Born and raised on Curaçao, Ference moved to the Netherlands at the age of 18 to pursue a degree in Business Administration at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. He started out his career in investment banking working for MeesPierson before doing an eight-year stint that ended with his promotion to Managing Director at Lehman Brothers in London. Ference kept rising through the ranks and became Chief Financial & Risk Officer, and member of the Management Board at SNS REAAL for 4 years; before joining Bank of America (Europe) in 2013. Today, he is EU Head of Corporate & Investment and Head of Benelux Corporate & Investment Banking.
Ference attributes his successful career to being one of the hardest working people in the room and never settling for anything less than outstanding. This perfectionist never allows himself to get too comfortable. Instead, he is constantly looking for ways to improve himself as a professional and inspires his team to take on more they believe themselves capable of.
You are a self-proclaimed perfectionist. Do your colleagues find you intimidating to work with?
My colleagues describe me as relentless, high intensity, very focussed, and disciplined. I am always willing to invest more than anyone else; and that can be quite intimidating. They never know if I am satisfied or happy with an outcome; which, admittedly, I rarely am. Instead, I am always pushing for some marginal improvement or making space for progress. I am not naive, though. I know perfection does not exist, but we can keep striving for betterment. Having said that, I have become more nuanced and matured over the years. Experience has taught me that compliments and telling people when they do a good job is probably as important as the job itself. I was definitely not mature enough to think this way 20 years ago. So nowadays I am still a perfectionist, but with more of a human touch.
Is that what you attribute your success to: being relentless and a perfectionist?
Much more than my intelligence and the title of my education. Obviously, being educated is very relevant, but not the title itself. A lot of young people believe they need an education in order to become successful. That is not where I would start. My success is driven by being disciplined, working hard, and also luck. I moved to the Netherlands to pursue my studies at a time when drug trafficking on Curaçao was the sole focus of media attention. So, I felt the need to prove myself and demonstrate that I was capable – that I was not what they made us Curaçaoans to be. So, I was determined to become successful. I was not going to return home empty handed. I also wanted to make my family and island proud, so I knew that my drive was going to demand more hard work and commitment from me. Therefore, I kept working hard and would never underperform. There is no success without significant investment, and if you want to be relentless, it comes at a personal cost. I sacrificed a lot of parties and social gatherings to reach my goals. I wouldn’t necessarily advise anyone to do the same, but working harder has served me well. Not only that, but I dare say it is the price of my success.
You mentioned you need luck to become successful, could you elaborate on this?
I don’t believe there is any great career without for example a good mentor, and that is more driven by coincidence than anything else. Luck is when you go work for an employer, and you meet a person who becomes a sponsor and fully believes in you – and decides to invest in you or provide a slipstream to push your career forward. This person will not judge or rank you when you make a mistake, but looks at the total package. This mentor popping up in your life and deciding to give you a chance is luck, not destiny. By the same token, you can be very talented, but stuck in your career because there is no one in your corner. There is no success or progression without luck.
So, how do you get the most out of your team?
It starts with trust, and this means asking them to do slightly more than they believe themselves capable of. At the same time, I like to provide an environment where it is perfectly fine to ask for help if they need it – and if they fail, there is still a lesson to be learnt. So, trust is paramount. Secondly, by creating room for people to communicate with me openly; even if it is personal. Thirdly, we play hard when we have to, but we also have to enjoy life – or at the very least seek that balance. We won’t always find it, but there is no team that is successful and at the same time boring.
During the time of the Black Lives Matter movement, you wrote an emotional piece on LinkedIn about your own experiences with racial bias. Can you share with us some instances of discrimination you have faced and how you dealt with that?
Being singled out for the way I spoke Dutch when I first moved here or the way I dressed, because I didn’t understand the hidden codes. Often interrogated at passport control, just because I had visited Curaçao. Those are a few examples, but truth be told, the higher you climb, the less significant these instances become. In my experience, it is often ignorance, and you cannot give your energy to every comment every single time. The best thing you can do is to create your own Teflon layer and let it slide. Do not lose your temper, just laugh it off instead. Unless, the person is just rude or blatantly racist. In that case, you really need to speak up and take action.
What advice do you have for ethnic professionals trying to climb the corporate ladder?
It’s a combination of things. First, try to stay close to who you are as an individual. Do not pretend to be something you are not. So, be honest about the things you are good at and focus on improving them – they will be your core strength. Everything else is a waste of time. Secondly, when you are switching jobs or career, make sure the pull is bigger than the push. Do not leave a place only because you dislike something, make sure you go somewhere because you like it better. Thirdly, never let someone else take on your mistakes. By being honest and transparent, people will trust you and hand you more responsibilities. Lastly, the world is unfortunately unfair to you as an ethnic minority. There are hidden rules and guidelines designed in place to keep the status quo. Recognise them, learn how to navigate them, and then use them to your advantage.