Flow Traders CEO Dennis Dijkstra on Giving Feedback

'I Prefer Plain Speaking'

Dennis Dijkstra in conversation with Jean-Paul van Londen

Flow Traders CEO Dennis Dijkstra on Giving Feedback
There is an art to giving and receiving feedback well. How do leaders approach this art? We spoke with Dennis Dijkstra, CEO at Flow Traders, a stock brokerage firm that has received its share of candid criticism. Dijkstra is not too bothered. When it comes to giving or receiving feedback, subtlety is not his style. ‘Yes, I prefer plain speaking. It allows for clarity.’

‘Average’ is the one thing Dennis Dijkstra does not want to be. Dijkstra, who has been CEO of Flow Traders stock brokerage since 2014, prefers clear, honest feedback. ‘If I am good at something, I want to hear it. If I am doing something wrong, I want to be told as well.’ He takes the same approach towards others. When it comes to giving feedback, he describes himself as honest, perhaps too direct, personal and plainspoken. He believes that people flourish best when they are in the right place.

In the context of this series on feedback, Jean Paul van Londen of LTP Business Psychologen paid a visit to Flow Traders’ Amsterdam headquarters. Inside, tranquility reigns. The weekend is almost here, staff members enter the boardroom to grab sodas from the fridge and the sun is shining on a depiction of a bear and bull by the reception desk.
Dijkstra has just biked over; he is a passionate cyclist. ‘About feedback,’ he begins unprompted. ‘Just before my 50th birthday, I received some of the clearest feedback of my life. Non-verbal. I was on a bike ride and my cycling buddies were passing me left and right. I could no longer keep up. Those guys were on fire. There was just no way. It was physical feedback, basically. Extremely painful to receive.’

Did Dennis Dijkstra see this as a sign that he needed to step up his training?
‘Mainly, it made me think, “OK, the time has come, I am getting older.” Everyone has an experience like that at some point… Right?’

Let us talk about sports a bit more. You played field hockey at a fairly high level, as the spare goalkeeper for Amsterdam’s premier division. What did this teach you and how did it prove applicable to your career?
‘Most of all, it taught me that the team’s interests are more important than individual concerns. The team can also be more than the individual; more than the sum of its parts. I also learned that what goes on outside the field may matter even more than what happens on it. That is where you build team spirit.
As the goalie, you hold a special position within your team. The goalkeeper is always a bit of the odd man out, an outsider. It is a vulnerable position as well. If the goalie messes up, it makes the news that day. If a striker misses an opportunity, no-one cares. However, the advantage is also that as a goalkeeper, you oversee the whole game. You have the best overview of them all.’

Do I sense some similarities with your current role as CEO?
‘Yes indeed, there are definitely similarities. You could say I approach Flow Traders the same way. I guard the goal; I oversee things; try to stop the ball, act as a stable factor and empower others to help them score.’

Goalkeepers do not make goals themselves…
‘True, true. As a goalie or a CEO, your team must do so for you. That is also exactly what I enjoy about my job: helping others to flourish, letting them do what they do best. I do not have to make the goals myself. I actually like seeing others score.’

In your time as a goalie, you must have received input on your performance. What made such feedback pleasant to receive?
‘Clicking well with my coach was very important to me. If that click was there, I was open to criticism and could take anything. If there was no click, I accepted feedback less easily. I felt most comfortable with coaches when our interaction was almost a friendship; coaches who knew how to put themselves in others’ shoes.’

Is that a requirement for feedback, being on the same level?
‘Yes. There is no point to giving feedback if someone is not open to it, if there is no click or sense of connection. In such cases, what you say does not make any difference; it will not be accepted. Hockey taught me that more than anything else, being a coach or leader requires empathy. You have to see that, sometimes, they are having a bad day and it is better to just leave it. “Why not go home now? Try again tomorrow.” Feedback always involves two parties. To be able to put the feedback to good use, both those parties must be open to one another.’

Do you often receive useful feedback?
(Thinks about it.) ‘I generally expect to get more feedback than I receive.’

Is that so?
‘Yes. It is too bad, really. Receiving feedback is also about feeling heard. People want an honest response to the work they have put in. So do I, ultimately. You want to be told what you are doing well and what should be improved. I would like more of that sometimes. I assume that is human nature.’

What role has feedback played in your career? Do you ever linger on specific feedback?
‘One early feedback session has always stayed with me. I was still working for Arthur Andersen, the US consultancy firm. We received a review after every completed job; it was all very structured. After one of my first reviews, my manager was very happy with my work. Or so he said. However, on a scale of 1 to 5, his review form was full of threes and fours. I still remember my chagrin. Threes and fours! If you like someone’s work so much, why not rate them a five? All I want is not to be average. That is absolutely not my thing. I want to hear ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ not ‘fine.’ That is just useless. People want to be in a place where they can achieve a perfect score.’

I gather you are all about the ones and the fives, then?
‘Yes, I prefer plain speaking. It allows for clarity. It is a fine thing to know what you are and aren’t good at. Besides, not everyone will be good at the same things, so reviewing everybody with threes and fours gets you nowhere. It is also far too common for us to be insufficiently clear. That is why feedback is almost always a disappointment. For everyone. Ask someone if they have ever received good feedback and they will say, “Well, hmm, I don’t know.” That is too bad.’

Did you learn how to give effective feedback?
‘No, I never had any specific training on the subject. It is more about learning by doing. And through reflection. Life changing events are important, those cause you to develop as a person. When you become a parent, for instance. That changes your view on things. Your responsibilities shift. That changes you. Some things work, others not so much. We recently got a dog. I have been reading up on how to train a puppy. Dogs need positive rewards, punishment never works. The carrot and the stick do not apply, apparently. Just the carrot is more effective. That made me think.’

Does that mean you only use the carrot yourself now, without any stick?
‘Yes, preferably anyway. Ultimately though, you have to be honest too. That is best for all concerned. If you aren’t putting in your best effort and we let it slide, that leads to frustration on your end too. I am firmly convinced that you are happiest doing what you do best. You need to be the right person for the job. I put a lot of time into making sure that everyone here is in the right place, managing that with care. It benefits the group as well. If everyone is in the right place, the whole team performs better.’

Describe yourself as a giver of feedback. You say you prefer plain speaking…
‘I am honest, and sometimes too direct and plainspoken.’

What impression do you think this has on recipients?
‘I act from here, very strongly,’ (fist over heart). ‘Intense, but from the heart. That can be exhausting to others on occasion. Sometimes, people just want to tell me their story. They are not asking for my opinion. In my enthusiasm, I start trying to fix all their problems. “Slow down, Dennis,” they will say. That gets me back on track. People may also find me difficult. Particularly if certain things are not going well. Discussing areas of improvement can lead to stress and insecurity on the recipient’s end. Not everyone handles such situations in the right way. Some people are made to feel insecure.’

How much empathy do you show in such cases?
‘I do and I don’t. Look, I have to act in the business’s interest too. However, I also truly want the best for everyone. Sometimes, your feedback is not so positive, and
that can be hard to hear. I understand that and I make room for that emotion.’

In addition to the world in which you interact with colleagues and employees, there is an outside world as well, of course. Your company has received a lot of media attention, not all of it positive. Public opinion can be quick with judgments such as ‘grasping’ or ‘locusts.’ How do you feel about such ‘feedback?’
‘We are a highly disruptive and innovative company, full of highly motivated people. Furthermore, our world, the financial industry, involves large amounts of money. Of course people will have an opinion. Other companies have better, more long-lasting marketing campaigns and PR to help them explain things better. Here, we focus more on ‘getting it right.’ Our work contributes to a more functional capital market, one where people can invest in products that are useful to them, more safely and at less expense.’

Have you given up on defending yourself?
‘Not at all. I am always willing to explain things. I have nothing to hide. Take our reward system. While it has received some fairly negative reactions, I am actually very proud of it. Our reward system is more social than any other listed company’s system. No-one comes close to how we share our success and results with our employees. The unions should take us as an example. When I talk to people from the left, they can be surprised to hear that we share a third of our operating profit with our employees and that as the CEO, I do not make more than ten times our average compensation. We are an example to other companies.
Anyway, that said, people will have their opinion. It polarizes. But I am proud of what we are doing. We have more than 400 people working for us here in the Netherlands. We also recently started up a fantastic foundation, which we have put a lot of money into and which we use to support many worthwhile charities, both in the Netherlands and internationally.’

You have been CEO since 2014. What has been the most significant development for you in those eight years?
‘I believe I have grown along with the business. There were forty of us here when I started out. The biggest difference with those days is the increasing emphasis on communication. How do I keep this ever-growing group of people engaged? I enjoy it, and find it challenging too. It has been a gradual evolution, one that happened naturally. Talking to employees or business partners stimulates me. The only thing that has taken some getting used to was having to work with a Supervisory Board.’

How does that work?
‘You need to find a good balance with a Supervisory Board, one where they can give you feedback and you can share your considerations as an executive. Unfortunately, you only meet up a few times a year. When you do meet, there is usually a lot to discuss, using up time you could otherwise spend establishing a good feedback loop. With a team you see daily, it is much easier to build a connection, making it simpler to give feedback and put it in perspective. That does not necessarily apply to a Supervisory Board.’

As CEO, isn’t it precisely your job to extract clear feedback?
‘Of course. Definitely. And I should not exaggerate. We have changed and set up a lot of things already. There is much more time for intervision now than there was in the beginning. We have our own Flow Academy, we put a lot of time into learning and development, we guide our employees throughout, from onboarding to exit interview. That all developed as our organization grew.’

Can you remember the last time feedback really made an impact on you?
‘The most unfiltered feedback is provided by my kids. When you hear them say, “Daddy is never there,” that makes an impact. It has a different effect than a colleague’s “So, where were you this morning?”’

This article was published in Management Scope 07 2022.

This article was last changed on 31-08-2022