Jacques van den Broek: 'D&I? Start with Gender'

Jacques van den Broek: 'D&I? Start with Gender'
Supervisory Board Members play an important role in achieving an inclusive organization. 'Often the realization that things have to be different is not enough,' says Jacques van den Broek, former CEO of Randstad and now a non-executive director at tech company CM.com, amongst others. His advice: 'Don't do everything at once, start with gender.'

In the spring of 2022, Jacques van den Broek waved goodbye at staffing agency Randstad. He was CEO for eight years, was on the Board for 18 years and started as a branch manager 34 years ago. The post-Randstad era took some getting used to: ’I had to reinvent myself.’ Accepting several Supervisory Directorships, Van den Broek has since found his niche. 'Although I still find it difficult that I can no longer set the agenda myself.' Laughs: 'I used to reschedule if I found an appointment time impossible.'
The former Randstad executive became chairman of the Supervisory Board at CM.com this year. His job is to help the Breda-based tech company with its lightning-fast growth. But Van den Broek also supports CM.com in transforming itself into a more diverse and inclusive organization. His knowledge of workforce management accumulated at Randstad comes in handy. Inspired and with visible ease, the former top executive shares important lessons about diversity and inclusion (D&I).

The topic of gender equality touches Van den Broek personally, he tells Stefan Duran, head of European commercial business development at insurer elipsLife. Van den Broek's mother was a nurse at the blood bank and continued to work when she had children. His wife Mariëtte Turkenburg made a career at legal and tax consultancy Loyens & Loeff and became the first female partner there. 'We have always been able to combine the care for our two sons with work.'

Why did you choose a Supervisory Role at CM.com?
‘It seems surprising that I opted for a small cap company. But I like being close to management as a non-exec. CM.com is a great company that – just like Randstad – was founded by students. The company originated from an idea by ​​Jeroen van Glabbeek and Gilbert Gooijers. They introduced sending text messages to groups under the name Club Message. The new technology was used to inform visitors of pubs, discotheques or festivals about events. CM.com has now become a full-service tech company that helps organizations communicate effectively with their target audience and also offers them a payment platform. The company is growing like crazy; partly through acquisition, partly through organic growth. This year the team expanded from 500 to 1,000 people. Two years ago, CM.com went public, there are ambitions to further internationalize.’

What are CM.com's D&I ambitions?
‘Concrete objectives have yet to be formulated, but the intention is to improve the current male-to-female ratio of 70/30 – although attracting women in the tech sector is tougher than in other sectors. In addition, we aim to have more women move on to a management position within three years.’

In the new corporate governance code, more is expected of companies in the field of diversity and inclusion. How do you see your role as supervisor on this theme?
‘Let me first and foremost say that as a Non-executive Director I do not want to play a supervisory role, but rather a supporting role. In this role, it is important first of all to highlight the benefits of diversity. Many administrators know what it brings to an organization, but sometimes they don't. In that case, it is the task of a Non-executive Director to objectively demonstrate the added value. There are plenty of best practices. As Non-executive Director, you can assist to identify the right approach. It is not enough for management to express its will to reflect society. For example, a masculine manager might often opt for a result-oriented, masculine strategy, while an effective D&I policy stands or falls with an inclusive approach.'

How can companies achieve such an inclusive approach?
‘The transformation to a more diverse organization has both a hard and a soft component. A company can appoint more women and formulate objectives, but it is also about removing the unconscious bias. You have to involve the entire organization in your ambitions. Collect feedback from employees. What do they think a diverse and inclusive organization looks like and how can it be achieved? What do they think is hampering it? Management may receive unpleasant feedback. Managers will have to be willing to be vulnerable. That happened at CM.com and it was very valuable.
It is wise for management to call in external help with the theme of diversity and inclusion. There are various parties in the market – such as the Talent to the Top foundation – that can help formulate a solid strategy with concrete objectives. Of course, every company is different, but the infrastructure is the same: you set a goal, formulate the approach and propagate it. Achieving a more diverse and inclusive organization is not a quick fix. To achieve more balance between men and women, you need to allow between three and five years on average.'

In the Netherlands, women are still underrepresented in management and top positions, while roughly equal numbers of men and women graduate. In some countries it seems to be less of an issue, what is your experience?
‘There are certainly international differences. In the Netherlands it is normal to ask ambitious women how they combine work and family, while that question is never asked of a man. In Belgium, for example, that is not an issue at all. With our southern neighbors, both the man and the woman often start working 80 percent when a child arrives. Childcare is well arranged, also the family plays an important role as a backstop.
But it's not necessarily in the preconditions. The Netherlands has a threshold that is strongly ingrained in our culture. To clarify: women who want to make a career must first agree with their husband, then with their mother and then with their mother-in-law. After that, the employer must also support her ambitions. Women between 30 and 40 experience tremendous pressure that cannot easily be solved. This is worrisome because, as a result, many women drop out around that age due to burnout. It is also true that there are quite a number of companies that are doing well in the field of gender diversity. In 2008 we signed the Talent to the Top Charter with Randstad, committing ourselves to having at least 50 percent women in the organization within a few years. We succeeded in doing so.’

What are the advantages of an organization with a balanced ratio of men and women?
‘You have a larger pool from which to recruit female talent for a management position. That eventually affected Randstad's board. When I took office as CEO in 2014, the board had four Dutch men of about the same age. That was very easy, by the way: we shifted gears quickly and were successful. Actually, there was no reason to change. When I stepped down eight years later, there were two female directors and three male directors. Moreover, they had different nationalities. In my experience, although a diverse team is more difficult to manage, it leads to richer decision-making. More perspectives were considered; there was less chance of blind spots. A diverse Board was also especially important for the appearance to the rest of the company.’

Is cultural diversity also managed at CM.com?
‘Not yet, the focus is still on gender. That is also an important tip: don't do everything at once. There are five important characteristics on which you can stimulate diversity within an organization. Other than gender - meaning male/female - these are age, cultural background, ability to work and sexual orientation. My advice is to start with gender. That is the most logical and visible. Once that transformation has taken shape, you can use the lessons learned to take steps in areas such as cultural diversity. Incidentally, I find this topic more difficult than gender. After all, behind every individual is a different culture with different norms and values.’

Age is also a tough topic. How can employers deal with it better?
It is important to keep employees employable. That requires a pro-active role from both employer and employee. In the Netherlands, this is still an issue. Employers should discuss with each employee what is needed to keep him or her employed. This does not necessarily have to be at the same company. Especially in this tight labor market, there is plenty of work. This is not acknowledged enough. During the corona pandemic, for example, Randstad gave 13,000 people the chance to receive free training and do something else. Only 7 percent considered taking advantage of this! Changing jobs is difficult. At the same time, more than 70 percent of those who were forced to go elsewhere say in retrospect that they should have done so much earlier. All major companies struggle with it. There are fantastic re-skilling programs, but little use is made of them.
There is a parallel between the job market and health care. Society spends a lot when people lose their jobs or get sick, while it would have been better to invest in prevention.  Many employers find severance pay an eyesore. We could spend that money much better on keeping people sustainably employable. This is also necessary: many jobs are going to disappear in the coming years, especially in the administrative sector. People will have to be trained to work in healthcare, e-commerce or education.’

What is essential to becoming an inclusive organization?
‘A company is most successful when the culture is inviting to everyone. The theory is that no one should have to adapt. But that can chafe; after all, you have work processes that need to run smoothly. Another factor: it can be difficult for a large company to have a unified policy. At Randstad, which has 5,000 branches in the Netherlands, branch managers were given the freedom to ensure that everyone felt at home. For example, a colleague from southern Europe who is used to later lunches should be given that space. There is another important element: we need to start seeing people with disabilities as an asset. For example, we place visually impaired people at so-called call and contact centers. They are of great value because they tend to concentrate better than average on the conversation with a customer.’

You have a lot of experience when it comes to diversity and inclusion, which may not be true for all commissioners. What is your advice?
Supervision is a profession. I do it partly on experience, but I also have to learn. I also became chairman of the supervisory board of Leiden University Medical Center this year. Because I have less experience in this sector, I am taking a training course on supervision in health care. Traditionally, the focus of supervisory boards has been heavily on compliance and financial operations, but important topics have emerged that may be more difficult to manage. Besides D&I, I am referring to ESG, but also digitalization. Every director and commissioner must ask themselves whether they have enough experience. If not, you have to make sure by other means that there is sufficient knowledge within the team. Some organizations have a D&I committee, at CM.com a sounding board team was formed. It consisted of people from management who have knowledge and expertise there. I also find it important at the board level to discuss what your team will look like with a possible new appointment. After all, D&I is important for the Supervisory Board, too.’

What can we learn from CM.com?
‘The management has a strong hands-on mentality. The directors see that much is going well, but they are also critical. Both on the product and on workforce management. The management dares to be vulnerable to the Supervisory Board. I did the same as manager and it is important. You get help and you get further. Conversely, the Supervisory Board can also ask the Executive Board whether they experience gaps in their knowledge. Conduct an open dialogue together. It is a missed opportunity if the Executive Board gives a slick quarterly presentation on the financial figures and merely plays nice.’

This interview was published in Management Scope 01 2023.

This article was last changed on 14-12-2022