“For me, listening and empathy are key”

“For me, listening and empathy are key”

Interview with new Executive Board member Jan-Tjitte Meindersma

06-03-2024 · Interview

He will tag along in May, to really take over in July. Jan-Tjitte Meindersma, born and bred in South Limburg is to become the new vice president of Maastricht University. “We can do the interview in dialect, it’s up to you.” The conversation started off in Dutch, switching appears to be difficult. “Only recently, a professor referred to me as his ‘future boss’, that sounds ridiculous. I am aware of my position, but I am averse to stature and hierarchy.”

Oops, our first words on Jan-Tjitte Meindersma (1972) are not quite correct. “I am not a doctor,” he says on the telephone one Thursday in February. Maastricht University had announced the news about a successor for Nick Bos, who is retiring, the day before.
Wait, not a doctor? But UM’s press release stated: ‘Completed his medical studies in 1997.’ “I stopped after four years and only got my doctoraal diploma.” There are not many medical students who quit sooner, so it is not so weird to think that he was a doctor. Certainly not if one considers a previous interview in Observant, from 1993, when Meindersma was a first-year medical student. At the time, he said that he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his parents and granddad, all of whom were GPs. “I grew up enveloped in that field and I never came across anything that I disliked to such an extent that I would rather do something else.”

His father, from Friesland, came to Limburg in the nineteen-sixties where he met Meindersma’s mother, who was from Limburg. They married and had two sons. The family lived in Camerig, on the outskirts of Vaals. “I was six when my mother became a student of Medicine in Maastricht. She had always wanted to become a doctor. I still see myself as a small boy in the Annadal hospital and the faculty building on the Tongersestraat.”

Quit

Observant’s telephone interview with Meindersma was to be brief, intended to ask him just a couple of questions. However, his answer to the first question (“why did you quit Medicine after four years?”) is so elaborate and honest that we concluded that we needed more time. A week later, the interview continues in his home in the Maastricht neighbourhood of Campagne. “I had doubts in the early stages of my study of Medicine. I didn’t find the content very challenging, it was a matter of learning things off by heart and reproducing them in a different order. I missed, well, how can I say this? I missed a certain arithmetical complexity. The second year followed with patient contact, but that didn’t give me much satisfaction either.”

Coming out

He did receive that satisfaction from another study: Economics. Whenever he had time, he would borrow books from his flatmates who studied at the Faculty of Economics. “I loved it.” But he would complete his study of Medicine, he promised himself that. “What you start, you must finish, is my motto.” For his “intellectual satisfaction”, he started working for Integrand, a foundation that connects students looking for work placements and assignments to companies. At one stage, a recruiter said to me: ‘I think it is high time you talked to someone in the industry.” He was offered a job in Amsterdam.

Parallel to that – and also influencing his choice to leave Maastricht: his coming out as a homosexual. “I had a tragic expectation. If I was to go public with it, I would be denounced, I thought. Nobody would want anything to do with me. There was a good reason for me wanting to go to Amsterdam, far away, I would be safe there. In actual fact, it wasn’t that dramatic at all, but my parents did think that it was a pity that I quit Medicine.”

Giving back

Meindersma was thrown to the lions in an international consultancy company. He didn’t have the required qualifications – “those were the nineteen-nineties, if you had sufficient capacity, you were hired, diploma or not. I was creative, I loved puzzling things out and reasoning logically.” He completed a financial course in Oxford and at the Amsterdam Institute of Finance and subsequently made the transfer to international businesses such as Air France KLM, Alvarez & Marsal (management consulting) and C&A. He also started working independently in the ‘interim business’. “The transfer from Medicine to the industry brought me a lot, but I have always had the feeling: ‘I should give something back to the medical sector or to the region where I came from.’ But what is the right form? I have always wrestled with that.”

Small suitcase

In summer of last year, he handed in his notice for his job as Chief Transformation Officer for the clothing firm C&A - where, for example, he was responsible for a cost reduction project and the “opening and closing of new countries” – even before he had heard about the present UM vice president Nick Bos leaving. “I had a deal that I would actually leave C&A in February 2024. I wanted to be at home for a while, doing odd jobs in the house, gardening, being together with Roy, my partner. After that, I would look for a job working from Monday to Thursday, ‘living from a suitcase’, as I had always done.” C&A’s headquarters is in Düsseldorf. He lived in Maastricht and commuted there and back.

It was a friend, who drew his attention to the profile for vice president that the university had distributed. “I telephoned the head-hunter to ask whether I had even a chance, I feared that my CV (with ‘only’ a career in business) would scare them off.” It didn’t. “I have gathered a lot of people around me, from UM, but also from other universities. I wanted to know what that world of higher education looked like, ‘what can I expect?’ Most of them said: ‘If you have a desire for complexity, you are in the right place.’”

UM’s 2022 Annual Report is on the table. “I find the number of projects remarkable, there are more than a hundred! At C&A, I felt forty was a lot, and they have 25 thousand employees. When I looked back on the 2021 Annual Report, I saw the same projects mentioned, so they seem ongoing.” A couple of examples: professionalising leadership, sustainable employability, disability support, Kaleido, Brightlands campuses, collaboration with Radboud University Nijmegen, global citizenship, Recognition and Rewards. “What I wonder in all that: ‘Is that number feasible? Also, is there a deadline for all those projects?’ I don’t look upon it negatively, certainly not, I am just curious.” 

Transformation

Does UM have anything to fear, now that there is a manager with a career in ‘transformation issues’ at the helm? The word transformation is consistent with a possible merger between UM and the hospital and whatever else is tied up in that, but does UM’s operational management need to be ‘transformed’ (again)? For years, people have been making strides with the introduction of the Programma Integrale Bedrijfsvoering. SAP was once chosen as a replacement for various systems used by HR, Sales and Finance, but the transfer took and is still taking quite a lot of effort. It was too huge a project to deal with in one go, so it was divided into three parts. And it is not completed.

“I am not just all about making changes, but also for the improvement of regular processes. In the operational management you always have to deal with advancing technologies and management techniques. For example IT. I compare it with an iPhone. I would have preferred to have kept my iPhone 4, but new models keep appearing, with better features, and the old one is no longer supported. It is the same for finance and the whole day-to-day running of a university.”

People person

What characterises him as a manager? “After I left C&A, colleagues said: ‘We are going to miss you in the organisation as a person.’ I thought that was nice. I am a people person. I like being on the shop floor. I don’t want to lead from an ‘ivory tower’. I don’t believe in leadership, but in followship. People will automatically follow you if you give them space, you don’t need to dictate that. Listening and empathy are the most important skills as far as I am concerned. They allow you to motivate and stimulate people.”

He is aware that this ‘interpersonal’ aspect was not always visible in the industry. “For a long time, I myself was convinced that it wasn’t necessary, but it has been eight or nine years since I started to think differently about this.” The turning point? That happened when he worked as an interim manager for a large Dutch childcare organisation. It was in dire straits and Meindersma had to ‘restructure’ the whole thing. They had three thousand employees, “99.5 per cent were on the shop floor on a daily basis, they were very competent in care-giving, had a high EQ (emotional intelligence). I didn’t get very far with logical reasoning. This job required different skills. That sensitive side, yes, it came natural to me, I was able to show my own feelings and vulnerability and that was good. After that, I only looked for jobs that had a good balance between IQ and EQ.”

Author: Wendy Degens

Photo: Joey Roberts

Tags: jan-tjitte meindersma, meindersma, vice president, executive board, business, transformation,instagram

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