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How Lessons in Adversity Shape Leaders

How Lessons in Adversity Shape Leaders

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Ruulke Bagijn
Activator, Achiever, Arranger, Strategic, Maximizer

Gallup’s leadership research consistently reveals that coping with adversity can be a crucial leadership experience. Embracing life’s setbacks and learning from loss can serve as a rite of passage, shaping a leader’s resilience, strategic oversight and character.


Ruulke Bagijn is no stranger to adversity and setbacks.

In 2007, Bagijn left a lucrative career in investment banking to lead an independent infrastructure private equity fund, an opportunity filled with potential. Soon afterward, the global financial crisis hit, severely challenging fundraising efforts and leading the firm’s shareholders to abandon the venture. Bagijn, who had built the entire private equity firm from scratch, was now tasked with dissolving it -- all during the end-of-year holidays. On her last day, Bagijn's husband and her 5-year-old son picked her up from the office for the last time. When she got in the car, her husband met her gaze as he handed her the Rolodex. Undeterred, she picked herself up and started calling her network to pursue new opportunities.

Today, Bagijn is Head of Global Investment Solutions at Carlyle, a global investment firm with $318 billion of assets under management.

Bagijn has had a remarkable career as a business builder, establishing new lines of business from nothing. She has taken on key roles, including global chief investment officer role and directing the sale of AlpInvest (a Dutch-French global private equity asset management firm) to Carlyle, which she now leads. But her rise to her current position has been a gradual process.

Embracing life’s setbacks and learning from loss can serve as a rite of passage, shaping a leader’s resilience, strategic oversight and character.

An early endeavor into politics sparked Bagijn’s leadership journey. She gained experience working for the Dutch conservative liberal party, specifically with Frits Bolkestein, who would later become the European Union Commissioner for the Internal Market. Bagijn calls this period her “fly on the wall” moment, where she had the opportunity to observe high-level deals, diplomacy and negotiations. This early exposure to leadership, influencing and stakeholder management established her as one of the most powerful women in private equity. In a firm where women manage more than half of the assets, Bagijn oversees a large part.

Among the many lessons that have guided Bagijn on her leadership journey, four stand out:

1. Embrace Adversity Early and Often

While many people might strive for a predictable career path, with the rungs of the career ladder clearly laid out for them, Bagijn believes adversity can sometimes provide a jolt to give one’s career renewed energy. She sees the value in being placed in challenging circumstances or roles, persevering and not being afraid to fail. Failure can be as instructive as success, especially if it comes with significant learning -- both emotional and situational.

Bagijn has deliberately taken risks throughout her career, carefully weighing the value of overcoming each risk and the lessons from both success and failure. She recognizes that these experiences shape one’s perspective and philosophies, noting, “I’m willing to take calculated risks because I recognize good opportunities when they come along, and I just know what will be right in my gut because I’m clear on what I like to do.”

This ability to navigate her career with agility -- even in the face of risks, self-doubt and fear of failure -- has helped Bagijn succeed. She firmly believes that adversity has played a pivotal role in shaping her professional journey. Along the way, she has had many lessons such as building trust, consistently showing up, and being direct and authentic about her beliefs, values and priorities.

She encourages emerging leaders to accept adversity and develop a mindset where they proactively take calculated risks rather than dwelling on missed opportunities feeling stuck. “Don’t waste time on guilt or thinking you missed the boat on something. There’s no benefit to negativity. Find ways to stay positive,” she adds.

2. Plan for Growth, Not Advancement

Bagijn did not have a predefined career path and made career decisions based on instinct. “You simply need to know in broad brush strokes what you want and like,” she says. Her career has benefited by embracing serendipity. “Things often happen by chance, and I’m best served when I stay open to what comes so I can act and take advantage,” she says.

This might seem to be a highly unpredictable strategy -- some might even call it reckless. However, Bagijn believes that life brings possibilities and urges leaders to perceive career twists and turns as opportunities to transform their personal, professional and leadership lives.

Gallup’s leadership research suggests leaders should evaluate their progress roughly every three years, refocusing or revising goals as needed. During this review period, leaders should recognize potential pivot points, rather than simply map out career milestones, and look carefully for important shifts or changes in their career’s direction.

Critical pivot points for Bagijn came when she “went from working in the business to working on the business.” This meant receiving opportunities such as overseeing multiple teams, managing all private markets or changing from leading a team to leading a firm.

Further, emerging leaders should consider what is and is not working during pivotal moments in their careers and be open to unconventional growth opportunities. These “side adventures” often provide experiences that lead to more prominent roles -- something that no classroom training can do.

3. The Power of Connection

People generally use the term “professional networking” to describe actively engaging and maintaining relationships with internal and external stakeholders. But something that’s often missing from advice to “build a network” is an understanding of the power of connection that comes from sharing your authentic self and supporting others in the network.

Further, emerging leaders should consider what is and is not working during pivotal moments in their careers and be open to unconventional growth opportunities.

Networking offers significant benefits for leadership development and growth, and Gallup leadership research overwhelmingly supports this fact. Bagijn agrees that active, robust network building has been vital to her success. “Build networks -- whether it comes naturally or not,” she advises. She believes both difficult people and situations provide ways to gain experience and share one’s gifts, time and talent to strengthen network connections. “The best, most beneficial networks don’t happen organically. It takes time and intention to reach out to people and build relationships, and this works best when you realize the focus of networking isn’t just about what you get but equally if not more heavily weighted on what you can give.”

Bagijn has relied on strategic business and political networks for advice throughout her career and looked for mentors and differing perspectives when making important career changes or tough decisions. She has also relied heavily on her husband, family and sorority. “Keep learning. Have many coaches and sponsors to learn about various topics: networking, complex content, communication, influencing, etc.,” she says.

Bagijn balances her openness to different perspectives with her belief that the responsibility for decisions is hers alone. So, while receptive to feedback, she relies on her own instincts to make decisions. “One clue for me has been if I feel like I must ask other people’s opinions on whether a move is right or not, it’s probably not right. It’s like being in love. You probably aren't if you must ask yourself if you’re in love.” When Bagijn was offered a job as CEO of a large bank, she called mentors to discuss the pros and cons but ended up not taking the job because she instinctively knew that, as tempting or lucrative as the offer was, it was not the right fit for her talents.

Accepting accountability for your decisions -- good or bad -- is essential. An extensive, diverse network offers multiple perspectives but is not responsible for making decisions. Leaders like Bagijn practice diversity in counsel but not in decision-making. This is an essential talent and the hallmark of a good leader: the ability to listen to multiple perspectives but take sole responsibility for the final decision.

4. Lean Into Strengths

Successful teamwork requires insight into how the talents of a diverse group of individuals can be used: A leader’s effectiveness often depends on their ability to build a leadership team that maximizes the collective abilities and talents of its members. Much of Gallup’s work has focused on strengths and a team’s ability use them to contribute to organizational excellence. Emerging leaders can learn to harness strengths -- both their own and those of their team members -- to foster enhanced team collaboration.

This is an essential talent and the hallmark of a good leader: the ability to listen to multiple perspectives but take sole responsibility for the final decision.

Bagijn intentionally uses her strengths and her team’s to achieve success for the firm. Recently, over multiple daylong sessions in New York and Amsterdam, Gallup led her and her executive team in an in-depth exploration of their strengths, both individually and collectively. “CliftonStrengths are valuable because knowing each other’s strengths leads to a higher level of appreciation for each other and, therefore, a higher level of interest and engagement,” she says.

Bagijn also sees the value of strengths in helping to align the team on strategy and decisions. One valuable outcome of her executive team’s strengths sessions was developing a set of guiding principles that improved the quality of decision-making and collaboration. She notes, “It [an understanding of strengths] requires from me as a leader that I invite more input from each team member, facilitate more discussions between funds and functions, and continue to encourage an enterprise mindset.” Bagijn has now included all managing directors and principals at AlpInvest in these strengths sessions. As a broader leadership development program Gallup runs, they get coaching on their strengths, leadership talent, key experiences and success expectations.

In many ways, Bagijn has always believed in the power of focusing on strengths and managing weaknesses. Early in her career she knew that the odds were stacked against her: Being a woman in a male-dominated industry and not being a native English speaker. However, she ignored these perceived barriers and instead worked around them. “Like any barrier or weakness, it is just a matter of not overthinking and dealing with it,” says Bagijn. She either fights it (she kept a small notebook to expand her vocabulary) or accepts it for what it is. “Life is never perfect. Nor are the solutions,” she adds.

Fearless Leadership

Leaders like Bagijn are compelling examples of resilience, openness, trust in oneself and the ability to develop meaningful relationships within an organization. Leading by example with a vision and strong connection to others may be a rare combination, but organizations can help cultivate these talents by providing appropriate support and encouragement.

Gallup’s latest leadership research shows that just two in 10 U.S. employees strongly agree they can trust their organization’s leadership or have confidence in their leaders’ ability to manage emerging challenges. “Fearless leadership” that is both inspiring and relatable is vital to managing people and challenges in an increasingly uncertain business environment. The million-dollar question is: “Are we -- as a society, a country and as business leaders -- actively fostering such leadership?”

We desperately need Bagijn’s brand of fearless leadership today when leaders are more closely scrutinized than ever before. Bagijn comments, “There’s a high level of accountability -- numbers are measured every quarter. The pace of business is fast and less forgiving. That requires more boldness to get where you want to get. I don’t know that it’s surprising, but [it is] exciting.”

These bold lessons in leadership and coping with adversity offer much-needed wisdom to reinvigorate inspirational leadership in these dynamic, challenging and ever-changing times.

Cultivate your fearless leadership.


Vibhas Ratanjee is Senior Practice Expert -- Organizational and Leadership Development at Gallup.

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