3 key learnings of Grasple’s transition to a new CEO
In November 2021, Elisabeth Schmoutziguer took over the baton as CEO from Grasple’s co-founder Pim Bellinga. One year later, we reflect upon this choice, the transition, and what’s on the horizon in the coming years. What can we learn from their experiences?
by Dorus Kraakman
In the video below, Elisabeth and Pim discuss the transition. This blog expands on the video and highlights three key learnings that emerged from handing over leadership of a growing organization.
What can we learn from Pim and Elisabeth’s experiences when handing over the leadership of Grasple?
Take time and transition gradually
For Grasple, enough time and a gradual transition really worked out. In total, the transition took place over the course of a year. We gradually scaled back Pim’s involvement in the daily management of Grasple and introduced Elisabeth to our network:
- In November 2021, Elisabeth ‘shadowed’ Pim. Sitting in on all meetings, sharing and discussing everything they heard and said.
- In December 2021, Elisabeth took over key areas where she could deliver her added value instantly: marketing, sales, customer relations, team strategy, hiring, and customer-related processes.
- End of February, Pim left the office but continued to work for 1-2 days a week from home. Knowingly distancing from daily operations helped the team adjust to a new CEO.
- As of November 2022, Pim’s operational work has entirely stopped and he has taken up a position elsewhere. By now, everyone at Grasple and everyone we work with feels comfortable with our new way of working. Fun fact, Pim is now using math, statistics, and coding skills to improve the Dutch energy grid to speed up the transition to renewable energy sources in the Netherlands.
Most importantly, we felt our transition had to be a step-by-step process. Elisabeth: “The major risk of our gradual approach was that misunderstandings would develop about who was responsible or decides to do what. Working together over the course of a year did sometimes make it hard not to overrule each other, as both leaders approached processes and worked in different ways. Luckily for us, the upside prevailed. Co-founder Thijs, Pim, the whole Grasple team and I had the ability to adjust and be gently versatile, which resulted in trust and confidence.”
Trust and let go
Transition in leadership is all about trust and letting go. During the job interviews Grasple had with Elisabeth when sourcing a new CEO, Pim and Thijs focused on strategy and future plans. For Elisabeth, it was clear that expanding on Pim’s knowledge would be the key to success. Expressing that was the decisive factor when welcoming her on board. However, trusting a brand-new CEO with a scale-up such as Grasple wasn’t easy.
Pim: “Stepping away from Grasple was tough. The company was, or is, like a baby to me. I had taken care of it for many years, and it wasn’t easy to simply ‘let go’. What really helped me was to take things slow. I could see Elisabeth taking over areas of the organization and how she improved them. I realized it was better to let her work her magic, and I had to accept that she would do things differently than I would. Which was good because we were not looking for another Pim, but for someone new.”
Elisabeth: “I think it was a relief for Pim when I mentioned I wanted to build upon his legacy but first work side by side for a while. If Pim had said he would leave after a month, I would not have taken the job. For me Pim’s passion and belief are key. It is important for me and all Grasplers to know and embrace this.”
Trusting and valuing each other was an important step during the transition. Appreciating each other's contribution is important for the process and organization. Instead of showing muscles and competing over leadership, a successful transition is marked by working towards a shared goal.
Clear and transparent communication
As a pre-scale-up, Grasple wanted to overcome any uncertainty regarding decision-making during the shared leadership. Who could push a decision if Pim and Elisabeth disagreed? Together with Thijs, Pim and Elisabeth made clear agreements about who was still responsible for what area of the organization. During daily check-ins, the three agreed upon who would lead a meeting or call. This also prevented Pim from meddling in decisions that were no longer his to make.
Despite the clear agreements, there was no detailed plan for the transition. Pim and Elisabeth had some deadlines and ideas, but the process flowed organically. Elisabeth: “In retrospect, a key requirement for this process to work was open and honest communication. To support that, we decided to evaluate our way of working every two weeks.”
Pim, Thijs and Elisabeth used a repeating set of questions in a standardized evaluation form. It prevented them from making assumptions about the workflow and forced them to reflect on the process. With this approach, Elisabeth also got to learn from and get to know Thijs, building new relationships as a management team.
Thijs: “Changing leadership from Pim to Elisabeth was both exciting and challenging. Exciting to have someone as experienced as Elisabeth on board, with many relevant experiences and new ideas. Elisabeth joined Grasple to help us move forward as a team and social enterprise. It was also challenging to change things after years of working in a certain way. Looking back, I think two things stand out. Firstly, Elisabeth, Pim, and I have been able to communicate clearly and openly with each. It provided trust and a well-organized way of working. Secondly, welcoming Elisabeth to Grasple has enabled us to work with more focus. We know what we want to achieve and how to get there”.
Parting ways with Pim and embracing Elisabeth as a new leader helps Grasple make a worldwide impact on the accessibility of math & statistics education via our platform and the community using it.