Nadine Beister: ‘Moving From Good to Great With New Leadership Principles’

Nadine Beister: ‘Moving From Good to Great With New Leadership Principles’
Achmea is implementing organization-wide initiatives to enhance social safety, diversity and inclusion. According to Chief People Officer Nadine Beister, psychological safety - the sum of those three values - forms the foundation of everything. ‘Without psychological safety, an organization cannot be inclusive, and you cannot achieve the goals you want to strive for.’ There is also a strong focus on leadership transformation.

Nadine Beister has served as Chief People Officer of Achmea since early 2023. She previously held the same role at Hema and has been in the HR profession for over 20 years. Despite this extensive experience at various companies, she acknowledges the importance of remaining curious. ‘I used to have a tendency to solve certain issues myself, because I had already experienced it.  Now I consciously experience again how valuable it is to listen to employees first. That is the key to a better organization.’

The financial services company continuously monitors how employees feel. Beister talks easily and enthusiastically about her ambitions in this interview with Karlien Vanderheyden, Professor of Leadership & Organizational Behavior at Vlerick Business School. Beister introduced a leadership program aimed at developing leaders from ‘good’ to ‘great’. In addition, she is committed to increasing inclusion, diversity and equality within the organization. ‘All of which touches on psychological safety’.

Achmea has a cooperative business model, what impact does that have on the organization?
‘It is the first time that I work in a company with cooperative origins. My experience is that this has resulted in Achmea to be an exceptionally people-centric organization. Not only in terms of employment conditions, but also in the way we treat each other. We enjoy working together and to do good to each other, to the community. The company has a strong focus on long-term value creation. The question of how we impact the world around us is deeply ingrained.’

Can you give an example of that people-oriented culture?
‘To give a concrete example: we have developed services to support our customers in making their living environment more sustainable. The discussion soon shifted to whether we could also do something for our employees in this regard. We then added a climate budget to the collective labor agreement.’

Is it easier for a cooperative to achieve a diverse and inclusive organization?
‘No, cooperative does not automatically mean diverse and inclusive. It applies to us too that, if we do not pay attention to diversity and inclusion (D&I), not enough progress is made. Over the past years, we have succeeded in promoting more women to higher positions. But the bar needs to be raised even higher. Achmea profiles itself as a company that is at the center of society and wants to be there for everyone in society. Then it speaks for itself to also strive for that internally.
We decided to set targets not only for women, but for all groups. Also for people with a non-Western background, for people from the lhbtiq+ community and for people with a distance to the labor market. Initially, I had some reservations about these targets. But there is no other way. If you do not set clear targets, or if you do not make it a topic of discussion, nothing happens, or it will not happen fast enough.
We started with sessions for all group directors. Do we realize that we are biased, that we tend to always look for a mini-me? It led to surprising insights for all of us. We also scrutinized, for example, the entire recruitment chain. That is valuable; some recruitment agencies appear to mainly provide lists of white male candidates. In that case, we cannot blame our managers for hardly inviting other target groups for job interviews. We are having discussions with these agencies because we want to change this to an inclusive approach. And if the lists are diverse, we want to ensure that candidates are evaluated equally and that we do not end up searching for that mini-me or the seemingly easiest option after all. Achmea recently introduced dashboards to measure D&I progress. This is important - not only for our HR department, but for all managers. These results are increasingly being discussed. Where are we excelling and where are we falling short? Why is that? What makes one manager or division successful, while others lag behind? We are realistic; we will not fix the transformation to a more diverse, inclusive organization within a year, but we are moving in the right direction.’

Do you think employees feel safe? What is Achmea doing to improve psychological safety?
‘In my opinion we do not have an unsafe culture. Our annual employee engagement survey and our quarterly metrics indicate that employees feel safe. However, we are looking at it more critically. For example, at the last quarterly measurement, we added a few questions about inclusion. On those, we scored an eight. Initially, we thought that was great. But on second thought, we wondered if that was indeed good enough. If we believe we are not yet a diverse organization, can we say anything about how inclusive we are? Can you question a still too homogeneous group about its level of inclusion? We do not think so.
To gain a better understanding, we plan to conduct a more comprehensive survey on equality, inclusion, and social safety in the coming months. We are also launching a campaign within the organization around this theme, on what a safe and pleasant workplace entails. I am curious to see the results. We believe that we have effectively ensured social safety within the organization. There are various ways for people to report unwanted situations. We also immediately said yes to testing the manual ‘How to deal with a report of sexual transgressive behavior’, an initiative by Mariëtte Hamer, Independent Government Commissioner for sexual transgressive behavior and sexual violence. Psychological safety is different for everyone, so it is important to measure carefully how it is experienced within the organization.’

What role do leaders play in ensuring psychological safety?
‘In addition to paying considerable attention to D&I, we are currently also investing much in leadership, because leaders are crucial to bringing out the best in people. We value psychological safety; if this is in place, people dare to make mistakes, learn from each other and are also allowed to give a dissenting opinion. We even want to encourage the latter, because a differing opinion can be valuable. Last year we formulated new leadership principles for this very reason. We critically evaluated behaviors that do not contribute to our mission of transitioning from a 'good' to a 'great' organization. This led us to six behaviors that we no longer find desirable. One that undoubtably negatively impacts social safety is that we want to change the habit of ‘talking about’ to ‘talking with’. Many topics are often discussed at the coffee machine, but they are not always put on the table at a team meeting. Sometimes, we talk more off-stage than on-stage. Which is a shame, because it does not help improve the organization or each other.
In line with this, we developed a leadership program. First, the focus is on improving the performance dialogue. We want leaders - for those who do not do so already - to always start by acknowledging successes and what the employee has already achieved and to express appreciation for that. Next comes the question: is the employee on track, are they meeting their goals, are there any adjustments to be made? And, just as important: does someone need help? This is a better approach than unilaterally firing a large number of questions at someone or passing judgment too quickly. That leads to undesirable situations: the colleague retreats into his or her shell and will not dare to talk openly about where things are going wrong. We see this as a missed opportunity. We want people to talk just as easily about their successes as about their failures, and to feel free to ask for help.
Additionally, we engage in team coaching. We use the iceberg model of American psychologist David McClelland. According to this theory of motivation, a small part of our behavior is visible - the so-called top of the iceberg. Most of it, however, is invisible. It is precisely the beliefs, thoughts and experiences below the water line that greatly determine our behavior above water. We ask our leaders to reflect on what ‘their iceberg’ is. And to share this in the team. That means that leaders need to be vulnerable and talk about their patterns, where they come from. Perhaps something happened in their lives that explains why they exhibit certain behaviors. Both positive and negative experiences can lead to effective or less effective behavior.
We started training 18 management teams, which resulted in great sessions. All leaders noticed the impact within their teams. They realized much more mutual connection, which suddenly led to different conversations. Reflection was also done within their teams. We asked each team member to think about what drives them but also about their ‘red buttons’, situations in which they get irritated or react strongly. By exploring without value judgement with each other why people exhibit certain behaviors led to far more mutual understanding.’

What results have you seen?
‘The effect was so impactful that we plan to conduct these sessions this year with another 200 managers and their teams. Ultimately, we aim to roll out the program across the entire organization. In doing so, we are consciously choosing to train a diverse group of employees as facilitators. In addition to their regular work, they will provide training and facilitate team sessions for several half-days a month. With internal facilitators, we are convinced that behavioral change will become part of our DNA. That said, we do not talk much explicitly about psychological safety during the trainings. Instead, we aim to embody it rather than talk about it. We believe that this organization-wide program contributes to this. Psychological safety forms the foundation of everything. Without psychological safety, you cannot achieve inclusivity, and without inclusion, you cannot achieve the organizational goals.’

Are the team sessions mandatory?
‘We do not like to force our people into anything, but it essentially comes down to it. We value this topic as very important. Additionally, we want to speak the same language within the organization. Terms like triggers, red buttons and on/offstage recur during meetings, so you have to know what it is about. I notice that employees do not feel it as an obligation. There is enthusiasm about the program. We are also continuously adjusting. A recent quarterly measurement among employees, for example, showed that managers are not yet actively enough asking their team for feedback. We will pay more attention to this in the coming period.’

Employees may be frightened by technological developments within the organization, such as AI and digitization. How do you prevent these feelings of unsafety?
‘We recently went on a trip to Boston with the Executive Board and group managers. We visited universities and companies, listened to scientists and entrepreneurs. We experienced how fast innovation is moving in America, what is possible. Upon our return, we shared our enthusiasm internally; after all, we want to bring the entire organization into this. What can and do we want to do with generative artificial intelligence? We want to emphasize that AI will not so much cost jobs, but more importantly will change work and potentially drastically improve it. We see AI as an opportunity, not a threat. Our leaders must lead by example in this regard. We want them to immerse themselves in AI and experiment with it. To explore what is possible within our organization, what opportunities lie in their own field, and take people along on that journey of discovery. Or even better: to actively invite them to join in.’

To what extent do leaders have the freedom to experiment with AI?
‘Each department is given the freedom to deploy AI in certain processes, of course taking into account the ethical aspects and the frameworks we have agreed upon. In HR, for example, we are busy with a digital transformation and are looking at the possibilities on the AI front. For example, we are working on a pilot where, thanks to AI technology, a personality profile is created without going through extensive assessments. We are investigating whether it would be something to use or not. Other departments are also working in similar ways. It is important that managers do not simply throw AI over the fence to the IT department. It is something that everyone within Achmea can and should contribute to.’

This article was last changed on 21-05-2024