I came to realise that I’d just been climbing the greasy pole without thinking about what I really wanted.
Abel van Staveren
Where do you currently work?
On my boat! I have a floating home and office with 4G Wi-Fi, a printer, a scanner – everything I need to work anywhere in the world. I usually spend the winter on land, and in warm places like Singapore. Together, my wife and I are nomads, leading our ideal life. We tell people we have location-independent portfolio careers. And it’s all thanks to INSEAD that we made that choice.
Initially, I went to INSEAD thinking it would be the last step before I got to that corner office at the top with all the perks. I decided on INSEAD purely and simply to become a CEO. However, thanks to the Leadership Development Programme, I had a complete change of heart. Of course, my employer had other plans for me, so I ended up being a CEO for a while. I restructured the business for my successor, held the reins for a year, and then put my plan into practice. I still do a lot of interesting work for my former employer, a Norwegian shipping group.
So how did the Leadership Development Programme (LDP) change your ambitions?
It all started on the first day with the coach. I’ll never forget that.
I was 36 at the time and she asked me what I wanted to achieve before I die. I was utterly astounded as I simply had never thought about it. So, over the year, we worked on answering that question and I came to realise that I’d just been climbing the greasy pole without thinking about what I really wanted. It wasn’t just the coach that supported me in this realisation – it was my whole LDP team. We hit it off from the start and we’ve carried on mentoring each other ever since. Whenever any one of us has a job change or life change, we still make an effort to meet up in some way. We’re all meeting in Barcelona this year!
Did the conventional classes make an impact on you too?
The electives and key management challenges changed my thinking. The classes on decision-making, behavioural finance and organisational power and politics opened my eyes. So did Professor Herminia Ibarra’s book, Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career. I didn’t just read it; I operationalised it. Now, I think of myself, not as a chartered accountant but as a person with accountancy and finance skills that I leverage to enjoy my life. It’s funny because in one class we talked about the “time value of money”, but it only helped me to appreciate the “money value of time”. Now, I’ve consciously exchanged half my income in return for time.
Do you have any advice for future applicants?
As of this year, I’m part of INSEAD’s new buddy system for people going through the admissions process… so yes, I have plenty of advice. My mission is to get them to open their eyes a bit earlier than I did. It’s fine to climb the greasy pole, but you should climb it by design rather than default.
What do you think you’ll be doing in ten years’ time?
I’d probably be doing the same thing, but from a boat in Asia, rather than Europe. The theme will definitely still be freedom. My wife and I set ourselves goals – just as we do in business. Our aim is to have lived in 15 different countries by the time we’re 50. I’m 43 now and we’ve lived in 12 countries – so we’re well on target.