LEADer/ Searching For Misfits

Delft, 28 July 2016 — Meet Anne-Marie Mananquil Bakker, an entrepreneur with a passion for planting trees who embraced renewable energy and started searching for misfits. What can we learn from her leadership journey, and what are her 3 recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia? 

Starting out

Born in 1975 in Surabaya, as the second of three siblings, Anne grew up surrounded by the trees of her secluded home in Indonesia’s second largest city and main sea port, where she lived with her parents and two brothers. 

Her mother was born in the Philippines during the Second World War and graduated in journalism and English literature before becoming an avid environmentalist. 

“My Mom is an advocate of the environment. She grew up on a farm climbing mango trees and throwing seeds while riding her grandpa’s horse, and eventually had to hide in the forests of Mount Arayat, Pampanga, during the Japanese occupation. Land and nature are close to her heart, as well as singing. She is a natural performer. Mom inspired me with her strong values for honesty, integrity and a deep care for all forms of life."

She still sees her mother as a pioneer.

“Mom always worked hard, for her own fulfillment and to share with others. I was inspired by her perseverance, and drive for learning and giving back to the community. Back in the sixties, she was already an independent professional and family breadwinner."

Her father hails from a fisherman’s family in the Netherlands and chose to become a tropical agronomist. His study of land, soils and agriculture brought him to France’s vineyards, before moving on to tobacco fields in Latin America and Asia, where he later established a global tobacco trading office. 

“Dad is solid, always grounded, like the soils he studied. Where my Mom was feisty as a firecracker, Dad was logical and calm, with endless patience for life. Where others saw problems, he created opportunities. He inspired me with his pragmatic vision for outcomes, and for the value of time and inputs to generate them."

She reflected especially on her father’s style of working with clients.

"Some of his suppliers and clients have stayed with him over 40 years. When I was young, I already noticed how through quiet observation he could see people’s true character. I learned from him how to respect clients and let them co-design solutions."

Both her parents mostly worked from home, and traveled frequently, and separately, for their work and advocacies.

Building bigger

As a child, Anne spent long hours with her brothers playing with Lego blocks in their quiet home, where they found and created their own entertainment. 

“We made our own games, and nothing stayed in the box. Our garden was our lab. What we built with Lego was always outside the manual. My brothers and I would work together to make things bigger and better."

Being in the middle also offered challenges.

“I found myself often in the role of mediator, and I learned to consider both sides of a story, to make sure all sides were represented. It made me think of studying law." 

Exploring physical activities was central to Anne’s joys. She would do her homework during school so that she could go out and play.

“I did sports for hours, especially team and outdoor sports like football. I loved the constant movement and to push physical exertion to my limits."

Anne described herself as a black sheep who wanted to do things beyond the normal roles of Philippine girls. 

“I was restless, terrible at following orders and conforming, especially to girls roles and duties. I wanted to climb trees, explore rooftops, free dive in the ocean or get pummeled by storm waves with my brothers. This energy got me into trouble. After I gave up on ballet, my parents gave in to my thirst for sports and overseas travels, and they helped me channel some energy into music and arts—which helped to broaden my perspectives.

Learning through radio

Anne and her brothers attended Surabaya International School and what she remembers most is her joys outside the regular curriculum.

“I loved learning new things about creativity. I did not know that the stretching taught by our gym coach was actually yoga. Teaching without new knowledge or challenges bored me. I enjoyed the international setting where we went beyond the boundaries of color and creed, with fundamental human interests at heart. I loved going beyond boundaries."

She remembered listening to radio a lot, always eager to know what was happening outside.

“BBC World Service was our life saver, together with the Encyclopedia Britannica at home. We also watched black and white TV with local channels showing Balinese dances and Javanese shadow plays. The radio was on all day, as our main connection to the world outside—blasting out everything from Mozart to news about malnutrition in Ethiopia, and from American naval movements to politics and cricket in India." 

She later continued her education at International School Manila, and described herself as quiet in school.

“I lived in my own world then, and had no particular cliques other than sports. Mom encouraged us to keep learning outside school—piano, dance, voice and more, to explore our own skillsets."

Culture shock

After graduating in 1993, Anne moved to her father’s country to take up business in Rotterdam’s International School of Economics, where she graduated in 1998.  

“I went for business studies, to be broad and agile. Living in Holland was a culture shock for me, especially when being one of the few colored people to walk in downtown Rotterdam at that time.”

After getting her Bachelor’s degree, she got her first job at P&O Nedlloyd, where she worked on averting the dreaded Y2K bug in a team led by an IT genius. Luckily, the world did not collapse at the dawn of the new millennium, and she moved on to her next job, this time in the world of development.

“I joined IHE in Delft [now UNESCO-IHE], the world’s leading institute for water education. Working in their project office was all about innovation and partnerships for development. I felt in my element there, for five years."

She mentions how this period formed her.

“My biggest take away was to learn about my strengths and weaknesses, and how to go for something you believe in with 200% of your energy. Using new virtual learning technologies, we connected and trained leaders in development solutions. It was like my building-bigger-with-Lego days again, only this time on a global scale, like through the World Bank’s Global Development Learning Network."

Red wine with ice

After five years at IHE, she felt a need to refresh, and moved to France where she took a Masters in Finance at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales du Nord (EDHEC) in Nice.

“I loved the warm weather and people in France, the experience of getting to know a new country, and having to speak French at the local fish market. I got to know people under the surface, by making an effort to connect through their language. I learned how conventions could always be redesigned. Like when my local teacher taught me to add ice cubes to my Beaujolais red wine during a dinner of fish." 

Caught up in business

After graduation in 2004, Anne kicked off a whirlwind of marketing challenges over four years, starting with GE Advanced Materials in the Netherlands, followed by Clearstream International and Deutsche Börse Group in Luxembourg and Frankfurt, Tyco EMEA in France, and the Qatar Financial Regulatory Authority in Doha.

“I took on the appeal of new countries and cultures, and discovered more about myself in the process. And then I realized that I wanted to be closer to my family in Asia.”

In 2008, Anne joined two of her family’s businesses—one a tobacco trading house and the other making premium cigars, to get hands-on experience in global sourcing, logistics, finance and sales.

Three years later she co-founded a global water advocacy consultancy in Singapore (Alon Pte Ltd) to promote water education and water footprint assessments in Asia, building on her water expertise gained at IHE in the Netherlands. 

“My excitement was in setting up and refining new ventures, not just running them. And then, in the process of working in the family business, I discovered my greatest passion to lie in the environmental work of our nongovernmental organization in the Philippines, called Fostering Education & Environment for Development (FEED)."

Shifting to sustainability

After contributing as a volunteer in her spare time, she joined FEED as VP of Operations in 2008, focusing on tree planting activities. 

"Engaging in the work of FEED was an important shift for me. At that time, the market was already asking for more and more tree planting. Mom had always told me that I would know what I loved when I got there, saying that when you planted something in the earth, you would understand what giving and nurturing life really meant. It was my time to discover that."

Working with FEED, Anne’s passion grew into engaging youth leaders and scaling up the restoration of the environment together with climate-smart solutions in marginalized communities.  

In 2013, Anne's attention for sustainability expanded to renewable energy investments when she joined WEnergy Global, a Singapore-based market leader in promoting renewable energy systems for emerging economies. 

“I realized that tree planting was not enough to reverse the unsustainable trends in our environment. We need to make headway in renewable energies, while also tackling water and food security, particularly in underserved areas of the country."

Styling her leadership

What is Anne's favorite leadership style?

"I like teamwork, and to lead from behind. To set the stage for others to perform on. I make the arrangements and the game plan, while seeing the big picture. I find it easy to fill gaps in a group, to step in and play a missing role—whether in goal setting or in delivering a technical input."

She continued explaining about helping others.

“I love pulling out the talents I see in others. Bringing out their best. Nowadays, I am called to lead at the front more often. My leadership style has evolved, from behind, to the middle, to the front. I am now giving myself space to make this change because it is needed.”

Anne explained how she gives space to her intuition. 

"My intuition is strong. When I do not listen to it, things often do not flow. This gut feeling or internal guidance helps me choose my steps ahead. My family has often made decisions on the basis of such intuition also. Previously we did not  talk about it. Now we are more frank about it.” 

She also likes planning, and emphasized the need for action.

"I like having a game plan. And I have also come to realize that we need to act and deliver more quickly than before, especially now that the demands for sustainability are greater than ever before, not only from government, but also from companies, teachers, students and parents."

Connecting East with West

I asked Anne how she used her Filipino and Dutch sides as she developed her leadership.

"From the Dutch side, I learned to be explicit when communicating—whether verbally, in writing or through body language—to leave nothing implicit. To make communication as simple as possible when delivering a message, and to add tone for effect."

"Using my Eastern side, I use different tools and styles. Sometimes, a handshake is enough. I love that sense of trust.”

"From when I was young, I got interested in Buddhism, Dao and Zen. They helped me explore the oneness of cultures, politics and religion. I also learned that in communication, things can get lost in in translation.”

Effective communication starts with our inner dialogue, she explained.

“We are what we think, in a way. So we need to pay attention to our thoughts, as they can become our actions. Following Chinese wisdom, this can affect our habits and character, and ultimately our destiny. With awareness, we can direct our thoughts for better results.”

Anne also shared about communicating and working with clients and partners.

“The most significant lesson I learned in my career so far is that compassion and collaboration go hand in hand. Some people prefer more handholding, while others like to work from their vision. We can find out their preferred style by getting into their mindset.”

Three recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia

So what are Anne’s three recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?

First, know yourself.

“Learn about your strengths and weaknesses. In our fast-changing world, refresh, upgrade, and expand your knowledge all the time. I admire the traits of the bamboo, to bend and stay strong.”

Second, do your due diligence.

“Be sure that you have at your disposal a set of data points that is as complete as possible. Also use your intuition, your gut feeling. In talks, a lot is assumed and expected, and not necessarily communicated. More haste causes less speed. You need to rely on good assessments and good awareness.”

Third, communicate and collaborate with compassion.

“Understand culture. Go for quality over quantity when it comes to relationships. Make real connections, real relationships, beyond Facebook and multi-media. Dive deep and get closer through communication, then you can make innovation happen.”

What's next?

As we wrapped up our discussion at the green expanse of Manila’s Polo Club, Anne’s eyes lit up as I asked her what was coming up.

“Expanding partnerships for sustainability is key for me. We need smart innovations, and scaling up and out. How to connect tree-planting activities with investments in renewable energy, and quality environmental education? Where can we make them meet?”

Anne reiterated the need for strong metrics.

“Without metrics we don’t know where we are heading. We cannot multiply results only from assumptions and feelings. We need to implement the climate agreement we made in Paris in December 2015 and achieve the targets we set.  What need to know what we are offsetting through projects, what works best, what delivers the greatest impact? I’m looking for high-quality partnerships to make that happen.”

Anne has meanwhile kept up a relentless pace in her own development. In 2015 she earned the Professional Level Certification of the Philippine Civil Service, as well as a Standby Classification with the Philippine Army’s Reserve Command (ARESCOM).

“We need to keep learning, whatever age we are. Yesterday’s solutions may not work anymore. Continuous innovation is needed.”

Innovation is one of the toughest challenges in her view.

“Around 20 million people, or one fifth of the population of the Philippines, are still waiting for electrification, including many island communities. Conventions and communication can still hold us back when it comes to innovation. Working out-of-the-box here takes longer than needed, I feel. We need more acceptance and resources for experimentation with full effort.”

Getting results will need the full engagement of Gen Y and Gen Z, and nurturing more innovators, as she explained in her conclusion.

“I am going for this with my gut and action. Few people step out of the box by themselves, and they are often regarded as misfits. Now I look for them, I am searching for the misfits. They are the innovators, and I love to work with them to champion change.”

Anne-Marie Mananquil Bakker’s profile

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