Have you always dreamed of being a managing director, or did this ambition take shape gradually?
I never cooked up a master plan to become the ‘boss’. Actually, I’ve always kind of fallen into things. That’s how I ended up in the communication and language sector in the first place: when I finished my final exams at university, I started looking for a fun holiday job. The temping agency came up with a position at a PR office. I took it, even though I didn’t have the faintest idea what I would be doing there.
I ended up enjoying it, and to be honest I had no idea what else I would do with my degree in Romance languages. Look for a different job somewhere else? I got to stay on as the assistant to the MD. Of course I learned a lot at the time, but it’s not like I was thinking: ‘That’s where I want to be myself someday.’ The banking crisis kicked in barely a year and a half later and, together with other ‘recent recruits’, I was sent packing. Above all, that mainly taught me how things shouldn’t be done; for a communications agency, they handled the crisis very badly.
At the time it felt like a disaster, but in hindsight I really learned a lot from it. I like to communicate very clearly; I always listen to my colleagues’ opinions, and it’s in my nature put the team and the people first. I’m convinced that my first work experience has partly that aspect of myself.
Later, and once again by chance, I ended up at Outsource Communications. And when my colleagues at Outsource came to me with the plan to appoint me as the next MD, my first reaction was: ‘That’s crazy! How am I going to do that?’ And when Stef announced his departure from Blue Lines, all eyes turned automatically in my direction once again. As I said, I’ve always kind of fallen into things. For me, it’s like going on a trip to a new destination with a minimum of planning – I just let myself go with the flow as much as possible, although I do like to know in advance that I have somewhere nice to sleep.
What’s your approach? What is your leadership philosophy, your style?
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I don’t have a ready-made answer to that question. It’s not like I read a book with five leadership styles and then picked one out. That’s not how I work.
What does become apparent in every coaching session is that I don’t tend to meddle in everything or demand the final say. Instead, I tend to observe, keep a close eye on everything and only tweak things if necessary. I have no problem at all with delegation. On the contrary: I have to work with people, I have to be able to bounce my ideas off my team. I’d go crazy otherwise.
If you found a magic lamp that let you wish for one aspect of your job to disappear, what would it be?
That’s a difficult question. I would like to spend less time in my car, but of course that has nothing to do with my job (laughs). Precisely because I work so closely with the teams at both Blue Lines and Outsource, I’m never alone. This means that tricky decisions or difficult moments have less of an impact on me. On the other hand, I never find it hard to accept my share of the responsibility if something goes wrong.
But if I had to give an answer, I’d say I wouldn’t mind a bit less paperwork – contracts, regulations, that kind of thing. Because I’m not always super structured, that requires a great deal of time and energy.
What mistake from the past have you learned the most from?
Going against my gut feeling. I try to make decisions with colleagues as often as possible, but that also means I’ve had to learn not just to follow the crowd when I sense that something isn’t quite right. With job applications, for example, I just don’t see a good match in some cases, but in others I do because of something like an impressive CV or interesting work experiences.
The same applies to new clients: sometimes I feel that we’re just not on the same wavelength, but for financial reasons, for example, we still end up working with them. In the meantime, I’ve learned that’s never a good idea. If there isn’t a click, the collaboration won’t last long anyway. And in the end, it always costs you more.
What advice would you give the Katleen from 10 years ago?
Two things. The first is to have more confidence in the fact that you are doing good work. So more self-esteem, having the courage to acknowledge your talents. At the time, I assumed that what I did wasn’t really all that special, that anyone could do it. These days I have the courage to look at it differently, and that feels good.
Secondly, I would tell her that she needs to put things into perspective more. ‘It’s just work’, I would say to the younger Katleen. I used to think about work all the time and have trouble letting go of things that had been said or incidents at work. My children and my boyfriend really help me to draw a clearer boundary between work and my personal life. Now I experience a much greater sense of balance.
What makes Blue Lines unique for you?
The strong team, without a doubt. When I see how the Blue Lines team connect and work, I think, hats off to you, that’s really next-level collaboration. As a result, the quality remains unrivalled. Get rid of the strong team and the quality would take a nosedive, I’m sure of that. The feedback we receive doesn’t lie. Last week, I had an applicant who said: “I want to work for you because I want to work with the best translation agency.” We get similar feedback from companies and clients.
What challenges do you think are specific to managing this kind of team?
I think it’s sometimes more difficult for such a close-knit team to introduce changes than it would be for another company. But I don’t worry about that too much. In any case, a statement such as “From now on, we’re going to do this differently” just isn’t my style.
The Blue Lines team is very independent and self-managing. I can rest assured that areas for improvement will appear on the agenda automatically. I only interfere if there are difficulties or if I can see that something is going wrong. But at the end of the day, I don’t believe that any major changes are required. Except maybe to limit the number of coffee machines. What the hell is a small business doing with 3 coffee machines? (laughs)
What is your ambition for Blue Lines? When will Blue Lines have been a success, in your opinion?
It already is. But of course, there are always plans for the future. In the coming period, we mainly want to expand our content arm. I want to ensure that clients can rely on the high-quality content they had in mind, just as they can with our translations. In the first instance, we want to make their lives easier. But in order to gain that trust, we will need to grow a lot first. As far as the translations are concerned, I absolutely want to continue to live up to the claim that we are the best on the market and convince even more companies to work with us. I also think that we should choose more carefully which companies we want to work with in future.
That being said, I’m not the kind of person who will only be satisfied when we get our hundredth employee. For me, it’s much more important that everyone who works here enjoys doing so and finds meaning in the work we do. In that sense, I won’t be changing the way Stef and Sofie have always done things. Although I am trying to work in a slightly more structured and considered way. I have always found Stef’s enthusiasm and wild ideas contagious, but I like to take a little more time to implement decisions and commit to strategic choices.
Which song would you choose as the main theme for Blue Lines: The Movie?
My oldest son is always listening to the song that goes “I’m Blue, da ba dee da ba daa…” It’s horribly catchy, you just can’t get it out of your head! Then he says: “Mama, how can you not like it? You can sing along to the whole thing!”. Of course it’s an option because of the ‘blue’, but I don’t think the team would be all that pleased with my choice.
If I had to choose one song, I’d go for the intro to The A-Team: “If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-team.” That’s great, and it totally applies to the Blue Lines team. Although the B team are a little easier to find than the A team…