Tjahny Bercx (LeasePlan): ‘When People Trust Each Other, Magical Things Happen’

Tjahny Bercx (LeasePlan): ‘When People Trust Each Other, Magical Things Happen’
Chief People & Performance Officer Tjahny Bercx of LeasePlan sees connectedness and trust between colleagues as an absolute condition for working together. He is fully committed to initiatives to get to know each other better and wants to inspire and motivate people. Because when you can trust each other, something exceptional happens: ‘People transcend themselves.’

That Tjahny Bercx, Chief People & Performance Officer (CPPO) of LeasePlan, is not an average executive is immediately apparent. The interview takes place at his home - which in itself is quite uncommon. He is also remarkably candid about his background and the less positive events in his life. Amicably, he offers a glass of wine prior to the interview: ‘It is allowed!’ Though we stick to an espresso.
His openness, boundless energy and social antenna; in his 18 years at LeasePlan, they proved to be important characteristics for Bercx’s connective leadership style. It is a hot topic now, but for years already I believed in the power of working together; it leads to magical things.’ His leadership style earned him high praise. When he stepped down as country manager Mexico in 2016, colleagues arranged a spectacular farewell and designated him best boss ever.
Known in the HR world as unorthodox and visionary, Bercx authored several books on Human Resources. In 2021, Bercx was named CHRO of the year by peers. But beyond the above, he also was an important driving force behind the transformation that LeasePlan initiated six years ago. The organization wanted to digitize all processes and services. The platform, the NextGen Digital Architecture, is now up and running and is being rolled out step by step.
This is a substantial endeavor for LeasePlan, which was founded in 1963, now operates in 28 countries, employs 7,800 people and has 1.6 million cars on the road. LeasePlan also manages 30 billion euros in assets and - thanks to a banking license - is also a savings bank. There are more challenges: LeasePlan and the French mobility company ALD will merge in the coming years. Together, they will become a leading player in car leasing for companies and individuals.

Bercx’s career was anything but standard. Ideally, the Curaçao-born CHRO would have liked to earn his living as a professional athlete. He was good at boxing - he even became Dutch medium weight champion - but also excelled at cycling, running and ballroom dancing. His sporting prowess nevertheless fell short, and Bercx joined the Navy. During his years at sea, he studied Psychology and Law through the Open University, earned an MBA and also became an officer.
After his naval time, Bercx held HR positions at ING Barings and KLM. In 2005, Bercx joined LeasePlan. In addition to his position as Chief People & Performance Officer, Bercx is cluster director of Switzerland, Austria, America, Brazil and Mexico. He is also a Supervisory Board member of Achmea and ProRail.

Why did LeasePlan decide on digital transformation?
‘It is a necessity. If we do not, we will be overtaken. The competition comes not only from other leasing companies, but also from disruptive players who, thanks to modern technology, can start offering cheaper products at every link in our chain. Think of car maintenance, insurance or changing car tires.
We are on our way to fully digitizing all our business processes. This enables us to offer our products and services at the lowest possible price. We can also provide personalized service to the customer.
LeasePlan not only invested in a digital front office, but created an open platform, the NextGen Architecture. We are in the process of rolling it out country by country. Other ecosystems can be linked to this in the future. Like other successful players, we hope to achieve exponential growth with it.’

A digital organization requires different skills from employees; how does LeasePlan approach this?
‘It is often said that in a digital transformation you should appoint new employees with modern skills. I do not agree with that. It is indeed possible to bring your current employees into that process, to teach them new skills. I myself is proof that it can be done. At 17, as a sailor, I transmitted Morse codes aboard naval ships. Later I worked on a PC with a floppy disk. Now I operate the most modern devices and understand the technology behind them.
I also believe that people who have helped build the company cannot just be pushed aside. They deserve to change with you towards a new organization. We are going through a transformation from a hierarchical to a proactive and innovative organization. That requires an enormous cultural change. From HR, we are focusing on agile working; employees must constantly think ahead, contribute creative ideas and experiment more - learn by failing. We are also strongly committed to the lean philosophy to make processes more efficient.’

How do you support employees in this transformation process?
‘Transformations often lead to great anxiety among employees. That did not happen with us, because we involved our people at an early stage in the question of why the change from an analog to a digital organization was necessary. For example, we took the Works Council to Silicon Valley to show colleagues what is happening there. This increased acceptance and involvement within the organization. We managed to prevent people from dropping out, leaving our organization or becoming demotivated.
We also had all 7,800 employees follow a leadership program. Using the enneagram model that distinguishes nine personality types, colleagues became more aware of their behavior and who they are. We also held sessions in which colleagues told each other their life stories. They shared among themselves beautiful, but also sad moments. At every session we had laughter, but also tears. Why did I introduce these sessions? Because I find it fascinating that you often see your office colleagues almost more than your family. At the same time, people in the workplace hardly know each other. I wanted to change that. People need to feel connected. Connection creates trust, and results in people working together better.’

Why is connective leadership important here?
‘Mutual trust is an absolute prerequisite for working together. Our CEO Tex Gunning and I like to stick to the slogan: none of us is as smart as all of us. When people trust each other, magical things happen. People transcend themselves. They study further or take on responsibilities which did not seem that obvious. They do not mind occasionally mulling over some problem with a colleague in their private time. They do not experience that as work.’

How do you implement connective leadership?
‘I constantly try to enthuse and motivate employees so that they intrinsically want to contribute to our higher goal. When creating together, everyone matters.’

In your opinion, what are the most important characteristics of connective leadership?
‘I am convinced that leaders must naturally have connective power. You must be empathetic and willing to learn. Not everyone can become a connective leader. I sometimes compare it to cooking - you may have a good recipe and the right ingredients, but that does not mean everyone is capable of putting a fantastic dish on the table.
Some traits you can overcome, though. You would not know it, because these days I easily start a conversation with anyone, but I am an introvert. I worked to change that. I realized in my naval days that in work you are always dependent on others, and it is better to have good relations with your colleagues.’

It seems that it is not easy for all employees to open up?
‘No, that is true. But in my experience, people are generally eager to cooperate and achieve something together. With people who are less open by nature, I often start with a personal story myself. Often a door opens for these people. I find it important to have conversations in the workplace that are not only businesslike but also human. Very often consultants who walk into my office start talking about the problem at once. I like to slow them down, invite them to sit down and ask how they are doing before we start solving the issue. I can see them relax. Because we really connect, a better, and deeper, conversation ensues.’

Are you saying that work and home are not actually separated?
‘Indeed. I tell much about myself; I like it when we as colleagues know each other well. Ultimately, everyone has experienced something in their lives; at some point we all lose a loved one. If we know the pain and private situation of a colleague, we understand that person better. During the corona pandemic, we paid extra attention to that interconnection. We organized challenges through Teams. My wife and I taught merengue dance classes. Colleagues could share their own dance videos; the best submission was awarded a prize. We also organized online book clubs.
After the corona pandemic, we asked colleagues to share their experiences - some lost a loved one or became ill themselves. We compiled all the stories into a booklet. My own brother was in a coma in the ICU for two weeks. His prospects did not look good, we feared for his life, but he made it and had to go through a long rehabilitation.’

Connective leadership demands a lot of energy. How do you keep your energy?
‘It does take energy. That is why I make sure I am always top fit; I still exercise a lot. I like to set a good example. If you radiate positivity and openness yourself, employees assimilate it. I cannot remember a day in my life having gone to work reluctantly.’

What are the pitfalls?
‘A lack of vision. You have to ask yourself what values lead to connection. Creating connection does not happen automatically. It takes time and involves trial and error. Sometimes you go two steps forward and one backward. But I always say: you always fall forward, not backward.’

How does LeasePlan implement diversity and inclusion and how do you ensure that these themes live within the organization?
‘We have goals to increase diversity, especially in the upper management layers. The percentage of women in managerial positions could still be better and so could our board, but our current board does consist of people of different nationalities. Within LeasePlan, we pay particular attention to inclusion. We strive for mutual respect and equal opportunities for all. In this regard, I see women as gatekeepers of inclusion. They often ensure that all perspectives within the organization are seen and heard.’

Psychological safety is topical again, following the recent revelations about the work culture at Studio Sport. How does LeasePlan safeguard this?
‘I do not want to claim that toxic behavior does not happen at our company: where there are people, things happen. But we provide bias training to make employees aware of possible biased behavior. We constantly make it clear how we want to treat each other. After the news about Studio Sport, we on the board asked ourselves whether we have everything right. Can employees in all positions have access to a confidant? Is the whistleblowing regulation safeguarded? Are we setting a good example? We also pay explicit attention to the norms and values that apply within the various nationalities. Unacceptable behavior differs for every culture.’

You have a background as a psychologist, is that an advantage for a role as director or member of the board?
‘Certainly, but I think it is especially important for a leader to have some personal life experience. Diplomas and knowledge are not everything. You also must have suffered pain to be a good director. With experience you have more insight, you assess people and situations faster, but you also know what you yourself stand for. Without his years in prison, Nelson Mandela would never have grown into a charismatic statesman.’

This interview was published in Management Scope 04 2023.

This article was last changed on 11-04-2023