Karin Borst-Talen on being a Customer Director Operations and an intuitive facilitator

Karin Borst vierkant
Karin Borst-Talen
Nov 13, 2023 · 5 min read
Karin Borst A day in the life

For this edition, we sat down with Karin Borst-Talen, a Customer Director at Schuberg Philis. Her specialties include facilitating teams, connecting people, and making sure the customer is happy. When not at work, she can be found relaxing and enjoying life in Alkmaar with her son, a daughter who comes home from university on the weekend, and a partner who lives in his own home with his son.

Working life

What does the role of a Customer Director Operations mean for you?

It means that I’m part of a team that is completely focused on a specific customer. This team consists of people in leadership roles like customer directors – either focused on operations or sales – and people in technical roles, mostly Missions Critical Engineers, but also subject matter experts and technology officers. This team manages the customer's IT landscape.

As a Customer Director Operations, I’m responsible for facilitating all processes, resources, and communications of the customer team, while also serving as the lynchpin supporting these other roles to do what they do best. And of course, to help keep the customer happy.

Standing alongside me is the Customer Director Sales, who focuses on sales and finances. Together, we ensure that everything runs smoothly by facilitating the team members in making sure they have all the information and everything else they need to do their job. Are the contracts in place? Are timelines in order? Are requirements clear? Does everyone know the goal we’re working toward? Because, let’s face it, the engineers are the core of the team. They earn the money. Whether they're doing maintenance on a landing zone, building an application or integration layer in AWS, or making sure the network is safe and secure, they do the actual IT work for the customer.

Is there a typical day or, if not, a common thread that runs through your days?

More so in each of my weeks. First, it differs per day whether I’m working in the office, at the customer’s, or from home. But wherever I work, I try to keep Fridays for internal meetings and matters like administration, reporting, finances, and email. Thursdays are for the team and attending to the people in it. On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, I can be at the customer, working with the team, or working on some big project myself, for example, in the role of project or program manager. Recently, we’ve been working on creating a new contract, which was a big job. Right now, I’m managing a program to migrate our customer to the public cloud. But other times, I’m just the person people go to to ask questions, have a talk, or reflect on something for a moment. The common denominator of all my working days is that I handle a certain amount of operational repetitive work – “chores” – that I try to get done first thing in the morning. After that, I’m usually talking the rest of the day. “Talking” is very general, but what I mean is that I’m often in a meeting or having a coffee or someone calls. I have noticed again and again that it’s very important to talk to someone, hear something in a meeting, talk to the next person and maybe even talk to the next person and then realize: "Hey, I can connect these people." I can make sure they meet to exchange knowledge and get things done together. This is what I see as a form of servant leadership: empowering other people whether I’m talking, emailing, chairing a meeting, writing meeting minutes, creating a timeline, whatever.

Company culture

Schuberg Philis has become internationally renowned for its self-steering culture and being both a top-down and bottom-up organization. What’s your experience of this been like?

A lot of people think that in a company with a self-steering culture there are no managers – ergo nothing is managed. That’s not the case. Of course, there’s leadership. I see myself as a leader because there are different roles that the company needs, and someone has to take the lead. At most companies, being a manager means deciding for people. Telling them: “This project has to be done, and you’re going to do it.” Or “From now on this is our new way of working.” At Schuberg Philis, we’re deciding with the people. That’s really different. It gives us a lot of freedom, which automatically comes with responsibility. When I’m in a leadership role as I am now, I say to the team: “This is the goal. What do you need to make sure we can achieve it? And by the way, when is it doable? What would you need to be able to get it done?” I don’t have to think much for the team – I just have to ask a lot of questions. Plus, at Schuberg Philis, I’m surrounded by people who are very smart. They know so much more than I do on all these technical topics. And they are usually really good at what they do. I love that. On the other hand, it can make coming to a decision difficult sometimes, because engineers can very stubborn and sure that they’re right. Especially if you have a few of them in the room and you must come to consent, there can be a lot of discussions. Working with consent is something I needed to learn. A team or an individual sometimes needs a little coaching in this, especially when they’re younger. What I’ve experienced is that with a lot of mutual respect, vulnerability, and asking many questions, getting to a decision may be a little more difficult in a self-steering team. However, in the end, the decision is widely supported and thus much more sustainable.

You’ve worked at several major Dutch companies in your career. How else does this one compare?

One of the biggest differences of Schuberg Philis versus other companies is the organized chaos. At past jobs, I used to have processes that were written down, detailing how the work was supposed to be done. That seemed to create certainty and predictability, but in real life usually led to a lot of bureaucracy. That’s far less the case here. At Schuberg Philis, there’s just enough structure, giving people much more freedom yet requiring them to always keep thinking at the same time. When I started working here, I figured: "Oh my God, somebody here needs to organize those processes, clean them up, bring structure – that’s why they need me!" But soon I realized that wasn’t true. The actual result of the organized chaos is of much higher quality than all the structure, processes, and forms that every past company I worked with ever delivered. So, I had to learn to let go of the urge to organize everything. At Schuberg Philis what seems to be organized chaos leads to really great things. Still, a little organization within the team is always appreciated, ha-ha.

Passion project

How did your background prepare you for this job?

In high school, I liked mathematics, physics, chemistry. I was always good at them. And I knew I wanted to do a technical study, but also something involving "management" – though I didn’t really know yet what that was. I applied to the Eindhoven University of Technology, where I started pursuing industrial engineering and management. But I realized that I didn’t like managing something I myself couldn’t perform. I wanted to understand and be able to do what the engineers were doing, not just manage them. I also didn’t like Eindhoven. So I moved to Utrecht, applied to Utrecht University, and checked out the options. I leaned toward mathematics but didn’t want to end up teaching high school. Then I noticed mathematics and computer science were at the same faculty and remembered playing around with a Commodore 64 as a kid, learning to program in BASIC. I decided to enrol in the mathematics and computer science study and see where it would lead. I was surrounded by guys who really, really, really liked computer science and found myself being really comfortable there, feeling at home in the man’s world that computer science usually is. I ended up graduating in computer science, with a master’s degree in software engineering and a minor in business economics and management – because, as it turns out, I did like that too.

You liked computer science, but could you also envision the huge demand for tech experts?

No, it was more of a lucky guess – not a lot of vision or well-thought-out ideas about the future. It was before the internet got big, before the smartphone, and before people became aware of the Y2K problem. Back in the 80s, people said everything was already automated. It was very difficult to find a job in IT around the time I started going to university, in 1993. People told me I was crazy, that I would never make any money unless I learned skills for a "real job." By the time I graduated, however, the world had changed. There was very high demand for IT-skilled students, so I never had a problem finding a job. Possibilities appeared, and jobs just flowed from to the next. The combination of my technical background and management skills gave me a lot of options and opportunities. Not much strategic thinking went into that, but I followed my intuition. That worked out for me then. And it still works for me today when I apply this in my daily work.

Are there activities in your personal life that help you cultivate this intuition?

Not necessarily activities, more like non-activities activities. I’ve learned during my life that if the pressure is on – whether that’s a lot of work, stress, or whatever – I become a much more rigid person. I get tunnel vision, become controlling and dominant, and have these “to do” lists. It seems helpful in stressful times because someone is clearly taking the lead, but in the long run, it’s not. Not for me, the people around me, or the relationships I have with them. So, I know it’s very important for me to stay relaxed. To stay calm. Have headspace. And keep room in my calendar to do nothing. That way time emerges for me to think, wander, have ideas, and sleep on them. That means I had to learn that it’s OK to do nothing every now and then. To spend time in the garden, in the sun, at the beach, staring at the fire. I really needed this to be able to be more efficient at work as well as to enjoy life. So it’s more a matter of what I don’t do in my free time than what I do do.

Curious to know more about how more colleagues spend their days? See the whole series here.