Maria Van Der Sluijs-Plantz, Lawyer

Maria Van der SluijsMaria Van Der Sluijs-Plantz, a corporate lawyer with an LLM from the University of Leiden, the Netherlands. Maria moved to the Netherlands from the Caribbean to complete her studies and she’s been living there since then.

She began her career in 1986 when she joined PwC. Since 1989, Ms. Van Der Sluijs-Plantz served as Managing Director and Group Legal Counsel of LET Europe N.V. (a subsidiary of London & Edinburgh Trust plc). She joined TMF Netherlands in 1995 as Team Supervisor and subsequently served as its Managing Director. Then she became TMF’s Chief Executive Officer in 2003 and it’s Co-Chief Executive Officer in 2010. Afterwards she became Vice President Strategic Development for the TMF group and then moved to a non-executive position from 2014.

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Name something that guides both your personal and professional development and helps you regain focus during challenging times.

This for me has to be reflection and prayer. It comes from my basic understanding that whatever is happening at any particular point of time is not about me; it’s something much bigger.

I have a habit of withdrawing myself into music or into an activity that allows me to think about what’s happening, how I’m doing things and how I need to approach and handle different situations. I usually look at things through my gut feeling and my heart, and then figure out how to handle them with my brain.
I do this in times of stress and on weekly basis as well to reflect on things that happened during the week and how I handled them. I stop, take  a step back, withdraw into myself and reflect. I also pray with the hope that everything will pass and get better.

What do you believe is at the core of women’s hesitation to step out and pursue leadership roles where they are?

It might be modesty or the common thinking of some women: “why put myself out there?” But maybe if we ask the question differently and look at “Why men generally step out?” we can find the answer. Men step out and pursue leadership roles even if they don’t have the qualifications required; they just say they know how to do something and put their mind to it then do it.

Women on the other hand, they check the requirements of a job vacancy for example, and if there’s one box that they don’t tick then they hesitate, say they don’t have the experience in something but that they are fast learners, which makes recruiters uncertain if they should hire them or not. This is how women are conditioned,  so recruiters should take this into consideration and approach people in different ways in order to find the right fit by digging deeper and going beyond the words that the candidates say. This can be a challenge for HR sometimes.

Tell us one of your greatest professional accomplishments, and why it meant so much to you?

I would say my work at TMF and being CEO for more than 18 years. I took TMF from operating in 8 countries to 80, from 1500 employee to 5500, and from a revenue of 72 million to 397 million. But I am even prouder of what I did after I left TMF, which was finding my purpose in life and dealing with this change. This took a year of reflection, search and redefinition of myself and my purpose. I met other women who were in the same stage of life and heard their stories which helped me decide that whatever happens I am not going back to a position that would absorb me as much as being a CEO did. I’m proud of doing it but I would never do it again; it is now time for other things, things with a higher purpose and a bigger meaning. It is not about making a lot of money or climbing the corporate ladder anymore.

Did you always want to be a CEO?

Absolutely not! When I was asked as a kid about what I want to do when I grow up, my answer was a mom or a nun. My school even called my mom because I apparently gave the wrong answer. I should’ve wanted to be a teacher or a doctor or any other profession but not a mother which they didn’t consider as a profession. I just thought it would be so great to be a mother! As for what I wanted to do, I’ve changed my mind many times while growing up but I always wanted to do something with an international context. I was always interested and curios about other cultures and how things are done in different countries. I immensely enjoyed talking to different people and learning about their dreams, beliefs and aspirations. I came into a realization that all human beings believe in something bigger than themselves, that we are all important and that I only exists in the context of We. I’ve always been driven by openness, inclusiveness and the togetherness.

The world is a scary place – how do you manage fear and anxiety in both your work and personal life?

Well again I would say I reflect. In some situations you have to act fast and rely on your guts and your experience but I try to take my time and reflect in order to do the right thing, of course this is not always possible in certain situations.

Tell us what your greatest personal challenge is, and how you’ve achieved success in spite of it. Being unable to pick my battles sometimes is a challenge. I know I have to choose my fights but whenever I find myself in a situation where I feel that something is fundamentally wrong or unfair then I have to fight to make it right. Otherwise, I won’t be happy with myself and I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the mirror knowing that I could’ve done something about it but I didn’t. I feel compelled to make it my case because I feel if nobody fights against unfairness and injustice then humanity is lost.

Another challenge was finding the balance between my personal and professional life. Also, becoming friends with colleagues without jeopardizing our professional  relationship in the office was challenging but doable. I was able to face challenges with the support of a very loving husband and kids who always pull me down to earth and bring me back to thinking rationally whenever I am being emotional or unrealistic.

 What role should men play in supporting more gender diversity?

I believe that men should become better listeners and be more attentive to women’s aspirations and goals. Also rather than always thinking things rationally, men need to look with their hearts sometimes. In addition, men should encourage their wives and daughters reach their full potential.

How do you see diversity in the Netherlands?

We don’t have enough women in leadership positions in The Netherlands. I don’t believe that the reason behind this is women having a lower self-esteem but it is that women approach things differently. So with encouragement and support we can have more women leaders. I’ve always wanted to be a leader but I didn’t think I will be a CEO one day but I became one with the support of the founder of TMF (which is 75% females) who gave me the chance and believed in me. You get the best of both worlds

If you could know the answer to only one of the following, which one would you choose, and why?

  • What happens after death
  • What is the meaning of life

I’m not really interested in finding the answer to the meaning of life. I believe that there is something after life and the human life is just a Nano second of the spiritual life that we live which goes on to eternity. This belief gives me the strength to deal with loss of loved ones because they are just in another dimension that I cannot comprehend and don’t understand because our brain have limited capacity when it comes to this but knowing that there is something after life and that this is not the end gives me hope
and keeps me going.

What advice would you give to women out there?

Follow your passion, do what you want to do, and make sure that when you wake up in the morning you look yourself in the mirror and you feel proud. Also, learn to love yourself, be proud of yourself and don’t be hard on yourself when things don’t work as you want them to sometimes. If you don’t like your job then create a life that would make you happy. Cut your losses and do something that you like. There’s so much that life has to offer for you. Finally, don’t work for a paycheck, work for a bigger purpose.

Spotlight written by Yasmeen Smadi

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