Managing transformation for one planet

Meet Caroline van Leenders, senior process manager sustainable transitions at the Netherlands Enterprise Agency, part of the Ministry of Economic Affairs. During 2016, I ran into her at several sustainable finance events. After watching her present about her Community of Practice Financial Institutions and Natural Capital at Nyenrode University recently, it was high time to interview her. Here’s what she said about transformation, destruction, and the power of turning things upside down.


Working for one planet

“For centuries, we thought the world was flat. Then we discovered it was round, but that took quite some time to be accepted as the new normal. The next paradigm shift that we need is for everyone to really understand that we only have one world. Just one planet that we need to take care of for all of us to thrive. Once we understand that there really is just one planet, we’ll start to act in a more sustainable way as individuals and organizations.


Shaping successful transformations

But even among those who understand one earth is all we have, transformation is a challenge. Fortunately, there’s so much we can learn from earlier transformation processes. What they all have in common is that they involve multiple phases, multiple levels, and multiple actors. I use this knowledge when I set up so-called communities of practice. These communities consist of company representatives. Sometimes from different sectors, which is the case in the Community of Practice Business & Biodiversity; sometimes from the same industry, which is the case for Financial Institutions and Natural Capital. They meet ten times during the course of two to three years.It is a process I really enjoy structuring and leading, usually together with Anne-Marie Bor. It has proven to be really effective in gearing up momentum for change.

Usually, the community is a coalition of the willing, people eager to drive change in their industry. The first phase for such a community is to get to know each other and generate mutual respect. That bonding phase is key to work together in the next phase, in which we share knowledge and experience to learn from each other. The group identifies the key themes to work on, i.e. the key barriers preventing change in the industry. Only when they have established such a common agenda, can they learn from each other and share practical solutions. In the final phase, they can act together as a network and reach out to others, such as  NGOs, regulators, investors and think tanks around the industry.


Debunking unwritten rules and paradigms

In the community, we also take a close look at the many levels of industry change. The macro and the micro levels are usually easiest to grasp. For example, climate change is a topic on the macro level and the impact this has on an individual smallholder farmer is seen as the micro level. The least understood and perhaps most important level is the meso level. This is where the systemic rules and paradigms are held. Some are laws and regulations, but much of this captured in unwritten industry rules.

From within the system, this is just the way things work in the industry. However, usually, there are more possibilities for change than the people in the system assume. But it often takes an outsider to dig into those unwritten rules, to observe, listen and ask many questions to first understand and then challenge those rules. With this insight, the community can collaborate to create what I call a “zebra commitment”. Using cases and relevant insights from the individual companies (the micro level) and the macro perspective to show that change is imminent, to engage other actors in the industry ecosystem for joint action.


Ministry of destruction

Often, one of the key barriers to transformation is the existing infrastructure. In some cases, for real transformation to take place, we need to overhaul that infrastructure. But the parties with vested interests are very likely to block that overhaul.  Just think of the much-needed transformation to renewable energy and the powerful companies within the fossil fuel industry. A Ministry of Destruction would really help in such a case, an idea launched by transition professor Derk Loorbach. A government agency to help deal with the parties losing out when we change a system for the better, for the greater good. I recently spoke to someone working for a natural gas company who has such a role.  This may be an odd job to hold at times,  but a crucial one to get rid of what’s in the way of the change needed to live on one planet.


The power of turning things upside down

During yoga, headstands offer me a fresh perspective on life. I apply the same power of turning things on their head in the transition programs I manage. When things get tough in a community, it works well to turn things around. It is this insight that actually got me started on my book “10 tips for clever change”.

I challenge the unwritten rules and conventions to get people to see things differently. The frontrunners in an industry are usually pretty good at this already; at redefining the rules of the game. But for a real transition to take place at the industry level, the frontrunners need to be careful to not run too far ahead of the pack. Not to lose touch with the masses. In the communities, I help the frontrunners to stay connected to the mainstream.

Another area where I like to turn things around is communications. Yes, we communicate a lot within the community and share information to engage the ecosystem of actors around the industry. Yet we learn so much from that key communication skill that is often undervalued: listening. At key events in the transition process, I appoint a keynote listener, as opposed to a keynote speaker. Towards the end of the event, this person then shares a reflection on what (s)he’s seen and heard that day. An eye-opening and valuable addition to any event.


Scaling up transitions for a one planet future

Currently, the community process for Financial Institutions and Natural Capital is coming to a close with the publication of the ebook Finance for One Planet. Soon, I’ll be helping the European Commission with a  new community, focused on Finance and Biodiversity. And in the future, I’d really like to work with such communities on topics like green bonds, carbon accounting, and landscape management. And giving presentations about the ebook for the people on the edge of the pool. Luring them to take the plunge into deeper waters to create real waves of change.”



In both 2015 and 2016, Caroline was not just one of the top 100 sustainability influencers of the Netherlands, but one of the very few civil servants on those lists. And in 2014, she was nominated for the best civil servant in the policy making category. For more information on Caroline and her work on transformations, check out her LinkedIn profile or follow her on Twitter. And, of course, read her books Ten tips for clever change and Finance for One Planet.


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.

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