Leading through change: An interview with Allegra van Hövell-Patrizi

In her role as CEO of Aegon the Netherlands, Allegra van Hövell-Patrizi embraces change. She learned early in her career that moving successfully through a transformation process requires aligning her teams, thinking holistically, and using a well-balanced leadership approach. McKinsey recently spoke with van Hövell-Patrizi about the greatest lessons she has learned while driving sustainable change and the advice she has for other leaders.

McKinsey: What are some examples of transformation processes you’ve experienced in your career?

Allegra van Hövell-Patrizi: I have had the privilege of being involved in several transformation processes throughout my career: as a consultant early on, in my roles in asset management and insurance in the US, and more recently as an executive at Aegon. I started at Aegon in a functional role as chief risk officer, then became CEO of Aegon’s branch in the Netherlands, representing roughly a third of the group. During my tenure as CEO, I have had to navigate two distinctive challenges. The first was leveraging the business’s good foundation to perform better. The second was completing an impending merger with another major Dutch player to create a local composite insurer in the Netherlands.

McKinsey: Is there a key to success when it comes to balancing business culture and driving outstanding results?

Allegra van Hövell-Patrizi: Like an athlete, an organization can perform as the best version of itself only when it has found the right balance of motivation, calmness, confidence, discipline, and preparation. So, as a leader, you need to strike the right balance between several elements: immediate performance and long-term trajectory, kindness and tough love, individual attention and the effectiveness of the whole team, discipline and freedom, and well-oiled, stringent processes and innovation.

In my experience, finding those balances starts with a complete, fact-based assessment of your starting position, taking into account clarity of purpose, overall culture, individual well-being within different teams, soundness of strategy, client views, the competitive situation, and the strength of commercial, operational, and financial processes.

From there, paint a picture of what should come for each of these factors in 18 months and in three to five years. Explain these visions in simple but vivid terms so that people from the top down can repeat them. This strategy encourages the leadership team to be sharp in their thinking, to be pragmatic and simple, to talk and act in a relatable way, to avoid corporate lingo, and to avoid assuming that they run too complex a business. Consequentially, they can be more effective in performing the journey from A to B with everybody on board and aligned. Whether it’s five or 10,000 people, more can get done when everyone is pushing in the same direction.

For example, at Aegon NL, when we define a new purpose or strategy, we develop related targets in terms of business and behavior, and then we use five simple principles to describe the journey we want to make. Everyone throughout the organization should be able to articulate them and apply them to their job. We made the principles a bit striking on purpose, using a mix of English and Dutch to represent the two languages of Aegon NL and to make sure they stuck with our diverse population. Our five principles are “Klanten, klanten, klanten” or “Customers, customers, customers”; “No rats in the kitchen,” meaning no operational mistakes in core processes; “If you commit, you deliver, and you take it to the goal”; “No change for the sake of change,” meaning if we make a decision, we stick to it unless circumstances drastically change; and “Leave our world a better place,” meaning be a force for good.

McKinsey: In your experience, what skills does a leader need to drive sustainable change and growth?

Allegra van Hövell-Patrizi: I think the most successful leaders have three main skills that make them successful. Of course, all three attributes come on top of someone being a strong, well-rounded professional as well as having strong analytical capabilities, excellent communication, and team spirit.

First, they dare. They are courageous and are willing to listen to different views, make decisions and stick to them, and change decisions when circumstances dictate. They’re OK with being unpopular sometimes and can be kind or tough, depending on what will help the organization, a team, or an individual the most. But they are also resilient; in the face of adversity, they dare to continue fighting for the purpose the organization has committed to.

Second, they care. They put their heart and soul into the success of their employees, the teams, and the organization. Strong leaders understand that their work is for the greater good rather than themselves.

And third, they share. They connect easily to their employees. Successful leaders are curious about others and learning how others do things so that they, the leaders, can learn and become better versions of themselves. They don’t shy away from their doubts and vulnerabilities so that they can ask for help as much as they can give help and support. It is about being humble and sharing a common humanity so that leaders and their employees can achieve a common purpose.

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