Navigating the Path from Industry to Academia

Van der Meer Mohr aims to continue to build global networks of partnerships in order to strengthen the university.As part of our interview series with the female heroes of the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) we spoke to the President of the Erasmus University Rotterdam Executive Board, and one of the most powerful women in the Netherlands, Pauline van der Meer Mohr. Part 1 of her interview was published last week and you can read that here.

In her role as President, she devises and implements the strategic planning and policies of the university through the board. During her first four-year term, which ended at the end of 2013, Van der Meer Mohr created international partnerships with other universities and a more culturally open academic environment for students and staff. As her first term proved successful, the EUR Supervisory Board recently invited her back for her second term that started in January 2014. 

Alongside her executive position at EUR, Van der Meer Mohr is a non-executive board member at Royal DSM N.V., the Netherlands-based life sciences and material sciences company, and ASML Holding N.V., a lithography systems company.

Van der Meer Mohr came to higher education administration after founding a human resources company, the Amstelbridge group. Prior to her entrepreneurial stint, she held increasingly executive positions in the legal, oil and gas and banking industries.

In 2008, Van der Meer Mohr earned a professional master’s degree in Dispute Resolution from the University of Amsterdam. Before entering the professional world, she studied European law at the European University Institute in Florence and English law at Cambridge University. Van der Meer Mohr holds a master’s degree in law from the Erasmus University Rotterdam.

Van der Meer Mohr reflects upon her career path, current challenges and the future.

TNW: Before coming to academia, you spent 15 years at Shell. What allowed you to advance your career at the same company for so long?

PvdMM: I had five pretty different career steps before I joined the university. So I wouldn’t say that I stayed with the same company for so long [laughs]. I built my career by moving from one company to another even though I did stay with Shell for 15 years.

That was because they were a wonderful employer that allowed me to grow in my career and experience different roles in different domains, starting as a lawyer and ending up as an HR director. It was just a very varied and interesting way of developing my skill set and seeing the world at the same time.

TNW: You started out as a lawyer and then started your own company. Why?

PvdMM: The reason I created my own company was that I was Senior Executive Vice President at ABN Amro Bank when ABN Amro was acquired in a hostile acquisition. The company was basically taken apart by the consortium that acquired it, and the entire top management was sent home. In what always happens during typically hostile acquisitions, I basically lost my job, and I had to find a reset button.

I thought I could do two things. I could just immediately go find another big corporate role, or I could start my own company and see what emerged.

I did that for two years and then I thought, ‘Hmm, maybe I don’t want to be in consulting.’  I knew by then that I was more suited for executive roles. So, I started taking headhunters’ calls again and before I knew it, I was here as a university president.

TNW: What are the differences between being an executive in industry and leading an academic institution?

PvdMM: If you are in a business, you can say, ‘See yonder hill. Take it.’ So, people will hopefully take the hill that you point to. Here, if I say, ‘See yonder hill. Take it,’ it doesn’t really work because people start challenging your assumptions.

People will only want to follow you when you’re really persuasive and when you sell your vision in a way that people feel that they came up with it themselves.

You have to lead through collaboration, through cajoling, through persuasion and certainly not through control. That’s the last thing that works at the university because you’re dealing with tenured faculty, who are autonomous in their thinking. If they don’t like what you say, then you’re in trouble. You can’t just fire them. It makes my role as a university president more challenging because I really have to persuade people on the strength of my arguments, much more than I had to in my business career.

You might have authority as a university president, but you really need to deserve your power.

You have to deserve your leadership. Leadership is granted by the tenured faculty. If they think you are doing a lousy job out of it, then they can make your life really, really difficult.

TNW: What are you major goals for your next term?

PvdMM: I want to continue to build global networks of partnerships with the university because it strengthens the university, and I want to continue the path that we set out on in the last four years, in collaborating with the universities of Leiden and Delft. I want to strengthen that alliance and form closer ties, both in education and in research with those two partners.

I definitely want to make big strides on the diversity front because as I said before, it’s not gaining fast enough, so we need to accelerate that. 

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