Sana is a dynamic work environment that offers great opportunities for entrepreneurial students. No one knows that better than our own CEO, Michiel Schipperus, who started working at Sana over 15 years ago as a Managerial Assistant. Read on to learn more about his journey to the boardroom.
How did you get started at Sana?
Michiel Schipperus: It started in 1999, during the Erasmus University introduction week. I met Jan Kees de Jager, one of the founders of ISM eCompany, from which Sana eventually spun off. He said that if I was interested in part-time Managerial Assistant job that would teach me a lot, I should get in touch.
I did exactly that a few weeks later, and he told me I could start the next day.
What did your workweek look like?
MS: I started working two days a week as a Managerial Assistant. Jan Kees and the other founder, Karel van der Woude, gave me plenty of challenges. The other students and I did everything that wasn’t project related, from office management to marketing.
As time went on, the company grew, and I was able to grow along. After about two years, I let them know that I wanted to be more involved in the core business: the projects. I was given some project management, and I was also involved in product development – what would one day be Sana Commerce.
And this was during your time at university?
MS: Yes, I worked part-time at ISM the whole time. I gradually worked more and had many different roles within the organization. By the time I graduated in 2005, ISM had grown from 25 to 125 employees, so it was a very different kind of environment.
My job taught me a lot, it was definitely an interesting addition to my degrees. I could immediately apply what I learned during my degrees. And the things I learned on the job gave a clear context to what I learned at university.
It doesn’t sound like a standard part-time job.
MS: No, I was constantly challenged. For instance: although I didn’t have any management experience and was much younger than the rest, Jan Kees and Karel made me responsible for leading a team that found itself without a manager.
It wasn’t exactly conventional, but it was a huge opportunity for me. That’s typical of the company culture. People are thrown in at the deep end and given a chance to develop.
And after you graduated?
MS: Karel and Jan Kees asked me to stay on as a director.
Obviously that was an offer I couldn’t refuse: a position like that in a fast-growing company right after graduation. I knew that company inside out, because I’d seen it grow. Not long after that we moved to the Van Nelle Fabriek and opened our Ukraine office. So it was a very dynamic time.
People often ask me why I’ve stayed with the same company for 17 years. It might be the same organization on paper, but that’s it. It’s constantly going through new phases and developing itself. The same is true for my own role as well. Being the director of a company with 25 employees doesn’t compare to leading a 450-strong organization. It never gets boring.
So what are the constants within the company?
MS: I have always felt that it’s important for me to protect the emphasis on entrepreneurship. People must continue to receive opportunities, just like I did. We have to challenge people to leave their comfort zone and develop themselves.
Part of that is that people are able to make mistakes, without being judged. They see these as chances to learn – this is true for individual employees, but also for the company as a whole. We have to stay entrepreneurial in order to remain leaders in our field. It’s what our clients and future clients expect of us.
How is this emphasis on entrepreneurship reflected in Sana’s culture?
MS: If you look at Sana and what sets us apart, it’s got to be the opportunities our employees have. There’s no hierarchy holding them back from really making a difference. But that also means that there’s less structure.
It isn’t for everyone. Working at Sana means that you probably don’t have a job description that’s set in stone. And if you do, you’re expected to look further. If you’re looking for structure and someone to take you by the hand and ask how they can help, Sana probably isn’t the best environment for you.
Back to your own path to the boardroom: are there any moments in your career that you felt were truly defining?
MS: Definitely. During my time as a student, I made a conscious choice to make a serious go of my managerial assistant job at ISM. This was partly because I enjoy working here, but also because I wanted to prove myself.
This also meant choosing not to stay out late every Thursday. I had a great time as a student, but many of my friends spent more time partying. I chose to make ISM my priority, and that’s why I received the opportunities I did.
Is it enough to just put in the hours?
MS: I don’t think so. I believe that it’s also important to take the difficult path.
Take my time as a manager, for instance. It was pretty intimidating: I didn’t know how well I would do, but I did it anyway. That meant having difficult conversations with people who were considerably older than me. It wasn’t always easy, but it was important for my personal development.
What else students can do to create a strong foundation for their career?
MS: Realize that your student years are a great time to build up a good social life and invest in your academic qualities. But also be aware that it’s also the perfect time to get to know the business. If you’re able to balance these three things, then I believe you’ll get the most out of your time as a student.
That does mean that you’ll have to make difficult choices along the way. For instance: I noticed many of my fellow graduates going for big names like ING, Shell and Unilever. There’s an obvious appeal: everyone immediately knows what you’re talking about when you mention where you work.
But it might not be the best choice if you want to have a real impact straight away. That’s why I decided to go for a company that was less well known but more entrepreneurial. I wanted to make a big difference, instead of being a small part of the machine. And it helped me get where I am today.
What other difficult choices helped you get to where you are today?
MS: Not being afraid to delegate. You might feel that if you stay in control of everything, things will go better. Maybe they will, but you also have to realize that you can’t do everything. And if you let someone else take over, they might surpass you one day.
Sure, it might not always work out well in the short term. But you have to realize that everyone needs experience in order to learn, and that’s what helps you grow as an organization.
You have to dare make mistakes. And let other people make mistakes.
There’s currently an opening for a managerial assistant at Sana – the same role you had when you joined the company. Do you have any advice for students looking to follow a similar path?
MS: You reap what you sow. As a managerial assistant you can sit at a desk and complete your tasks, which are fun and challenging. But you can go further. You can put your heart and soul into your tasks and show the organization that you’re doing an excellent job. You’ll be given more responsibility and more interesting assignments.
And then there’s the next level, which is what I aimed for. You do an excellent job with your assignments, and then you spot and act on opportunities within the organization. You find where your own ambition and passion intersect with what’s happening within the company.
So try to excel in the tasks you’re given, but also look beyond and take the initiative. It’s what I did, and if it’s what you want to do, then you’re the right fit for the Managerial Assistant position.
Inspired by Michiel’s path to the boardroom?
Sana is still a great place for ambitious students to start their careers. If you like the sound of a dynamic working environment and aren’t afraid of taking responsibility, you might just be the right fit for our Managerial Assistant role.
9 February, 2017