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Fewer boxes, more value

Jelderik Schutz (43) was approached by colleagues in the corridor, received dozens of supportive emails and got several invitations to sit in on meetings. This was all prompted by the article ‘Which box do you fit into?’, which he wrote and posted on the Schiphol intranet. Naturally, Spot wanted to find out more about Schutz's ideas for thinking outside the box. ‘Allowing people to use their talents: that’s what all my conversations are about now.’

What was your reason for writing the article?
‘Last year I realised that I had spent exactly seven years working in the same place, as head of Talent and Leadership Development at Schiphol Group. It was therefore time to start doing something else within Schiphol, since I had decided that I didn’t want to stay in a position for more than seven years. My supervisor Heleen Kuijten said at the time: “I want to give you completely free rein: go do what’s important to prepare our organisation for the digital work of the future, because there’s a lot going on digitally and we want prepare our people for it as much as possible.”

I thought that was amazing. I’m a person who really enjoys trying new things. It took some getting used to at the beginning of this year when I no longer had a fixed position or role. I was struck by how many people asked me: what are you authorised to do, then? What are you in charge of? Who are your clients? The whole system of thinking inside the box suddenly became very clear to me. That was what led to me write the article.’

Are you now ‘outside the box’ yourself?
‘I’m definitely working outside the box. I no longer have a static place in a rigid system with ranks and positions. I help out with all kinds of projects at Schiphol and am frequently asked to give my opinion on matters within other departments. Our Works Council has an “Attention” working group, for instance, which aims to support employees so that they feel more seen and heard within the organisation. They often ask me if I can contribute some ideas. As another example, I'm part of the “Modern workplace” working group to help think about how we can encourage employees to collaborate even more efficiently in their physical working environment.’

Why should we think less in boxes?
‘Schiphol is a very operational company. More than 200,000 passengers travel via Schiphol every day, and that of course requires operations that are well-structured and under control: everything we organise needs to be fully reliable, our processes must run perfectly smoothly, and we have to ensure that the airport is safe and secure. But our objective in doing so is to give passengers a really cool experience at the airport. In other words, we must shift from “process first” to “customer first”. This requires our organisation to also focus on our employees as individuals, and not the positions they hold.

At Schiphol we spend a great deal of time working together to achieve that. But in working together, when problems arise we are quick to point the finger at each other rather than at ourselves. It’s usually someone else’s fault, and when defending ourselves we fall back on the remits and responsibilities associated with our positions. This leads to a lot of discussion but little dialogue, even though we should actually be listening more to what the other has to say! That means being open to their ideas and not just clinging to the certainty of your own story. Until and unless we do that, we are effectively partners practically in name only and so have to work very hard to truly put the customer and our employees first.

Over the last six months I have seen that roles only change if you have an intrinsic desire to collaborate in a different way. This goes much deeper than simply saying “yes” to a new working method. As an employee, for example, you also have to require different things from your supervisor if you want them to approach you differently. As long as a department keeps turning to its supervisor for every minor detail, the supervisor will hardly have the chance to do anything else besides ticking off responsibilities all day long. If you are looking for a coach in your supervisor and want to feel empathy, you have start by asking your supervisor the right questions, talking about what you want to change in your mutual relationship and sharing what you expect from each other. This process requires people to let go and change substantially.
We have already come quite far with self-organising teams at Schiphol compared to other companies, but we are definitely still in a development stage. Not all supervisors are ready to give up their position, and not all employees are ready to suddenly start thinking and working differently either.’

Do you have any tips for your colleagues?
‘It starts with creating opportunities. Instead of just ticking things off your daily to-do list, ask yourself at the end of the day: have I added value? It’s also a good idea to seek out interactions with other departments so that you can strengthen each other. A team could complete all its tasks in four days and then on the fifth day give colleagues the opportunity to work on a project outside the department in a creative way. But it shouldn’t be something you “have to” do. If it were mandatory for everyone at Schiphol to be creative on Wednesday, that wouldn’t be good either. It really depends on the type of work you do.
Less fixed roles allow people to find each other more easily. We need a different way of connecting with one another, outside of departments and positions. If we do this, it will make our organisation more agile and accelerate changes. Furthermore, people who are happier at work are less likely to fall ill, and the organisation’s capacity to resolve its own problems will increase significantly.’

So where does the story go from here?
‘Allowing people to use their talents: that’s what all my conversations are about now. I want to see if I can set something in motion. The great thing about my supervisor is that she doesn’t put me in a box. It feels awkward at first because you also no longer have a box or position to hide behind, but it brings me so much added value and job satisfaction that I’m far happier when I’m working now compared to the past few years. I was also proud of my work then, but less proud or aware of what I was learning or contributing. While up until six months ago I was “Mr Talent & Leadership Development”, I’m now being asked to add value based on who I am and what I can do, and that is extremely motivating.’

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