Post-pandemic leadership: The CEO of Rabobank Amsterdam speaks out on trust in government, walking meetings and shorter food chains.

09 Jul 2020

Post-pandemic leadership: The CEO of Rabobank Amsterdam speaks out on trust in government, walking meetings and shorter food chains.

Banks will play a major role in facing a post-pandemic recession and beyond. How will their leaders play their part? Barbara Baarsma, CEO of Rabobank Amsterdam, shares how she’s leading in a post-COVID world.

Barbara Baarsma

How have you experienced the COVID-19 crisis so far?

Personally, I really can't complain. We are healthy, my loved ones are healthy and our boys are already out of the house so we have a sea of ​​space at home and a fantastic office. But I miss the personal contact with colleagues, going to a beautiful music performance, seeing a stage performance, eating out, having contact with loved ones and friends.

At the same time, I am worried about what I see professionally and that keeps me up at night. I am very concerned about the social and economic consequences of the Coronavirus pandemic in the middle and long run, and I have spoken about this in the media because I think that the government policy is not good enough. There is too much focus on the short term.

When I watch the daily news, it discusses ICU capacity, as if we are looking at share prices. And I say share prices deliberately, because that is short-term in general.

The media is not talking about what the dire effects are for the children who cannot enjoy distance learning, who lost ground with no WiFi at home, or with no Dutch-speaking parents. Also, the elderly in nursing homes that are really lonely, or people who don't have COVID-19, but have heart disease or cancer and no place in the care system. That will have major, long-term effects.

"The economic and social effects are not, at least not for me, getting the attention they deserve in the political process, not in a transparent and verifiable way"

And that concerns me a great deal, because this lack of transparency is at the expense of support for and spontaneous compliance with the corona measures.

What perspectives can you share when looking ahead and “how to lead from here”?

Well, the real economy was on fire and we, as bankers, saw that and tried to help as much and fast as we could. We helped with the requests for bridge loans, helped all sorts of companies.

The government had to devise new policies very quickly, and the banks had to step up to implement those policies very quickly. Our account managers worked days, nights and weekends.

Even though the restrictive measures are slowly being lifted, I see that long-term support for such restrictive measures is declining, because people want to see their interests from an economic and social perspective are taken into account. The people want to know that these considerations have been considered when policies are being implemented. I feel it is my job to point this out and sometimes use the media for that.

"What matters to me is the confidence that we have in our politicians, in the cabinet, in the policies they pursue. Because that is essential in the period in which we are now"

What economic consequences do you expect to see?

There will be a second economic wave after the shock we had in March-May, now that the economy is opening up bit by bit.

During October, November, maybe December, we will be hit hard, because banks have deferred repayments for many companies. In addition, banks have given companies more bridge facilities. They may also have other solutions to free up liquidity e.g. temporarily paying less to energy suppliers. This results in companies having more loans and temporarily less repayments.

The economy is slowly starting up again, but all in a 1.5 meter economy, at 50%. This will not be sufficient if you suddenly have to pay back more loans than you had until now and pay your energy bills again. At the same time the government’s 2nd stimulus package will expire on October 1st.

It remains to be seen whether there will be a third stimulus package of the size we had until now. The government stimulus package will most likely be limited and I am very concerned about the combined effect of less financial reserves, higher loan repayments and less or no government support.

"People with a permanent job who have been spared until now, might well lose their jobs in some sectors and then you could spiral into rising unemployment"

Unemployment is already rising, but partly still hidden because people withdrew from the labor market.

In cities like Amsterdam, where highly skilled knowledge workers live side-by-side, there is no chance to meet up now that the hospitality and cultural sectors are largely closed. That vibrant creativity, those outstanding productivity-enhancing effects, are major drivers of our innovation, competitiveness and productivity in the long term. That is why I hope that we will soon be able to work in the office, even if it is just for two days a week, because we need that personal contact.

Furthermore, I hope that cultural institutions will survive, because it is so important for the economy to meet again at inspiring locations and events.

What adjustments have you made to your own leadership style and techniques?

I have a large poster with my priorities at home. I really want to make my priorities clear for myself. What I want to achieve today, this week, in the sense of ‘are they aligned with the priorities of my organisation, the economy, the clients and my employees’. Or am I again fire-fighting?

With regards to leadership, I ask employees; ‘are you still comfortable and on your growth curve in terms of your talents, are you still having fun’?

"I have mid-year discussions with my employees, but not via Microsoft Teams. I go to their hometowns, not necessarily to their house, because I don't want to invade their privacy if they don't feel like it"

I therefore make an appointment in their place of residence, for about one to two hours. Then, we walk. The beauty of walking is that it does something to your brain. You get into a kind of equilibrium and can have very intensive conversations because there are no distractions.

This is just a small example of something I discovered, which is actually a very nice way to take advantage of the situation.

So set your priorities, also in six months, and do not be fooled by all these fires you have to put out all day every day.

I’d like to conclude with the following.

We have set up something called ‘farmers for neighbours’, because we saw during the Coronavirus pandemic that farmers were wasting their potatoes, because the processing industry was closed, the catering industry was closed and there were export barriers. This also applies to tomatoes, carrots, onions and apples.

On the other hand, you had people who lost their jobs, had to make ends meet and could not buy fresh food. So we connected farmers with their neighbours in the city and shared our cooperative organisational capacity, knowledge and network with our customers.

We told colleagues and clients that we needed their help to come and sort large bags of fresh food in a hall made available by the port of Amsterdam. That gave them the feeling they could contribute and that is very important. This short food chain organisation will continue to exist even after the corona crisis. It is a start-up company of which I am very proud.

Thank you, Barbara Baarsma, for your insights.