Growing up with a father who was the longest-serving Belgian member of parliament, Alexander De Croo ’04 was immersed in politics throughout much of his life. So, when it came time to start building his own career, De Croo wanted to keep his distance from that world.
“I always said it’s not something for me. I’ve seen it too much,” he says. “I was in a business career, and I thought entrepreneurship was my real passion.”
Indeed, De Croo initially steered away from a political career — first, working as a consultant for a global firm, then pursuing business school at Kellogg and founding his own startup. But even with success as a business leader, De Croo says he could not escape a feeling of unrest, drawn to a desire to make a difference in his home country.
“I learned a lot of things, but more and more, I felt that something was missing,” he says. “I wanted to have more societal impact beyond my industry.”
Ultimately, De Croo could not resist the pull of politics, and he is now 12 years into a political career. In October 2020, De Croo assumed the highest office in Belgium, becoming the country’s prime minister.
“I never imagined that I’d be in this position, and it never was my goal either,” he says. “I’ve tried to keep up an element of being new and looking at the position more from the business perspective.”
De Croo not only took the office during a global pandemic, but he also became the country’s leader following more than a year without a formal government. To meet these challenges, De Croo says he has leaned on his education from Kellogg and experiences in business to help him lead the country of 11 million people through this time.
When De Croo came to Kellogg in 2002, he says he not only took classes that would continue to serve him in his career at the time as a consultant, but he also pushed himself to take classes that exposed him to entirely new subjects like entrepreneurship.
After returning to his firm, The Boston Consulting Group, for a couple years after graduation, De Croo wanted to make a change.
“At some point as a consultant, you start to see that the skill set you acquire is really an advisor skill set,” he says. “I found out that I’m not so sure I’m a very good advisor. I’m better at doing things.”
In 2006 De Croo founded Darts-ip, now acquired by Clarivate, which is a database for intellectual property lawyers, providing global information and analytics in support of IP prosecution and litigation activities.
“If you want to be an entrepreneur, you could go to the industries that are sexy industries that everyone is working at, but it will be much harder to make a difference,” he says. “If you go into what you would call a boring industry, it’s much easier to make a splash, make a difference.”
De Croo says his startup was in a “boring” industry, which made some former colleagues question his decision to leave his consulting career to pursue entrepreneurship.
“They said you are basically a salesperson now, and you’re trying to sell your product to lawyers,” De Croo says. “I remember I told them, well, you will never understand. You’ve never been in a situation where you develop something yourself, and you sell your own product. The feeling of that, to me, is something which is incomparable.”
After working on Darts-ip for nearly four years, De Croo was ready to try out another career change into politics. In his first election as a candidate for the European Parliament for the Flemish Liberals and Democrats party, De Croo set out to lose.
“I deliberately said I do not want to get elected because I wanted to try it out and not be in the spotlight,” he says. “It was a fun thing to do, and actually, I liked it. I did not want to get elected, but I got the taste of it.”
In 2009, De Croo decided to run for election again and was elected as the chairman of the Open VLD party until 2012. For the following eight years, he served as deputy prime minister, holding a variety of responsibilities, including minister of development and minister of finance.
“I think people that have clear cut career plans for the rest of their lives are actually quite boring,” De Croo says. “I believe more in going with the flow and using the opportunities that cross your path. I think you should be quite open about what you do in the future.”
In his current role as prime minister, De Croo emphasizes the importance of fostering teams with diverse perspectives — a value ingrained in him since his time at Kellogg.
“If you look at the innovation that is taking place today, it’s never one person who is doing it. It’s always a team, which often is very diverse,” he says. “I think the ones who are successful today are the ones who are able to get the strongest team around them, the ones that are not afraid to get people around them that are smarter than them and are comfortable with that.”
In building his administration, De Croo felt it was important to achieve gender parity for the first time, which also included naming the first transgender vice prime minister in Belgium. Diversity of thought is also reflected in his administration, which includes representatives from seven of Belgium’s political parties.
In dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic in particular, De Croo says he views himself as the “coach,” not just of his administrative team, but of all Belgium residents as well, who have a role in curbing the spread of the virus.
“It’s something that’s linked to what I learned at Kellogg,” he says. “I’m a big believer in teamwork, and it’s quite clear if you look at the world today, if everyone brings what they’re best at to the table, we can do incredible things.”
He continues, “That’s what we did with developing the vaccine, for example. It’s private sector, public sector, academia — they all brought to the table, without a lot of questioning, what they’re best at. If you do that, you can do incredible things. That’s what I try to do in my government teams as well.”