Advisor Insights with Anouk De Blieck

Advisor Insights

Published 22 February 2023

As a senior leader and advisor, Anouk De Blieck has over thirty years of experience in the technology, payments, and banking sectors with the likes of Citibank, ANZ, Visa and SoftServe. Now based in Italy, Anouk has held various business and HR leadership positions across EMEA, Asia, Northern America, and Oceania, managing geographically dispersed teams of up to 600 people and supporting up to 20,000 employees. Anouk is passionate about radical change management, advancing women in business, improving the global HR community’s ability to innovate, and working with start-ups and high-potential fintech on challenges related to board strategy, organisational culture, scaling, and diversity and capability.

Looking for a change of pace from corporate life, three years ago Anouk transitioned into developing a board portfolio career. So far, her advisory work has involved helping companies to navigate organisational challenges and progress sustainably. She believes that beyond governance formalities, organisations need to have access to their own “business entourage” with external collective wisdom to “add value to their quest” in the current VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) global environment.

To be a successful advisor, Anouk believes that it is important to understand your strengths and what you can bring to the table, putting ego aside. As such, she feels you should only work with organisations for whom your values align and your expertise complements.

In this Advisor Insights interview with Advisory Board Centre’s General Manager of Engagement Penny Ellenger, Anouk goes into detail about how the VUCA environment where no one has all the answers makes it challenging for organisations to know what to expect in the future, and why advisory boards can help them navigate the uncertainties and complexities of the current business landscape.

[An organisation] is better suited if you have an entourage that can help you in that particular case, navigate through that. People that have seen certain pieces before, people that have lived it, people that have a different sense of experience, capability, and all of that…it adds value to your quest.


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Penny: Hi there. I’m joined today for our Advisor Insights with the amazing, an deli who is one of our chair members currently located in Italy. And Anouk, I’m gonna ask you in just a second to share a little bit about, about yourself and your background and what’s brought you to the advisory space. members and members of the public who are listening to this session are potentially looking to find out more about what being an advisor entails. Looking to find out a bit more about what implementing an advisory board could look like. So I’d love if you are able to share some of your insights and experiences about both of those perspectives through your own, your own professional lens. But please share with me first a little bit about yourself, your background, your career to date and, and what, you know, what can you share about your background with us.

Anouk: Great. Well, first of all, thanks Penny for having me. Where do I start? So indeed, I’m in Italy. I’m originally from Belgium. I left Belgium 20 years ago because I would say career wise, the last three decades I spent in the corporate world, right? I was very privileged to work with organizations like Citi, ANZ and Visa – large organizations on kind of financial services payments later on technology, also with SoftServe. And I worked internationally for all that time, from New York to Melbourne and everything in between. So very privileged during that time.

But at a certain point you know, in those roles, I kind of started off in the business, moved into HR roles. And in that perspective, I had, you know, global roles, regional roles. So you know, able to influence, I would say, and support organizations through various, I would say organizational challenges and everything. So amazing, you know, with wonderful people and everything. But at a certain point, when you are like, having done that for three decades, you’re kind of at a certain point wonder, so what is next? And the what next was kind of triggered to a personal situation that happened at home, and it made me think, what do I wanna do next? Do I want to keep on this corporate bandwagon or not? And then I kind of realized that you know, I don’t really want to do that anymore.

I want to start paying it forward. I want to start leveraging my experiences, sharing thoughts, helping organizations to progress that need and, and create value, right? Yep. And so that was, in fact, for me, the pivoting around, okay, my, my next part of the career should look very different. and that was, you know, remaining the connection with the HR community that was, as I said, but you know, leveraging what I kind of did before, but then also that was like, how can I help organizations, whether they’re startups, smaller organizations that are need to pivot, that need to grow, how can I help them to support? And then when you say support them, there’s two ways to do it, right? You have the formal boards and then you have the advisory boards. And I kind of thought, listen, that’s something that I really want to get, get into because I think it aligns to what I believe in, and it’s a great way to, to, to, as I said, pay it forward and help others in that journey. So that’s what I’m doing now. So three years now, I’m into a bit of a portfolio work with, with all the various aspects of it that I just mentioned, which I think is, is amazing. And the beauty is I could do it everywhere. And we came back to Europe and decided it was not going to be Belgium. but we are here in Italy for a couple of years now, so, yeah.

Penny: Amazing. Amazing. And I, I guess for the purposes of, of this conversation, and, and I’d really like to get a little bit more into your you know, your own activity and developing that portfolio and, and how, how you keep yourself current. But from where you sit in the world and now three years into a portfolio arrangement of your career, what are the observations that you have on how this advisory board or advisory sector is evolving? What are the key, I guess, whether it’s geopolitical or global or commercial conditions and perspectives that you have around this sector’s evolution?

Anouk: Yeah. Well, these are interesting times, right? I think if you think about how the world looked likes today, you know, who would have thought last year that would be the case or the years before? We live, as I always say, in the VUCA world, it’s volatile, it’s uncertain, it’s complex, and it’s ambiguous. And the thing is that, you know, no one anymore has all the answers, right? No one knows what tomorrow will bring, who would have taught, right? You know, the situation with COVID who would have taught that with the war, with, with, with Ukraine, you know, imaginable, right? But in addition to that, I think we also see you know, from a future of work perspective, you know, demographics are, are changing, you know, employees’ needs and wants are changing because COVID has made them think what’s important in life.

You have climate change, you have, you see what’s happening in that world. And then I think there’s this whole notion with, you know, robotics and man versus machine or you have more and more cyber attacks coming up. So I think, you know, whatever can’t be imagined, name it, right? It will happen at one point. So I think organizations are navigating through an environment that is very uncertain, not clear at all, and, and they need to grow, and they need to progress, and they need to be their best sustainable selves. So how do you do that? And as I mentioned, I think it’s, it’s the notion of having collective wisdom, right? Helping. So they will have their executive teams that are well positioned, you know, to work through a number of these challenges.

But it is so much of course, better suited if you kind of have I would say an entourage that can help you in that particular case, navigate through that. People that have seen certain pieces before, people that have lived them, people that have a different sense of experience, capability, and all of that. And that’s where I see more and more, I think advisory boards becoming now a venue of organizations to go to, because they see that as an opportunity to add value in their quest, right? To deal with this environment and to grow, and, and that’s where they can and change.

Penny: Yeah. And so the ability to be able to tap into this collective wisdom or this entourage of wisdom Yeah. Which I love how you call it. So I’m, I’m really interested in then for yourself, Anouk, how are you positioning yourself to be visible as a part of this entourage, as a part of this collective wisdom? What are, you know, how are you positioning yourself to be seen and sought after for the value that you, you, you bring?

Anouk: Well, I think it all starts with understanding for your, your, your yourself, right? What is, what is that you bring to the table, and where can you help, you know, someone can be extremely competent in a certain area, but it might not be relevant, right? Yes. For the environment you’re in or for that particular organization. And, and I think it’s a question of, you know, I can only add value to an organization and to a team if it is aligned to first of all, my purpose because I think it needs to be a partnership. Yes. But at the same time, it’s also this notion around what are they missing or what, how can I compliment where they’re going through. Like for example you know, I’m working with a startup, which I love and I feel so passionate about the great work they’re doing because this is an organization that is trying to make a societal impact, right? So that is one thing which is your driver.

And they want to kind of, they have an amazing product, they have an amazing solution, but it’s around how do they go to market, right? How do they kind of export that knowledge and that expertise into other markets? And then how do you kind of do that, you know, as an organization that needs to grow. So that’s where I see a direct fit with my experience, because I know, obviously the international markets, I have experience in, in going to, to, to, to markets in, in helping them. I have experience in setting up leadership teams, and I’m, and, and, you know, they’re trying to go to the HR community. So, and of course I come from that world. So, I think for myself, it’s a question about being very clear of where I can add value what is am I’m able to bring to the table, and also make sure that you look for opportunities where you can compliment when you can partner because, and, and, and where in fact, again, the purpose is aligned, I think and, and the values.

And that doesn’t come overnight, because that also means that there might be opportunities you say yes to. There might be opportunities that come up you say no to, because guess what? I cannot add value. If you can’t add value, then it, it’s a no no. Right? Yeah. So, so it’s about putting your ego aside, but, but looking really at it from that human-centred approach and, and putting the organization first. And that means positioning yourself, you know, building your brand, building your networks and being out there to see how you can help. Because that’s ,as I said, what drives me, right?

Penny: Yeah. And look, I that was a question without notice, so thank you…

Anouk: It’s always good to keep myself on my toes.

Penny: Exactly. Exactly. So thank you for that. It was really useful and, and resonates certainly with a lot of the, I guess the profile building sessions that we encourage members to take advantage of through our, through our resources in the network. and, you know, a very current example of where and how, you know, you can add value and more importantly, where you can’t and where there’s not a perfect alignment to be, you know, upfront and honest enough about saying no. Back to the questions that we were discussing previously. So do you, you, I believe play a role on both governance boards or as on a board of directors as well as in the advisory space, how do you, one are you comfortable with that, that balance and that combination? Where do you see for you the key differences in their role and function?

Anouk: Well first of all, I think the fact of having boards, I think there’s a growing need in, and traditionally I think organizations had really the traditional boards, which is more focused around governance, which is more focused around risk, of course. It’s about providing oversight. It’ss helping organizations in that regard make decisions. And the traditional way of boards has obviously a seat there, a very important seat in order to just ensure good governance. And we have seen many examples you know, in the world where if there’s no good governance right, organizations can go terribly wrong. Yes. So there’s a tremendous place for that. And it requires a very structured approach.

It’s a regulatory framework. It is fixed. It is there and it is required. And I see the traditional boards becoming I would say future-proofing themselves because, you know, in the past it was very much compliance and risk driven. Now, more and more, they’re dealing with that VUCA world, right? So they need to up their game as well. So, but it is very traditional, it is very structured, it is related, I regulated and all of that. And on the other hand, when you have an advisory board or whatever that advisory looks like, so because it will talk about it in a, in, in a second, it is a lot more flexible. It is a lot more, I would say co-creation. It’s a lot more about solving problems, a problem for the moment. It’s less about governing, you know?

Yes. The organization. It’s more about how do you deal with certain situations? How do you kind of focus on growth? How do you focus on reshaping yourselves, pivoting yourself, you know, you have an M&A coming up. How can I make sure that I get the right expertise on board? They help that. Yeah. So I would say that the advisory board, I always thought that that was a very, also a very structured body, which can be, but the beauty of advisory boards is that it can be very flexible Yes. And very fit for purpose of what the organization needs. So, so I think they both complement each other. They don’t have, you know, there’s no competition as such. They complement and they use for different purposes, right? And so I think that’s where I think the beauty, as I said with the advisory board structure as such, is you can make it what is necessary for you at the moment, at the time for a startup, yes. Yeah. For a startup, it’s very different than when you are dealing with an SME or you’re dealing with a family business, right? And it is fit for purpose for the challenges you face, and it’s also very timely for the challenges you face. Yes. So, so flexibility versus I think the governance and the robustness, right? Yep. Now that doesn’t mean that when you have an advisory board, you don’t, it can’t…

Penny: Be robust robustness Yes.

Anouk: Or, or rigour. Yeah. Because if you want to have it functioning well, you need to, right. But again, their, their mission and their purpose is very different and Yeah. And I see them working really well together. Together yeah.

Penny: So I guess then leading into the question around you know, robustness and having rigour, you know, what is, what is the importance then for you of having that best practice framework, best practice approach around advisory boards?

Anouk: Yeah. I, it, it’s like with, with even the regular boards, you know, when I was I had the pleasure to, to, to join I MD’s board practice with did Diego, and, and, and he’s been, you know, doing board work for, for many decades extremely successful, I think very impactful. And, and he brings a framework on how do you make sure that corporate governance kind of works well. Mm-hmm. and, and that talks a lot about, you know, the type of people you have the type of culture trying to create the type of operating rhythm you create Yes. And all of that. And he has his four-pillar framework, which is really important. and the thing is that with the advisory board, and, and the reason why a four-pillar framework works well is because it is, again, best practice. Mm-hmm. And the thing is, when an advisory board, which for me I see very equal. Now, many people would disagree because there’s always dispute about, you know, advisory boards versus corporate boards. But I think if I see them as both equal bodies, you know, both equal bodies need to function well. Yes. So…

Penny: They deserve to have the same degree of…

Anouk: Yeah. If you as an organization Yeah. If you as an organization decide you want to have an advisory board, you want to have a framework in place that makes it hum and that it sets it up for success. Absolutely. And that’s what I love about also the Advisory Board Center with their best practice framework, because it talks about what is important from a purpose, from a process, and from a people perspective. Yeah. And when you, and when you have a framework, and then whoever comes in and helps support an advisory board, they know that it is set up for success. Because you can’t bring people together if you don’t have a purpose and a clear mandate of what you’re trying to achieve. Yeah. Right? You can’t have something functioning well if there’s no process, if you can’t have any robustness as we saw, or, or any measurement, right? Yeah. It’s just you know, it’s just like, you know, a nice to do. And then the third thing, like with everything, you know, it’s about what is the people and, and, and, and, and, and the culture you create. So you want a level of independence, right? You wanna make sure people are fit for purpose. So I think the best practice framework is crucial to make the most out of your advisory board. Yeah. Otherwise, you set yourself up to fail.

Penny: To not succeed. Yeah, that’s right. You’ve got then, you know, you have on the one side safety. I guess safety and, and acknowledgement of the value and the contribution that everybody’s bringing in, real clarity on the role that each of those advisors has to play and, you know, the best opportunity to measure the value or the impact Absolutely. That structure can actually deliver at the end of the day.

Anouk: And, also, sorry, Penny to add – we live in this VUCA world, so that means change is there and the speed of change is fast. So why would you set yourself up, you know, not in the best possible way to start with and not waste any time. So, and I think that’s where, for me this framework comes in. It’s not just making sure you create robustness, but it’s an accelerator Yes. Towards making an impact, right?

Penny: Yeah. As well. Yeah. It accelerates the impact. I like that. so look with only a couple of minutes to go, I have one final question, which is you know, what sort of, what sort of tips or suggestions do you have either for individuals who are considering bringing advisory board service into their portfolio of activity or advisory structure service or for organizations who are contemplating implementing a new advisory structure? Any last words, tips and suggestions?

Anouk: Yeah, I think for individuals like myself that want to get say more out of life, but more out of your working life. I found you know, stepping into boards and especially I think advisory boards, I think it’s very rewarding because it’s, it’s, it’s an opportunity to keep yourself, I would say, relevant as well, because it’s about learning. But at the same time is, as I said, it’s about paying it forward and you know, kind of putting your ego, your person aside, but to jump in – how can you help organizations? And I think it’s crucial to think about how does that fit into what you really want to do as a person, and where do you want to play.

So I think having clarity for yourself is extremely important. What are your critical experiences? Where are the industries you can play and what type of organizations and, and have a good thing, because there’s a lot of opportunity out there. I think it’s less about the quantity, but the quality and it’s around where you can add value, but it’s very rewarding because it’s a true partnership and it’s tremendous learning from both sides. And you see the impact, right? When you are part of this, you see the growth, you see the progression. So I think that is one thing. if, if I’m a business owner, if I run a family business, if I run an organization, you know, a business in the broader sense, I think people are I would say in this volatile world, right? People are constantly faced with challenges.

And in these challenges, you want to grow, you want to proceed, you want to make an impact you want to pivot, you want to change, restructure, it doesn’t matter. you’re not on your own. It’s about finding people that can help you on the journey. That can be a sounding board that have expertise, that can be a partner to you to help co-create. And so I would say even if you are smaller organizations, don’t shy away from the fact that an advisory board can be there because it doesn’t need to be a board. It can be an advisor, it can be a panel that you have, it can be some people you help work on a specific deal or opportunity. So it is out there. And then when you choose someone, then make sure you have someone that has a certain, that has the credentials, right? And has the expertise around what best practice and goods look like. In order to not waste time and get the most out of the experience. And then it’s a win-win both for the individual as the organization, I would say.

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