Interview with Mickey Huibregtsen
Doing something for someone else is actually dead coolMickey Huibregtsen
Mickey Huibregtsen graduated in what was then technical mechanics in 1964. Following a long career, much of which was spent at McKinsey, he is now concentrating on social issues and transferring his knowledge and experience to future generations.
Mickey Huibregtsen felt attracted to the world of business from an early age. After graduating from Delft and his national service with the Royal Netherlands Navy, he joined heavy engineering firm VMF Stork-Werkspoor. One of his first assignments there was supervising 70 technicians during the construction of a naval frigate. With his knowledge of partial differential equations, for example, at first he found little respect on the work floor. “But that all changed when we went out on a test voyage in a force 11 gale,” he recalls. “Everyone was really ill, except me. I didn’t get seasick and I could hold my drink, so within a day I had become a natural leader. That taught me that, in order to be recognised as a leader, you have to show that you’re good at things your employees know and understand. That was an extremely valuable experience.”
According to Huibregtsen, that is one of the reasons why footballers, for instance, attract such admiration. “Everyone has played the game and knows from experience how hard it is to do well. But few people have been a manager – in football or in business – so they don’t understand how difficult that is and they don't really appreciate it.” Huibregtsen did understand though, so he decided to work on his management skills. Although, as he says himself, he made a flying start at Werkspoor – by the age of 27 he was general manager of the Gas Turbine Division – he didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of his own supervisor. “He was an engineer, too. A brilliant man, but a bad manager.” Instead, Huibregtsen decided to change tack and apply for a job with management consultancy McKinsey & Company. “They were asking for people who could walk on water. That appealed to me.”
Without the usual MBA, but with plenty of practical experience, McKinsey decided to take him on. He would stay there for almost 30 years. “I worked with interesting people on interesting problems,” is how sums up that time. “I advised 45 of the 50 largest companies in the Netherlands, half of the ministries in The Hague and half of the country’s teaching hospitals. That was still possible in those days, but all the consultants are really specialised now. Even though I was asked a few times to become CEO of another company, there was nothing more enjoyable and interesting than what I was already doing.” Huibregtsen became Chairman of McKinsey in the Benelux and Scandinavia and a senior partner in the global organisation. From the age of 55, however, he slowly began to retire from McKinsey. “Over the years, I came to realise that it was in the company’s best interest for people not to stay too long. And I felt I ought to set the right example myself.”
Not that Huibregtsen was now planning to sit back and relax; instead, he shifted his focus to civil society. During his time with McKinsey, he had spent eight years as a director of the Dutch Olympic committee, NOC*NSF. He had also been a fanatical sportsman – he was once national squash champion in the veterans division and he played with the Delft Student Hockey Club for six years – and so appreciates sport’s social importance. “Sport is an ideal platform to bolster social values,” he declares. Values such as health, social cohesion and quality of life. Besides sport, throughout his life Huibregtsen has also followed science, education, healthcare and politics. “I have universal interests,” he says, “so I’ve involved myself in everything.”
For many years, Huibregtsen has particularly dedicated himself to increased civic engagement. Together with former government minister Pieter Winsemius, he set up De Publieke Zaak (The Public Interest), an association for “social innovation”. “People have been told for decades that they have rights,” he explains, “but never that they also have duties. So you can’t blame them if they’ve started to act accordingly. We want to ensure that people become ‘producers’ in society, as it were, as well as ‘consumers’. To create a mindset that taking the initiative and doing something for someone else is actually ‘dead cool’.” To this end, De Publieke Zaak is backing initiatives like MaatschapWij.nu, the “inspiration platform for a more social, more sustainable Netherlands”.
It is not just people who have to change, though. So does society. “Most of our institutions, not least our politics, have lost their lustre,” says Huibregtsen. “We have to hold them up to the light and see if we can reinvent them. Big companies are also social institutions. It is absurd to take shareholder value as the only valid measure of their performance.” And, in his view, the political establishment lacks courage. “The selection process on the way up is so negative. The motto is always ‘Don’t rock the boat’. As a result, you end up with political leaders with no guts.” Huibregtsen described his alternative vision in his 2013 essay Rebuilding society from the ground up. In that he wrote, “We need a government that guides and inspires, rather than directs and controls. We need companies that strive for value for all their stakeholders, and citizens who take responsibility for the well-being of society as a whole.”
A new publication is now in the pipeline. Meer Wij (More Us) will be about collaboration in the twenty-first century. As Huibregtsen explains, “We have to learn to work together again, even though that’s a difficult task. People today spend too much time in their own little worlds, and that’s only getting worse. Yet there’s so much to be gained from doing things differently. Research shows that three-quarters of respondents believe they would be at least 35 per cent more productive if they were to co-operate more with those around them. If you were also able to increase co-operation between companies and between sectors, the effects could be enormous.” Huibregtsen himself has been promoting collaboration for 30 years. “In 1990, my first report for the NOC*NSF was on the theme of Sporting Together, Working Together, Living Together.”
Management Made Simple
Huibregtsen recently distilled his thirty-plus years of management experience into the book Management Made Simple. He feels this is particularly needed because of the increasing complexity of our society. “In the past,” he says, “entrepreneurs developed a strategy on the assumption that the world was standing still. Then one day Shell came up with two scenarios, based upon high and low oil prices respectively. We thought that was very advanced at the time, but nowadays the degrees of freedom are almost infinite.” So companies have to pursue a flexible strategy. “You need to know where you want to end up, but how you reach that point is something you have to reinvent time and again. That says something about how we should function these days.”
Huibregtsen also foresees major changes in education in the next few years. “Traditional teaching is too fast for half of pupils,” he says, “but too slow for the other half. Make your children responsible for their own development, however, and 99 out of 100 will work hard.” The same applies to university education. “Attending lectures is a waste of time for students. Only one tutor in ten is entertaining enough to make it worthwhile. The ‘flipped classroom’ model is already a big improvement, but I think that in the future people will follow their own self-assembled curricula, far more individually and at their own pace.”
Coincidentally, Huibregtsen’s own studies at Delft were quite individual. “I read Technical Mechanics, a course which only existed for a short time. We had more professors than students.” He can still vividly remember his final examination. “I was interrogated for three hours by those four professors, about all the courses I’d taken since the first year. I’d been revising for that exam for years, day and night.” And it did not stop there. “I designed a tanker lorry, which was actually built at the time and used at Schiphol airport. I also designed a low-wing aircraft for Fokker, but that was never built.” Following his graduation, Huibregtsen was conscripted into the Royal Netherlands Navy. “After seven weeks of training, I was sent back to Delft as a prospective reserve officer. I worked at TNO on the hull strength calculations for a submarine, which was also built.”
Huibregtsen has maintained a warm relationship with the university ever since he left. As a “Good Friend” of the Delft University Fund, he still contributes financially to our development of young talent. He also likes to share his experiences directly with students. This February he is the first guest of Inspiring Dialogues, a series of interactive interviews with alumni being organised specially for students. “I think it’s a waste if, once you’ve reached my age and gained so much experience, you don’t share it constantly with young people. They can then do what they like with it: it’s about sharing ideas and encouraging personal development.” Huibregtsen also frequently speaks with young people looking for career advice. Those conversations give him hope for the future. “The current generation is not interested as much in working for profitable organisations as in ensuring that what they are going to do has real social value. That trend will continue, and it’s one we badly need.”