“The Tomorrowland of academic learning programmes”, is how Frederik Delaplace (CEO of Mediafin) described Take the Lead. And judging by the participants’ reactions – “Greatly inspiring”, “I’m looking forward to it”, “I am ready to get started right away” – the programme began in suitable manner. What was presented to the public? A spectacular digital success story from Belgian soil, a leadership analysis of Facebook's recent change of direction, a lively panel debate and above all: plenty of encouragement to grab the digital bull by the horns.
This is no bog-standard management course
This third edition of Take the Lead is an initiative of Vlerick and De Tijd/L’Echo, powered by Barco and Microsoft. It is thanks to these two partners’ contributions that the cost price can be kept low and that no fewer than 450 professionals can be admitted to the programme.
The principle part of the programme consists of a 12-week interactive online learning journey that is split into various modules. What is covered? Leadership in the digital age, exploring new technologies such as IoT, AI, blockchain, etc. And also: what the new technologies mean in reality for your business. Beside the online learning modules, participants take part in a number of live sessions, such as this kick-off event, and they are given plenty of opportunity to exchange networks and ideas with like-minded professionals.
Frederik Delaplace: “Not a single soul in today’s society can say that he or she is doing business as usual - not even the pope”
Frederik Delaplace, CEO of Mediafin, De Tijd and L’Echo, had the honour of welcoming the participants. Besides a barrage of one-liners, the public could enjoy his story about a recent meeting of entrepreneurs from Belgian scale-ups. He asked the entrepreneurs what the greatest stumbling block is in Belgium for businesses to grow. Taxes? Mobility? Wages? No, they answered unanimously, the greatest obstacle is our modesty. Us Belgians are too soft, lack guts and are reluctant to give ourselves a pat on the back. After which, Frederik Delaplace turned words into actions and asked everyone to stand up straight and unashamedly give themselves a round of applause. The ice was broken and Take The lead could really get going.
Professor Marion Debruyne: “Strategy execution in the digital age is like driving through the fog”
Newspaper headlines from the previous week: Bpost is going to speed up the introduction of its efficiency programme and the new distribution model. BNP Paribas is closing a quarter of its bank branches. And Instagram announced that from now on, users will also be able to make purchases from within the app.
These are all signals, said Marion Debruyne, Dean of Vlerick Business School, that we are living in a 3D world. A world dominated by three key words: digital, data and disruption. That latter D, disruption, is nothing new. Joseph Schumpeter said it back in the 1940s: creative destruction is the essential mechanism of every economy. But now, that creative destruction causes the other two Ds, data and digital. Nowadays, they offer you an opportunity to replace business processes in a short time, to create added value in the consumer journey and to transform business models from one day to the next. These are therefore the three priorities for leaders in the digital era.
Marion Debruyne then analysed a Facebook post by Mark Zuckerberg in which he revealed Facebook’s new vision. She drew four important leadership lessons from a number of notable quotes by Zuckerberg:
- Leaders in the 3D world must resolutely invest in learning, without always knowing precisely where it will lead.
- All business models are doomed to failure. Even young and digital companies like Facebook and Netflix are forced to regularly change their business models.
- In a transparent and connected world, you cannot map out your company’s course in complete isolation. You must take an open approach and consider the three Ps: profit, people and planet.
- Great artists steal, said Picasso. And that is what Instagram has done with its new payment feature, which is a copy of the Chinese WeChat. But don’t those who copy, run the risk of lagging behind? Not necessarily, because the pioneer is not always the one who wins in the end. Often, the quick second draws the long straw.
Zhong Xu: “Be controversial and disrupt the market”
Zhong Xu is an entrepreneur through and through. He gets a kick from starting something new from nothing. He started his first business at the tender age of seventeen. It was an agency making websites for Asian restaurants. After studying computer science and software engineering at Ghent University (UGent) he gained experience at Siruna and EVS Broadcast Equipment. After just two years of work experience, he decided to start his own business together with his partner in crime Jan Hollez, his former lecturer at UGent. Together they developed the world’s first cloud-based checkout application for the iPad. It was a global success that Zhong and Jan sold to the Canadian company Lightspeed in 2014.
Zhong stayed at Lightspeed and made it to the top of the hospitality division. It didn’t last long however, because the impatient Zhong craved a new project. In 2018 he bid his job farewell and together with Jan Hollez he developed a new application for the restaurant sector: Deliverect, a system that integrates orders from various takeaway platforms in one system.
What should you think of Zhong Xu? A man who probably doesn’t suffer from the typical Belgian ‘ailments’, such as humility, lack of guts or modest ambitions. On the contrary, he is probably planning on not only taking over the world, but the entire universe too. That this is not wishful thinking, but based on a persistent drive, clarifies the origins of Posios.
Everyone knows the heroic tales of famous entrepreneurs who started their business in their garage. Well, in Zhong’s case, that garage was his car. For their job at EVS, he and Jan Hollez had to commute about three hours each day. That would be a source of frustration for many, but they saw it as an incredible opportunity. Because, they argue, you can do a lot in three hours. Such as: developing and completely working out a new business idea together. It was no sooner said that done. While one sat behind the wheel, the other was coding. Nine months and many traffic jams and weekends later, their application, Posios, was finished and ready for market.
We subsequently asked Zhong what his success formula is for these digital times? “There is no secret formula,” he said. “You simply have to do it. Get started. You can always think of a reason not to. When we launched our iPad solution, I had just had a child and was moving house; both very good reasons not to start. And yet we did. “But,” he added, “you have to focus and concentrate on that one thing for a specific time. Then there are many possibilities.”
Panel debate: “Small is beautiful, but big too.”
Zhong’s’ inspiring story was followed by a panel debate led by Isabel Albers, editorial director of Mediafin. Taking part were Zhong Xu, Jana De Cock (Healthcare Product Manager at Barco), Didier Ongena (General Manager of Microsoft Belgium and Luxemburg) and Marion Debruyne (Dean of Vlerick Business School).
And the conclusion of the debate? Didier Ongena: “Small is beautiful, but big too.” Or as Marion Debruyne formulated it afterwards: “We always think the world should be split up into big businesses and entrepreneurs. But in fact, that duality no longer exists. There is a place for both big businesses as well as entrepreneurs and they work together within one and the same ecosystem. You can see that clearly at Microsoft. They build the platforms that offer other businesses a chance to, as Zhong put it, build an international business from scratch in no time.”
But this interaction works both ways. Isabel Albers: “You see big businesses revert back to the formulas of the disruptor in order to change. Just look at Barco. The company recognised that it could not transform by itself and therefore started up an incubator separate from the exiting organisation. And why did they do that? To increase return rates – in particular, to speed up bringing new business to market. Take The Lead also addresses that: learning how you can disrupt your own organisation.”
Stijn Viaene: “Leadership is all about connecting the dots – connecting ideas and people”
The last word was for Stijn Viaene, Professor of Digital Transformation and Programme Director of Take the Lead. He explained the core assumptions that underlie this learning journey.
- Everyone is capable of being a leader; we are fundamentally convinced of that.
- But what does leadership mean in the digital era? Answer: a tool to accelerate digital transformation.
- And what is the ultimate challenge for leaders in digital times? Introducing organisational agility in your organisation. Organisational agility is your organisation’s ability to identify and subsequently exploit opportunities.
To conclude the evening, Professor Viaene presented a leadership model with four different leadership roles: vigilant leadership, voyager leadership, visionary leadership and vested leadership. More about that in module 1 of Take the Lead.
“I’m looking forward to it”
After an intense hour filled with speeches, it was time to eat and network. “I found it really inspiring,” was how Julie Daniel summarised the evening, she is an American working for Barco as Product Owner Connected Services. “What intrigued me the most was the idea that your goal is a combination of people, planet and profit.” And what is her aim with this learning journey? “To learn concrete things that I can use to help Barco through the digital transformation.”
Nico De Kinder, Operations Manager at De Brandt Dairy Int., found Zhong’s story particularly valuable. What did he learn from it? “That if you have an idea, you should do something with it. It may take a lot of trial and error, but sometimes you just have to take the plunge.”
Hilde Ampe, Senior Advisor at Van Essensys, liked the mixture of short quick and strong contextual sessions in particular. What jumped out for her? The story about modesty by the first speaker (Frederik Delaplace). “He is right after all: us Belgians must come out of our shells a bit more, show some guts. Do you know what? I’m looking forward to it.”
Tessa Lagey, former HR director and currently between jobs, gained many ideas. “This gives me energy and I am ready to get started right away tomorrow.” Above all, she wants to know what the technological possibilities are and the impact on our society. And also: how do you get people enthusiastic about it so they get on board? “You know, I am thinking of holding a mini Take the Lead in our own organisation, because everything hinges on getting people’s support.”
More info on: www.takethelead.tijd.be