Sustainable leaders provide perspective

The transition to sustainable energy is central to both his job and his supervisory board role. The difference in scope of these two roles makes it so interesting, says Jan Engels: “In my job as policy manager cooling at the Climate Coalition Netherlands, I’m very focused on the content. As a supervisory board member at regional renewable energy cooperative AGEM, my involvement relates to AGEM’s role in the communities it serves and assessing whether the organization meets its objectives. But offering a clear perspective to people is key in both roles.”

Beyond planet and profit: offering perspective to people

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Several Dutch municipalities established AGEM in 2013. As of 2020, eight municipalities and fifteen local energy cooperatives are involved. This growth was a key driver to professionalize the governance structure. With his passion for and rich experience in the energy transition, Jan Engels easily landed a seat on the first supervisory board. “They found me quite easily, through the old boys’ network,” he admits with a smile.

At a renewable energy cooperative, the focus obviously is on the energy transition and the climate (planet) – topics with a large societal relevance and impact. And to deliver a positive impact on the climate in the long term, the organization needs to stay financially fit as well (profit). So often, sustainability is focused mostly on the environmental aspect, but Jan Engels adds the social perspective, stemming from his personal life motto. “Leadership is all about offering people perspective. To scale up the energy transition, it is key to also pay attention to the social side of sustainability, to the people factor. If we only target the people who are able and willing to engage anyways, the transition will not happen fast enough. To me, something is only sustainable – in both senses of the word – if everyone has the opportunity to join. This requires strong leadership that provides an outlook into the future which both mobilizes people and takes everyone along on the transition journey.”

Connect sustainability to strategy

To put sustainability on the agenda and include it in the supervisory role Jan recommends linking it closely to corporate strategy: “When a company is updating its strategy, this is a natural moment to factor in sustainability. You cannot avoid sustainability topics when assessing the factors that will determine the company’s long-term success. Will we continue to have access to natural resources? Can we attract the talent and funding we need? As the supervisory board, integrate this into the strategic discussions, so the management board will understand the strategic relevance, rather than viewing it as an obligation from the board or external pressures. And follow through by also checking that it’s well-anchored in the strategy and action plans.”

Integration in the organization and the board

As a member of the supervisory board, you need to assess whether societal impact and sustainability are really supported and integrated in the organization. This requires a continuous dialogue on the topic, with the executive board and within the supervisory board. “Sustainability isn’t just another specialist topic that needs representation on the supervisory board. It is an integral topic that requires support from the full team. Only then will you keep asking the right questions, bringing the societal perspective from the outside within.”

The power of art and stories to spark action

No matter what your role is, according to Jan, to drive change, we need awareness at three different levels:

  • The limits to our (natural) resources
  • Our interdependency with the other creatures living on this planet
  • Everyone needs to be able to join – across generations and continents.
lighthouse perspective

“We’re falling short at all three levels. To drive change, there’s a role to play for different actors in society. NGOs raise awareness about key issues. Artists are also great at this, in an entirely different way. It is then up to governments, companies, and individuals to have the guts to act on this awareness. I feel the government can take on much more responsibility and leadership, at the national and other levels. I previously served as an alderman and would really like to get involved again in a public role. Using my optimism and people focus to create perspective and action for positive change.”

For more information about Jan and his work on the energy transition, check out his LinkedIn profile.

Are you ready to integrate sustainability, societal impact and long-term value creation into your supervisory board role? Join one of the upcoming courses I will teach in the Netherlands. Or order the handbook I co-authored on the topic (both in Dutch). Not able to attend these workshops or read Dutch, get in touch.

Written by Marjolein Baghuis (@mbaghuis) for the Change in Context blog and the Erkende Toezichthouder website. To read about interesting people, book reviews and other posts about sustainability, change, and communications please subscribe in the right-hand column. Photo credit: Pixabay.

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