How can business be a force for positive change?

Speakers from global corporations and academia described what to aim for in leadership, and how to approach the grand challenges of our time, defined in the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The recent ninth annual RSM Leadership Summit explored the values and purpose enabling business to be a force for positive change – but also how external influences can derail the process. The event at the Van Nelle Fabriek in Rotterdam was hosted by Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). Dean, Prof. Steef van de Velde welcomed the audience of business managers from the wider RSM community as well as alumni and students.

Does business have the power to change the world?

Yes it does, according to Feike Sijbesma, CEO of Royal DSM and an alumnus of RSM. In an energetic and honest key-note, he described powerful leadership themes to the 400-strong audience, explaining how he has steered the global science-based company to be active in health, nutrition and materials over the past 10 years, showing the importance of context, personal values and purpose in being a force for positive change. He described RSM’s own ‘Force for positive change’ mission as a way of making sure its graduates know what to do with their influence.

Adapting the most

Sijbesma advocates adaptation as a strategy for the future. He quoted Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, who said fixing climate change now is important for the future of the economy and financial stability. Sijbesma said: “Companies need to change the narrative. Businesses cannot be successful in a society that fails. They need to take care of the planet and of society – not just one group of stakeholders.”

Short-termism and shareholders

Sijbesma described coping with active shareholders who expect short-term strategies to deliver more money faster, which conflicts with business innovations to increase sustainability that work for the long term. As the biggest ingredient company in the world, DSM has a responsibility to address the problem of hunger, and its shareholders share that responsibility, he said. He advised embedding SDGs into the core of the company strategy – and choosing them according to the company’s competences. The argument he used when discussing the strategy with shareholders is that DSM employees are motivated by the company’s purpose and contribution to society via the SDGs; such employees are more effective and deliver better results. He warned of underestimating the impact of gender diversity in business.

Measure your impact

Prof. Michaéla Schippers, Professor of Behaviour and Performance Management at RSM described how helping RSM students to find their goal in life has helped them become motivated and achieve more; drop-out rates and the gender gap decreased through this intervention. Students have thought about how they will achieve their goals before stating them publically with an I WILL statement.

She urged companies and managers to let employees set goals for themselves, and told them: “’Do good’ for the world. But measure your impact. Make sure it matters.” After her compelling presentation, participants shared their goals and exchanged impactful contributions to society in dynamic round-table discussions, guided by RSM Advisory Board members and distinguished alumni., participants shared their goals and exchanged impactful contributions to society.

Distinguished Alumni Awards

Following a networking lunch the Summit audience was introduced to RSM’s newest Distinguished Alumni, with the presentation of the Distinguished Alumni Awards 2017 by Feike Sijbesma, himself a recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award in 2009. Recipients were:

  • Distinguished Alumni Award for Entrepreneurial Spirit Zahir Dehnadi (International Full-time MBA 2010)
  • Distinguished Alumni Award 2017 for Social Impact: Elizabeth Rogers (International Full-time MBA 2013)
  • Distinguished Alumni Award 2017 for Business Achievement: Sofya Shuster (MSc Finance & Investments, 2011).

Investing in leaders, not laggards

Balancing social and environmental values when considering large investments is to be expected from the fourth-largest pension fund in the world, ABP Pension Fund. Chair of its board, Corien Wortmann-Kool told the Summit audience of the responsibilities of looking after the ABP Pension Fund, which invests €400 billion and has 2.9 million beneficiaries; one in six workers in the Netherlands will receive a pension from ABP’s fund. ABP’s responsible investment policies have been in place since 2015 when surveys showed pension fund contributors demanded sustainable, responsible ways of investing.

ABP aims to use its influence as a large and long-term investor as a force for good without compromising risk and return, she said. For example, 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.The company’s transparency and accountability can be seen in its annual report.

Leaders and laggards

Its portfolio managers consider companies in its investment portfolio, dividing them into ‘leaders’ with good returns and good levels of risk, and ‘laggards’ with no prospects for supporting the SDGs and considered an unattractive investment prospect. Companies thinking about contributing to sustainability become ‘potentials’, and ABP helps companies to make this positive step. ABP specifically focuses on avoiding child labour, respecting human rights and encouraging safe working. Some companies manufacturing mobile phones and tablets have changed their policy to avoid child labour because of pressure from ABP.

Contributing to growth

Wortmann-Kool said ABP wants to positively affect products and services using the investment appeal of the SDGs, however: “We don’t call them impact investments yet, and methodologies for measuring their impact are still under construction.”

Shareholder activism – the dos and don’ts

A couple of recent cases have made Hans van Oosterhout, Professor of Corporate Governance and Responsibility at RSM, question if it was possible to make business strategies more sustainable against the wishes or opinions of activist shareholders. The Kraft Heinz takeover bid for Unilever, and the attempt by PPG Industries to take over AkzoNobel challenged the target organisations’ sustainable strategies. Do shareholders support sustainable strategies, and do they actually create a sustainable reality for the firm and the beneficiaries that they target, he asked.

Hundreds of studies since the 1980s have produced a mixed bag of results, and the increasing power of shareholders makes it hard to know, and has scared managers. But they need not be afraid; shareholder proposals don’t usually get much support, although as little as four per cent dissent against management decisions is ‘a canary in the coal mine’ indicator of disagreement with the board’s actions, and can predict changes afoot in the board.

Van Oosterhout concluded managers need to be courageous in front of shareholders and take the lead; if the sustainable strategy will benefit business then enact it, he said.

Symbolically sustainable?

The business world should also differentiate clearly between strategies that are merely symbolically sustainable, and those that really make a difference. Appointing politicians to the board is common in the Netherlands and France. Such appointments are often precipitated by a crisis of legitimacy such as pollution incidents, bribery scandals or tax issues, but politicians are more likely to be kissing babies than making a real difference. Likewise, announcements – such as strategizing for SDGs ‒ are often 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 the share price rises even if the buyback never actually happens. “The market doesn’t really learn from this,” said Van Oosterhout.

“There’s a lot of evidence out there on the relationship between sustainable strategies and sustainable outputs, and we’re only just beginning to explore them. We can do more,” Van Oosterhout said.

The power of the crowd

RSM alumnus Korstiaan Zandvliet founded crowdfunding platform Symbid with two fellow RSM students in 2010. He explained how it helps ventures to create sustainable value for shareholders and stakeholders. “I used to work towards creating a profit, and didn’t believe in social ventures. I could’ve created more sustainable value earlier in my career if I’d realised sooner,” he admitted.

Keeping the world inhabitable

Zandvliet said if organisations want to ‘do good’ then creating meaningful connections between organisations – but most importantly people: staff, clients, vendors – needs to go beyond the quest for simple profit, and time is running out. The situation is at the point of being irreversible. “Industry leaders and entrepreneurs must take the lead, but not through subsidies or charity,” he recommended, and warned of a lack of resilience and societal agility which is making it impossible to overcome the biggest challenge of keeping the Earth inhabitable.

Rebuild from the ground up

Zandvliet argued the capitalistic system needs to be rebuilt from the ground up, and the additional costs accounted for. “I firmly believe we can collectively change the course of the planet and society through entrepreneurship.”

The worst mistake

Allowing Symbid to enter the US stock market was ‘the worst mistake’ the small company could make, said Zandvliet; he realised the company had wandered away from its goals. Symbid restructured itself to become a private company again, and Zandvliet gained valuable insight into organisational dynamics. “You can also be a force for positive change by connecting, and being transparent with everything you do.”

The RSM Leadership Summit, which was also the kick-off of the MBA Alumni Reunion, concluded with a networking reception. Next year’s event will be on Friday 12 October 2018.

To find out more about the presentations, read the full report or explore photographs and videos of presentations and round table sessions at the 2017 RSM Leadership Summit overview.

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top 10 business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China.

For more information about RSM or this release, please contact Marianne Schouten, communications manager for RSM, on +31 10 408 2877 or by email at

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