‘ALWAYS BE THE BLUE BANANA’
Introducing Charlotte van Thienen, HR Director at Accenture Netherlands
This November marks Charlotte van Thienen’s 15-year anniversary at Accenture. Having started as a fresh-faced graduate, she gradually climbed the corporate ladder to arrive in the position she holds today: that of HR Director. “Whenever I started getting a little restless, a new challenge or role would arise within the company. When your employer continuously offers you opportunities to learn new things and challenge yourself, there’s no need to look anywhere else.”
As the youngest of three children, with two older brothers, Charlotte learned to ‘fight’ at a young age. A big driver for her was the need to keep up with her siblings and do just as well at everything as they did – or preferably better! “Only when I was older did I realize how much of an impact this has had on my life. It’s definitely where I got my fighting spirit. And then there’s also the fact that I grew up with two parents who believed that ‘being mediocre isn’t good enough’ and who pushed us to do the best we could. That’s how you end up with someone like me: a streetwise, competitive perfectionist who always wants to do things better, smarter and faster.
Entering the corporate world
I definitely don’t perceive this as something negative. It’s how I got to where I am today. Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing or do anything in my life differently. I believe that some things happen for a reason and you find your way as it unfolds. That certainly applies to me joining Accenture nearly 15 years ago. I had just graduated with my master’s in sociology when a friend alerted me to a job vacancy at Accenture. I liked that the company was American, and its corporate character certainly appealed to me. I thought, ‘If I’m going to enter the corporate world, what better place to do it than Accenture?’ Well, I got what I was hoping for – and then some! I loved working in such a fast-paced environment where I was always surrounded by smart, ambitious people.
All that said, Accenture is now very different to the company it was 15 years ago. And that’s ultimately a good thing. I’ve enjoyed watching the company evolve into a human-centered business that is truly open to anyone. Inclusiveness has always been high on our agenda, but I personally feel that we are now the open, welcoming company that we have aspired to be for a long time. And we’ve achieved this not only because we genuinely want to be inclusive, but also because we have witnessed for ourselves that diverse teams really are more creative and high-performing.
‘Be totally you’
This all really resonates with who I am and what I stand for. ‘Be totally you’ has been my motto for a very long time. If I can help Accenture be the kind of company where everyone feels that they can be completely themselves, I would have achieved one of my greatest goals. It’s advice that I often give my colleagues: to always be the blue banana. After all, there are already far too many yellow bananas.
When I was appointed HR Director in September 2020, I found myself in a new position that, I’ll admit, I’m still getting used to. In previous roles, I liked being the ‘advisor’ that guided others. I felt most comfortable backstage, making sure the person on stage could shine. Now there are many people I can approach for valuable advice or ideas, but I need to accept that I am now the person on stage, and there’s no one telling me what to say. I need to be the one guiding myself.
Ready for the challenge
When I was approached for the position of HR Director, I was over the moon. I clearly remember being asked what my ultimate goal was during one of my first interviews, and my answer was that I hoped to be the HR director of a big company like Accenture one day. Having achieved this goal certainly fills me with pride. As sorry as I was to see my predecessor Judith (with whom I’m still very close) leave, I was also very ready to take on the challenge and start this new chapter in my career.
Thanks to COVID-19, the past year was obviously quite different from what I had anticipated. When I started in my new role in September, people had just started returning to the office and were under the impression that life was going back to ‘normal’. Little did we know that Holland would be going into lockdown again only one month later. From an HR perspective, it’s been an interesting year. All the challenges brought on by COVID-19 raised many interesting HR-related queries and concerns. Our key priority has always been ensuring everyone stays motivated, connected and healthy. We launched several programs and initiatives aimed at preventing people from feeling disconnected, lonely, stressed or otherwise unhappy. And I’m pleased to say that they were quite successful.
COVID-19 didn’t disrupt the way we work at Accenture as much as it did at many other companies. We were already used to a flexible work approach, so for the most part we were able to continue as before. Some of our clients weren’t as well equipped for these changes, and we helped many of them embrace flexibility throughout the pandemic. We are now all ready to embark on a new adventure, which I refer to as the ‘new new way of working’, or in Accenture terms: ‘frictionless future of work’.
With frictionless working you can take your laptop anywhere and continue with your tasks while enjoying the same opportunities and comfort you would have at the office. Achieving this requires a shift in mindset. Until recently, the client dictated the rules. If a client wanted you to be on site for five days a week, that’s what you did. Today though, we center our work approach around what our staff need to function at their best. In this way the pandemic has definitely added an extra layer to the ongoing work-life balance debate.
For me personally, perfecting that balancing act has always been a challenge. And it became even more of a struggle when my children were born. The truth is that while Accenture has always given me freedom and flexibility, I haven’t always managed to keep clear boundaries in place. I tend to get carried away with my work. It’s just who I am: I enjoy working hard and deep within me, there’s that urge to do things better and smarter. I guess my parents’ aversion to mediocrity is still ingrained in me.
While I struggle to let go of work when I’m at home, I have no trouble doing so when I am at the beach. One of the reasons I love living in Bloemendaal – the town where I was born and moved back to in 2013, after living in Amsterdam for 15 years – as much as I do, is that the beach is just around the corner. And since we adopted our dog, Pippa, in late-2019 (she’s a pre-COVID pet), there’s now extra motivation to head to the shore, even in winter. When I’m there, I can let go of everything. The smell of fresh air, the breadth of the ocean and the feeling of the sea breeze truly work wonders for me.”
What I do
The field of HR is essentially all about making sure employees can develop and grow as people and perform to the best of their abilities. As HR Director, I shape the talent agenda so that the company can facilitate these goals optimally.
A day in my life
… is considered a good day when I feel I have made a difference. It doesn’t matter if the difference I’ve made is small or big – to the lives of my children, a friend or a colleague.
Advice to fellow and future colleagues
Be that blue banana. In other words, be totally you and make a difference. And speak up! There are so many opportunities at Accenture. Just raise your hand and speak up if there’s something you want (or don’t want) and the company will do everything it can to help you get there.
Charlotte van Thienen (1977)
Studied: Sociology, University of Amsterdam (2006)
Started working at Accenture: November 2006
Relationship status: Partner to Menno, mother to Olivier (11) and Anne (8)
Loves: When the sun shines, when I’m at the beach, having dinner with friends and when I’m surrounded by happy people, preferably my family
Gets annoyed by: Ignorance and narrow-minded people who aren’t open to the world around them
Favorite food: Indonesian and Italian food
On my nightstand: ‘Zoon’ by Karl Ove Knausgård, which is covered in a thick layer of dust as I only really read when I’m on holiday
Listens to: Podcasts are one of my latest discoveries. At home, my son, Olivier, is in charge of the music, and it’s not always to my liking. If I really want to listen to music I enjoy, I turn to classical or 80s and 90s classics.
Last purchase: Sunglasses
Would like to sit next to in the plane: Sigrid Kaag
Life-changing event: The birth of my children
The best lesson life has taught me: Don’t ever give up. Even when everything feels dark and hopeless, remember that the sun will come out again
What I learned recently: That I should have more patience, especially with my children
Most beautiful place on earth: Indonesia, particularly Sumatra
Hobbies/passions: Enjoying good food and traveling
What my colleagues don’t know about me: That I played the violin for over 10 years. I was actually pretty good at it at one point
Life motto: Never settle for less