Sometimes, if you’re very lucky, you get the boss you need just at the right moment.
That was the case for me in 2005 when I started working for Theo van der Biessen then head of the New Media Team at ING’s Corporate Communications department. He gave me a long list of things to do and then left me to it. I don’t mean he was a hands-off manager I mean he literally left me to it – he took the next three months off work to have heart surgery. I sent him hand-written notes every couple of weeks to let him know my progress, and somehow I thrived with the lack of attention.
Don’t get me wrong, Theo was no saint, there were many, many, days when he drove me crazy. He’d organise his day in such away that he had no time to go from one meeting to another – and was therefore always late. He wasn’t very organised around various management tasks – making our lives difficult on occasion. So of course he came in for his fair share of complaints.
In 2008 the team was split, with Theo leading the events team – which was the stuff he really loved, and me leading what became the Web Expert Centre – which is the stuff I really love. So Theo wasn’t my boss for all that long but he had a deep impact, I learnt a lot about being good at my job and a lot the human side of being a good manager.
I think the biggest lesson I learnt was from seeing how much Theo cared, genuinely cared, for his team. He trusted us, he supported us – even when he didn’t agree 100% with what we were doing, and when we screwed up he was there to help solve the problem. Remarkably I never once heard him say “I told you so”. He was full of creativity and encouragement, he had masses of ideas – not all of them good, but some of them great, and he was always generous to me, and my team.
After that first heart surgery Theo recovered rather well for a few years, and then started to get sicker, eventually undergoing a series of open-heart surgeries, each one piling risk onto his damaged heart. The last surgery proved too much, and on the Saturday after the operation I heard that he had passed away. Despite knowing how sick he had been I was shocked. Theo had so much life and energy in him it seemed utterly impossible news.
I didn’t know it when I signed up for the job back in 2005, but I was extremely lucky to know and work with Theo.