broad support and ownership. Yes, it takes time and effort, but when you launch your plan, you already have so many supporters, if they encounter a setback they will say: this is my plan and I’m fully behind it.’

Managing Director Piraeus joint venture, ING in Greece – Don’t solve all your employee’s problems

‘2002, Greece. My eldest daughter was born there and we enjoyed 15 years of Ouzo, our street dog, who we brought back to the Netherlands. But however much I enjoyed the personal side, the business side was arduous. There is a huge cultural difference between the Dutch and the Greeks, or as they say themselves: “Our heads are in the west and our hearts are in the east.” I soon noticed that the Greeks go to their boss with all kinds of problems. It’s intended – as I gradually discovered – as a way of getting to know one another. And what do you do with those problems as a young and ambitious manager? You solve them. But they could come up with problems faster than I could solve them and the queue seemed never-ending. Action mode, which is my natural mode, is something I had to unlearn in Greece. I’m better now at weighing things up and expressing myself honestly. “Yes, I hear you, but I’m not doing anything about it”. In hindsight, I found my appointment there pretty high risk, partly because of the cultural difference. I had to set up a joint venture, which was basically a start-up, and as a corporate man, I had no experience with that. I didn’t know Greece, and had just as little experience of the world of bank assurance. I got through my time in Greece, but I was teetering on the edge. The joint venture was ultimately successful by the way, later wholly owned by NN and still a significant part of NN Greece.’

CEO Insurance International, ING – The higher you climb, the harder you have to work to gain trust

‘We were in the middle of the financial crisis when I was given eleven countries to manage, including Belgium, Spain, the Czech Republic and Greece. It felt as though we were on an island, while around us, one section of the ING map after another was disappearing. Latin America was sold, North America had a separate flotation, the largest part of Asia was put up for sale and the question that was gripping us all was of course: are we next? It was a difficult time, not least because I really had to get used to my role. That initial period was a quest. What was my job exactly? From my time in Greece, I knew only too well how people looked at “the boss over us” and how cleverly those visits were prepared – what was, and above all, what wasn’t shared. Rinnooy Kan, who was on the management board at the time said to me: “The most difficult thing about my job is to find out the real situation.” And so I started to understand that it wasn’t just finding excellent management teams locally, but it was also about trust. In me, that is. The higher you climb, the more reticent people become because they look at you differently. They’re more suspicious. I had to work harder to get the right information, and that called for a wider network, a deeper dive in the country organisations. I’m still happy when people just tell me the truth, even if the truth isn’t nice.’

CEO NN Group – There’s no hard and fast dividing line between profit and social added value

‘No one who still believes it, but the boardroom was never my ultimate goal. After a few years as CEO of NN Netherlands, I started to have serious doubts about whether I wanted to carry on after that. I shared my thoughts with the supervisory board, and they suggested doing the executive breakthrough programme: management training for the second- and third-in-command of large businesses. When I was asked whether I’d like to succeed our Group CEO Lard Friese, it was clear to me that I did in fact want a CEO role, but at NN or elsewhere? I discussed my dilemma with my family during a holiday in America. My daughters enthusiastically said “yes, do it”, but I still had the nagging question of whether it was something I would like to do. I also had other doubts, such as whether I’d also still have a life outside work. But I decided: yes, I’ll finish this last chapter of the NN Book and I’ll stay.

I always had a clear-cut idea of my career. I’d work in business, take on a senior role when I was about 45 and then a public role to make a difference in society, subconsciously fuelled by my parents, no doubt. In my head, there was a hard dividing line between profit and social significance, but during those executive breakthrough sessions, I discovered that it didn’t have to be that way at all. My enthusiasm grew, and how. As CEO, I would be in a unique, influential position to integrate social impact into our business operations. The housing market, pensions, occupational disability, sustainability – all issues for which we can show our added value on a large scale. It motivates me tremendously to prove that a sustainable business model, with specific non-financial targets too, can work at a listed company. And that it doesn’t have to be all about shareholders and dividends.’