Meet Rob Wetzels, an inspiring and highly dedicated coach, teacher, and expert on sustainable development. Rob and I met on the day he retired from Nyenrode’s Center for Sustainability. It was odd that we’d not before, but since then, we – unsurprisingly- keep running into each other at events related to sustainable business. I interviewed him in the shade of the gardens at Nyenrode Business University. Here’s what he had to say about the curves, choices, and chaos of change.
Fascinated by change
“My sustainability journey started in 1972, with the publication of “The Limits to Growth” by the Club of Rome. It made me aware of ecological limits that had either been crossed already or would be reached soon. Shortly after, I witnessed severe changes in the apparel industry, which seriously affected my family’s fashion business. I became fascinated by what happens in periods of transition. In a period of transition, the old and new systems have to be clearly indicated and differentiated. But they also need to be interpreted and connected for a transition to be successful. I turned this fascination into a career; initially as a consultant, later at Nyenrode Business University.
Doubts and choices
Change starts with doubts about the status quo when a growth curve starts to plateau. This causes a dilemma for people who feel the existing, mainstream way of doing things is no longer fit for the future. The benefits of the new ways are not so clear yet at that point in time, they are merely a promise. People really need to choose for change to get through this dilemma. To jump from the old to the new S curve. Once you make that choice, you can no longer go back to the old ways. Only after the decision to really jump, you can really explore and feed new ways. You really have to choose what curve you want to be on. what perspective you’ll take. Otherwise, you’ll end up stuck in the middle.
Sustainability is all about change
Early in my career, as a consultant, I applied my knowledge about change to facilitate growth and profit maximization for companies. Over time, however, I noticed that the sole focus on profit leads to suboptimal ways of doing business, fragmenting it all into isolated “islands”. Torn out of context and leading to depletion of natural and human resources. Over time, I became aware that we need a new, more sustainable economic model. One where business is more connected, more inclusive and focused on value and values. Business schools and scientists are lagging behind on this. The doubts are there, but there’s a lack of space and language to explore what’s to come.
More future-oriented business starts with people. Working together with other people to set things in motion. Progressing through theory “U” together, from recognition and acknowledgment on the left-hand side of the “U” to awareness and change on the right-hand side. For people progressing through the “U”, the future and the path to get there remain uncertain, but the direction is clear and the commitment is there to let go of old and embrace new ways.
Teaching and coaching (future) leaders
After years in the consultancy business and my own journey through the “U” on my vision of more sustainable business, it was high time to change my career path and join Nyenrode Business University. My work there enables me to inspire the (future) C-suite. My personal objective is to help people really understand the urgency of change towards a sustainable economic model. Change towards more a more future-proof economic system, change towards value-driven business models. Currently, the prevalent business model is focused on entrepreneurship and leadership for economic growth, with stewardship as an afterthought. I’d like to turn that around and promote stewardship as the new and sustainable starting point for leadership and entrepreneurship for a more prosperous society on a more resilient planet.
I help people jump from the mainstream curve, which represents old thinking and old doing, onto the curve of the undercurrent. On that new curve, sustainability is integrated into the business model and new ways of working, of doing, emerge. This jump from one curve to the next is first and foremost a deeply personal journey. And when people in leadership roles have jumped onto the new S curve individually, they can scale sustainable change and make it systemic through their role and organization. And that’s exactly the impact I strive to have.”
Driving change in many contexts
In addition to instilling change in people and organizations at Nyenrode, Rob also strives for change in local politics and the Dutch chapter of the Red Cross and continues to coach people in times of change, helping them define their personal and societal value(s).
For more information on Rob and his work, check out his LinkedIn profile or read an interesting article he published on S-curves and change preceding strategy (in Dutch).
Interview by Marjolein Baghuis (@mbaghuis) for Change in Context. To read about interesting people, book reviews and other posts about change, communications and sustainability, please subscribe.