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Just do It!#2: Mirjam van der Horst

This interview is the second in a series of ‘Just do It!’ interviews with inspiring leaders.

Mirjam van der Horst was HR Director for CenterParcs Europe until October 2020. CenterParcs Europe is a chain of 28 holiday parks in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and France.

What is driving you in life?

My purpose in life is to fully use and develop my (personal) skills, talents and potential, as well as helping others to do the same. Surrounding myself with inspiring and positive-minded people, creates the energy and creativity to discover new ideas. It’s important to me to make an impact and leave a personal legacy either with the people and/or with the organizations I work with.

You have a diverse HR background in multiple business sectors in B2C and B2B (hospitality industry, medical supplies, retail, electronics/ technology). What is the common denominator in your career development?

I love the combination of freedom to act, complex business challenges and shaping the desired organizational culture. It’s like solving a puzzle, finding the right pieces and experimenting with how they fit together. I am triggered by people and business leaders with a clear vision. The industry itself is less relevant, but of course, it only works if you like and understand it.

Business leaders expect HR leaders to have a clear vision and people strategy. How do you deliver value?

If you deliver added value to the business and build trust, you will be empowered to drive the people agenda and the business strategy as one. I have gradually developed a style of keeping things simple. If the strategy is clear, it’s all about following the flow of the business and customer interaction. I always ask myself the question of how impactful my people strategy is. If I discover that HR tools only serve the needs of HR instead of the business, I adjust. A good people strategy positively aligns the behaviour of the workforce with your customer needs.

Can you tell us a bit more about how you developed a customer-centric culture at Center Parcs?

The key for me was to team up with the CEO on this quest and develop a shared vision of what needed to happen. Our main business challenge was to deliver the best possible hospitality experience for our guests. When I started in 2017, we were a very process-driven organization and lacked a sense of togetherness and customer focus. We decided that the senior management needed to own the change instead of HR. Collaborating with line management and serving their needs created the foundation for behavioural change. We introduced two big projects: Lean and Hospitality, which we gave the slogan “We are all improving Together and We are all Happy Family Makers.” Every project was owned by a business leader and supported by HR. Our approach was to start with small steps. Once successful, we let it grow. In the mean-time, we no longer speak about projects. It’s a journey, a cultural transformation that will stay with us.

What was your role in making this all happen?

Making sure we had top-down ownership and determination, was my main priority. That required me to be the spin in the web, to orchestrate the change journey. We emphasized the importance of a clear bottom-up approach, allowing people to make mistakes and learn. Asking questions, on how we can do things differently, created lots of ideas which we needed to test. Obviously, mistakes happen during that process. If people feel supported in their work, engagement immediately follows. Instead of measuring engagement, we continuously measured our NPS scores. This allowed our people to follow almost real-time the progress and impact we made for our customers.

How did CenterParcs adjust due to COVID-19? How impactful was that for your employees?

Mid-March we had to close all our 28 CenterParcs villages in the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Germany. All employees were sent home and within a very short time, we succeeded to arrange “temporary unemployment” for all our 7,500 employees. Communication has been key during these months of complete closure. We addressed the specific needs of our people for each phase of the crisis with the objective to make sure that people were well informed about the impact on their personal situation and to keep them engaged and connected with the organization. As of June, we started to gradually re-open our villages in all countries. Due to all our efforts in communication with our employees, they returned to their jobs feeling safe and fully engaged. This resulted in a high NPS guest satisfaction about our staff and villages that were fully booked during summer!

What requirements or impact does technology have on modern leadership profiles?

During the COVID crisis, we see the (further) increasing importance of technology. It enables us to continue to work together even if we can’t be physically together. For sure this is leading to a shift into new ways of working, which will have a big impact on leadership styles. New questions will come to the table. How can you steer for results without always being physically close to your people? How to trust your people, especially if you have a personal preference for control rather than trust. How to keep your employees engaged, when working remotely? How to keep the team spirit? Also, technology means more data and more data requires more transparency on how the information will be used. In my view, all new and exciting developments, which require us to reinvent ourselves. This is not going to be easy, but the pandemic has shown that we can change our behaviour fast when we need to. We have to!

Mirjam decided to take a break starting in October and enjoy some time off, before embarking on a new leg of her professional HR journey. We wish her lots of fun and good luck in the future!


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