When Peter Vanham was a young boy growing up in the university town of Leuven, Belgium, he dreamed of someday becoming the chief executive of one of the largest multinational organizations in the world: the Roman Catholic Church.
“I actually wanted to be the Pope,” Vanham said. “He had a nice white robe and he had the Popemobile. I mean, come on. He had the Popemobile.”
Although he’s since taken a different direction in life, Vanham’s childhood fascination with the papacy may have signaled one of the predominant interests of his adulthood: the careers and interior lives of chief executive officers from the world’s top corporations.
Vanham, an International House Alumnus (‘13), recently returned to the House to speak about his book, Before I Was CEO: Life Stories and Lessons from Leaders Before They Reached the Top. Published by Wiley Press, the book draws on interviews Vanham conducted with CEO’s around the world about their personal and professional journeys.
“I’m very happy with the publication of the book, very happy,” he said.
One of Vanham’s goals was to have written a book within a decade of completing his MA in business journalism from Columbia University.
“They say in Latin, verba volant, scripta manent: If you talk, it’s forgotten immediately. If you write it down it stays forever,” he said.
It was by attending Columbia with funding from the Fulbright Scholar Program that Vanham landed as a Resident of International House in the Fall of 2012. At I-House he encountered a new community of about two dozen other Residents who were also students at the Graduate School of Journalism.
“I know that from my [J-school] class a couple of people actually moved to I-House after they realized how fun life here was,” Vanham said. “Because they were like, ‘Oh, I want to be with the other journalism students.”
Amid that I-House journalism community was Santiago Wills ’12 from Colombia, and the two remained friends. These days Wills is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist and moderated the Q&A on Vanham’s book at the recent I-House event. The two reminisced about their times playing soccer three times a week with a group of Residents and regularly engaging in long in-depth conversations with friends in The Pub.
Vanham credits a speech he heard at the International House by Morgan Stanley CEO and I-House Alumnus James Gorman with piquing his interest in global corporate leaders.
Another impetus for the book came while Vanham interned for Zurich for Die Handelzeitung, a leading weekly German-language business and finance newspaper. He was assigned to cover Paul Bulcke, the CEO of the Swiss company Nestlé. Hoping for an exclusive interview to discuss the company’s successes and failures, when Vanham showed up to meet Bulcke, he was told the conversation would have to stay limited to the “student times” of the CEO. Though it wasn’t a discussion topic he had hoped for, he wasn’t disappointed.
“It turned out to be one of the most insightful conversations that I ever had,” Vanham said. “It was a fantastic hour and a half that I got to spend with him to talk about how he made his journey from his student days to later on.”
Throughout his talks with a range of corporate leaders, Vanham picked up on more than a few takeaways. For one, he notes that the stability and success of family life is key. There is nearly always the presence of a loving spouse or partner in the life of a successful CEO.
“I think a lot of us understand that. Because I think we may have seen in our own lives, in our own experiences that that’s just something very solid and an important thing to fall back on,” Vanham said. “But very often in the course of our journey, we tend to forget that. We are not helped by the image that we get from people that are successful. Particularly in [the United States], there really is a focus on the individual.”
Vanham himself is now “blissfully married.” And after working and interning for publications in cities around the world, including London, Philadelphia, Zurich and Berlin, he’s now in a job he loves, handling U.S. media relations for the World Economic Forum in New York City. Three years into the role, Vanham thinks of it as a professional extension of the spirit of the International House: bringing people together from all around the world to discuss topics on the global, political and economic agenda.
“The area of interest for me remains the same,” he said. “I’ve been able to make a job out of it and play my role in it. It’s really nice.”