SpenglerFox interviews Valérie Soulier, Founder of 2C4P, and a Business Coach at the European Innovation Council
Marco Müller, a Senior Principal in the Life Sciences Practice at SpenglerFox, recently had the privilege of sitting down with Valérie Soulier for an in-depth discussion about her decision to become her own boss, her work as a business consultant for the EU and how she supports startups and SMEs to define and implement clear strategies that ensure business growth through high performing and motivated teams. They also talked about why diversity is essential, about the EIC Women In Leadership program, and that it is important to be nice, but also important to be paid for it.
Valérie is the Founder and Managing Director of 2C4P, a strategy consultancy based in Germany. She sits on the Board of two firms in the life sciences sector, is a business coach at the European Innovation Council and SME Executive Agency (EISMEA) and has a distinguished corporate career behind her as a global marketing leader. Below is an extract of the conversation between Marco Müller and Valérie Soulier.
Marco Müller: Valérie, you work as a business advisor/coach for the European Innovation Council (EIC)*, Please tell us how you became a business coach for the EU?
Valéria Soulier: “I was made aware of the program by a colleague of mine who is now the CEO of a very successful startup. I registered but never finalized the application until I was contacted by the EIC. Once the EIC accepted your profile, you basically end up belonging to a database and you can be contacted any time by the startups and you just…start. Your experience and background are very important but your human skills too as startups who apply for an EIC grant are preselecting a few coaches and making a final decision after a chemistry meeting. Once you are chosen, you start working with the startup. They are in the driver’s seat; they decide what they need from you. This is why this is so interesting: different people, different topics, and different needs every time.
Sounds interesting, different topics, different needs? How do you support start-ups in their scale-up process and where do you see the most need for guidance?
I support them as part of the EIC programs or as a consultant through my company. The biggest need is the following: startups need to learn to move away from the technical details and think more about users and customers as they get closer to product launch. Founders are often so much into the details that they do not see the big picture anymore and that’s where I start working with them. Another need is to learn to simplify and communicate crisply and sharply. I am helping them a lot with their PITCH deck including storytelling which is very important. Strategy development and organization are also important needs. I am also supporting them of course with their EIC application. I also bring some mental support when it is necessary. The life of a startup CEO is stressful and here my training as an executive and leadership coach helps me a lot.
You have worked for large life sciences corporations such as Abbott, Siemens, or Danaher in the past, to what extent does this experience help you when consulting startups?
That is a good question because I was wondering how I could transfer my knowledge from the corporate world. I think I had the imposter syndrome at the beginning. If you have the mindset, you know everything, the transition will not work. If you want to learn, 50% is achieved already. For the rest, you use your experience and adapt it to the new situation by asking the right questions.
I am using my business, management, and leadership experience daily. The mistakes I made and what I learned from them are probably even more helpful than the successes. From Abbott, I learned how to convert technical and clinical information into sales tools and how to work with Key Opinion Leaders. From Siemens / Dade Behring, I learned to launch products and understand customers’ needs. From Danaher, I learned to think more strategically, implement processes, and develop individuals and teams. I am using all of this to support the startups and their CEOs. All this experience is also very useful in my NED roles. 2 things are key: curiosity and the ability to ask questions.
What are the questions that need to be asked? Can you share some examples?
Many!! If you really listen, the questions to be asked come naturally. It could be from “what is your USP?” to “who are your customers and who are the users? Sometimes there is a lot of confusion. It’s about asking open questions to make people think differently and see things from a different perspective. For example, if a startup is applying for an EU grant, I’m asking them to imagine themselves in the shoes of an evaluator. That can be quite difficult but when they see that perspective, they usually start thinking differently.
How long do you usually consult companies, and how long does a mandate typically last?
As part of the EIC programs, the mandate can last a few weeks up to a few months. Often, I keep working as a consultant for the startups after that mandate, as a consultant or in an advisory role. My involvement, in that case, lasts several months or more. Especially if I am involved in a product launch or important strategic work.
After you left the Danaher Group, you got yourself a career coach. How did he help you to find a new path?
I did not know if I wanted to stay in the corporate world or have my own company and be independent. I was lost at that time because I couldn’t answer that question. I had no issues in sending applications, interviewing, or activating my network, but I needed some help to overcome my imposter syndrome and to see things from a different angle. And in the end, it was just starting to feel more and more confident. The career coach was a huge help to realize that I do not need a big company behind me to keep being productive.
You told me that your career coach gave you the nickname “pro-bono”. How did that happen?
I like to help people among my friends and network. I ended up in a phase where I was helping a lot of people with their strategy, and product launch, and was additionally helping people who were looking for a new job with interviews, career goals, or who were struggling in their leadership position. One day, in a group training for people who want to work independently, I was describing what I was doing, and the trainer looked at me, scared, and told me from now on he would call me pro-bono as I would not get paid for any of this.
A few months later, after my executive coaching training, I started working with a career coach and suddenly he told me the same. But he went further, one day he called me and told me: “I do not have enough capacity anymore, I need your help. Please take over that client for me, you can do it”. I think he was desperate about my reaction as I did not ask for any compensation. He just told me: “You are a catastrophe! You get paid exactly what I get”. Without him, I would still work pro-bono I think. Asking to get paid for what you deliver is not an easy step and I am thankful to both for opening my eyes.
A couple of months ago you posted a quote “Good leadership is an act of kindness “What do you mean?
Jacinda Ardern is a very good example of this! Leadership is about empathy and taking care of others. The time is over when it was associated with a big ego and arrogance, this is just not working. No one needs to bully anyone to get things done. Unfortunately, toxic environments and managers still exist. That should not be tolerated anymore. Companies allowing that will see or are already seeing a huge turnover. The world is changing slowly, a little bit too slow to my taste but I believe that it is a good change. You can read everywhere that expectations are changing, especially from the younger generations and if companies want to keep their people, they need to change the way they perceive leadership. The key thing is the reward system in the company. What is it that you are rewarding? Are you constantly rewarding the outcome and the numbers? Or are you also rewarding how people behave and the spirit they create and how they develop people around them? This is why I posted this. This is very important to me. Leadership is not about ego and arrogance. It is the opposite; I personally unfortunately once experienced a very toxic working environment, and I can assure you that performance and mental health were heavily impacted at every level. And you know what: … Kindness is contagious and increases well-being.
Are women the more emphatic leaders?
I am not sure I can answer that question. What I am sure about is that lack of diversity is creating environments that are not nice and where employees cannot perform and be happy. I am talking about gender diversity, here this is important that this is quickly becoming reality, at every level in the company and especially at the leadership and board levels. More than 50% of human beings are women, it needs to be reflected in the professional world. I am also talking about cognitive diversity where different profiles and opinions can co-exist in a psychologically safe environment. Unconsciously, we all tend to hire mini-MEs and want to be surrounded by people like ourselves. This is dangerous. So, if you have a leadership team and they all look the same, there is no gender diversity, no geographical diversity, no cognitive diversity, and as soon as something goes wrong this is multiplied by 10 or 20 because everyone is thinking the same and that can kill an organization as no one challenges the status quo anymore. So, if you want to make sure you can be a nice leader, it starts with your ability to foster diversity and focus more on others than yourself. The first step for a kind and nice environment is diversity. Gender, geographical, cultural, and cognitive diversity. We need to ask ourselves, do I accept being challenged, because people have different opinions? How do I embrace being challenged and will I accept the fact that someone chooses a different approach than mine? I think these questions are key to creating an appreciative and supportive environment. If I look back at my corporate career and if I look at what I have achieved and what I am most proud of, it is the number of people I developed. I am grateful to see them grow professionally and personally and that some of them still call me when they need advice. The numbers, and the revenues, this is part of the game. You need to deliver, that is your task as a professional but to make a difference as a leader you need to have a positive impact on the people you work with.
Since the quota of women does not yet match the quota of women in leadership positions, the topic of women in leadership is particularly important to you. Tell us about the Woman in Leadership program you are taking part in.
I am also a business coach for the Women In Leadership program for the EIC. The female CEOs who have been selected do not necessarily actively apply for an EIC grant but they have been selected because of their potential. This is fully aligned with my mission to support women and especially young professionals and to keep being a good mentor for people I had the chance to manage.
I love it because you can support from a business perspective of course, but you can also share the experience you made as a professional woman. Currently, I am coaching a few female CEOs and the impact is huge. Tiny things can make a big difference. For example, when working on their pitch deck, often you realize there is a huge difference in the way females are presenting their company compared to men. My experience is that men tend to focus on what they will achieve, and women would spend much more time on what could go wrong. Furthermore, studies are saying that females get different questions from investors forcing women to focus exactly on what could go wrong when presenting their companies. Once they realize this, it’s quite easy to improve this. So, an exercise I like to do is to ask them to present their pitch deck and to exaggerate. They should imagine being on a stage and rocking the show. It usually is not the big show, but they exaggerate a little bit at least they think they do and then I ask them “How did you feel about presenting that way”? And most of the time the answer is that it was actually a good feeling. So, I am not changing the world, I am just trying to help them reach that step where they feel more comfortable selling their company and products.
Thank you very much for the interview, and good luck with your upcoming projects.
* European Innovation Council (EIC), Europe’s flagship innovation program to identify, develop, and scale up breakthrough technologies and game-changing innovations.
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