A matter of courage

You’d never guess it, sitting across from the thoughtful-looking woman who has just been appointed dean of the School of Business and Economics. But still waters run deep: Mariëlle Heijltjes is also a flying trapeze artist. And one who doesn’t shy away from a pelican, straddle whip, backend hocks off or layout. “Well, there’s always a safety net,” she grins.

“The last thing I am is a stuntwoman,” Heijltjes says. “But I’ve learnt over the years that you can learn to manage fear. I was afraid of heights and now I know how to deal with them. In retrospect, the fact that I got used to this sport again during my sabbatical in Mauritius is less trivial than you might think. I learnt to overcome my fears by showing courage and confidence in myself and the instructors who operate the safety lines. My new book, which is almost finished, is about leadership; the working title is A matter of courage. Being an amateur flying trapeze artist has given me insights that found their way into the book.”

Authority

Heijltjes is an authority in the field of managerial behaviour and leadership development. We speak in the renowned Maastricht café De Tribunal, not long before she is due to attend a major management conference in Seattle. She is no stranger to operating in an international context. Part of her childhood was spent in Germany, where her father was stationed as an air-force officer. During her high school days at the Rijksscholengemeenschap in Roermond and the Sint-Janscollege in Hoensbroek, the idea of going abroad never lost its appeal.

“As an 11-year-old I spent a few weeks living with a colleague of my father’s in Southampton. I picked up English quickly. I still speak German, and during my writing sabbatical in Mauritius I dusted off my French. I’m grateful my work has allowed me to travel. I once joined a trade mission to Australia, and I’ve worked in Japan, China and the US. Other cultures appeal to me. They shape you.”

Second cohort

Heijltjes is a product of Maastricht University. In 1985 she was among only the second cohort of business-economics students. “When I take office as SBE dean, I’ll be the first alum and the first woman in that role. I’ve always thought fondly of the school.” Did she always aspire to an academic or teaching career? “To be honest, at first I didn’t really know what I wanted. I had broad interests. I come from a family with a strong interest in culture, and many musicians. My sister attended the conservatory of music and studied in Moscow. I abandoned my own musical aspirations pretty quickly, but I’ve always retained that interest in music.”

Heijltjes nonetheless found her calling. “Ultimately, academia fascinated me more. During high school I still flirted with the idea of going to Nijenrode. But I’ll never forget entering a classroom during an introduction day at UM [then the Rijksuniversiteit Limburg] and coming across a professor who was speaking with a student as an equal. That made a deep impression on me. Over the years the university has always held onto that open, intriguing and human focus. Something new was happening here. Not for a single day have I ever regretted that choice.”

Internship in the US

During her studies, she did an internship in the US and attended Indiana University in Bloomington as an exchange student. “I spent a year in America. I was having some doubts about whether to pursue a business career or to seek refuge in a PhD. Although the business side has always attracted me, in the end I was really cut out for the work that I’ve been doing with great pleasure for so many years now. I did my PhD and became a professor in 2006. In 2008 I was appointed director at what later became UMIO.” UMIO is a privately funded unit within SBE that offers management education and courses for professionals. The portfolio encompasses MBA programmes, executive master’s programmes, tailor-made courses, management courses and coaching.

“From the outset, I felt like a fish in water. All my interests converged here. The international academic context, with frequent travel and contact with students, academics and businesspeople from all over the world. Plus my own background in organisational strategy, leadership development and social relevance. The UMIO slogan is ‘creating meaningful impact together.’ I still think that’s a strong one-liner that I believe in wholeheartedly.”

Mariëlle Heijltjes, professor of Managerial Behaviour, became dean of the UM School of Business and Economics on 1 September 2022. Before that she was Executive Director of UMIO. She is an expert in leadership and team effectiveness, themes on which she has worked with large international clients such as APG, Daimler, Unilever, Vodafone and the World Bank, but also with smaller national and regional organisations.

Heijltjes has taught in the executive MBA programmes at Maastricht and Reykjavik universities, as well as the TRIUM Global Executive MBA offered jointly by HEC Paris, the London School of Economics and NYU’s Stern School of Business. She is also a certified Business Coach. Her research on managerial behaviour has been published in numerous international journals.

In addition to her UM roles, Heijltjes sits on the international advisory boards of a Spanish, a French and a Peruvian business school (EADA, IESEG and CENTRUM PUCP, respectively). She also serves on the Supervisory Board of the Maastricht Exhibition and Conference Centre (MECC).

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