‘Meet the Boss’ is a How we made it in Africa interview series where we pose 10 questions to business leaders across the continent.
JJ van Dongen, senior vice president, Philips Africa
1. What was your first job?
I was originally trained in physics and mathematics, and I worked for the Atomic Energy Corporation (now called Necsa) in South Africa. I was a research scientist and I was about 24 years old.
2. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
That’s quite a difficult question for me, because there are so many areas that we are focused on. But I think it’s about ensuring that my teams have the right resources, and do not have roadblocks that prevent them from achieving the opportunities that are out there. There are so many opportunities across Africa. And it’s about achieving the ones that are [right] for the company.
3. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
I think it was the first manager that I worked for in the healthcare area, for a company called Elscint. He sat me down when I joined and he said, “JJ, there is no prize for being in second place.”
It may sound strange but I went through a lot of sales and business specialist environments, and that always stuck with me. If you are going to do something, do it properly, and you actually need to win at it.
4. What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
I would say that a key aspect for me is to be focused. As I said, there is lots of opportunity on the continent, but you need to be very focused on what you want to do, choose the big opportunities that are going to be the winning ones and build on those continuously.
5. The top reasons why you have been successful in business?
I think I had a lot of good fortune, and I also kept true to those principles that I mentioned. A key thing for me was creating a strategy and then executing that strategy. That is what builds success. And in Africa there is just so many opportunities that it all comes down to having a key strategy and direction that you want to take the organisation in, and then building on that and executing it well.
6. Where’s the best place to prepare for leadership? Business school or on the job?
It’s a combination. Some people may not agree with me but your initial degree is probably not as important as what you do in your post-graduate degrees. But you need a good basis in business. You also then need real life experience, and to burn your fingers in the field. I often say to my managers that they should not be fearful of burning their fingers and doing the wrong thing. Obviously they don’t want to repeat their mistakes so they should then make sure that they learn from every experience they go through.
7. How do you relax?
I try to spend time on weekends with my family. I do water skiing and my kids are pretty good at sports, so I spend a lot of time alongside the water polo pool. It’s all about enjoying family time as well as being able to have that time when you can relax and recuperate because during the week it’s quite pressured.
8. By what time in the morning do you like to be at your desk?
I’m an early morning person so anytime after 6:30 am, I’m happy. I’m not a late night person. I do spend long hours in the office, but I tend to prefer starting early in the morning.
9. Your favourite job interview question?
It’s around a person’s experience and what they have learnt. I would like to know what their strengths are because I am very much a person who focuses on an individual’s strengths and what they enjoy doing.
10. What is your message to Africa’s aspiring business leaders and entrepreneurs?
I think there is great opportunity. I think we underestimate what we have in Africa, and I think we should try and find a more structured approach across countries, so that we can really leave it on the strength of the African population because we may be different but we are [also] very, very similar.
JJ van Dongen is the senior vice president and market leader for Philips’s Africa division, as well as the country CEO for Philips South Africa.
He joined the company in 2002 when his previous company, Marconi Medical Systems, was acquired as part of the growth of Philips Healthcare. In 2008 he was appointed country CEO for Philips South Africa, and in 2011, he became vice president and market leader of Philips Africa, making him responsible for the company’s overall operations and business development across the continent. He was promoted to senior vice president in 2012.