C-suite career advice: Marilou van Doorn, Leaseweb

What would put you off a candidate? “Lack of self-reflection.”


Name: Marilou van Doorn

Company: Leaseweb

Job Title: COO

Location: Amsterdam

Marilou van Doorn is an experienced operations leader with a passion for data, and an exceptional understanding of the technological landscape. Having started her career in art, she pivoted into tech after falling in love with the tech scene in Amsterdam. She holds a Master’s degree in New Media and Digital Culture and an MBA from INSEAD. Throughout her career, van Doorn has worked in operational roles as part of the management team in several global technology companies, including Wakoopa and Backbase. van Doorn understands the requirements to build a solid operational foundation to safeguard the success of a company. Her focus is on operational excellence and customer centricity, bridging the gap between business and IT.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? Have a goal in mind. You don’t have to know exactly where you want to end up, but having a goal will create opportunities. It doesn’t have to be the exact position or the exact company, but having a specific industry as a goal, for example, will allow you to be open to opportunities. This is both psychological and practical: psychologically in a similar way to the ‘frequency illusion’ that if you hear something you will encounter it a lot more often; and practically because when you start targeting this goal more, you will get more exposure.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? That it doesn’t matter who you hire, you can just replace them again after the probation or by the end of the first contract. The impact of a bad hire should not be underestimated, not only financially speaking (hiring costs, possible bonuses, time wasted on onboarding), but more importantly the negative impact on the rest of the team. A bad match for a team because of personality or motivation can really influence the satisfaction and output of the team, even long after you let go of the bad hire.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in IT/tech? Try to work in an industry that you’re passionate about. IT is an incredibly broad field, so finding the area you are truly enthusiastic about will not only ensure that your job will give you energy, but it will also make you more attractive to the job market. Passion and enthusiasm show in an interview.

Did you always want to work in IT/tech? No, I actually wanted to become a fashion designer. I started at art school but pivoted to technology after falling in love with the passion, innovation and creativity of this vibrant, innovative industry.

What was your first job in IT/tech? Technical support at Vodafone. As I had no background in tech, I had to bluff my way through the interview and read up on everything there was to know about mobile internet technology. Luckily, I found out I had a knack for tech and was quickly able to pick it up on the job.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT/tech? That it is not creative. People who know me from the past sometimes are confused as to why I would spend my whole day behind a computer screen, when I ‘used to be so creative’. Actually, working in tech is perhaps even more creative than some art forms; you’re literally building things that weren’t even physically possible a day before.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? Learn from both the good and bad of your managers. The time before becoming part of a management team gives you the unique opportunity to observe the impact managers have on the organisation. Observe and take note of what impact certain actions have, how the rest of the team perceives management, and try to remember this once you are in that position.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? In terms of position, I might be close to the career ambitions I have always had: COO for a larger IT company. However, in terms of  what I would like to achieve within this position, I’m definitely not there yet. For now, my ambition is to learn and accomplish as much as I can, and after that, most likely a new goal will come up.   

Do you have a good work-life balance in your current role? Since I just started my new role, the balance still has to settle in. However, I do believe that for higher management positions, work-life balance has a slightly different definition. I love what I do, but you can’t expect to have a high demanding job and continue doing everything the same way in your personal life: you need to find the right balance and make some trade-offs. I do believe that you can achieve almost anything, as long as you’re willing to make the sacrifices that come with it. You can have an amazing body – if you’re willing to work out five times per week, refrain from drinking and snacking, etc. When thinking of the path you want to take, consider whether you’re willing to make some of the necessary trade-offs. Don’t expect you can be a c-level executive, have an amazing body, a large family, a booming social life, travel the world and have several hobbies on the side.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? To be honest, I don’t think I would have changed anything. There are enough things that could have made my path easier, quicker, or ‘better’: for example, by studying computer science or starting my career at a consulting firm. But in the end, the route I took gave me an incredible set of experiences I still benefit from today.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? Assuming you’re passionate about coding and willing to dedicate your time to learning a new skill, it completely depends on your personality and industry focus. If you’re interested in the startup scene, you can get away without a degree since recruitment/hiring is often also based on networking. However, without a degree, you do have to ensure your visibility is higher – through networking, attending events, but also publishing code on platforms such as Github.

Unfortunately for the larger organisations and industries, recruitment is often done on a much larger scale where they simply filter out candidates based on hard requirements such as the right degree. There are exceptions, even companies that work with AI-based tech to localise coding skills based on publicly available sources, but those are the exception, not the rule.

How important are specific certifications? Again, this completely depends on the industry you’re aiming for. Personally, I’m a firm believer in motivation and attitude above skills. After all, skills can be learned; motivation and attitude cannot. My stance on this is probably this way because I started in the startup scene and have seen the wonderful things people are able to achieve if they simply put their mind to it. However, this does mean that some proof of your motivation has to be visible, for example through personal projects.

Of course, this doesn’t apply to every role and position, if your organisation needs a strong data scientist, you might not be in the luxury position to hire someone that still needs to learn most of the skills on the job.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? Passion is the number one thing I look for with people, not necessarily for the role they’re applying for, but in general regarding the industry and regarding certain aspects of the job (e.g. customer focus). It’s about having an intrinsic motivation to contribute. All other skills or abilities are highly dependent on the role: it can be communication, teamwork, technical skills, empathy, etc. I cannot generalise those into one common top three.

What would put you off a candidate? Lack of self-reflection. It becomes quite apparent during an interview process, when someone is unable to re-assess the situations they’ve been in, the role they played in it and the impact they have on others. In general, I value people’s ability to constantly learn from the situations they encounter, and this requires self-reflection.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? Not coming prepared. This sounds so obvious, and probably every applicant thinks they’re well prepared, but unfortunately, I’ve had so many interviews with people who didn’t even know the basics of the company, or the industry. Research the company before coming in, read the latest news about  them, watch their videos/interviews, find out some information about the person you have your interview with. Also, it’s important to truly read the job description, check the skills they’re looking for, make sure you already think of examples from previous roles that display these skills.

Don’t forget to read the company values, which nowadays are often published on their website, see how you match those and consider referring to it in your interview. In general, it comes down to preparing your narrative.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills – or a mix of both?  I think you should never go entirely black or white. If you go full-on technical, you run the risk of becoming a rogue developer (or rogue specialist): someone who is amazingly talented, but finds it hard to work in a team setting towards a common business goal. At the same time, if you want to work in a technical environment, even in a business function you need to have some understanding of the technology you’re working with.