Roland van der Vorst: 'Shared Interest Before Sentiment'

Roland van der Vorst: 'Shared Interest Before Sentiment'
For Management Scope, Charles Honée talks to lateral thinkers and the business community about social expectations. For this issue, he spoke to Roland van der Vorst. The TU Delft professor, Financieel Dagblad columnist and Head of Innovation Wholesale & Rural at Rabobank points out that anger and emotions dominate every debate. He also knows how to combat polarization: ‘Let’s think in terms of common interests.’

He once made the switch from the 'promise industry' to the 'performance industry'. From the world of tall tales to the world of 'doing it yourself'. From the mad men to the math men. Roland van der Vorst traded in entrepreneurship for a leading position at a financial company. There, too, he tried to remain the free thinker he has always been. Because if there is one thing that Van der Vorst believes in, it is creativity. And that is important in both his role as a columnist and in his job at the bank. Thinking things through until you come up with a solution that pleases everyone. ‘I think big changes will be achieved by people who experiment: People who fall down, learn from the experience and get back up again.’

How do you see social expectations in 2021?
‘Social expectations or environmental expectations are not a new phenomenon. People have always had certain expectations of organizations, companies and elites. However, a new phenomenon that is unique to our time is the anger and emotion associated with those expectations.’

Where do you think this anger and emotion come from?
‘Since the 1990s, people have become increasingly self-reliant. There was neoliberalism that said ‘you can do it yourself from now on’, there was technology that said ‘you can do it yourself from now on’ and there was the government that said ‘you must do it yourself from now on’. The individual was placed on a pedestal. There was a good reason why ‘You’ was chosen as Person of the Year by Time Magazine in 2006.
People thought they could take fate into their own hands. In practice, it has been disappointing – and not just a little, but hugely disappointing. Many people failed. They have less power and less money. They cannot buy a house. And at the same time, they see others who are successful; others who do have things. They see large corporations failing to meet their tax obligations. So on the one hand the individual is on a pedestal, but on the other hand the individual feels powerless, which creates tension, emotion, anger. And then there is social media, which amplifies this contradiction. Social media enables people to say ‘look, here I am’, contrarily it allows people to show all their frustrations and powerlessness. I completely agree with the French philosopher Eric Sadin who describes this era as l'ère de l'individu tyran, the era of the tyrannical individual: The ‘I’ who is put on a pedestal combined with extreme victimization.’

So there is a huge paradox that has everything to do with the widening gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. When did you first notice this anger?
It was after the major financial crisis of 2007/2008. Actually, that banking crisis did not turn out too bad after all. Of course, it was a huge disaster and yes, we barely managed to pull through, but in the end we did solve it pretty well – certainly from a purely pragmatic perspective. We took action and prevented a larger disaster...’

...because governments stepped in and laid down rules.
‘Exactly. So, objectively speaking, the problem was not handled badly at all by the directors, the elite. But there was still a huge amount of anger, which was caused by the fact that there was no emotional catharsis. No culprits were identified, nobody was blamed. If that had been the case, the anger might have abated. That was frustrating for many people: There was a crisis, and a reasonable solution was found. You then see the anger being directed at that pragmatic strategy itself; at the fact that the elite can fix things by coming up with reasonable solutions.'

And that makes the people suspicious of the elite?
‘It is very interesting to see how directors are treated these days. By definition, they are on the wrong side of the fence. You see the same thing happening with Dutch farmers. They are the big polluters, so they are on the wrong side. The question is not what you can or actually do contribute to a solution, but rather: Are you on the right side of the fence? If not, the discussion ends there and then. Criticism has become existential rather than instrumental.’

What should or can a director do to survive amid this tension?
There is no quick fix here. The problem is that most directors are actually very rational people. Generally, directors are problem solvers, they weigh up the various interests, they are doers and they try to come up with a reasonable solution. And so social anger is essentially an attack on that reasonableness. Reasonableness is part of the problem. You can never extinguish emotion with reasonableness as it only leads to more frustration, and extinguishing emotion with emotion is not a clever strategy either. That is what is happening in politics right now. They take that anger and amplify it. But you cannot build a business on that.’

So how can you build a business?
‘Well, in any case it starts with understanding the game: Realizing how it works. We also have to return to the root of the problem: The model in which we put the individual on a pedestal. A paradigm shift has to take place: The era of the individual has to make way for an era in which we realise that we are part of the same system... The other person is not fuel for my engine; he or she is in the same boat as me. That is a fundamental realization.’

What does that mean for directors, in concrete terms?
‘The first thing you need to do as a director is realise that the boundary between your environment and yourself is an artificial boundary. You are much more than a director. When I worked in marketing, they often organized consumer safaris for directors. I could not believe what I was seeing: The board of a detergent manufacturer would go into people's homes and observe how they did their washing up. It was as if the directors had never seen anyone do the dishes before; as if they had never done the dishes themselves.
I have always found it strange: As soon as people become board members, they tend to forget that they still have other roles as well: Father, mother, local resident, member of the football club, dishwasher. It all starts with a relational awareness; with the realisation that the management environment is completely artificial and that you are part of a larger world. As a director, you can think: I am also a father and my child needs to be able to find an affordable home later in life. Of course, it is a generalization to say that directors do not have this mindset; there are exceptions, but that relational awareness is at the core of everything.’

But even so: As long as there are major differences, will that distrust remain?
‘Directors should show more empathy, which is something that needs to be developed. If you do not have empathy then the contrast will only grow.’

What is your top tip for directors?
‘My top tip for all directors is: Be gentle in an increasingly harsh environment. That is quite a challenge because the criticism they receive is intensifying and getting increasingly personal. At the same time, you are asked to reach out and position yourself alongside others rather than against them. That is very difficult and requires directors who are not afraid, not easily intimidated and who are confident in themselves.’

In a previous interview in this series, philosopher René ten Bos said he thinks leadership is overrated. He doesn’t believe in it. Listening to you, you do not seem to agree with him...
‘I fundamentally disagree. I think leadership is becoming both more important and more difficult. Leadership requires guts. You have to understand the other person, you have to dare to be vulnerable and you also have to dare to show resistance. You have to take a position. You may (have to) reach out, but do it from your own position. And that does require new leadership. It is an awful concept, but it is exactly what we need.’

I read in an interview that you also described the word 'purpose' as an awful concept.
‘Perhaps that stems from my background. I began my career in the advertising industry, the ‘promise industry’. We sold stories and I was very good at formulating purposes at the time. It was all quite sincere, but I made the switch from the promise industry to the performance industry ten years ago for very specific reasons. In the end, I found it much more interesting to get down to work and actually do things rather than spend hours sitting in meetings formulating a purpose. Real change comes from doing things, trying things out and making mistakes.’

Is that a plea for experimentation?
‘Definitely. The future belongs to math men, not mad men. The mad man is the advertising man or the marketing professional who tells you nice stories about purposes. The math man is engaged in what I call ‘handyman creativity'. He is the data scientist, the industrial designer, the handyman in a laboratory somewhere. That is a different form of creativity, and I believe that is where real change will originate.
The story is very important, but I think big changes are achieved by people who experiment, learn from their experiences and get back up again.’

Does that also apply to directors?
‘Yes, that could also apply to directors. You have a good point: Perhaps they should also experiment a little more and create space for themselves to experiment. That seems like an important precondition for leadership. That is where change ultimately comes from, and if that is a ‘purpose mentality’, then I think purpose is a very good thing.’

You now work for Rabobank, a cooperative. Is that a form that suits you best?
‘I find the cooperative a very interesting form of management. Do not get me wrong: I am not saying that we should delist companies and turn them into cooperatives, but within a cooperative you are forced to think in terms of interests rather than sentiments. And that is something that companies and directors can learn from cooperatives. I may have a disagreement with my neighbour and we may have totally different tastes and political preferences, but I will still go halves with him to buy those solar panels for our roofs. That is putting interests before sentiment.
In today's society, we tend to form groups and be swayed by sentiment. Do not do that. Let's try to think in terms of common interests, and try to be creative as directors. For once, do not try to come up with a compromise; instead, come up with a solution that makes everyone happy. That is the strategy I try to take at Rabobank. I try to come up with an idea that satisfies everyone: From small farmers to the large corporates to Rabobank. Believe me: It is possible. One of the projects we are working on encourages small farmers to plant trees on their land. It is good for their land, for biodiversity and for the planet as a whole. We use satellites to measure the difference in biomass, which indicates the amount of CO2 that is being absorbed by the trees. We translate this into a high-quality carbon credit, which we then sell to large companies. Most of the proceeds go back to the farmer, and we keep a small amount. This satisfies everyone: The small farmer, the planet, the companies and us. We have now managed to set up a carbon bank thanks to more of these initiatives. But you need creativity and conceptual ability for that.’

We are in the midst of a climate crisis and we are struggling with the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic... is that good or bad news for the changes you are advocating?
‘I think these crises may help us. By now, everyone in society has a basic awareness that we have a huge problem in the medium term. There is a sense of urgency, and nothing is as good for collective awareness as a long-term orientation. If I am worried about my child's performance this academic year, I will arrange some private tutoring. But if I am worried about my grandchildren's performance, I will tackle the education system. ‘Long term’ automatically means your world gets bigger and you are forced to think in terms of systems and interests. The major climate challenge creates that same effect. And yes: The coronavirus pandemic has also had a major advantage: Relational thinking has been given a major boost. Your health poses an existential risk to mine and vice versa. The coronavirus has made risk relational. That is a huge win.’

This article was published in Management Scope 09 2021.

This article was last changed on 27-10-2021