People must have the ability to set their own goals and stakes aside and listen and really try to un

In depth interview by Kees Lindhout with Robert Otto, member of the Executive Board of Achmea.


Robert joined Achmea in 2013 as Chairman of the Non-Life & Income Protection division. In august 2015 he became member of the board. Currently his core responsibilities within the Executive Board include the Centraal Beheer, Interpolis and Non-Life & Income Protection divisions, International and Market Strategy and Corporate Relations.


I interviewed Robert using two early morning telephone calls. Robert is currently pretty busy with his portfolio mentioned above. This interview is third of a series executed by RibbonWood consultancy. We name the series: “Ambidexterity in practice: transforming working behaviours in fast technology & business model shifts-personal leadership pains & gains beyond agile buzzwords”. Organisational ambidexterity according to Wikipedia “refers to an organisation's ability to be efficient in its management of today's business and also adaptable for coping with tomorrow's changing demand. Just as being ambidextrous means being able to use both the left and right hand equally, organisational ambidexterity requires organisations to use both exploration and exploitation techniques to be successful”.


Robert, can you bring back the moment that represents the start of this journey for you personally?


It started with the very moment I joined Achmea as chairman of the Non-Life and income business. Achmea consisted of several separated companies with different products. Part of my assignment was to create one integrated Non-Life company with one single value chain for Non-Life and Income. Achmea has a beautiful scale, but made insufficient use of it.

Imagine the use of combined data. Scale has a different meaning in the digital world!

Of course, talking about advantages to gain you could think of more efficiency, but imagine the strength use of the combined data. Scale has a different meaning in the digital world! In order to make use of such an advantage I had to solve one of the blocking factors. This was the very fact that we were organised in various infrastructures.


Why was this change important for Achmea?


The world is changing so fast. Companies like Achmea must ride the waves of change and have a modern flexible platform ready for the digital world. If we don’t change, some day another company will emerge and conquer the marketplace at the blink of an eye. 

If we don’t change, some day another company will emerge and conquer the marketplace at the blink of an eye. 

Did your perspective on what needed to be done change after the start of the programme?


My perspective did not change, but my responsibility did. I became member of the board. That made things easier. As Chairman of Non-Life and Income I was responsible for part of the value chain, being underwriting and claims. Now I became responsible for the whole chain including Marketing and Sales.

The change program as a whole had four goals.

  • Reduce complexity and move to single platforms;

  • Lead the digital transformation;

  • Innovate;

  • Align culture with this strategy.

How did you influence internal prejudice and built trust in the programme?

This question is not easy to answer, Robert says. There is not one story. There were and are several challenges, each with its own story. In my opinion it is important to share goals; to find the right people for the job who really understand what is going on; and to collaborate with each other, not one person is able to beat the challenges on his own. People must have the ability to set their own goals and stakes aside and listen and really try to understand the other’s point of view.

Let me give you an example: as part of the program we wanted to migrate to one single platform. But this choice was challenged. People thought it would not be possible to migrate the current systems to one.

I did not challenge the chosen strategy, Robert says. I considered the choice for one system and the supplier as given. But I did verify that the platform was future proof. An external benchmark showed the platform was top notch for the insurance branch, ready for the digital transformation. This convinced me that Achmea indeed had made the right choice. Now I had to move on.

At that time Achmea was running four competing programmes with this infra structure. I wanted us to reaffirm the strategic choice and to agree with more focus: one steering committee, one budget and one way of dealing with priorities.

Generally speaking I believe in making choices and sticking to that choice.

Generally speaking I believe in making choices and sticking to that choice. This goes for the choice for the platform, but also for the leadership roles. You can always ask for clarification, but if you keep on challenging decisions made you don’t meet you goals. That is why I invest a lot of time and energy in building a vision with the people involved. Once having built the vision it’s easier to call on each other to stick to that vision.


What methods and interventions did you use?


As mentioned previously my focus is on shared goals, the right people and cooperation. We are moving to a digital world, then you need people who understand this, otherwise you won’t succeed. There is a thin line between making choices, showing leadership and collaborating between divisions to gain success. Sometimes, when discussions take too much time, people escalate. I do not appreciate it when they do so with one single version of the truth, I always want to see a combined approach.


Did you work with agile principles?


Agile does fit quite nicely with the way I like to work. To begin with I firmly believe in the concept of value chains. People who work together in these chains preferably should work close together. Then you have the short-term goals, the delegation of work to self-organising teams and the pragmatic way of working. As it goes for the self-organising teams, I do believe in the right people in the right place and good cooperation; but, no matter how teams are organised, there must be levels to set the priorities. The concept of self-organisation is appealing, but some sort of control is vital.


How did your leadership style change?


I have seen different cultures now, also internationally. Management styles are always different. The Dutch style e.g. fits quite well with self-organisation. This does not work in many other countries.

If you really delegate work to people they might surprise you, since they come up with different solutions

Maybe one of the most difficult things is finding the right balance between freedom and control. If you really delegate work to people they might surprise you, since they come up with different solutions. What I do in my line of work is asking questions about how things are going. I try to come up with these questions pretty early in the process. It is okay to make mistakes, but I like to discover them fast.


What would be your advice to others?


People know what to do. They don’t need help with that. My advice would be:

  • Make your goals shared, concrete and put time and effort in to live it through;

  • Put a lot of effort in finding the right people and assembling the right teams. Don’t cross when you’re in doubt;

  • Collaborate, listen to others and try to understand. Nothing works without collaboration.