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Executive Education

Erica Schaper COL
Erica Schaper COL
The Challenge of Leadership

Expanding senior leadership skills for high performance: interview with a Challenge of Leadership participant

Erica Schaper

Chair of NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences, The Netherlands

I’d like to think I’m more receptive to feedback now as a leader, and that I approach teamwork in a more open way.

What has been your career path so far?

I studied Rural Sociology at the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands and became very interested in management and leadership. Today I specialise in leading complex mergers and change processes for large organisations.


I chair the executive board of a University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. Recently, both Stenden University of Applied Sciences and NHL University of Applied Sciences merged to become one single unit: NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences. My role is to guide the transition process and ensure that the new entity can combine the strengths of both institutions.


Previously, I was a managing director of a leading Dutch labour union, the Federatie Nederlandse Vakbeweging. My activities there focused on guiding the merger process of five organisations to completely overhaul the organisational model. I also gained extensive merger and change process experience when I worked as managing director of Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences, and as an interim manager for several other universities of applied sciences.


What are the key challenges you face in your role?

My biggest challenge is working together with students, staff members and stakeholders to ensure we can connect the positive, distinctive elements of both universities and build a new, world-class institution – one that’s better equipped to respond to the regional or global demand for knowledge and innovation. It’s a huge task with a great many moving parts. These range from harmonising financial policies to helping create a vibrant new culture for the university that is regionally anchored but has an international outlook.


What drew you to INSEAD’s The Challenge of Leadership programme?

I was considering moving on from my job at the labour union and wanted a leadership programme that would give me the opportunity to evaluate where I was going in my career. I wanted to challenge myself and get a new perspective on my entire approach as a senior leader.


The fact that Professor Kets de Vries directs the Challenge of Leadership programme was also a big draw. He’s widely regarded as a leadership guru in the Netherlands and I’d always wanted to learn from him and get to know more about his vision on leadership.


What were your key takeaways from the programme?

When you’re a senior leader, you don’t always get quality feedback at work. The programme really delivered on that front, and it did so via a personal dimension as well as a business one. Through reflection, coaching and high-quality feedback, you learn a lot about yourself, the way you were raised and the impact of that on your career. You get to know your biases as a leader, where you’re strong or weak – and how to use that knowledge to build a more effective organisation around you.


I found it revelatory, life-changing stuff, and the effects have been long-lasting. I gained the insights I needed to understand why I should quit my job and what strengths I could bring to any new role. I also believe the self-confidence I gained through that process stood me in good stead when I applied for my current job.


At the same time, I found the group support aspect really valuable. Because the programme is a series of five-day modules that unfold over a year, you get to know your fellow participants pretty well by the end of it. A lot of personal stuff is shared in a safe, supportive atmosphere. You learn from each other and help each other become more reflective in action on a day-to-day basis.


My group of 22 was very international. We had participants from Russia, India, Canada, some Scandinavian countries and more, with a great diversity of life experience, so that was useful and enriching. Many of us have stayed in touch – in fact, we had a reunion last week in St. Petersburg!


Has the programme helped you address the challenges in your current role that you mentioned above?

I’d like to think I’m more receptive to feedback now as a leader, and that I approach teamwork in a more open way. Another thing that’s been useful was working with such a diverse group. Building intercultural experiences for our students is an important part of my current role, so my exposure to working with multiple perspectives through the INSEAD programme was good preparation for that.


What would you say to someone who is thinking of enrolling on the programme?

I’d say go for it. The experience will be intensive and involve getting out of your comfort zone at times, but it all takes place in a highly supportive atmosphere with lots of positive feedback. Most importantly, the end result may be life-changing – it certainly was for me.