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“Success is energy”

Updated: Nov 10, 2023

(This interview appeared in "Women in Tech, a perfect fit for a sustainable and inclusive future, a book by Laurence Jacobs)


After her master’s degree in chemical engineering (KULeuven), Debbie Baute got her Ph.D. at the Israeli Weizmann Institute of Science and landed her first job as a R&D engineer at imec. One of the many things she learned was that, despite all her credentials, science was not the way to go. Debbie re-invented herself as HR manager R&D at Procter & Gamble – where she led organizational development programs such as diversity & inclusion, talent development and leadership – after which she went her own, independent way, coaching leaders and lead teams as an executive coach.

Professional success is measured in money only. There’s need for a redefinition of success and what leadership is.

“Success is energy”

A nice car, a big house, exotic holidays and lots of city trips, a fat bank account… these are some of the traditional ways to show – and show off – success. Would women especially benefit from a new perspective on both success and leadership? “Please, don’t limit it to women. The same is true for men. For me, success has a lot to do with health and sustainability. The real question, that applies to women and men, is ‘how do you sustain success in the long run?’ There are men who almost literally stumble to work, who physically suffer from stress… pressed forward by the repeated mantra ‘busy, busy, busy, busy…’ Surely that cannot be the right definition of success. That’s not the right trade-off for money, prestige and titles. To be honest, I see a lot of men struggling with and ignoring the physical signs of a burnout, running too long in the same treadmill until they get stuck with a major identity crisis. So if we were to redefine success in a more diverse way, everyone – women and men – would benefit. What we should strive for is a balance between yin and yang. The ‘yang’ being output, results, vigor… while the ‘yin’ represents the slowing down, the pause, the analysis… Let me be very clear, it is the balance that counts, I’m not saying to focus too much on the yin, either. Because too much yin could paralyze you or your organization. And in the end, results do matter.”

“Energy determines whether something grows and flourishes or not. Without energy no output, no growth. Have a look at nature: first and foremost, nature reserves energy for self-preservation – it’s what’s left that is used to grow. The same goes for people: the first part of your energy should always go to keeping yourself healthy, otherwise there is no energy left to deliver output. In order to have sustainable success on the longer term you have to switch your focus from money, direct output, your position in the picking order etc. to questions such as ‘are you still happy in your job?’, ‘what about your lust for life?’, ‘do you feel a connection with your team members?’… That’s my definition of success: how much energy do you have left to do things that matter, other than delivering output for your job? If I evaluate the teams I coach, I look at both the output (because that’s what we’re here for) and internal success factors (how is the cooperation in the team, do we have some valuable time left to connect as people or is working all there is…). I think organizations should take the time for these periodic (self)evaluations – not just as a formality at the end of the year.”

This all sounds good in theory, but the outside world will continue to stubbornly measure success by classical expressions such as money, prestige, etcetera. “Question is, to what extent do you care about what others think of your success? I know I don’t care. There’s a big difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Many burnouts are caused by pursuing external goals, expectations instigated by parents, partners, bosses… If what you do on an everyday basis doesn’t match your intrinsic motivation, sooner or later you will crash into a wall. So be honest with yourself: what is your own definition of success? I can assure you I never have to coach people who have an internal definition of success.”

“Sometimes success is choosing NOT to go for that top position. That is certainly the case if your motivation to go for the promotion lies outside yourself. If you act according to your inner beliefs and motivation, if you find the right place in your organization, you are successful.”

Debbie Baute started her career as an engineer and now coaches teams and leaders. What made her choose for a STEM education at the time? And why the rather surprising redirection? “It is a text book example of the switch from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation. I chose STEM because the advice me and my parents got when I was 17 was to choose the most challenging field of study I could handle. I still don’t see the value in that advice, by the way. However, it does support the common definition of success: ‘as long as we suffer, we are succeeding'. So I studied chemical engineering and even got my Ph.D. – all because other people thought that was best for me. Sure, I felt the challenge and wanted to excel. But more and more I felt out of place as a scientist because I was not following my real passion: working with people, coaching and communication. I made a switch that may seem drastic, but makes a lot of sense. The magic is in the mix: as an engineer I connect very easily with the technical teams, organizations and individuals I coach, because we have a lot of common ground. If I hadn’t made the professional move from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation, I’m quite sure I would have ended up with a major burnout myself. I still consider myself a ‘woman in tech’: I support technical organizations in their development and growth. Without compromising my health or my family.”

How does this new perspective on success translate into a new definition of leadership? “One way to look at leadership is to differentiate between transactional, transformational and transcendent leadership. Transactional leadership is quite simple: the boss orders, someone does it and gets paid for it. Transformational leadership is when leaders focus on the growth of their employees . But it is the transcendent leadership that has the future. Leaders look at themselves and their teams but also at opportunities for the organization as a whole. And even beyond. They are believers of the people-planet-profit-perspective and sometimes even take decisions that are beneficial for the bigger picture even when it compromises their own position in the company. For me the (re)definition of personal leadership focuses on the role everyone plays in the organization. Everyone who takes the organization to a higher level is a leader, no matter if they are the CEO or the management assistant.”

Do women benefit from the move toward transcendent leadership? “I think it is a feminine leadership trait to look at the health of an organization, to prioritize sustainability in the longer term, to look beyond direct output and performance. That being said, both male and female leaders possess feminine and masculine leadership traits. The art is in finding the right balance between a healthy financial basis and keeping an eye on the energy and health of the organization.”

How can organizations be more attractive to women? “It’s all about purpose and connection. What does the company stand for? How does it feel to work here? Is my work appreciated? Can I, and my team, make a difference? Money and benefits matter, but their magnetic effect on your motivation is not infinite. If leaders want to establish a sustainable working relationship, they need to appeal to the intrinsic motivation. It should be part of the way leaders connect with their employees. So, at the daily morning meeting ask your team members which project gets them excited, which new ideas they have, what they are curious about….”

We are still a long way from reflecting the diversity we see in society in our companies, on all levels. “Glass ceilings exist, yes. I have experienced it myself. I was on a promising corporate career track until they asked me to move abroad a few weeks after I gave birth… An opportunity that was totally incompatible with my life at that time. If companies define the stepping stones to higher positions by the output you deliver,

the long hours you spend at your desk, the number of business trips you make… they de facto exclude a part of their employees or team members. It does not make sense. We can design new smart roles in order to meet those challenges, to promote a more inclusive way of thinking. There is more than one path to success.”


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