After meeting up with some of his colleagues from way back, Philips veteran Carel van der Poel shares some of their collective knowledge.
In my 1982 PhD thesis, I included a theorem that said: “Perm(anent) is only temporary.” During my career, I found out again and again how true this statement is. After working in a research job at Philips Natlab, I joined a group of junior employees that was invited in 1996 to make the tricky career switch toward managerial positions within the conglomerate. Our group of thirteen received the “training course for department heads.” Recently, eight of us met up to see how we’d done in life and what we’d learned. Roughly speaking, there was more than a century of Philips management working years present at our table.
Back in 1996, lifetime employment within the company was still the norm. If you try to explain that to a student today, most would back off in horror. However, history did prove that permanence is temporary: about 80 percent of us left the company early on. Perhaps not surprising, considering that the number of Philips employees has been reduced from 335,000 employees worldwide in 1996 (including 70,000 in the Netherlands) to some 74,000 today (about 10,000 in the Netherlands).
Asking around, it became apparent that only a very small fraction of the training course content had stuck. All those well-thought-out lessons on strategy, communication and motivation skills, team building, intercultural management, finance, IP, assessment and career development – all have quickly evaporated from our memories. I’m not sure whether the lessons were simply irrelevant or we were already too overwhelmed at the time to absorb them properly.
Some elements we took to heart, however. An Aikido master taught us that, when stressed, you need to watch your breathing and let the feeling of your weight drop down below your belly. Organizational scientist Matthieu Weggeman’s advice to try not to manage professionals has proven very valuable as well, as has ‘self-help’: informally sharing experiences, mutual advice and fielding questions among the course participants.
Still, even as the lifetime employment expectations had faltered, none of us has ended up in a workhouse for the poor. We embarked on a diversity of careers, centering around managing R&D professionals and their organizations, technical innovations and educational roles. We all went through considerable ups and downs and we spread out over universities, other companies in the Netherlands or elsewhere, spinoffs and consultancy jobs. But everybody present at the reunion felt a sense of pride with the results.
If I would share lessons I learned myself, it would boil down to this:
- Never wait for others to determine your future options and realize that any (new) position is a non-perm.
- If you forget to take care of your health and that of your people, or don’t arrange for a stable home base, you will fail. Yes, one must be able to run a sprint now and then, but sprinting a marathon will end poorly.
- Lead by example. Never hesitate to learn something new. Broaden and enhance your expertise wherever possible. Stupid questions don’t exist, stupid answers and irritating big egos do. Stick to your moral principles. Learn to reculer pour mieux sauter. When encountering a fork in the road, take it.
- From a certain age onward, it’s rewarding, but not easy, to take a step back and focus on helping others forward.
- And when interacting with colleagues and competitors, remember Vera Lynn: “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when.”
I think these lessons today are as valuable as ever before.