I had a lot of first days, because I had so many jobs when I was young. But the experience that really sticks out in my mind concerns an interview at Henkel, the German chemicals group, where I ended up staying 10 years.
I was 24 and had just graduated as a commercial engineer. They’d invited me in for a round of assessment interviews. The long selection process included meeting the sales director of the division for cleaning products and equipment.
He asked me: “Do you know anything about cleaning”?
“Yes”, I replied.
“Can you work with a single disc machine?”
(that’s the sort of upright contraption used to polish linoleum and parquet. Its parts include a quite clumsy heavy rotating disc and a removable cleaning pad)
“Yes”, I said.
“OK. Go ahead”, he said. “Clean this corridor!”
At first, I thought he was kidding. But he meant it. I remember assembling the complex and heavy machine. It feels almost like yesterday. Believe me, it’s not easy. They saw I knew what to do: that’s how I got the job.
My interviewer was called Franck Vancraeyveld, and he became my closest mentor at Henkel. I’d had two job offers, the other was from a bank. But I chose Henkel largely because of the outstanding impression he’d made. He really showed me the ropes, and it’s he who taught me one crucial lesson about jobs – how valuable it is to have someone to look up to who can explain things. The value of mentoring is something I’ve taken with me in my career every since.
Of course, I was a bit nervous. But more than that, I was excited. It’s the start of a new life. You’re full of expectations, but you also know you don’t know much yet, which is why it’s so important to have a guide.
I knew how to use the polisher because I’d actually had many first jobs already. At 11 I was selling sweets and chewing gum at school in Tournai in Belgium, where I’m from. About the same time, I was working in my mother’s bookshop. By 15 I’d started as a part time waiter, helping at weekends and big evening functions outside school hours. That’s where I learned how to serve at table.
Soon after that, my mother sold her bookshop and became an area manager for a big cleaning company. So during the holidays, I’d help out. We mainly did banks. That’s where I learned to use the polishing machine! Who could have predicted that all that cleaning would have been a key trigger of my career?
The other things I learned in my first “real” job were mainly about myself. I’d always been competitive at sport. What I discovered on my first day and those that followed was that I was competitive in business too. I gained confidence quickly and Henkel responded. They very rapidly gave me extra responsibilities and that really helped me develop.
I spent about a month learning about the company. That included travelling to Holland and Germany, getting to know the group and my colleagues. My introduction started broad, and gradually become more specific as it focused on the products and manufacturing I would be involved with. They really emphasised training, and I was delighted.
As for money, I was offered 40,000 Belgian francs – about euro 1,000 a month. There was no discussion. Fortunately, things were cheaper then: my rent only came to about the equivalent of euro 100 a month. But I already got a rise after six months and another after a year. By 18 months, I was in charge of a team.
Another lesson for me – though one more relevant once I became a manager myself – was the importance of the first day’s reception and the need to show a new starter they’re welcome. I had a detailed induction programme and was assigned a specific mentor. I appreciated that my workplace was ready and all the materials I needed had been supplied. It showed people cared about me, and it’s a lesson I’ve tried to implement myself ever since.
On April 24, around 4,000 of my colleagues in the Adecco Group are opening the doors of our offices and branches to thousands of young people transitioning in the delicate steps between school and work. It will be a chance for a full day of shadowing, training and orientation. I look forward to joining them in Milan.
For the thousands all around the world whom I won’t be able to meet in person, there are three things I’d like to summarize:
- Start early: seize opportunities and be really hands on. My ‘cleaning’ experience landed me my dream job. Stay humble and open, and hard work will pay you back.
- Learn about yourself: this also comes through experience. Learn what you love and you’re good at. It will help you clarify your goals and focus your search and efforts in the right direction.
- Look for a good mentor: this is probably the most difficult thing to do. But while my first recommendation is to stay humble, listen and learn from every positive or negative experience, the next most important thing is to follow a good leader who can coach you, teach you, get the best from you and help you grow faster.