Dan Heffernan

Xavier van Leeuwe, The Human Touch

Dan Heffernan recently interviewed Xavier van Leeuwe, CEO of Digital Marketplaces at Mediahuis Netherlands, about the book he co-wrote with Matthijs van de Peppel, The Human Touch.

DH: Could you give our readers a quick view of Mediahuis and what you publish, including how vast Mediahuis is now?

XvL: Mediahuis has over a billion Euro in yearly revenue with 30 news brands in six countries. The Netherlands is the largest, and then there's Belgium, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Luxembourg and Germany. That's the most recent acquisition. 

Our strategy has three components today:

  1. The news media we own. We realized we have to keep on innovating to make sure that we don't slide on profitability. So we’re focused on the whole digitization and monetization of that news media, and we tend to look a bit more at subscriptions than at advertising, although short-term advertising has experienced a great year.

    We think the long-term is really in owning the reader – the connection with the reader relationship, and we have to improve that today.

  2. Then there's tomorrow. Tomorrow is about the acquisitions we do in news media. So we've grown from a merger in Belgium of two relatively small companies to a leading European media company in a very short time. So we've improved, but also, with acquisitions, we're growing. If what we call tomorrow is the new acquisitions in news media, then there's…

  3. The day after tomorrow, and that’s really about how we make sure we are diversified for sustainable income. We diversify with Mediahuis ventures in series A scale-up investments and in two-sided marketplaces, and that's where I come in, in my current role as CEO of Digital Marketplaces. We’re in cars, real estate, recruitment and personal finance. 

We’re nearly 5000 employees now, so Mediahuis is starting to be a real company, I guess!

DH: So regarding your latest book, The Human Touch, your byline is “improving resilience and agility and organization step by step.” Your previous book, How to Succeed in the Relationship Economy, which was also coauthored by Matthijs van de Peppel plus Matt Lindsey from Mather Economics, emphasized the relationship with an organization's customers and how improving that relationship really affected everything from satisfaction to retention to revenue. This latest book is more about internal teams.

What problem were you trying to solve when you wrote this book?

XvL: The first book is really more about marketing tactics in a subscription environment or in the recurring revenue world. The second book is more about leadership. We discovered that the things we hadn't touched upon in the first book were really all the things you do around the actual tactics to make it work. And you need all these things to really know your purpose, i.e. why you're doing it. You have to build a great team. You have to build that culture before you can actually execute a strategy.

So they're quite different books, but we realized we had so much more to say which revolved around how you innovate and make sure you keep on innovating, which is the resilience part. This is not a mere tactic or use of data or anything just related to marketing. This is more generic, and can be used in many industries.

It was also a way to explain a little bit of the culture of Mediahuis and what made it a success. We are results-oriented on the one side and are human-centered on the other. It's like a Venn diagram with a sweet spot in the middle, if you will, where the two approaches overlap. 

If you tend to just look at results, you can get a toxic culture very easily. Unfortunately, you hear that a lot among friends, especially where it’s all about the financials and making the numbers. And then you zoom in so much on the goal you forget the journey, how to get there, and the people. 

The other side is if you're only human-centered, you can end up, for instance, not addressing problems because it would make people look bad. So this is about the human-centered parts: understanding your customers, understanding your employees, so that you know the needs, and then getting a dialogue going and solving the problems.

But it's also always with the end in mind, so it's also results-oriented. We like to do tests and there are all kinds of tips and tricks in the books. For example, how do we select people to get the right team? We have a whole process in place which is quite structured to make sure that we get the right people.

DH: Early in the book, you say that to respond properly to your environment it is essential to focus on someone else's needs. And then you go on to say it's easier said than done. This is not something you do from time to time. It must be part of the organizational culture and is reflected everywhere in the way managers deal with employees, how the atmosphere is in the canteen, how employees approach customers, and how innovation comes about. Did you have to go through a big shift to make that happen or was it already in the DNA of Mediahuis?

XvL: So if you look at the essence of Mediahuis, where it all started, it's very much in the DNA of the leadership. So that made it easier. But if you look at some of the new media companies we are acquiring, it's usually not there, so you have to make the shift. And one of my jobs was really to bring the success we had in the previous company to the next. And as I said, it's not only the tactics that were successful. It's also bringing the right culture. I think that just takes time. And if you read the books, it's usually 3 to 7 years, and I found that very much to be true.

So no, it wasn't in the DNA at all the companies. There were companies where it was a bit toxic and people were leaving. There were fights between departments, and within the departments the numbers were bad so that put everyone under pressure. So everybody was throwing solutions at each other instead of asking “what do you really need?” It is hard to fight over need because you can’t say “Oh, I don’t agree with that” when it’s someone’s need!

You know, it's like going to the gym. If we were to go to the gym today and work out for five hours, after five hours, when we look in the mirror, we wouldn’t see anything. But if we go every day for 20 minutes…and so it has to become a habit, and in every interaction. So, for example, when you park your car and walk through the building door, do you hold it open for the next person coming in or do you just rush through it? At every interaction, you have to be conscious of that need to focus on others, especially as leaders. You’re driving change, so you have to lead by example.

DH: That is a cultural change, and I imagine some people just never get there. It's just not part of them. And I imagine you've lost some people along the way who said “this is not me. I can't do all this touchy-feely stuff.”

XvL: Correct. Yes we did. Now you lose a lot of people, but that's good in a way because we don't have a match. So it's called The Human Touch, but it's not all touchy feely. 

DH: You quote Tim Sanders of Yahoo saying that love, the selfless promotion of the growth of the other, is the highest good for a strong company. Boy, that jumped off the page at me. I was like, “wow, love!” That's a word you don't hear in business books very often. Tell me about that.

XvL: The point we're trying to make is that if you are serious about making a connection, you have to love. And again, you have to do that in every interaction, every day. It has to be a state of mind. But if you do that well, then the benefits will come. 

And it's really tough for us at times in the boardroom. The board members could be saying “what are they talking about?” Everybody understands that you have to respect others. But it goes a little bit deeper than that. It's about really making connections with each other. There is a book about this called The Customer Comes Second (Hal Rosenbluth and Ms. Diane McFerrin Peters), where they explain that it's employee first, and that's love! if you don't embrace that, you can't bring it to the table.

It's not in the book, but to give you an example, I was at the airport in Amsterdam and I was just having a drink and I saw how the people in the bar were interacting. They were just having a ball! I asked “what is this?” It was surprising that the staff knew the customers by name. At an airport! So this John flies three times a month to the UK back and forth and so the staff said, “well, we're here for 8 hours, so we’d better have fun. So we pretend it's our own party and all the guests are invited.” That was love for me.

DH: It creates such an attractive atmosphere. Who doesn't want to commit to a place where everybody's having a good time? Even a bunch of strangers. That is fascinating. You don't expect that sort of human connection in an airport, especially yours – one of the busiest airports on earth!

XvL: It was unbelievable. So it made me realize that it's so simple, but we forget along the way because we have to attend the trade show, make the quarterly numbers, make the budget, you know, all those things. 

If there's toxic behavior, imagine a glass of water and you put one drop of poison in it. You can't drink the whole glass. Everything in there is ruined. And that's how it usually works in the team as well or in an organization, you just have one drop of poison and that can really ruin it for the rest. So you have to really be careful. And you will have to defend the culture and make sure you get it right with everybody, and that's really hard.

DH: You go on to describe what you call “firms of endearment,” and without reading the three pages that describe it, can you just give me a quick definition?

XvL: Yes. Raj Sisodia, Jag Sheth and David B. Wolfe, the authors of Firms of Endearment, did a lot of research and they found that some stocks were outperforming the rest. Such companies were asked, “what's your most important asset?” they would answer “the organization culture. That's what makes us better than the rest.” BMW and Google come to mind. If you visit those companies, lots of employees will tell you this as well, which is why they are so attractive as a workplace. So I was surprised because all these things were kind of intuitive for me. And then we started to look up the literature and found out that “oh, what I've been doing all this time and learning by making mistakes has actually been researched and it’s kind of proven that it works!

DH: And these companies did like 14 times better than the market average of the S&P 500. 

Changing subjects again, I'm so intrigued by your multidisciplinary teams going to visit clients. You describe that in your previous book. I just love it. Like the CEO going with the customer service rep to make a visit. A journalist with an ad salesperson. Have you been on any of these visits and what's it like? You're talking to a consumer, not a company.

XvL: Oh I’ve been on plenty. There are so many fascinating things about those visits. So you have to imagine these are very structured interviews. You go, you have one hour, you know what answers you have to get. You prepare that with each other, so there's a lot of work beforehand. Pre-pandemic you're in the car together. So there's already some touchpoints. Then you drive back together, and so a lot of time is spent together. One of the fascinating things is that all the departments get aligned. There was actually a sales rep and a journalist and they were driving back and they said later, “we had this great conversation. And we discovered one big thing: that we're working for the same client.” This makes so much sense, of course, to us, but for them they never realized that they always thought they worked for somebody else. And they said, look, we're trying to achieve the same thing! And then the ad salesperson could make a connection to a reader instead of only to an advertiser. And he realized what that meant. He realized what the values were of the product and of the organization. They also realized that 90% of the time you're wrong about what your customers need and how they use your product.

DH: That's a bit discouraging!

XvL: I'm not saying you're 90% wrong about it, but 90% of the cases there are so many things you never realized.

DH: Yeah, because we're so siloed in our thinking – “this is what I have to get done.” And “here's my goal.”

XvL: Yes. Or you have one customer in mind, you know, and you think all customers are like that? And then because we get back and discuss all the customers and we put them on a flipboard and then you discover like, oh man, they're trying to achieve many different things. They're very different. And that's a big, big eye opener and for two to discover that together, and then to work on solving your issues together later is very important as well because it just creates a lot of empathy between the departments. You know, it's so easy to attack a thing siloed from the other, but then very quickly you discover you need the other to solve it.

DH: Yes. That process blew my mind because we're B2B company, right? Our clients are not consumers, but companies like Mediahuis and so we have that relationship with our clients. But I don't think we spend enough time listening to our clients and being in some of their strategic discussions to figure out where they are headed. That's one of the things we’ve tried to do in our management roundtables: bring people together to talk about those very things. But this idea of going to visit a consumer, it just blew my mind the first time I heard it and read about the results you found. It was fascinating.

Any final thoughts, any final messages or anything you just want to say before I I let you go?

XvL: Try and make the leap of really listening to each other. You'll discover that's the essence. If you get that process right, then the outcome will be much better. There's this thing where they looked at Google, and they knew which teams were performing very well and they knew which weren't. They tested on everything: men/women, old/young, engineers/marketers, etc. And there was no statistical difference between whatever group they were looking at, so they couldn't explain the high performance with that comparison. So at some point they said instead of looking at the what, let's look at the how and then they discovered that all the teams had what they call psychological safety, meaning that you can fully express yourself and be heard, you can be your weird self with your strange hobby, whatever. It's OK and you can have an idea which you can bring to the table. You will be listened to. Sometimes there will be follow-up. If there isn’t, we'll talk about why. So if you say “we have all university graduates” or “we're all engineers,” it doesn't tell you anything about the performance of the team. It's really about how you behave. That's the essence. 

There's this German techno band called Scooter. And I tend to say that's my favorite German philosopher, Scooter. And he had this song where he said, “It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice.”

DH: Xavier, have a wonderful evening. It was great talking. Thank you.

XvL: Thank you, Dan.

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