Bart Hoitink started his career as a civil engineer graduating from Delft Technical University. Making his way through the ranks, he managed bigger and bigger (Water related) projects. He discovered that project management is not a job you do on the side but a real profession. Fascinated by his new discovery, he switched careers and became a trainer and coach in the field of project management. Currently Bart is the CEO of NIMO Project Management Institute and Co-Founder of the Project Leadership Institute
Bart, what are your first memories of leadership and how did you develop as a leader?
When I reflect on your question, I go back to my Scouting childhood – a true family tradition. I was about six years old when I joined and I soon found out which forms of leadership I enjoyed and which I didn’t like. This has really shaped my views of leadership. At that stage I mainly kept my knowledge and experiences to myself. Slowly but surely, I got more into situations where I took the lead and started to put my views into practice. I found that the commanding style doesn't appeal to me at all. I don’t like to rely on authority. I prefer to talk to others about a common goal.
My next memory is when I switched from boy scouts to the sea scouts, where I had to start at the bottom once again. Hazing was a part of that process and it made me clearly see the differences between good and not so good leaders. The good ones gave me confidence, helped me through it and made me grow. Less effective leaders just enjoyed the power trip. Two core values soon surfaced for me: having fun as a team and at the same time achieving ambitious goals.
What events shaped you later in your career?
During my studies I quickly ended up in all kinds of student board positions, such as at KIVI (Royal Dutch Engineering Society). At one point I was approached to become the chairman. I was surprised and honoured. I actually distrusted the request – why me? The position was especially challenging, as I needed to manage and motivate volunteers without having authority over them.
The way I approached it was to treat people as equals, and maybe a little too much. I quickly came across my first pitfall in leadership: taking over and doing too much myself. My strategy was always to lead people by example. It took a lot of examples and consumed a lot of energy!
Mirroring was another important element in my leadership development. During my graduate internship in Indonesia, I looked very closely at the lead civil engineer. Only in his late 20s, how was he able to lead such a large-scale project? Wow! What really inspired me about his approach was that he actually did very little. He made people do things instead of doing it himself. He didn't even instruct people, but he made it happen. It was almost a kind of magic – staying calm, delegating work, giving feedback and at the same time encouraging people to develop personally and professionally.
Do you have that same natural authority?
Yes, and at the same time there is some hesitation J. One of the values from my upbringing is modesty, but my vision and ambitions are not modest at all. This is sometimes a difficult combination for me personally.
I like to think big and will often take a look at the map of the world. Yes, I do have high ambitions, and I want to achieve them one way or another. I tend to play a game with myself of creating a goal and challenging myself to achieve it. I invite others to join in and if they do, then they are very welcome. If not, our ways will part.
Who is your role model in leadership?
My role model was an Operations Director who worked for one of my clients. He knew everyone on site, everyone's background and their specific characteristics. He was hard - or rather clear - in his judgments. But he was an expert in his field and was a master at deploying people. For me, some leaders are negative role models. They are too soft and don’t make decisions. They encourage too long discussions and too much consensus. That doesn't appeal to me, as we risk losing focus.
My motto is to be ‘hard on the content and soft on the people’. In a painful round of redundancies at a previous employer, I saw the positive effects of this motto. It also touches upon my own philosophy of life: If you're good to people, people will be good to you. Try to empower people. It leads to a better world.
How is your view on life reflected in your leadership style?
I strongly believe that things happen for a reason. I am sensitive to that magic in life. Sometimes I don't even know why, but I just know. I now use my intuition more and more consciously. I allow myself to be influenced and guided in the things that I do. In fact, I think about my leadership style on a daily basis. How do I do things? How do I behave? How could it be better? Improving is a big motivator for me. I look at what my true motives are and how I can improve.
In this process noticing my feelings is essential for me. I try to really tune into situations and have experienced that I am relatively good at that. My personal challenge is to express my emotions and to use them in project situations. I need to be more clear and decisive based on my intuition.
What is specific about leadership in projects for you?
One of my mottos is every new step and every new phase is the beginning of the rest of your life. That is what makes leadership so unique, especially in projects. Every new phase is an opportunity to initiate and implement improvements. Projects have much less continuity than business as usual activities. There is always a new client, a new team and new stakeholders. All these elements make it possible to start in a new and better way.
Bart, getting better and better is a big driver for you. What is so important about that?
What a strange question! Well, just because you have to! I cannot imagine that I would ever stop improving. That’s just not in my DNA. With everything you do, you just have to keep getting better. It also works the other way around. If you don’t want to put in the effort of constant improvement, then it is probably not valuable to you.
What about gratitude and enjoying your success?
I can enjoy things - briefly - and then start improving again. Maybe I should learn to enjoy more. I recently had an important presentation with a large client, which was very successful. For a brief moment I enjoyed the feeling, but soon after I switched to the next gear and started thinking about how to improve it the next time.
What are some tips for project managers at the start of their careers?
First and foremost, forget the word "career". For me it's all about doing beautiful and exciting things and getting better at it. Always try to do the things that are at the edge of your comfort zone. Begin with the activities that you find difficult and enjoy the process of growing and developing with all the up and downs. Try to see how you interact with other people. Self-reflection is an important part of development and make sure you share your reflections with people you trust.
AND WHAT ARE some of YOUR CHALLENGES?
I myself should be clearer about the direction we’re going in and what I expect from people. My brain produces a stream of ideas and keeping focus is not my strongest point. Introducing a bit more structure on my part would not hurt. In addition, I should get better at expressing what I feel and what I expect from people. My way is sometimes to present assignments as ideas and then end up surprised that people don’t do what I expect.
If we have this conversation again in five years what will have changed?
Hopefully I will have distanced myself more from the content part with more involvement from others. Basically, it’s about doing less myself and delegating more. But delegation is not the right word. It’s about co-creation and involving others more. Developing things together works well and creates commitment. Then you have made a contribution – not just put a stone down but contributed to a large part of the structure. In fact, this ties in with the vision of the six-year-old Boy Scout: Let’s build together!
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