Jos Nijhuis: ‘A Supervisory Director Should Know What it is Like at the Helm’

Jos Nijhuis: ‘A Supervisory Director Should Know What it is Like at the Helm’
Jos Nijhuis, former CEO of accounting firm PwC and Schiphol Airport, is marching up the supervisory ranks: as of this year, he is supervisory board chair at both energy supplier Enexis and asset manager Bouwinvest, amongst other positions. Nijhuis consciously sought out supervisory positions where he would be of value to the executive board. He is convinced that his own previous experience ‘on the other side’ is an asset. ‘A supervisory board should always include people who know what it is like to be at the helm.’

‘Business comes first.’ Jos Nijhuis’s mother warned his wife-to-be in no uncertain terms what life would be like with Jos as a husband. At the Nijhuis family’s chain of local supermarkets, not much was allowed to get in the way of the business. Nothing, really. His future wife needed to understand that. ‘My wife Karin eventually taught me that ‘the girl’ is, indeed, more important than ‘the business.’ I did manage to make that switch. My work ethic always stayed strong, though.’
Jos Nijhuis definitely did not sit back and relax after stepping down as CEO at Schiphol Group in 2018. He has been marching up the ‘supervisory ranks.’ Though not out-performing himself at school, he became CEO of accountancy firm PwC and Schiphol airport, and as of this year is supervisory board chair at both energy supplier Enexis and asset manager Bouwinvest, amongst other positions. In conversation with Charles Honée, partner at law firm Allen & Overy, he says that he considers his years of executive experience a great asset. ‘I think either the supervisory board chair or the vice chair needs to have relevant experience as a CEO. You have to know what it is like to be at the helm, including in heavy weather.’

What aspects informed your portfolio choices?
‘I looked for supervisory boards where my executive experience would allow me to be of value to the executive board, especially as a sounding board or advisor. I find it above all valuable to act as a sparring partner to the CEO or executive board. Gloves off.
In addition, in composing my portfolio I also considered companies’ position in society. I am more interested in companies that concern themselves with important social issues. There needs to be some substance there. At Enexis we are at the centre of the energy transition, one of the hottest topics right now. At Bouwinvest we are dealing with the housing crisis and the transition to the new pension system, also very hot. Both these organizations hover somewhere between public and private, with many different stakeholders. I gained much experience in that regard during my time as CEO at Schiphol. There too, we dealt with multiple dimensions, with multiple perspectives and multiple interests. That complexity appeals to me. It is why I found the CEO position at Schiphol so enormously interesting.’

How does your supervisory position at Portuguese company Vision-Box fit in with that?
‘Yes, well, that is a slightly different case. Vision-Box is a technology company that is largely focused on aviation. I got to know them in my Schiphol days. We were one of the first customers for their passport scanners and underlying software platform. When I left Schiphol, I became their only independent supervisory board member. My role at the company is primarily advisory. I talk to the CEO more often than to my fellow supervisory board members. I find it an interesting position, as it forces me to stay up to date on the technology. It keeps me on my toes. Besides, the company is located in Lisbon, a fantastic city.’

How do you benefit from your supervisory board memberships yourself?
‘It is important that I get something from a supervisory board membership. By that, I mean it needs to be interesting and rewarding. I want to feel energized. To learn from the work. To get smarter. To leave meetings with a good feeling. That is all very important to me. And I have nothing to complain about in that respect.’

You say you enjoy operating in multi-stakeholder environments. ‘Social expectations’ and ‘social responsibility’ are important issues right now. What is your own experience with that? How do you identify society’s concerns?
‘That happens almost automatically, mostly thanks to your various contacts. As Schiphol’s CEO, for example, I interacted with government agencies and other stakeholders nearly daily. If you keep your ears and eyes open, you will pick up on those concerns. As an executive, you must then formulate a policy based on that information. That can actually be quite tricky, especially when social expectations are changing fast. During my tenure at Schiphol, public opinion on aviation changed very rapidly. So rapidly, it was not really possible for us to keep up. I wanted Schiphol to always connect all the major cultural, economic and political hubs across the globe. That vision found nearly universal acceptance, as it supported Dutch business interests. During my final years as CEO there, there was a radical shift in sentiment. We needed to be flying less, we needed to ban short-haul flights. I could not create enough alignment within the aviation industry to find a good compromise. In hindsight, I should have done better.’

How could you tell public opinion had changed?
‘I will never forget; it was at a session on sustainability and mobility with various other CEOs, led by Princess Laurentien. Everyone was suddenly very outspoken on the matter. Short-haul flights, up to 500 km, say, had become undesirable. Suddenly, they wanted such distances to be travelled by train. I did my best to slow them down a bit. ‘Hey guys, once we put this in writing on that board there, that means we will have to act. Please, consider the implications.’ However, the mood was clear. ‘Jos, no whining, this is what we are doing.’ I understood, even shared their views, but the impact on Schiphol and the airlines was huge. Opinion had changed, but policies take more time to adapt. I believe we should have debated the topic with our supervisory board much more thoroughly. We should have handled it better.
I want to emphasize that I found our supervisory board very helpful during my time as Schiphol’s CEO. I learned a great deal from them. For example, we spent a fair amount of time discussing Schiphol’s purpose with the supervisory board. And how you then anchor that purpose in the strategy. We were ahead of the curve there. It was actually an excellent example of co-creation. I am still very proud of my second strategic vision for Schiphol. We managed to achieve a balanced whole. My first strategy dated from early 2009 and was more quick and dirty. What we created afterwards was ten times better. We should have gone back to those sessions more often, especially once public opinion started shifting.’

Why didn’t you?
‘I suppose we were too involved in everyday problems, such as operational issues, financial results, the level of rates and compliance.  I am at any rate convinced that supervisory boards should not allow themselves to be distracted by all kinds of compliance-related issues, not saying they are not also important. Unless you are careful, your supervisory board will end up tweaking sentences in quarterly reports. That is of course not the intention. I believe that, wherever possible, supervisory boards should have committees handle those types of ongoing issues. A supervisory board should reserve it’s time for matters of crucial importance, such as long-term planning, strategic implementation and reflection on what is happening in the world at large and the implications thereof for the company. Insufficient reflection is fatal. Calendars are far too crowded with everyday operational issues.’

How do all your experiences as former CEO Jos Nijhuis affect your supervisory role?
‘I know what it is like to be in the hot seat. I notice that few supervisory boards have any real experience with crisis situations. I think a supervisory board should always include people who have been at the helm themselves. Either the supervisory board chair or the vice chair should have relevant experience as a CEO. You have to know what it is like at the helm.
My time at Schiphol also taught me that it is important for executive and supervisory boards to work together, especially regarding the formulation of a purpose and strategy and the subsequent implementation. I believe a supervisory board’s role is supplementary; executive and supervisory boards should form a team. You need to work well together. The executive and supervisory board chairs’ capabilities should reinforce and complement one another. And of course, you must know your role. Everyone has their own part to play. When I assumed my position as chair at Enexis, they made me undergo psychological testing first. That was followed by a series of interviews to make sure I understood that I would be acting as supervisory board chair, and definitely not as a CEO. It is good that so much attention has been paid to this in the selection process. It keeps everyone sharp.’

Have you seen many changes to supervisory board duties in your time in the boardroom?
‘There are certain trends. Not so very long ago, supervisory boards were concerned mostly with compliance, with a strong focus on supervision; very careful not to get too friendly with the executive board. It evolved for the board to become even more independent, with a great deal of supervisory duties, with effective checks and balances and extensive attention to risk management. Then came an interest in long-term value enhancement. Right now, we are working on catalyzing change, preparing companies to deal with a world that is changing fast due to ESG criteria, geopolitics, inflation, recession, the energy transition and labor shortages. These are horribly uncertain times. It requires a different style of supervisory board. Today’s supervisory boards need to ensure that executive boards are well-prepared and equipped to handle all those challenges. Nowadays, supervisory boards are there primarily to offer inspiration, act as a sounding board and find ways to get executive boards to stretch in the right directions. That cannot be achieved without closer collaboration.’

That sounds almost as though you favor an Anglo-Saxon style one tier board…
‘Oh, I would not go that far. To me, one tier or two tier is mainly a theoretical distinction. Ultimately, what matters is the composition of your team as a whole. I still smile when I see a personal profile for a supervisory position. Those descriptions tend to be fairly useless, with various generalizations about analytical skills. What an executive board really needs is a supervisory team that is truly forward-looking, and in touch with social developments. Herman Hazewinkel, my vice chair at Schiphol, was very good at that. Herman was on the supervisory board at a time when there was a lot of friction between KLM and Schiphol whether the airport was serving the airline sufficiently. He was part of the Shared Vision committee on behalf of Schiphol and really submerged himself into the material. For five or six months, he spent nearly all his time on that. He ended up so informed about all the relevant stakeholders, it made him a terrific sounding board for me and the rest of the supervisory board. Fantastic. As CEO, that was enormously useful to me.’

When you work well together, does that mean you have to be careful not to get too friendly?
‘Yes, you must keep an eye on that. When something goes wrong, the supervisory board needs to intervene timeously. I have noticed that supervisory boards tend to postpone action just a little too long. An intervention is always difficult. It is doubtlessly annoying. Besides, the supervisory board is responsible for appointing executive board members. An intervention is basically an admission that you made the wrong choice. OK, circumstances may have changed, but still: you got it wrong. That is hard to admit.
It can ease relationships if you have a different supervisory board member than the supervisory board chair, assess the CEO’s performance. Ultimately, it is most valuable to have an executive and supervisory board that are willing to share their dilemmas and expose their vulnerabilities to one another. That will only be possible if everyone is safe in the knowledge that they can trust each other.’

That means a board’s composition is very important.
‘Composing your supervisory and executive boards is unbelievably complicated. It requires an enormous amount of time and effort. I find it not something that should be left solely to the nomination committee. The whole supervisory board needs to be involved. No supervisory board member should be able to hide from an appointment. You cannot say you were not involved in an appointment. No, you need to make sure you are involved. At most, the nomination committee can do the preparatory work.’

Among all the important boardroom topics of 2022/2023, from diversity to governance, from electrification to the future of supply chains, which do you consider the most important?
‘I think education and the war for talent are the most important. I say, the trades will save the world. That is a variation on a statement by TPG’s former CEO Peter Bakker. Somewhere in 2012, at a UN conference, he said, accountants will save the world. He had a point. Considering the current ESG debate, you could even call him a bit of a visionary. It’s the accountants who will need to make everything measurable and accountable. But my experiences at Enexis and with the energy transition gave me a new perspective. We are dealing with serious labor shortages. There is an enormous demand for technical workers, for the people who will be making the energy transition happen in practice. The tradespeople, in other words. They have a hugely important role to play in society. That means that as a society, we need to pay much more attention to the trades, and be willing to invest more money in them. Yes, the trades will save the world. Take it from someone who himself once struggled mightily at school.’

This interview was published in Management Scope 01 2023.

This article was last changed on 14-12-2022