For this month’s Meet the Team blog, we’re excited (and honored!) to introduce you to Vanessa Verlaan, Omnia’s new Operations Director. Vanessa has an incredible career trajectory, and has been working with Omnia for the last 6 months as an ad interim Head of People Operations.
Vanessa’s work never felt ad interim though, because she threw herself into the job with passion. She was always available to make time for Omnia, so it was no surprise when she officially joined the Management Team as the Operations Director this month. Everybody at Omnia is thrilled to have her officially become part of the team, and we know that there are great things to come from her.
Please enjoy this interview with Vanessa. And if you’d like to learn more (or work with Vanessa) check out our careers page.
Hi Vanessa, thanks for chatting with me! How are you doing?
I am doing well, given the circumstances of the coronavirus! Thanks for taking the time to talk with me.
First off, congratulations on officially joining Omnia as a Management Team member! How do you feel?
Oh wow, thank you. I feel so excited to be here. I have enjoyed working at Omnia as an interim People Operations lead for the last few months, so joining the team officially felt right. Omnia had everything I would want in a job, and I’m inspired by everyone who works in the company. I feel very proud of joining in this role.
You should be! We are excited to have you here. For this interview, I’d love it if you could give a brief introduction to yourself.
Yeah sure. So my name is Vanessa Verlaan, and I am the Operations Director at Omnia Retail. I’m responsible for optimizing operations and creating a high-performing company culture to build a solid foundation for growth. I’ve been in Operations for over 10 years, most recently as a freelancer helping startups achieve operational excellence, which is how I came to Omnia in the first place.
What about outside of work? What do you like to do in your free time?
Outside of work I like to hang out with my son, who is five years old, and my husband. We live in a beautiful spot in Amsterdam near the water, so it’s a lovely place to go cycling and walking. I was supposed to do a 115-kilometer cycling tour this summer, but it got canceled, unfortunately.
That’s such a bummer! I’m sorry to hear about that.
Yeah, it is a shame. But it’s also understandable, right?
That’s true. So let’s go back to your professional life. What is your story? How did you get to where you are today?
Well, after studying Tourism I didn’t know what to do with my degree. So I applied to the Air Traffic Control traineeship at Schiphol airport, which is a very difficult program to get into. Each year there are about 600 applicants and they allow 10 people to the class. I don't know — I just tried because I knew I had an analytical mind and I felt strongly drawn to the responsibilities and challenging requirements.
It took me a year to do all the qualifications tests to get in, and then I was ultimately selected, which was a huge honor, so I moved to Amsterdam to start the program. It was such a special time in my life. It felt like the ten of us were living in a bubble for a whole year. I mean, the class consists of all young people from ages 20 to 28 and we all started living in Amsterdam, even if we were from different places. It was crazy. You learned something new everyday. Every day was both challenging and rewarding. We needed to develop a wide range of new skills and knowledge, and our performance was judged everyday. It was such an amazing time.
But, as you can tell I am not working in the tower. I never made it to Air Traffic Controller, and after a year in the traineeship it was obvious that the job wasn’t for me. Actually, nobody in my class ever made it to Air Traffic Controller. Only about 10% of the trainees do. When it ended for me I was very sad, but also really proud of myself because it was something I worked so hard for and I learned so much.
But this was really the start of my career because I discovered my passion for optimizing and change. So I started to work in Operations at Martinair, which is a part of KLM. I was responsible for optimizing and coordinating all ground processes to reduce downtime as much as possible and to have each plane back up in the air as soon as possible.
At Martinair I developed my skills related to operations and change management, and I got really excited about inspiring and developing people. But after three years it was time for me to move on and learn new skills in a more commercial and people driven environment.
So I went to work for USG People, which is one of the largest staffing and recruiting agencies in the Netherlands. In my time at USG People I worked for different brands in different roles, but they all had one thing in common. Each role was related to change management: either implementation of a large new contract, advising on and implementing new strategies, or leading organizational reorganizations. I really learned a lot along the road and enjoyed the successes we celebrated.
After working at USG People for more than nine years though, I was ready for a change of scenery, so I decided to go out on my own as a freelancer working with startups, which was awesome. I get really inspired by working for visionary entrepreneurs. They are so full of ideas and are really inspiring leaders. I liked that I could help them make those ideas a reality by focusing on which ideas to move forward with and how to implement them. I also found that I really liked the smaller size of the companies because they are fast-paced and full of endless possibilities.
I worked as a freelancer for two years, and one job brought me to Omnia back in November of 2019. It was supposed to be a temporary position, but everything worked out really well and now I am a full MT member.
What an interesting career path! This is also a really good segue. What do you like most about Omnia?
There are so many things I like about Omnia! For one it’s small and still in the stage where everything is possible. I also like that the company has clearly defined values that actually shine through in everything we do. Everybody in the company is a superstar in their own way — so smart and driven. I really feel at home at Omnia.
Another big thing that I like about Omnia is how transparent everyone is and how open everyone is to feedback and to learning. It’s so important to me to be somewhere where people want to learn and are open to change. I’ve realized I have kind of an “allergy” to the mentality of “Well, this is the way we’ve always done it so there isn’t any reason to change.” At Omnia this attitude just doesn’t exist.
So yeah, so many things attracted me to Omnia. It had everything I was looking for in a job. It has been a long time since I’ve felt this inspired and motivated. When Sander offered me the job I was very excited and proud.
And what’s your vision for Omnia? What do you want to achieve?
What I would really like to do is help scale the company and expand to other countries. And make sure that we have the best foundation possible to grow on. We have a great product and amazing people, so when optimizing our scalability the sky's the limit. I want to make sure we achieve a high performance, yet people-focused culture at Omnia. This isn’t something that happens overnight, but we make progress every day by listening to our teams and adjusting step by step.
How would you define your leadership style?
I’m quite direct, as you’ve probably noticed. If there’s a problem, I want to discuss it right away, and I want my teammates to be open with me about the things they struggle with. I’m at my best when I work with a motivated team. I’ll make all the time in the world for someone who is motivated and who wants to improve. If you’re not open for feedback or willing to improve though, then I might not be the right manager for you.
In terms of my direct reports, I like to give a lot of ownership and responsibility. It differs a bit for each person, of course, but I will help people build a framework for their success. I won’t let people sink. If someone is new to something, I’ll help them figure out how to execute the project. But everybody has their own style of doing things, and I’ll offer a sounding board for ideas on how to do something or provide a different point of view.
It all depends on the person, but I prefer to coach and mentor and leave as much responsibility to my report as possible.
As the Management Team member in charge of Operations you’ll have a direct role in the hiring of every new person at Omnia. What do you look for in new team members?
We want people who match Omnia’s values, because if you don’t match the values then you ultimately won’t be happy at Omnia. So we look for people who are always learning, who are kind, and who will push themselves and their teams to a level of excellence. We want people who demonstrate all three values, but if someone has a superstar score in one area and is average in others, it’s a good sign because I really look for standouts.
I want to say though that we do not expect anybody to be perfect. We expect people to be open, humble, and willing to learn. We want people who are able to come in and make mistakes, be honest about those mistakes, and learn and grow from the experience.
What’s your favorite interview question?
Well it’s not that exciting of a question, but I like to ask people the biggest lesson they’ve learned in the last year and why it was so important.
Usually it’s easier for people to talk about things they’re really proud of rather than point out something negative about themselves, so their answer says so much about who this person is, whether it’s from their personal or professional life. How did they uncover this lesson? Did they take ownership? What did they learn and what would they have done differently, looking back? It gives me a lot of insights in someone's ability and willingness to learn.
What drives you in your work?
I always think, “How can we do it better, faster, and more efficient?” That's just what drives me, both at work and in my personal life. I always think things can be improved and I really like to come up with new solutions or life hacks.
I also really enjoy empowering people to find solutions to their problems. I won’t be the one solving the problem itself, but instead I will ask questions to the other person find the answers themselves.
Okay, thanks Vanessa! This has been an amazing interview. I have one final question. Do you have any book recommendations for people who are interested in Operations?
I have two business books I’d recommend. The first is Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. When I read this book I saw myself in the pages. It was really powerful for me and I think it’s a good book for people interested in setting an inclusive and equal (work) environment.
The second book I’d recommend is Powerful by Patty McCord, who was the Chief Talent Officer at Netflix. I like Netflix’s culture: it’s about really working together as a strong team and empowering everyone to achieve their best. It’s like being a pro sports team with setting high bars, motivating everyone with challenging and rewarding work, and creating an open and transparent culture.
Want to chat with Vanessa? You can connect with Vanessa on LinkedIn or reach out through our Contact page.
Grace Baldwin is a pricing and marketing specialist at Omnia Retail. Before Omnia, Grace gained experience in content management at EDIA and through a freelance content management business. She holds a B.A. in Government from Colby College.