Tjark Tjin-A-Tsoi: ‘A leader has to be a bit philosophical’

Ebbinge talks to the leaders of today and tomorrow and asks the questions that really matter. This time: Tjark Tjin-A-Tsoi, CEO of Sanquin and, as of June 1st, CEO of TNO.


What was your first job?
I was a PhD student. I was 23 at the time. I never had any jobs like a newspaper route. My free time was spent playing tennis at a high level. There, I learned the importance of training, perseverance and a positive mindset. And not to think that the match is over just because you’re behind.

How do your explain your job using language that a child can understand?
The easiest explanation is that I manage Sanquin, which used to be known as the blood bank here in the Netherlands. You have blood donors on one side and patients on the other. We arrange everything in between. We take blood at locations throughout the country, screen it for diseases, process it into safe blood products and deliver it to hospitals and other care institutions. We also have a research institute and commercial subsidiaries.

What makes you proud?
Sanquin has a new strategy for the blood bank and our research, which focuses more than ever on health. In the future, a single blood test will allow us to effectively screen for any health problems among our 400,000 donors who have been donating year after year. So, we can detect health problems like diabetes, before they become dangerous. Preventive medicine, in other words. This way, we give something back to the donors by helping them stay healthy.

What else has changed since you became CEO at Sanquin?
When I came in, a pharmaceutical subsidiary of Sanquin was in bad shape. Their most profitable product had been supplanted by a competitor. The fear was that this situation could financially damage the blood bank, which is after all a kind of national supply. We managed to overcome that risk. We restructured to a more distant holding company that oversees our commercial activities. There have been many changes: a new governance structure, a broad professionalisation programme, lower overhead costs and stronger ICT. Thanks to a number of changes, we now have a very strong team at the head of the organisation.

‘If something isn’t going well, you can either get depressed or think: is it really so bad? No matter if something succeeds or fails, in either case, you learn something from it’

How do you deal with setbacks?
If something isn’t going well, you can either get depressed or think: is it really so bad? No matter if something succeeds or fails, in either case, you learn something from it. We are on a constant journey of discovery. When something fails, it makes your reality deeper. In everything you do, in all the stones you throw into the pond, look at what comes back in the waves and see how reality works. I just see it as information. A leader also has to be a bit philosophical. Everything you put into the world has a positive and a negative side, and you strive to let the positive outweigh the negative.

What is your leadership style?
I don’t consider myself a typical manager and certainly not a micro-manager. As a leader, you give direction and set the tone. What is the atmosphere in an organisation? Is there trust and openness? Eighty to ninety percent of any organisation’s success simply comes down to having the right people in the right positions. If you attract people who believe in the direction, have the right tone of voice and show the drive to make it happen, this has an enormous impact on the results.

What insight on leadership has helped you the most?
Many people remain hesitant, wanting to have all the information on the table before they make a decision. But nothing is ever complete, so you simply have to be decisive. That leap of faith, you could call it courage, is what defines leadership. As a leader, I take the risk and the responsibility, and no one else has to worry about it.

Can you give an example of one of those leaps of faith?
When I was director of Statistics Netherlands (CBS), we were the first statistics company in the world to start our own newsroom. At first, that raised a few eyebrows. Some in the organisation thought: let’s just set out a table for the press and that’s enough. But what use is excellent information if it doesn’t reach anyone? In our age of social media and fake news, people yearn to know what the real situation is. So, I came up with the idea of setting up a professional news organisation in addition to the data company, with its own studio and everything. If we had conducted endless surveys and asked for everyone’s opinion, we never would have made it happen.

‘Carrying my own weight and keeping things in order was something that was instilled in me from an early age’

Suppose you have to speak on a stage for an hour. What are you going to talk about?
The extremely harmful role that biased, one-sided and simplistic information plays in our society. Since the Enlightenment, there’s been a powerful idea that open debate is best, and that we need a competition of opinions to reach the truth. That idea is in danger of being lost. I’m talking about movements such as de-platforming and safe spaces, which are forms of censorship that even scientists are now experiencing. Your own opinion is no longer challenged. Opinions that deviate just go underground, where they become potentially more dangerous. That’s why we have to stand up for open discourse.

Did you have to pay a price for your success?
The way I see it, to choose is to lose. I could have continued in science and might have become a professor of theoretical physics. But I don’t regret it for a second. An academic career is a rather monomaniacal existence.

How did your parents shape you?
I was born in Suriname and came to the Netherlands with my parents when I was two. They came from a poor country, so they had a strong desire to get ahead in life. Doing your best, studying, trying to gain a position in society, that’s what I was taught. My parents both worked full-time. My father was a physical therapist, and my mother was a teacher. Carrying my own weight and keeping things in order was something that was instilled in me from an early age.

Suppose you could introduce a new law. What would it be?
We try to regulate too much with laws, and we have to get rid of that. At a certain point, no one knows what rules there are any more. I want a government that is predictable and reliable. So let’s go for a simpler system that we enforce well.

If someone made a film about your life, what is one scene that would have to be included?
When I was general director of the Netherlands Forensic Institute, I received a letter from U.S. Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, asking me to come and testify at a Senate hearing on how forensic institutes can be reformed and how we had tackled this in the Netherlands. It was an exciting moment, which felt like a form of recognition for our work. I later found out that I was the first Dutch citizen ever to testify there.

Photography: Pieter Bas Bouwman