Artie Debidien: ‘Willingness To Change Has To Be Mobilized’

Artie Debidien: ‘Willingness To Change Has To Be Mobilized’
Almost 30 years ago, Artie Debidien embarked on her career journey. Currently, she holds the position of CIO at KPN and serves as a supervisor at three organizations, including De Nederlandsche Bank. She advocates for renewal wherever she goes. ‘I pay attention to whether an organization is focused not only on current KPIs and the status quo, but also whether I recognize an underlying willingness to progress.’

When she arrived at De Nederlandsche Bank last year as a newly appointed supervisor, Artie Debidien thought, ‘What is it that changed here?’ This was in the temporary headquarters of the central bank, in office district ‘de Omval’ in Amsterdam. The same building where Delta Lloyd was once housed. ‘That is where I got my first job as an IT engineer in 1998. As a new supervisor, I was given a tour, but I already knew the building.’
From one of the bank’s offices, she overlooks the Amstel River, right at the point where the river flows into the city. The scenery is unchanged from a quarter-century ago, yet Debidien herself has undergone a complete transformation. She has grown into the position of CIO, currently still at KPN. Following changes in the board and the successful completion of an intensive change process, she has made the decision, in extensive consultation, to depart from the telecommunications company. In June, she and her family will check off two long-held bucket list items.

In 2010, she entered the C-suite as CIO from the establishment of KNAB. This was followed by CIO roles at, among others, NIBC and NN Group. She became a supervisory board member for the first time in 2020, at the digital identity service provider of the Royal Dutch Notarial Association. Now she is supervisory board member of NVM Holding and De Nederlandsche Bank and chair of the supervisory board of Stichting Competens. And that after a secondary education in commercial economics.Bovenkant formulier If there ever was a gap in her knowledge, she has effectively closed it.
She pursued 17 courses in her working life, including at Utrecht University, Harvard Business School, Bentley University, and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Kearney partner and managing director of Kearney Benelux, Jurgen van Weegen, would like to hear about Debidien’s considerations on her way to the top.

Is it true that you get up very early every day?
‘I am afraid so, even though I do not consider it a good habit of mine. But I prefer to start my workday with a clear mind. I would rather not spend my time thinking about pending approvals or emails which I still need to send. My focus is on people rather than processes and production. Besides, my strongest flow is early in the morning.’

How did you advance in IT without studying for it?
‘At a young age, I found myself as a single mother. As an HR manager and IT trainer, my goal was to secure a prosperous career. I sought success not only for myself but also to provide a prosperous future for my son.Bovenkant formulier That is why I decided to turn my hobby into my profession. I was already programming as a teenager, so I entered the IT field and studied to become a Microsoft Certified System Engineer. You had to complete six challenging modules for that, but I intentionally completed eight so that I could convince employers that I did not achieve that certificate by accident. After that, when I had the opportunity to work at Delta Lloyd Bank, I was offered a permanent position as an IT engineer, and money movement became my area of expertise.’

You have worked as a CIO in several companies. What considerations do you make when choosing an organization?
‘I assess whether an organization is fixated not solely on present KPIs and maintaining the status quo, but also whether there is a genuine eagerness to advance, chart new strategic directions, adopt emerging technologies, and innovate for the future. I want to sense that executives are willing to climb a mountain. If they demonstrate such willingness and feasibility exists, I will rally the organization’s members to join in, embracing the challenge of innovation. Once we have passed the peak and begin to descend again, I will build a new mountain, until there are no more mountains to climb. That is the moment when I must work on orchestrating my own exit.’

What exactly do you mean by a mountain you aspire to conquer?
‘Let me take the IT infrastructure and architecture as an example. If a company has no idea about the added value it can provide through the use of technology and digitization for all stakeholders or is not clear about what cultural value is required from within, then that is precisely what I aim to bring. What can we achieve with information technology, especially now with developments such as artificial intelligence, robotics, digitalization, or e-identity? What solutions can we offer to customers, what additional value can we provide beyond IT operations?’

How do you mobilize people to climb that mountain?
‘The key is to forge an internal coalition, to create a family with the people within the organization. This allows you to bridge gaps that exist within the organization. This is true even for international organizations with branches in numerous countries, where the culture of, for example, Turkey, is vastly different from that of Japan. It is not easy; the larger an organization, the more subcultures, tug-of-war, and silo thinking there is, rather than holistic management with an aligned organization.’

How do you perceive the ability for change within large corporations?
‘Change requires urgency, a pressing need that is palpable. In large companies, it often takes a long time before problems really start to bite. Sometimes longer than a board’s term of office. There are cases where companies show stable figures for a decade before the situation starts to decline. In the meantime, underlying problems that require solutions remain. Maintaining comfortable but high-yielding products also leaves room for more nimble competitors to innovate faster and devise price stunts. These problems are often postponed and not addressed. I often say: initiate renewal during prosperous times; do not delay until issues accumulate! The longer you postpone, the more challenging it becomes, as change then is not part of the  company’s DNA. It is difficult to convey the message that change is needed within three years to people accustomed to a long-term vision. If a supervisory board lacks relevant expertise in areas such as digitization, innovation, and cybersecurity, it becomes difficult to operate effectively. It then takes enormous effort to implement strategic renewal, and some people will drop out. Supervisory board members need to be aware of these challenges.’

How genuine is the willingness to change in companies?
‘Companies portray it as urgent in C-level job postings and during interviews. There they acknowledge the mountain they need to climb. They proclaim their commitment to customer-centricity, digitalization, and being at the forefront. But in reality, they hesitate when it hurts, when they have to part with staff and legacy, or when change agents start shaking things up. You always need to test the ambitions articulated by the board for their readiness for change, courage, and boldness.’

How can you influence the readiness for change at the top of a company?
‘The willingness is sometimes there, but the trick is to mobilize it. Once, I presented my change plan to the supervisory board before discussing it with the executive board. This allowed the board to assess the plan and instruct the executives to execute it. Of course, I also wanted to inspire the executives, but they were my immediate supervisors. Change projects are tough and provoke resistance. If something went wrong, I would have embarrassed the board in front of the shareholders and the supervisory board. I mitigated this risk by proposing to the board to first explain my plan to the supervisory board, as I had a vision of where the company needed to go. If the execution failed, they could blame me for not seeing it correctly. It was not a significant risk for me. If you specialize in business change with digitization and technology as your tools, have a good track record, and a good reputation, then you can go wherever you want. That is acquired autonomy.’

You serve as both a board member and supervisor for various organizations, while also being active at the managerial level. How do you perceive the differences between execution and supervision?
‘Accountability has an impact. As an executive, you stand at the top of the pyramid and can be confident in the path you have set. You must address every pressing issue that comes your way, and you are no longer in the thick of things yourself. Your are busy forging coalitions, providing leadership, and directing business and tech directors. You can make an impact through your teams and partners, but you remain fully responsible yourself.
As a board member, you learn to view things differently. There are many paths that lead to Rome. That pressing issue for an executive may not be such a big deal for a supervisory board member. What I find beautiful about being a supervisor is that you do not have direct impact, but you can still be meaningful in an indirect way. You restrain yourself and bite your lip, but you still get close to an organization and its governance in terms of involvement. The new generation of board members is not there just for supervision; more is expected of you than only reviewing the annual report and compliance. You should also motivate, provoke, offer a platform for discussion, and leverage your network. You need to be willing to take risks and experiment, but also exhibit humane leadership.’

If you are not accountable as a supervisor, do you feel free to bring up anything to the table?
‘No, I have had stomachaches over putting something on the table before, only to be relieved afterward that I did. When everyone agrees, can you be that small voice questioning the decision? Board membership is formal; everything is decided in meetings. It is very different from a company where many matters are settled at the proverbial water cooler. Being a board member is not the venue to display your expertise; you are positioned above that. You observe the atmosphere, tone, language, openness, transparency, and behavior. And sometimes, you just need to remain silent until the chairperson invites you to share your perspective. Silence serves a purpose!’

How important is the role of the chair in the supervisory board?
‘Very important. The chair must be able to handle all perspectives and motives, regardless of the social, business, or political convictions of the supervisory board members. If there is bias in a supervisory board, it means that certain differences of opinion are not allowed. By dealing with all colors and flavors in a board, the chair sets the tone. He or she must be willing to stop a meeting or park a topic if one director completely disagrees with the rest. And even if everyone agrees, the chair can still ask pointed questions or ensure that everything has truly been put on the table, whether something has not been said that should have been discussed, and who or what needs to be taken into account.’

Are you brought in as a supervisor to participate in the entire agenda, or mainly because of your specific background in IT?
‘The entire agenda, but there are also focus areas. At NVM, I am also responsible for compliance on the supervisory board, and at De Nederlandsche Bank’s supervisory board, I am in the audit and finance committee, with my expertise in money movement. In addition, I have spent a long time on the other side of the table at DNB, so supervision and the market are familiar areas. IT is a subject that runs through all portfolios, even if it is not always perceived that way by companies. It cuts across primary, secondary, and operational processes. Sometimes I still hear wrongly that IT is of operational nature, while it absolutely is of strategic business value. Nowadays, I do not even respond to that anymore. The perk of getting older.’

How do you deal with such a narrow view of business operations?
‘By inspiring and packaging a topic like cybersecurity as innovation, because then it sounds like strategy and business. When talking to the risk officer, you present IT in terms of risk management, and with the CFO you talk about value, opportunities, and cost reduction. HR has an interest in IT for attracting a new generation of talent. Ultimately, I manage to convince everyone to see that technology relates to their portfolio.’

How do board members and supervisors handle differences in gender, culture, and age?
‘In the supervisory boards I have participated in, these differences seem to be less important, which is refreshing. At Worldline, I was the only Dutch person in an international board. Compared to others, however, I was vocal and innovative. Moreover, I am often the youngest, although I am not young. The beauty is that through this mix of generations, we can learn from each other. I need the other supervisors as much as they need me. This contrasts with some executive boards, where sometimes the emphasis is still on differences in age, gender, or cultural background, which is also noticed in succession planning. Unconsciously, people choose for similarities they recognize in others. ‘You are not a match,’ is something many outliers will have experienced.’

How do you deal with that?
‘In all my introductory conversations, I made my vision and principles almost exaggeratedly clear. If they did not like it, they could choose someone else. Because if they do choose me, they also choose for my authenticity and appreciate my independence and personal integrity. It is important to immediately show who you are, what you stand for, and how you work.’

Can anyone become a supervisory board member?
‘Why not? I hope that many more young people with modern expertise choose to become supervisors. Especially people with a bi-cultural background. That is specifically important and of societal value. Diversity in breadth at the highest influential positions will not only allow for representation but also enable deep inclusion and have a positive impact on the entire organization. Differences are necessary for a richer dialogue and broad commitment. The boring image of supervisory board members at the golf club is no longer relevant. Supervisors are actually very interesting leaders, with dynamic careers. It is incredibly fascinating to talk to them. I have learned a lot about myself and others, and I enjoy the fact that alongside my executive job, I also engage in non-executive and cross-sector work. This way, you live multiple lives in your career, so to speak.’

This interview was published in Management Scope 03 2024.


This article was last changed on 12-03-2024