A Sacred Desire to Grow: An Interview with Xebia’s New Consulting CEO

Posted by Vivian Andringa on Oct 2, 2019 10:00:00 AM

“Sincerity and transparency are my mottoes.”—Andrew de la Haije, CEO Xebia Consultancy Services

I meet up with Andrew at the Xebia Amsterdam office on Wibautstraat during lunch, just as he grabs a slice of pizza and a croissant. “My favorite sport, field hockey, is starting to suffer,“ he smiles, pointing at his belly. I laugh, suspecting that, like me, he enjoys the good life.  

Getting straight to the point, I ask him why he chose Xebia as his next step in an already impressive career. I knew he had left a comfortable position at RIPE NCC, where he had set the course for the company as COO, overseeing a region that included 116 countries. 

“I know Daan (Teunissen, Xebia’s founder), from my time at Accenture. He used to poach my best people,” jokes Andrew. “He asked me how I would feel about taking over the CEO position.”

I lean in as Andrew savors another bite of his pizza, wiping his hands before continuing, “One of my consultants, some 15 years ago, told me that Xebia allowed its people to buy books without anyone ever making a fuss. This stayed in the back of my mind for some time. The consultant was one of the best Java engineers in the Netherlands. He had left an amazing company because it wasn’t giving him the opportunity to expand his capabilities and skillset, personally or for the organization. After hearing his story, I made a firm decision never to restrict anyone in their development. To me, an inclination and desire to grow is almost sacred—it should be supported whenever possible!”

I agreed with the sentiment and encouraged Andrew to continue.

“When Daan asked me to join Xebia, I remembered that engineer’s story—in fact, it was instrumental in my decision to join. I also intrinsically believe in Xebia's mission and values, which have always been consistently communicated, and which remain immutable. Entrepreneurial spirit lays at the core of the organization’s DNA, much like the drive to be the very best and to pursue a position of authority. Some of our decisions may seem counterintuitive because we might choose to strengthen our position of authority over short-term financial gain.  Adding up this commitment to be the best in our field, the commercial and entrepreneurial drive within Xebia, and our inspiring and authentic team, I was left with the obvious choice: I'm going to make this dream happen for me. Xebia is truly unique.”

“What else makes it unique?” I ask.

“Well, one thing is that it truly operates from its values. And just as values are important in a family, they are also needed within an organization. Not only do they help us fulfill the mission; they’re the guiding principles.” 

I ask Andrew to elaborate on Xebia’s four values, from his own perspective.

“Well, first, ‘quality without compromise’ is an overarching value within the company. Everything we do, we do without compromise. So, our value of ‘putting people first is even stronger, because we put people first without compromise. And it’s the same with our value of ‘sharing knowledge’— it’s made stronger by the fact that we do it without compromise. We adhere to our beliefs, without compromise."

I nod in agreement, feeling his conviction. I too have felt that about Xebia. Andrew continues, “For example, the conversation at other companies often centers around revenue and growth. People are secondary. But for us, it's the other way around. Our consultants come first, without compromise! The same applies to sharing knowledge, we don’t compromise on that value. Quality without compromise is also how we want to approach ‘customer intimacy,’ but that one takes some extra skill to achieve,” he falls quiet for a moment. 

I ask him to explain. “Well, it’s delicate because it’s all about how you relate—and having the right mixture of authenticity and empathy. So, when you’re honest about what you can and can’t do to solve a problem within a certain time frame or budget, for example, saying ‘no’ can be a form of customer intimacy.  On the other hand, of course, it really matters how you say it.”

“So, if you could sum up what customer intimacy means to you, in one word, what would it be?” I ask.

Andrew doesn’t hesitate. “Trust,” he says. "Trust is inextricably linked to customer intimacy and vice-versa. It is important to express a genuine interest in people and underlying issues. That's customer intimacy. Often, it’s the question behind the question, an ambition, concern or request for help. We often say that we want to make a difference, but does that difference solve your client’s problem? You don’t always have to do exactly what your client asks of you. It’s perfectly okay to sometimes challenge your customer—but of course, there’s a nuance to countering and saying ‘no.' The underlying reasons for decisions and choices aren’t always visible to us—for example, internal politics or lack of insight—we have to be sensitive to that. Sensitivity is also customer intimacy.  Also, showing sincere interest and asking ‘what's in it for them?’”.

We continue discussing our customers—Andrew would like to get to know them better and has committed to visiting at least one a week. For him, ‘customer intimacy’ and putting ‘people first’ go hand-in-hand with taking the time to get to know people personally, as individuals. He’s extremely motivated to improve everyone’s situation, particularly his people and direct customers. “To feel for your customers is a form of customer intimacy—one of the four Xebia values, and it’s fundamental to its mission of becoming an authority,” he explains. Andrew also tries to sit down for a cup of coffee with internal colleagues as often as possible and engages in organized roundtables. “Because Xebia deals in ‘expertise’ rather than a specific industry, exchanging knowledge and continuous learning is essential here,” he says. 

Andrew is really a consultant at heart. But he wanted to experience client-issues firsthand, to know what it was like to face them from the other side. He explains, "I was able to empathize with the customer, but I didn’t really have skin in the game because, in the end, they weren't my problems or my people." So he took a role at RIPE NCC, planning to make a timely return to consulting with a better understanding and capacity to support people from his lived experience. It took twelve years before he could return to consulting, while he and his team worked to transform the company into a customer-oriented and Agile organization. “I felt the pain, lost sleep, but with my team, we put RIPE NCC on the path to becoming the industry leader it is today—healthy, and ready for the future, and with a strong, mature workforce."

Speaking of the workforce brings Andrew’s mind back to Xebia. “When Xebia was just starting out, it had about 40 or 50 people who were essentially instigators—people hired to poke around when things weren’t running smoothly. That required a very different level of expertise than focusing on specific customer issues. Now, we are increasingly presented with broader problems to solve—a digital transition or an end-to-end project or program. With our current reputation and scale, we can collaborate across units and make a real difference, without having to sub-optimize. But our customers still demand the same deep expertise found in specific roles of the past.”

Another determining factor in Andrew’s decision to join the company was the fact that Xebia only employs the very best consultants in the industry. "Our consultants might be gone more often and cost more than others, but it was a very deliberate choice," he explains. "Very few of our clients would make that choice because it’s easy to underestimate the value of that investment until it’s right in your face.” 

A Positive Twist...Not Pain, but Value

We continue to talk about this phenomenon of adding value, wondering about ways our knowledge-sharing culture could add value for the customer.  Should we invite our customers to join our Xebia Knowledge Exchange events (XKEs)? Or ask our consultants to take what they’ve learned at an XKE and then present it on the customer’s work floor the next day? Andrew has a lot to say on this topic. “It all hinges on the interpretation of ‘sharing knowledge,’ the seeking, placing, and exchange of something new,” he says. “It's awesome to help others move forward while you’re working on yourself, so we should continuously take the client along— and the consultants should, too. Investing time in developing and sharing knowledge may 'hurt' in the short term, but it adds a lot of value. To one day hear a client tell one of our consultants, ‘Hey, it’s 3 pm—you should be leaving for Hilversum now for the XKE’ because he knows that it will eventually benefit him and his company, well, that’s my ultimate goal," smiles Andrew.

The Benchmark in Digital Consulting

“We want Xebia to become the benchmark in digital consulting—the one to watch and that others compare themselves against when it comes to methods and results. We want to elevate the entire organization to the next level. However, a position of authority is an ongoing mission—one we continually strive to maintain. But you can't proclaim your own authority—other people need to say it. And others will only call you an authority if you actually fulfill their needs. Our customers have a lot of choices when it comes to solving their problems—all with different effects and consequences. We have the experience and technical know-how to offer a broad and specific range of expertise in the areas they need. So, the demand in the market is there and we’re seen as a company that can deliver on all aspects of digital transformation. We’re at the right scale and have the right people to take the customer to that next level, too.” 

I ask Andrew if there’s anything else he’d like to add about coming to Xebia before we wrap up our interview (and his lunch).

“I'm so proud of the people who work here. I walk around smiling every day because everyone in the organization is so sharp in their interactions. You can feel a real openness and transparency, and also, a sense of just having fun together. That's really something really special and valuable at Xebia."

I agreed and was also impressed by all I had learned about our new CEO. I ended our interview with “Werkze!” which, loosely translated from Dutch means, “Keep up the good work!” 

Andrew smiled and tossed me his usual parting farewell, “Have fun!”

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