30 years in HR, part 14: what I learned from my first boss

I am always somewhat hesitant to mention names in the blog, but I assume that when I write about people in a positive way they will have no objections. In my working life of 30 years I have not had many bosses. Six in total. Three of them were HR bosses, the other three CEO’s. I have been very lucky. They were all good and I could learn a lot from them. With all of them I am still in touch. Lucky is not totally right. The first two I did not choose, and I was forced upon them. With bosses three to six I had a choice (and so had they). In the selection of a new opportunity the criterion “Do I think I can work well with the boss” has always been high on my list. For me the most important engagement drivers are: the people in the team I lead, my boss and of course the challenges I have to deal with.
In this blog I want to focus on boss number 2, Paul Starrenburg. He was also a little bit boss number 1, as he was the boss of my first boss (Hans Smits). Hans Smits recently very kindly prepared a small photo book of my first six working years. In the booklet many photo’s and articles I had not seen for years. The photograph at the beginning of the blog is typical Paul Starrenburg. On the phone, sitting in a comfortable position. This was in 1984 or so, no PC’s, no mobile phones. Most likely he was solving some complex conflict at executive level. Or he was convincing a top potential who wanted to make a move, to be patient (“Your time will come…”). The booklet also contains an interview with Starrenburg, dated June 1985. He makes a plea for good performance management. “A complaint I often hear, is that management is too busy, and cannot find the time to have meaningful conversation with their people”. What is new… He states that management should also deal with poor and mediocre performers. “I sometimes say: we travel on a freighter, without passenger accommodation”.
Difficult to summarize what I learned from him. Here are some lessons that come to my mind now:

1. Always take an integral/holistic approach to HR

If your approach is too functional (recruitment, training, reward, OD), you quickly lose sight of the bigger picture, and you might get lost in the detail.

2. Be patient but persistent

He applied that also to careers, also my own career. His message, to me and others: give yourself time to learn. If you move to fast from job to job, you are not confronted with the results of your actions. Especially in Philips this was an issue, as moving people around as part of management development sometimes seems to be a higher goal than delivering solid short-term results.

3. Keep some distance and stay independent

In the end, you can only give quality advice if you stand behind your own views, and are willing to voice an independent view.


Having a good boss, especially early in your career, is very important. If you are not as lucky as I was, consider your options, but do not hang on too long!

Paul Starrenburg


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