Kitty Koelemeijer: ‘Make Supervisory Board Members Earn Education Credits’

Kitty Koelemeijer: ‘Make Supervisory Board Members Earn Education Credits’
Professor and Supervisory Board member Kitty Koelemeijer does not mind being the ‘odd one out’ in some organizations. On the contrary, the role suits her very well. “It is easier to work for an organization where everything is in order, but when that is not the case, that is where you can truly make a difference.” Ultimately, that is what Koelemeijer is doing it for: To have an impact on both business and society.

Kitty Koelemeijer is a rising star among Supervisory Board members. A marketing professor at Nyenrode Business University, she joined telecom company KPN’s Supervisory Board in April. It is the crown on her supervisory work so far. In her own words, KPN is an “iconic brand.” Koelemeijer has a clear vision of how Supervisory Boards should operate and definite ideas on how their work could and should be improved, as she revealed during an interview on the subject with Charles Honée, a partner at law firm Allen & Overy. She believes in “cognitive diversity” and the importance of continuing professional education for Supervisory Board members. ‘I still regularly encounter board members who think innovation means improving current processes.’

Your skill set is quite wide-ranging – you are a researcher, professor, entrepreneur and Supervisory Board member, too. Your specialty is also noteworthy, concerning itself with the interface between marketing and digitization. How would you describe your own skills?
‘I built up my skill set fairly organically. I have a broad range of interests. I am an engineer from Wageningen University, with a technical background. However, I did study Economics in Wageningen. I am and always will be a hard scientist with a strong interest in social relevance. My scientific background, my scientific curiosity and my habits of independent thought are probably the most characteristic of who I am and how I operate. I want to have an impact on both business and society. Additionally, I have been fascinated by behavioral science and strategy dynamics for a long time. The way I see it, everything comes down to behavior in the end.’

When you are invited to join a Supervisory Board, what are your requirements for acceptance?

‘I do have a few requirements. First of all, I am a researcher. I see it as a privilege to be allowed to contribute to a great company’s operations in practice in a supervisory capacity. Reasoning from my own interests, I like to maintain a nice broad portfolio. I began in distribution, both retail and wholesale, with supervisory positions at Intergamma, Centraal Boekhuis – now CB – and B&S, which I found very informative. I also enjoy expanding my scope into other industries, such as Brunel’s workforce services. Every industry has its own distinctive characteristics and ways of working. That is why I feel privileged to be involved in telecommunications right now. When it comes down to it, I am still an engineer, and telecommunications have always appealed to me.
Of course, I also take into account what I feel I can contribute to any new appointment personally. I like getting a chance to learn about new types of business structures, too. Intergamma is a cooperative, for instance, and CB functions as a foundation, with bookstores and publishers holding depository receipts. KPN is an interesting addition in that sense. As a publicly listed company, ownership is much more fragmentary. KPN is also an iconic brand, a hugely important player on the Dutch market.’

At the moment, all companies must take an interest in digitization, innovation and new technologies. Is such knowledge sufficiently present within Dutch Supervisory Boards? Dutch Supervisory Board members generally are not particularly digitally advanced and technology experts like yourself can be scarce. How should this be addressed?
‘Technology is such a broad field. I myself am not equally knowledgeable about all essential areas of technology and digitization. However, digitization is everywhere, it is inescapable. It affects every aspect of business operations. I believe a certain minimum level of digital knowhow should be a requirement for all supervisory board members. That does not mean actually being a programmer, just a certain amount of basic knowledge. All supervisory board members must fully understand what digitization and digital disruption involve.
I am strongly in favor of continuing professional education, or CPE. I actually wish Supervisory Board members had to earn continuing education credits, similar to lawyers and accountants. That would be fantastic, especially regarding technology. Otherwise, you run the risk of these important issues becoming the sole purview of younger, ‘digitally literate’ Supervisory Board members. That can lead to them being seen primarily as digital experts, while they get taken less seriously or are less capable in other areas. Ensure a minimum level of digital literacy. That applies across the entire board. I say this because I also see various boardroom dilemmas that are very much related to this, affecting core governance issues. That is something that urgently needs to be addressed.’

To which boardroom dilemmas are you referring?
‘One big dilemma, especially in times of digital disruption, is the tension between the exploitation of your current business model and investigation of new models. In other words, further improving what you are already doing on the one hand and exploring new markets, innovating and creating new value on the other. These two approaches require very different skills, and that applies to Supervisory Boards too. In an ideal world, businesses are ambidextrous, capable of simultaneous exploitation and exploration. In practice, however, big companies hardly ever manage to combine these. It is more likely to be a cyclic process, alternating between the two. It is very important to maintain a good balance between exploitation and exploration and a Supervisory Board especially should be monitoring that process closely. This is not always the case, though.
I have noticed that more long-standing Supervisory Board members, certainly those with CEO experience, are likely to get stuck on the exploitational aspect. They say, ‘I know how this works. This is how we have always done it.’ They mean well, it must be said. It also does not work to have only young, up-and-coming Supervisory Board members who focus mainly on exploration. What you were already doing is what is bringing in the money now, after all. In 2022, that balance is a very important aspect of a company’s governance. A Supervisory Board needs members who understand this issue very well. I still regularly encounter board members who think innovation means improving current processes, which is only partially true. There needs to be room for more radical innovation, too.’

You have said innovation means adapting your business model…
‘Yes, I am convinced of that. Besides value creation, you also have to pay attention to value appropriation. It is noteworthy that the corporate governance code, for example, only discusses value creation. I understand that, I really do. It is the purpose of your existence as a business, after all, and innovation is essential for value creation. Value appropriation is equally important, though. How will you profit from your innovations? How can you scale up? And first and foremost, how do you stay ahead of the competition?
To ensure business continuity, that is essential. It is also very tricky and something that relies on having a very good Supervisory Board. Your Supervisory Board members must be capable of identifying what needs to be done and recognize potential markets and opportunities. For Supervisory Board members, too, it can be tempting to start by optimizing what is already there. It is safe, it is familiar territory. It is how you have always made your money. A Supervisory Board member needs to have both the vision and courage to speak up and say, “Sure, there are probably plenty of operational improvements to be made, but let us just leave those be and focus on finding new opportunities for now.” In this sense as well, a well-balanced Supervisory Board is vital.’

Besides digitization, sustainability is another important boardroom topic, especially in light of strict ESG regulations. What are your views on the subject?
‘ESG will be featuring on Supervisory Board agendas for the next ten, even twenty years. Just like digitization, ESG affects every aspect of your business. I therefore advise including an ESG committee in your Supervisory Board. Currently, ESG issues are often dealt with by the audit committee. However, ESG has such a big scope and there is so much happening in this area, that approach is far too limiting. It requires a much broader approach.’

Who is best suited to heading such an ESG committee in your eyes?
‘The chair must be someone with a good general understanding of the field. It is fine if this is a less specialized board member. In my opinion, the chair is mainly there to guide the process, make sure all aspects receive attention and involve the right, diverse individuals. There is no need for them to have specialist knowledge themselves. To some extent, that can even be outsourced.’

How important is diversity in your eyes?
‘Diversity is crucial and I believe that goes beyond gender, cultural background or religious beliefs. What truly matters is cognitive diversity. You need people with different mindsets, knowledge, values, assumptions and preferences. Research has proven that cognitively diverse teams do better, as they consider issues from more different perspectives and bring in knowledge that can help their organization grow.
You can ask yourself to what extent it counts as cognitive diversity if you engage a woman of the same social-economic background as the men she is replacing. I see that as another important duty for Supervisory Board members: promoting diversity within their organization. I believe I do not just introduce more diversity into organizations by virtue of my gender, but also due to my mindset. It is easier to work for an organization where everything is in order, but when that is not the case, that is where you can truly make a difference. I can exert an influence on new executive appointments, for instance. If a company lacks diversity, that will not keep me from accepting a position on their Supervisory Board. Sometimes I do feel like I am the odd one out. I can handle that. I even enjoy it.’

What are your ambitions as a Supervisory Board member?
‘That is a great, all-encompassing question. Mainly, I would like to develop myself in my role as a Supervisory Board member. I want to keep growing in that supervisory role, to gain new insights and to share them. I also enjoy expanding my areas of expertise and exploring new industries. For example, I would love to experience being on the Supervisory Board of a large financial firm some time, or an online marketplace or one of the big FMCG companies.’

Do you see yourself as a role model?
‘Role model sounds so heavy. I do like serving as a sounding board for younger generations. I continue to enjoy encouraging and advising my students, promoting entrepreneurship and giving other women a boost. For example, startups do not have nearly enough women. I have been doing what I can to change that.’

This interview was published in Management Scope 06 2022.

This article was last changed on 29-06-2022