Round table discussions

Round table discussions

The audience joined in two round table sessions. In the first they considered their own purpose and their organisations’ strategy, and in the second they took a closer look at the power of the collective. After each session, the audience shared their comments with speakers.

Round table session 1

How not to lose your own values

If everyone did what they said they were going to do in the first of the Summit’s two round table sessions, then Prof. Michaéla Schippers ‘has good hopes for the world’, she said.

Participants wanted to know if they should start careers first before making an impact, and how not to lose their values on the way up. Would advancing age corrupt their values? An audience member said a person’s values grow with them: “When you think you have it all figured out there’s a new horizon.” The commenter said they hoped to learn with age.

DSM’s CEO and keynote speaker Feike Sijbesma added that there are always new insights to add, and people don’t stop growing and learning after they leave education.

In a hurry and scared

On combining idealism with pragmatism, Sijbesma said that the older you get, the more you see the reality of the world. “I get more nervous every day about what still needs to happen before I leave this planet. I want to be part of addressing it. I’m in a hurry and scared. Hunger needs to be solved by this generation,” he said. Moderator Dory Grandia asked if people should pay attention to their self-transcendent values and their place in the universe once they had taken care of their personal values. Prof. Schippers agreed, adding science shows people get more self-transcendent as they age.

Aligning split goals

A member of the audience said their round table discussion was about when goals exist in different environments – for example in the environment in which you operate, and that in which your personal goals drive you. The group had noted that goals become more concise as the person ages. “At the beginning of your experiences there are so many things to discover, so it’s difficult to focus on one.”

Michaéla Schippers said RSM students are allowed to dream first as they plan their lives, then they are asked what they should avoid. “They create their goals and test their alignment to them,” she said. “There shouldn’t be a conflict between the two; when you are very young you don’t know yet, but there’s evidence that it’s good to start early. “Students are the ideal age to set goals for their whole lives, for personal success and for making impact with an early start.”

Leave altruism to the academics

Feike Sijbesma said he leaves altruism to the academics, and questioned the existence of pure altruism. “We humans are a group species, so apparently it’s in our DNA: if you ‘do good’, you get a good feeling, and the species is therefore successful.

“But I look to who is helping to improve the world, and who is not,” he said. “I hang out with the ones who are helping. My point is that on this planet I have my body and brain only once, my competences only once. Let’s do something with it.” After his death, no-one would care that he had created shareholder value, said Sijbesma.

Just change shareholders!

A member of the audience said their table had discussed corporates working harder towards ‘doing good’, and someone had commented ‘we just need to change shareholders’. Feike Sijbesma exclaimed this was a good idea. He sometimes suggests this, he says, to the alarm of DSM’s investor department.

Returning to the theme of shareholder activism and short-termism, Sijbesma said these shareholder activists appear on the scene when the company has an issue. Not all companies position themselves explicitly or clearly enough to deter hedge fund investors who might hold shares in the company for only three months or so, some even for just a matter of hours ‒ “not even until the next quarter” said Sijbesma. He looks instead to long-term shareholders who invest in the company for an average of two or three years, sometimes longer.

Round table session 2

Finding a voice in the collective

Taking a closer look at the power of the collective, audience members were asked what dilemmas they encounter when working collectively or in collaboration, or when trying to balance financial benefit versus societal and ecological benefit. How can individuals have a voice within the collective, and can collaboration be a force for positive change?

When the CEO leaves

“What happens to sustainable strategy when a CEO leaves? The company might have a turnaround. How can you make sure the sustainable strategy will maintain in the company?” asked member of the Summit audience Anne Huibrechtse, sustainability lead risk advisor at Deloitte.

ABP Pension Fund’s Chairman of the Board Corien Wortmann-Kool said ABP assesses companies on their strategy, not on their CEO. If the assumption that sustainable strategy dies with the departure of the CEO, then the strategy wasn’t at the heart of the company, she concluded, nor was it among employees; perhaps it was there only to impress the investors.

RSM’s Professor Hans van Oosterhout added: “If CEOs leave against their will, then you expect the new CEO to make big changes. And if an acquired company underperforms then a change in leadership typically means a change in strategies. If the CEO retires or moves to a different company then it’s a different story.”

Delivering a promise

A Summit participant who works on Amsterdam’s stock exchange raised the subject of sustainable strategies and activist shareholders. In response, Wortmann-Kool said ABP doesn’t yet have a strategy for finding investments with a medium-to-long-term focus that fit its 2020 goals. In general ABP checks if companies plan to stay in the Netherlands, and also checks their financial performance. “We’re critical of companies who don’t deliver what they promise,” she said. “It’s our pensioner’s money.”

Prof. Van Oosterhout told the audience to look at how hedge funds’ activism succeeds. “Having hedge funds on board isn’t a reason for concern, but it is a reason for concern when you have passive investors, for example in the USA,” he said.

Diversity on the board

An audience member asked if diversity in the board and leadership teams is important for an investment portfolio. Wortmann-Kool said it’s an issue of governance, and that greater gender diversity is good for the quality of the decision-making process. “We look into it from an investment angle,” she said, and pointed out that lack of diversity of every kind is limiting. “You need digital, marketing and other backgrounds too. You need much more diversity when you compose boards,” she advised.

Moderator Dory Grandia said: “You need to be active in how much you align with the people you work with.”