Tips From The Top: One On One With Roel Vestjens

I spoke to Roel Vestjens, CEO of Belden, about his journey and best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people? 

Roel: A little-known fact about me is that I am a guitar player with a tremendous passion for blues music. I’m not good at all, but I enjoy the time I get to spend playing. This passion led me to the National Blues Museum here in St. Louis, Missouri where Belden is headquartered. I have served on the organization’s board of directors. I quickly became the vice chairman and continue to support their mission of celebrating the genre. I believe the blues is the bedrock of all American music and the genre’s story is important. Our vision at the National Blues Museum is to raise funds to leverage music as an educational opportunity for kids in the community. 

Adam: How did you get here? What experiences, failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth? 

Roel: A few years after I joined Belden, John Stroup, who was the CEO at that time, recognized the work I was doing and approached me one day with a question. He asked me what my ultimate career goal was at Belden. I answered that my goal was to be CEO someday. I wasn’t sure what his reaction might be when I told him 12 years ago that I wanted his job. He responded quite favorably and we began working together on a plan for me to become his successor. Through that plan, I got involved as a leader in various areas of the company’s business units and regions where Belden operates around the world.  

I learned a lot during that time, including the importance of spending time with Belden associates at all levels and in all job functions. I truly enjoy getting feedback, understanding the daily opportunities and challenges that our people face, and really listening to what they have to say. It’s built a level of openness and transparency that helps me run the company better.

Belden is a 120-year old company with a history of, and reputation for, producing high quality cable and connectivity products. We supplied products to Thomas Edison. The first television program was broadcast over Belden cable and the first computer network was run over Belden cable. I’m very proud of that history and feel a great connection to our past. As I moved into my role as CEO, I initiated a major strategic shift for the company, building upon that reputation of the past but shifting the focus for the future to collaborate with customers to create solutions which would allow them to run their businesses better and meet their goals. This is a completely different way of doing business, and there were hurdles to overcome.

First, I set out to rebuild the leadership team at Belden, empowering them to develop strategies and drive outcomes for their business units. I sought out leaders who offered a variety of perspectives and understood how Belden could impact our customers’ businesses beyond providing them with great products. In turn, they’ve built teams who are passionate about executing the strategy.

The underlying challenge taking place while all of this was set in motion was COVID. We were at the height of the global pandemic and shifting our business at the same time. We had begun the process of opening our Customer Innovation Centers (CICs), making major investments in R&D, and retooling our manufacturing facilities. Activity in terms of customer collaboration was high, but in most cases, we couldn’t be in-person to identify problems, or develop and test solutions. Belden has traditionally been very proficient with remote communication because of our large global footprint, and we had to reimagine what virtual collaboration looked like in our CICs and engineering centers.

During this time, as Belden’s new CEO, I found that it was important to communicate differently, and with a greater level of transparency. Many of our associates and customers were working remotely, in countries all over the world, and I was telling them that we were shifting our strategy when business (and life in general) seemed so uncertain. I began communicating more, throughout our own internal channels and through new external channels like LinkedIn. I focused on sharing information that gave our associates and customers the knowledge to understand our position and direction. 

Communication, setting clear goals, building a powerful leadership team, and forging ahead with our strategic plan despite COVID has allowed for growth in 2021, and a sustainable, positive outlook as we move ahead.

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders? 

Roel: 

  1. Be able to quickly and effectively shift your focus. On any given day, you may be working on any and all facets of the business including strategy, operations, tactical plans, market challenges and opportunities. Once you shift, you must dedicate your thoughts to the task at hand, setting your previous focus aside.
  2. Be honest at all times. We all face difficult conversations with employees, customers, and other stakeholders. In those moments, don’t shy away from having the hard conversations. People need real-time feedback to course correct, understand a situation and make decisions. I lead by example in this area and believe it is the best approach.
  3. Recognize the contributions of your people. There are many talented individuals driving your success. I’ve found that when I personally give shout outs at company meetings, on my LinkedIn, and in other communications with Belden associates, the accomplishments are celebrated more broadly and recognized around the world. 

Adam: What is your best advice on building, leading and managing teams? 

Roel: Surround yourself with a leadership team who offer differing viewpoints, aren’t afraid to bring their own perspectives to the table and challenge the ideas of their leaders, peers and team.  We at Belden strongly believe that the best outcomes are made possible through the unique experiences and viewpoints of each individual. I’ve built Belden’s senior leadership team based on this belief and encourage all of our leaders to do the same. 

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received? 

Roel: Treat every experience as an opportunity to learn something. This advice has been valuable in my career. Even if something doesn’t go as I once hoped or planned, I don’t dwell on it or feel ashamed of a failure. I reflect on the situation, learn from it and commit to approaching a similar situation differently next time so as to not repeat the mistake.

Adam: What is one thing everyone should do to pay it forward?

Roel: Be a mentor, whether it’s at work, in your personal peer group, or in the community. I was able to achieve my career goals because I had a mentor in Belden’s former CEO, John Stroup. I believe everyone has someone in their life who would benefit from mentorship. I was recently inspired by a story from one of our leaders here at Belden who shared her informal approach to mentorship for her children and their friends. She often finds herself in moments of influence in which she encourages open discussion on their potential career interests, allowing them to explore ideas they may not have previously considered. That’s just one example of how one individual can make an impact on someone’s life. We should all look for opportunities to reach out to someone in the workplace, be a resource for a curious child, or join an organization where your experiences can benefit another person in some way.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you as a leader? 

Roel: I am from the Netherlands, so I’m a huge soccer fan. Growing up, I played a lot, and consider soccer to be my sport of choice. The team I cheer for is the Philips Sport Vereniging, internationally known as PSV Eindhoven, which is one of the top teams in the Netherlands. I love the team element in soccer. It’s truly a game where individual skills and team play are both equally important. I believe that to be true in business as well.

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