She came from a bank (ABN AMRO), and after spending six years in academia, she’s returning to her first love: banking. But she’s certainly sad to leave, says Pauline van der Meer Mohr, the departing Chairwoman of the Executive Board. Running EUR was much more to her than just a job in between two other jobs. ‘Universities are incredibly interesting; there’s real substance there.’
We meet Pauline van der Meer Mohr on a day when 1 December, the day on which she will cease to be Erasmus University’s Chairwoman of the Board, is drawing near. In a way, she kind of left the university in September, when she assumed her position as a member of the Executive Board of British bank HSBC. She is combining the banking job, which will take up a week of each month, with positions on the boards of ASML, DSM and EY, as well as positions on boards of a few cultural organisations. For the first time in her life, she is embarking on a life in which she is no longer part of one organization, but will have more control over her own time. She’s looking forward to it, but knows she’s going to miss her current employer, the university, particularly the people with whom she has collaborated. ‘I have incredibly nice colleagues here.’ However, she’s not sorry to turn her back on very slow administrative procedures. ‘It takes years to get anything done here.’ Although she describes her style of management in terms of ‘considering and discussing everything together, solving issues and creating support´, a style of management which would seem to be highly suited to an academic environment, she found the transition from the business community challenging.
What was the hardest thing to get used to?
‘In the business community you are paid to provide answers, share your visions, and steer the company in a certain direction. At universities, on the other hand, a lot of employees are great believers in doubt. Any self-respecting scientist cherishes doubt. Scientists don’t take anything for granted; they are paid not to take anything for granted. So if you approach them with a preconceived idea along the lines of, “I think we need to head in this direction,” their responses are likely to be: “But why?” “Based on what hypothesis?” or “Why should we head in a different direction at all?” That took some getting used to.’
In the business community you were allowed to be more of an enlightened despot?
‘I wouldn’t put it like that, but people responded in a different way. They’d think, “You’re the boss, you’re paid to know in which direction we’re supposed to be heading, so tell us what to do.” If I chose the wrong direction, we’d end up debating; we were not some Roman army with a general who made all the decisions. But it was easier to say, “Guys, we’ve talked about it long enough now, and this is what we’re doing. If you don’t agree, feel free to leave.”
‘Here employees will sometimes resist the changes managers are trying to make, be it consciously or subconsciously, visibly or invisibly, subversively or otherwise, for a long time. That’s why it’s so important that you draw up strategies together and that you get the deans to co-own the process – not just the problems, but the solutions. To enter in a process together and try to determine what it is we’re trying to achieve and what really matter to us. It’s vital that the Executive Board does not try to have complete control over everything.’
Have you ever been accused of doing that?
‘What generally happened was that any proposal I made generated a fairly basic discussion, featuring questions such as, “What exactly are we trying to achieve?” “What is the problem we’re trying to solve?” and “In which direction are we going to look for a solution?” The organisation’s metabolism is slow, and I wanted to speed things up a little.
It sometimes took us years to achieve something. Take the new strategic plan, for instance. It took us a year just to come up with all the ideas. After that it took us another year to identify all the priorities. In the end, we got something we were all in favour of, but I would have liked to do it in half the time. In the world I came from, things went considerably faster. Chop, chop, chop: identify the problem, propose a solution, implement the solution.’
Is that one of the reasons why you’re leaving?
‘Oh no, that has nothing to do with it. I’ve had six utterly brilliant years here. I’d have loved to stay for another two years, to complete my term in office. Thing is, since all three members of the Executive Board were appointed at the same time, we’d all have to leave together, as well. That’s not a great situation, because it would leave you with an entirely new Executive Board as of 1 January 2018. So we came up with the idea of leaving one after the other, and it struck us as logical that the chairperson would be the first to leave. We were still discussing when I’d be leaving when HSBC knocked on my door and asked me to join their Board, which was something I’d wanted for a long time. So in consultation with the Supervisory Board we decided that I’d leave now, but I wouldn’t have minded staying on for another year.’
Despite the fact that changes were a long time in the making, did you manage to achieve everything you hoped to achieve?
‘By and large, yes. For instance, I couldn’t help noticing that our university tends to emphasise the core processes of education and research. We pride ourselves on our position in the various rankings, and rightly so. We pay a lot of attention to these things and are quite professional when it comes to these things. But when I first came here, I was appalled at the lack of investment in the supporting services. The university had not invested in its supporting staff – some people had not taken a training course for five years, or had no training whatsoever to prepare them for the jobs they were doing. Nor had it invested in its systems. There was a lack of management information, and the ICT systems were all incompatible and had been connected in a makeshift fashion. Our scientists and lecturers deserve better supporting systems, and our supporting staff deserves to be supported better itself. As Executive Board we improved the university’s operational management.’
What other things are you proud of?
‘Our campus, obviously, with the Erasmus Pavilion and the theatre. That’s something that bears my fingerprint. I really wanted more attention for culture and the arts, both on the business campus and in the curriculum. And now we’ve signed a partnership agreement with Codarts and the Willem de Kooning Academy, which makes me really happy. In a while our students will be able to enrol in electives at an art school, and vice versa, as a minor, as a dual degree, or possibly as a summer course. The University College also fits into this development, with its liberal arts and honours classes.’
We expect you’ll be less sanguine about the university’s workforce diversity policy?
‘I think that’s the thing I’ve been most frustrated with over the last six years: the fact that the number of female professors at this university is still so low. I really believed I’d change all that when I was appointed to the Board. We’ve gone from 11 percent – the number when I first arrived here – to 14 or 15 percent, which is not much of an improvement. So it’s not an easy job to take on. I’ve really had to admit that it’s a hard nut to crack. I had this one moment of rebellion where I considered announcing this past Dies Natalis, “Oh, and by the way, my last decision as Chairwoman of the Board was to ensure that over the next five years, every third professor appointed at this university must be female.” But I know it would never happen.’
Did that make you angry?
‘I hardly ever get angry. I can’t remember ever being angry here. Management by fear can be effective, only everyone starts laughing whenever I pretend I’m angry. I’ve never made the cups of coffee shake in their saucers. That’s not me. I’d rather negotiate and persuade.’
Wouldn’t you have preferred to bring down your fist when it came to workforce diversity?
‘Yes, I would have loved to, but unfortunately, it was not up to me to make these decisions on my own. I often considered vetoing appointments, but that’s a useless strategy. By the time I’m presented with an appointment, it’s generally a done deal. It’s no use vetoing it.’
‘Because appointments must be carried by the Doctorate Board [which is made up of the deans of all faculties, ed.], and they’re the problem. It’s their job to propose more female candidates. The candidates exist; the only thing we have to do is appoint them to a position. But glaciers will melt faster than we’ll make progress when it comes to accomplish workforce diversity. I couldn’t improve things, and I’m sad to leave the situation like this.’
All right, back to banking, then. What exactly are you going to do?
‘I’m going to be a non-executive director with HSBC. In other words, I’ll be a member of the Executive Board, which is comprised of executive and non-executive members who are jointly responsible for managing the bank at the holding level. In addition, I’ll be on two committees: the remuneration committee, which deals with remuneration of the bank’s executives, and the conduct and values committee, which deals with standards, values, conduct and risks.’
You have been known to criticise banks over the last few years, especially with regard to the bonuses, which you called exorbitant. Has anything changed in that regard?
‘First of all, I’ll be in a rather different position than I used to be. I’m going to be a supervisor. I’m going to be more in charge of everything now and will be able to ask critical questions about everything, so I’ll be in a much better position to influence people and send them in the right direction. Secondly, banking has really changed since the global financial crisis, eight years ago now. Thirdly, I’ll be working at a different bank. And it helps that I’ve always remained interested in the banking industry, even after I left it myself.’
So what is interesting about the banking industry?
‘Banks are absolutely fascinating institutions. Without the services provided by financial institutions, the economy will grind to a halt. These services are basic needs, highly emotional services. They determine whether or not you’ll be able to have a meal tomorrow, whether or not you’ll be able to pay your mortgage. These are really essential things. If you’re unable to access your money, this is basically an existential threat. To most regular people, the services provided by banks are essential to their daily lives.
‘It’s not about the money they create; it’s all about confidence. That’s a bank’s main product. Over the last few years, this confidence has been severely eroded, and it’s only gradually being restored. To me, that’s just fascinating. Being able, as a non-executive director, to contribute to the question as to how the banking industry as a whole, and individual banks within that industry, can contribute to restoring consumer confidence.’
What else are you going to do?
‘I already was on the supervisory boards of ASML and DSM, and now I’m on EY’s supervisory board, as well. In addition, I’m on the boards of the Concertgebouw Fund and of the Nederlands Dans Theater. And I have a little more room in my agenda for other things, but I’m not sure yet what they’re going to be.’
Will you spending more time at home soon?
‘Absolutely. Over the last six years, I’ve been otherwise engaged nearly every evening. Two of my children are still at home and I’m really looking forward to being able to share some pasta with them at six o’clock of an evening. And I’m really looking forward to being able to sit on the sofa and read a paper a little more often, even if my kids laugh at me whenever I say so.’