I like to grant people the opportunity to grow and try something new

In depth interview by Kees Lindhout with Michiel van Kruijsbergen, Chief of Staff municipality of Woerden and Oudewater.


Michiel joined the organisation working for Woerden and Oudewater in January 2015. His first assignment as Chief of Staff was for the municipality of Bernisse in 2006 at the age of 30. At that time he was the youngest Chief of Staff in the country. After Bernisse he joined Leerdam in 2010, followed by Woerden in 2015.


I interviewed Michiel using one single session of one and a half hour. This was possible since I have had the opportunity to work with Michiel for about the past one and a half year.


This interview is the fourth of a series held by RibbonWood consultancy. We name the series: “Ambidexterity in practice: transforming working behaviours in fast technology & business model shifts-personal leadership pains & gains beyond “agile buzzwords”. Organisational ambidexterity according to Wikipedia “refers to an organisation's ability to be efficient in its management of today's business and also adaptable for coping with tomorrow's changing demand. Just as being ambidextrous means being able to use both the left and right hand equally, organisational ambidexterity requires organisations to use both exploration and exploitation techniques to be successful”. We picked this theme since transforming via behavioural change is RibbonWood’s expertise. How does this feel in practise during change and how do you cope?


Michiel, can you bring back the moment that represents the start of this journey for you personally?

I like to improve, to contribute and to achieve results with the organisation(s) I work with. When I joined the organisation working for Woerden and Oudewater I started with a so-called 100-day-analysis. This analysis showed that the organisation was doing well, but was not doing good enough.


I created this SWOT and vision together with all relevant stakeholders.

The organisation experienced too much tension in the relationships with the 3 major stakeholders: (1) the city council/ Mayor and Executive Board; (2) the inhabitants/ entrepreneurs; and (3) employees. So I dug deeper and created a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis. Followed by the creation of a vision. This vision not only encompassed 9 goals for the 3 major stakeholders, but also 23 pretty concrete images of the future. I created this SWOT and vision together with all relevant stakeholders both inside as well as outside the company.


Your drive is exceptional, what’s the origin of this?

The quality standard I set for my own work is high. My drive and result orientation goes with it. I used to expect the same from the people I work with. I think this stems from my youth. Which hasn’t been easy. Due to an early divorce of my parents I lived with my mother and (later) her boyfriend. He and I did not get along that well. Therefor I grew up without a stable home environment and without a real father figure.


I learned that hard work pays off.

This led to a bad performance at high school. I did not seem to make it there. In my second year there was a serious chance I had to be kept down or had to leave school. This was something I did not want to happen. So I worked hard to improve my situation, luckily same time my home situation gradually improved. This worked out. I succeeded at high school and did two masters. Here I learned that hard work pays off.


Did your perspective on what needed to be done change after the start of the programme?


In order to communicate properly we had to transform complexity into simplicity.

No, the content, the vision and goals, did not change. What did change was the approach to implement the change. Execution was difficult. This began with the creation of the vision. This started off too ‘scientific’. Later on this changed to a more ‘marketing’ based approach. A vision is to engage people; therefor the main question was how to present. In order to communicate the vision properly we had to transform organisational complexity into simplicity. Of course, I used my previous experience from Bernisse, and Leerdam. But I also used RibbonWood’s 10s framework. This framework helped me develop the execution power and common language I needed. The framework enables amongst others bottom-up change combined with a firm top-down control.


I like to grant people the opportunity to grow, to take some risk and try something new.

I believe in courage and ambition. In Bernisse e.g. I applied for the position of Chief of Staff with no managerial experience at all. But I believed I could do this. Luckily the committee agreed with me and granted me the desired position. That’s how I became, at that time, the youngest Chief of Staff in the country at the age of 30. In my jobs I like to do the same to others. I like to grant people the opportunity to grow, to take some risk and try something new. 


How did you influence internal prejudice and built trust in the programme?


The role of the city council has been challenging.

The role of the city council has been challenging. We started off pretty enthusiastic. The Mayor and Executive Board agreed with the vision and plan. But, eventually in June last year, the city council did not appear to be on the same page. This was due to a lot of reasons. The relationship between city council and organisation was disturbed amongst others due to political disturbances, but also due to a long history of investments in the organisation without a clear outcome (in the perception of the city council).

I tried to change this. We started ‘the work conferences’, a series of sessions (5 eventually) with an open discussion. In these sessions we had the opportunity the work on a better relationship and build mutual understanding. As a result the council decided to invest in organisational development, but restricted the budget more then we requested.

The current city council comes with challenges. They do want to invest in the organisation, that’s the good news, but they are as one might say, more ‘business-like’. Meaning that they perceive the investment in the organisation as an investment and like to see substantial structural (also) financial benefits in return. Currently we’re busy coping with this new challenge.


Do you work with agile principles?

Yes, the agile principles do fit quite nicely with the way I like to work. We use the 10s framework of RibbonWood. So we make use of the sprints, including sprint planning, retrospectives, product reviews and all. This gives us flexibility in the approach and the organisational learning I was looking for. Currently we are also experimenting with self-organisation, one of the agile principles.


How did your leadership style change?


I like to get the most out of the people I work with. I like to appreciate the differences and make use of the differences. I try to build teams and like to see people involved.

Over time my leadership style did change indeed. As mentioned, I have learned that hard work pays off; this is my result orientation. I used to expect the same from others. I also used to expect, in my early days as Chief of Staff, people to execute my ideas as discussed. Nowadays I’m still result oriented, but shifted much more to people oriented. I like to get the most out of the people I work with. I like to appreciate the differences and make use of the differences. I try to build teams and like to see people involved.


What would be your advice to others?

  • Appreciate the style and opinion of others. Make use of their ideas and intrinsic motivation;

  • Trust the people you work with. There is a tight balance between being in control and creating space for others. Buy trusting others you unlock their intrinsic motivation;

  • Build a team with people who are passionate to accomplish something;

  • Put a lot of effort in the SWOT, goals and vision. This will pay off.