Five years ago Bram de Vos left Alterra after a long career there. He didn't see much career perspective at the institute and moved to AgResearch in Nieuw-Zeeland. Now he is back in Wageningen as managing director of the Environmental Sciences Group.
Photo: Guy Ackermans
Has much changed while you were away?
‘Alterra and the university haven’t changed much but the financial context in which they operate has changed. The government has withdrawn further and the top sectors have been established. There are also a lot more students nowadays and that puts huge pressure on the education.’
It is not going well financially. The ESG, and Alterra in particular, have had a bad year. How many jobs is that going to cost?
‘We don’t know yet exactly. Anyway I will want to communicate that internally first. One thing we don’t want is a reorganization. We want to solve the problem organically through early retirements and staff transfers. And the first aim is of course to acquire more work. But we must be realistic: for the time being there’s negative growth. So for the next few years we opt for the zero line. In a couple of years I want to aim for 3 percent profit for Alterra so we can build up a bit of a buffer.’
You are supposed to get more work on the market. How are you going to go about that?
‘I expect my staff to develop, maintain and make use of their networks. That means we’ve got to get out there. Go to meetings, look at the agendas of potential clients and how we can fit in with them. I want my staff to have an enterprising mindset. That might be hard for some of them, but you’ve got to get over that, you’ve got to make yourself do it.’
Is it possible to learn to do that?
“We’ll have to make it possible. I want to create a culture in which is it normal for people who are good at networking, communicating and listening to take junior staff along with them and serve as mentors. In the long term that generates work. And not everybody has to do acquisition. We just need enough people who do have that capacity.’
Where are the opportunities?
‘We will have to become more international. The Netherlands is saturated in our field. Wageningen is already making a lot of money in Europe. But there is a lot of competition and the chances of success are small. So you’ve got to look elsewhere. What makes us unique? Our top quality expertise. We are the best in the world.’
Does the organizational culture need an overhaul?
‘This organization has a fairly financially driven culture. People often ask me how their worth is being judged. I don’t want to hear that word. I would rather talk in terms of evaluation. I want a coaching management style rather than a controlling one. Part of coaching is good feedback: open, transparent and fair. Positive when there are successes to celebrate, constructive when things don’t go so well. I also want an organization that’s geared to collaboration. If you want that you mustn’t hold people accountable for their financial results at the level of the individual or team. You should set those financial targets at a higher level and then evaluate everyone’s contribution in their light. I don’t like the word ‘business unit’. It has overtones of covering your own back and does nothing to promote collaboration. The main thing is not how well a team does but how well the organization does as a whole.’