Ineke Botter of Botter Enterprises: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times

Written By: Authority Magazine

Be aware that you can’t panic or lose the plot because that means that people get confused and that will cause real chaos. Try to be calm and composed. Hopefully you never have to work in serious civil unrest and war situations like I did in several countries.

Aspart of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Ineke Botter.

Ineke Botter was born in the Netherlands and studied corporate and international law at the University of Amsterdam.

Her recently published book ‘Your phone, my life’ starts in communist Kiev and tells us how her work in mobile telecoms took her first to other countries in the former Eastern Bloc and then to Western Europe, Kosovo, Lebanon, Azerbaijan and Haiti. As CEO, she was in charge of mobile network operations in all these countries, and managed them through periods of political unrest, war, bomb attacks and other serious obstacles (see )

There are just under 1,000 mobile networks globally and Ms. Botter was one of very few female CEOs in the mobile industry. Semi-retired now, she works alone, or with her partner Gavin Jeffery, offering Management Services globally, but mostly to technology related industries (see ).

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started in telecoms?

Many thanks for your invitation. I’m happy to share my experience with your readers and talk about ‘Your phone, my life’.

When I graduated, I worked in the investment department of an insurance company in Amsterdam that later seconded me to their Headquarters in London. The work was interesting, more of a Business Development job really. When my two-year contract was up there was no suitable job back in Amsterdam. My father suggested I should talk to a friend of his who was in charge of the International Department of KPN, the Dutch BT. I liked the idea and was hired as a Business Development Manager. My first project was in satellite communications and soon after I was asked to join the ‘mobile team’ and off we went to Kiev. And that is where the book starts; Ukraine was still part of the USSR but on its way to independence. Very poor, famine, but very exciting times. We were there on the night of independence and I‘ll never forget how happy people were.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Yes. This story was fun, but as always, only afterwards ! When I went to Ukraine for the first time, back in the summer of 1991, I travelled in jeans and luckily, a nice jacket. I arrived at Kiev airport in the middle of the night but my luggage did not. So, I had to borrow shirts and underwear from my colleague as the water in the tap was rusty and dark brown, not inviting to do your laundry. Lo and behold, when I went to see the same colleague in Southern Africa much later, he had to rescue me again. Same story. The lesson: as first impressions are important, make sure you have some extra clothes in your hand luggage, certainly if you travel somewhere where you can’t expect fancy shopping malls to buy new business outfits.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My kind and wise father, and ‘the English’. My father was my ‘business coach’ even before the world invented business coaches as a profession. Unfortunately he died quite young, but still I learned many lessons from him. Especially about decision-making.

‘The English’ is a wide term, I know, but working with many English colleagues throughout my career has been good for me. They have a different way of looking at peoples’ capacities and skills than we have in continental Europe. Combining both business cultures gave me many opportunities that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your industry started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

When we started in 1991 in Ukraine, when it was still a communist country, the Minister we negotiated with took a huge and courageous step forward to open up the country and issue a licence to build a mobile network that would connect people. Communism didn’t allow individuals to just speak to each other on telephones, those were only for party members.

That vision of connecting people has been the mobile industry’s vision since its birth in the late eighties. We are not selling network capacity or phones or any device; what we are really selling is connectivity, anywhere and everywhere. That has changed the world one hundred percent. Your mobile device is always with you and ‘the mirror of your life’. It means that even with Covid, or other big disasters, the world can still function.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

When I arrived in Beirut after a turbulent time in war-ridden Kosovo, Lebanon looked nice and quiet. A beautiful small Mediterranean country, nice weather, lively people, great food etcetera. But shortly after my arrival, bird flu was coming our way. We started to work on a detailed disaster plan, but apparently there was a sign at the border ‘No sick birds allowed’, so we were safe.

Not much later though, the 2006 war with Israel arrived. Within a few hours of unrest, full fledged war. Luckily we had our detailed disaster plan in place, defining all steps to be taken, especially who could stay home, who had to come to work, when and where.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

Not really, the ‘captain cannot abandon the ship’ especially not in difficult situations. You are in charge, the company and its people are dependent on your decisions and your life is not worth more than theirs.

Having said that, you never know how you will react if you don’t have experience with such situations, only after the first serious incident do you know if you are able to manage. If so, you need to stay for as long as your shareholders allow you to. Which is a very important point; besides your detailed disaster plan, you do need the full backing of shareholders.

I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?

Absolutely. When I worked in London, the company invited Barbara Minto, a McKinsey partner to talk to us about her book, the ‘Pyramid principle’. This was a very long time ago now, but I have used that principle throughout my career. She explained how every situation can be captured into a pyramid: put the most strategic points at the top and those then cascade down into smaller and smaller issues, or actions. Your ability to quickly eliminate ‘nonsense’ and to go back to the most critically important points is crucial.

For non-business books, I’d love to read ‘War Stories’ by Jeremy Bowens’ and ‘Alone in Berlin’ by Hans Fallada again. Both books give another perspective on war situations. It’s never black and white. Just now I’m finishing a wonderful little novel set in East Africa ‘The river between’ by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, describing the impact of colonialism.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

When there is serious trouble, most people have difficulty absorbing information in one go. As a leader, it is your task to make sure you have a well thought-out communication strategy in your ‘backpack’ too, so you can communicate in a way that stakeholders understand, as well as employees, board members and shareholders. Communication needs to be factual, clear and delivered with empathy.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

In my experience it’s best to stay on the ground, with the people, and lead by example. Don’t convey your concerns; just give factual information, that could also include ‘unknowns’. As long as you’re sincere and honest that is not a weakness, it’s a strength that most people appreciate and that inspires and leads.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

Difficult news quickly gets to people, it often becomes very personal. So I try to think about the people or the team first; what are their strengths and weaknesses? How can I tell them the news without harming their confidence or causing anxiety? Is there a positive element that I can add to the message, something that they can actually do to help improve the situation ? In other words; ‘This is not going well, but let’s think about that. Maybe there is another option to look into ?’

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

Take stock of the situation ‘as is’, then think about the most likely risks that can cross your path, then start working with your team to formulate ‘what if’ scenarios. The bird flu disaster plan turned into a war disaster plan within a few minutes. Not having a plan is not an option. You simply have to, that is the reality of life in the western world now.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

‘Be prepared and stay calm’.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

Not having a disaster plan in place. Not having rehearsed the disaster plan and not having an agreed communication plan. All of these points can be easily avoided. Yes, it is work, but it’s absolutely necessary to put that effort in upfront. Also, don’t fire people when they are most vulnerable in the midst of a disaster, it will cause so much unnecessary uncertainty for the other employees.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

First and foremost you need to get your facts in order as soon as possible. Be decisive and if necessary, trigger your disaster plan; whenever a car bomb went off in Lebanon, I had less than two minutes to act before the network was congested.

Be aware that you can’t panic or lose the plot because that means that people get confused and that will cause real chaos. Try to be calm and composed. Hopefully you never have to work in serious civil unrest and war situations like I did in several countries.

Make sure you have a ‘ward system’ in place. This is something I learned whilst working in Kosovo, it means that you have predefined teams of about seven people. Number one calls number two, who calls three etc. and then the loop is closed when number seven calls number one to inform that all is OK with everyone. It should be part of your disaster plan too.

Hide your concerns but don’t take unnecessary risks ‘just to be brave’. I feared sometimes that some of my field engineers in war situations took too much risk repairing damage when bombs were still falling around them, but I have to admit, they did brilliantly.

Keep faith in your people, always and everywhere.

Can you please give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

For me as a leader, I realised early on that it is really simple, ‘if you sneeze the company is ill, if you laugh the company is happy’. Always laugh, it is the universal glue !

How can our readers further follow your work?

My team and I are busy creating more awareness of the history of mobile communications, by educating people on how mobile phone networks were built, often under extremely difficult circumstances, and sharing the lessons we learned on the way. It’s a story that was never told. You’ll find plenty of technical books, but no memoirs of ‘how that phone landed in your hand’.

It was a huge adventure for many ‘mobile telecom nomads’ and really interesting as the mobile industry changed the world as we knew it, in a very short space of time. People are now free to talk, can do their business without hassle, pay and send money instantly even to the remotest areas, learn a language, consult a doctor, order a taxi etc. etc.

We are very active on Linkedin. We organise webinars and appear on podcasts to tell our story, increase awareness and encourage interested people to read ‘Your phone, my life’, which can be ordered on Amazon. And, I’m sure my PR lady would love to speak to streaming service providers too ! (please contact us via,

Apart from that, I continue to work with my business partner, offering management services to companies that need our expertise, mostly with building and re-organizing technology based companies in challenging situations, worldwide (

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

Source: Ineke Botter of Your Phone My Life On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times | by Authority Magazine | Authority Magazine | Sep, 2023 | Medium
March 16, 2023
Author: Authority Magazine

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