Summit: business as a force for positive change

Leaders of global corporations and academics speaking at the RSM Leadership Summit in October 2017 believe business can do more than just deliver profit – it can also play a role in tackling the world’s wicked problems such as inequality, poverty, and climate change.

Story by Justine Whittern. Photos by Ronald van den Heerik.

The annual RSM Leadership Summit is an opportunity for the business community to hear a variety of views on topical issues of great importance. This year, forward-thinking senior executives from dynamic global industries and the brightest minds in academia took to the stage. Here are the top take-aways about business as a force for positive change: encouraging shareholders and investors to join your initiatives, what makes good leadership, and putting it all into action.

Why should business be a force for positive change? Because businesses cannot be successful in a society that fails. This was how RSM Distinguished Alumnus Feike Sijbesma, CEO of global science-based company Royal DSM started his overview of what it means to be a leader for positive change. He drew on his decade-long experience of leading the organisation.

He said business has contributed to global welfare, but the distribution of wealth and consumption is hugely unequal. ‘This is totally unsustainable. In my opinion it will hurt business.’ Solving the world’s problems needs business and government to work together in supporting the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the globally adopted sustainability strategy for 193 nations.

The cost of fixing climate change later will be much more than the cost of solving it now, said Sijbesma, and is important for financial stability. Climate change has already taken away the ability of some communities to feed themselves.



All of the speakers had observations about shareholders and investors, and how to encourage those whose motivations align with the company’s values.

Sustainability versus short-termism

Business innovations to increase sustainability that work for the long term are often in conflict with activist shareholders who expect the company to deliver returns quickly from short-term developments. ‘I cannot change the company in one quarter. I have a broader responsibility,’ said Sijbesma.

Define your values at the AGM

The annual general meeting (AGM) is an opportunity to defend the company’s values directly to shareholders, particularly when values address what might be seen as non-business causes. For example, DSM is the biggest ingredient company in the world and has a responsibility to address the problem of hunger; those that choose to become DSM shareholders share that responsibility, said Sijbesma.

Learn to read the writing on the wall

But that doesn’t mean that even a small amount of shareholder dissent can be ignored; it can predict changes in the board, said RSM’s Professor of Corporate Governance and Responsibility, Hans van Oosterhout. As little as four per cent dissent from shareholders against management decisions is a ‘canary in the coal mine.’ Managers should be more politician-like, observing the “electorate” and building coalitions behind the scenes, even though shareholders rarely make a difference in corporate decision-making.

Attract the right kind of shareholders

Shareholder voting should be limited to the most important matters, said Prof. Van Oosterhout, who explained that his job is to research the effects of these strategies. ‘This is what RSM’s role should be: to help make strategies that focus on things that really matter and have buy-in from your shareholder base.’ Prof. Van Oosterhout’s comments echoed Feike Sijbesma’s who said that DSM wants to attract ‘the right kind of shareholders’ and needs to provide a long term investment horizon for its long term investors.

Attracting the right kind of investors

There are ways to encourage investors who share the company’s values. Stichting Pensioenfonds ABP, the fourth largest pension fund in the world, leads the industry in its initiatives to find investments that raise standards for environmental, social and corporate governance, said Corien Wortmann-Kool, ABP’s Chair. The organisation’s portfolio managers maintain a very active dialogue with participants and stakeholders, encouraging thoselaggards” with potential for supporting the SDGs to do so.

Investors demand dividends

Pension funds are among those investors keenest to access short-term dividends. With fewer people making contributions and an aging population to take care of, pension funds are under huge pressure. Sijbesma said he understands the dynamic that makes them threaten to withdraw their investments in DSM unless its shares produce more yield. Prof. Van Oosterhout acknowledged this fact, but said this shouldn’t scare managers. Shareholder proposals at AGMs typically don’t get much support and managers should be courageous in front of shareholders and take the lead: ‘If the sustainable strategy will benefit business, then enact it,’ he said.



Pitfalls and challenges in being a leader for positive change.

Making a good start

After analysing responses to a questionnaire emailed to the audience the previous week, RSM Professor of Behaviour and Performance Management Michaéla Schippers revealed the Summit audience scored highly for ‘seeing themselves as part of the universe,’ and for being motivated to feel good about themselves. ‘This means a lot of business leaders and students here are making a good start on being a force for positive change,’ she said.

Don’t hide behind pragmatism

Having good values is a good start, but it must be followed up with good leadership. Sijbesma spoke from experience: it’s easy to have great values when there’s no pressure, but those values will be tested at some point. ‘At that moment, don’t hide behind pragmatism under pressure – this is the moment to show leadership and what you stand for. Don’t forget your values.’

Identifying your values has definite benefits said Prof. Schippers. People with a purpose in life also become more active, leading to new interests and connections. Prof. Schippers explained that at RSM an evidence-based goal-setting course helps students become motivated and achieve more, reducing drop-out rates and decreasing the gender gap. She urged the audience to think about what drives them, and what actions they take to achieve their goals, and encouraged companies and managers to let employees set goals for themselves, telling them: ‘Do good for the world. But measure your impact. Make sure it matters.’

Choose your competencies

If you want to be an authentic leader, choose a strategy for positive change that is closely connected to the company’s competences. Sijbesma suggested embedding one or more of the UN’s SDGs into the business strategy. ‘It makes having a separate corporate social responsibility report old-fashioned,’ he said. DSM chooses to support SDGs 2, 3, 7, 12 and 13. ‘These are not the ones we like, but the ones we can achieve; we can contribute to ending climate change and hunger.’

Corien Wortmann-Kool said the Paris Agreement and SDGs feature in ABP’s targets. ABP aims to reduce the CO2 footprint of its equity portfolio by 25 per cent, and boost investments in renewable energy from €1 billion to €5 billion by 2020.

Keep meaningful connections

Feike Sijbesma said that increasing the levels of motivation among employees makes the company more productive ‒ and that always has value for shareholders. He spoke of leadership that shapes and directs connections and develops people to deliver results. There are examples of great leaders doing bad things too, so ‘apply your own set of values to any leadership model.’ This was echoed by RSM alumnus Korstiaan Zandvliet, founder of crowdfunding platform Symbid, who said creating meaningful connections between organisations – but most importantly people: staff, clients, vendors – needs to go beyond the quest for simple profit, if leaders of organisations want to ‘do good’.

The worst mistake

Leadership decisions can be tough. In his frank and open presentation, Zandvliet said that allowing Symbid to enter the US stock market was ‘the worst mistake’ the small crowdfunding company could make. ‘We had a rollercoaster ride but then it all fell through. We realised we’d wandered away from our goals. We got carried away under shareholder pressure and internationalisation. We then decided to do things differently.’ Restructuring back to a private company stripped him of his fancy title of CEO, but he gained valuable insight into organisational dynamics. And four weeks after restructuring Symbid made a profit for the first time in five years.



Putting positive change into action calls for strong leadership and sometimes creative thinking too.

Use direct action for climate action and health

Feike Sijbesma told the audience that early in his tenure as CEO he came to the realisation that DSM products should be healthier – not just food ingredients but also the nutritional value. He took his idea to the UN, and encouraged 400 other companies to work towards improving nutrition by using food produced and processed locally to the markets served. This model was successfully adopted in Rwanda.

Beware of empty gestures

The business world should differentiate clearly between adopting strategies that are merely symbolically sustainable, and those that really make a difference. Beware of announcements of ‘strategizing for SDGs for symbolic reasons,’ said Prof. Van Oosterhout. They can be a matter of ‘symbolism over substance’. Another empty gesture is talk of a share buyback ‒ when a company buys back shares to reduce the number on the open market. Remarkably such talk makes the share price rise even if the buyback never actually happens. ‘The market doesn’t really learn from this,’ said Prof. Van Oosterhout.

Don’t underestimate gender diversity

Sijbesma advocated the right mix of men and women, and talents. ‘Don’t underestimate the impact of gender diversity,’ he said. Sijbesma admitted generalising when he said that women think and react differently to men. ‘They ask more questions about context before they start doing something. Men start something, and figure out the context while doing it. A combination [of men and women] is more effective,’ he said.

Start early

It took a while for Korstiaan Zandvliet of Symbid to find his belief in social ventures. He originally thought profit mattered more. ‘I could’ve created more sustainable value earlier in my career if I’d realised this sooner,’ he admitted. Prof. Schippers advised business leaders to set personal goals and share them with colleagues frequently, not just during strategy days – very few do, she said, and recommended using structured thinking and writing down goals rather than targets. Do those personal goals still fit with the company? ‘Use an evidence-based intervention,’ she said. Feike Sijbesma agreed: ‘Do what she said – and make an I WILL statement!’ he recommended, referring to RSM’s forward-thinking initiative that asks students to publicly state their goals for the future.



The RSM Leadership Summit again offered much in the way of fascinating and stimulating food for thought. While there is cause for concern and a sense of urgency about achieving the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals, there is also much reason for optimism. It’s clear that there’s a common sense of purpose globally, with the audience sharing the speakers’ enthusiasm in adopting and implementing the initiatives, and RSM’s worldwide alumni network of more than 36,000 people encouraged to be a force for positive change not just in business but for society at large.

View the videos, photos, reports and impressions of the 2017 RSM Leadership Summit. The next Summit will take place on Friday 12 October 2018.

More information

This article was first published in RSM Outlook winter 2017 – RSM’s alumni and corporate relations magazine. You can download RSM Outlook here.

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