Brunel – Act of Leadership

Leadership development at Brunel

Jeroen Kerkhof is Global HR Leader at Brunel, where he is responsible globally for HR strategy. He is currently focusing on leadership and talent development and succession planning, with an emphasis on the top 120 of the organisation. That focus is not only on the development of the employees at Brunel itself, but also on the further development of specialists in the field. The aim is to continuously boost the added value to clients.

Globally, Brunel is a workforce solutions provider, among others within the technical sector. Much of its work is project-based, and Brunel is thus the main party that gives organisations access to specialised knowledge. It employs many expats; certain know-how is so scarce that it is moved all over the world.

Jan Meijning, organisational psychologist at HFMtalentindex, talks to Jeroen about the Brunel Leadership Development Program. For this leadership programme, the task was clear: based on a recent strategy update, the leaders and management must know how to implement this strategy and lead the changes.

Act of leadership

Local entrepreneurship is very important at Brunel. At the same time, spread over 40 countries and six continents, Brunel also expressly works across national borders. Partly as a result of globalisation, cooperation on a global scale is becoming increasingly important. Besides the existing local pillars, it is necessary to work more and in a different way at an international level. In the new strategy, important choices are made about its implementation. Innovation introduces more complexity in Brunel’s services, and that requires a different form of leadership. The Brunel Leadership Development Program supports and accelerates the use of changing leadership. The participants in the leadership programme realise that clients want more and more added value. Jeroen: ‘The programme is more an act of leadership than talking about leadership. We immediately apply the strategy; we get participants to work directly on new issues.’

For the development of the programme, Jeroen asked peers from other organisations for input. He developed the programme together with the organisation Urban Knowmads, in close consultation with the Executive Board. In fact, the Executive Board is closely involved in setting up a concept for presence during the programme. Around twenty participants from all over the world work together in teams. They come together for the various sessions and work on different projects in between these sessions. There are four key sessions, spread over two years. The kick-off took place in Amsterdam last March, and the next session will be in Bremen in September. Next March, there will be a session in Singapore, with the final session back in Amsterdam at the international head office. A second group of participants will start in November 2019.

Customisation: organisation development in combination with personal development

During the three-day sessions, experts talk about subjects that are related to the new strategy. This might take the form of a lecture or a simulation game, for example. The stories are linked to each other, and a clear lesson emerges in the tasks assigned to the participants. These case groups are also clearly related to the strategy.

The entire programme is customised: it is adapted to the surroundings, the work situation and the strategic theory of the organisation. During the sessions, the strategy is the main theme. In addition to that collective learning line, there is a lot of attention for personal development. Prior to the programme, the participants complete a Learning Agility Assessment, in which the emphasis is on their own learning/change ability. This assessment shows where a participant is now and what their growth potential is. They therefore become aware of what they need to work on and how they can use their strengths for their further development.

This personal section is also customised. During the programme, all participants are allocated an individual coach with whom they can discuss the result of their assessment. The participants indicate that they want to work on it; they are in the driver’s seat.

You don’t solve strategy, you work on it

After the first session, participants admitted that this was a very different programme than what they were used to. The programme responds to their situation, to the strategic challenges they face in their work. This ensures that the theory really relates to practice. The programme sharpens the focus on the desired situation, Jeroen explains: ‘Because you think that everyone knows what the strategy is, but that’s not the case. There are different ideas of what the goal is, why we are going in that direction. By talking about it during the programme, all the pieces of the puzzle come together. Because you don’t solve strategy, you work on it.’

When things become more complex, employees often don’t know exactly what their role is and what is expected of them. The programme helps them take control. It ensures that they can be the leader in the change, truly drive the change rather than undergoing it. The Executive Board gives the direction, and the elaboration takes place in the organisation itself.

The greatest challenge is to ensure the continuation of the learning process. It makes no sense to only engage in learning during the half-yearly sessions. It’s important to work on this process every week, every day. This is a challenging programme, and the participants work hard. Brunel operates in a short cyclical market, and a project that is launched tomorrow often actually needs to begin the day after. It’s important to bear in mind the long-term strategy too. Jeroen tries to achieve that continuity by encouraging a positive emotion around the development goal. By showing the participants that if they put energy into their development, they will get further than just engaging in short-term goals, in today’s issues. That awareness ensures that participants continue to work on the assignments outside the plenary sessions too.

Simultaneous chess

During the first group session, the participants were given a subject to present with their team in the second session. In the meantime, they must work together on it. Some groups immediately produced a solution, although the explicit instruction was to first conduct an in-depth analysis of the problem and then give a considered opinion. If the management is too pragmatic, that’s reflected in the organisation. ‘We’ve tightened the strategy for a reason; we ask more of our leaders. They must be able to adapt quickly and keep in mind the long-term development. In addition, they mustn’t be too distanced from the operational issues; they must know what’s happening. Keep a finger on the business pulse. What we’re actually asking them to do is to play simultaneous chess. There’s obviously room for error, because change is a process not an event.’

Real cases are used in the programme. ‘We don’t talk from the existing situation, but from the situation we want to achieve. We consider the new situation and act directly. We look at the diversity of the group: at the male-female ratio and the different nationalities from different parts of the world. Besides all the hard work, the programme also includes time for relaxation: recently the group visited founder Jan Brand in Delft, where he still has an office (since 1975!).

Brunel wants to be an attractive organisation for communities of industry-leading clients and technical specialists. The Brunel Leadership Development Program is successful if the goals are achieved in five years’ time. Ultimately, the whole programme is about implementing the strategy.