It was about three years ago when a number of Dutch businessmen gathered in a mosque, looking around in alarm. Where should they leave their shoes? Delegates from KPMG and PostNL, among others, were invited to a meeting on diversity by Karin van Odenhoven-van der Zee, Professor of Psychology and Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Free University (VU). Only at last they realized the location: the Blue Mosque in Amsterdam Nieuw-West. They also did not know in advance that they were going to talk to the imam.
“It takes courage to create such an extraordinary meeting,” says Jolanda van Schaik, head of diversity and inclusion at accounting and consulting firm KPMG. “That’s what sets Karen apart.” For years, the two saw each other regularly during meetings under the theme “More Color at the Top,” Van Odenhoven’s initiative to investigate why the Dutch company’s top remains so white, and what to do about it.
Like three other acquaintances, Van Shayk de Volkskrant He spoke, pleased with van Odenhoven’s appointment as the new director of the Office of Social and Cultural Planning (SCP), the country’s most important social science research institute and an advisory body to the government.
from the ivory tower
The position is tailored to her, according to the four. Van Oudenhoven is not at all afraid to step out of the university’s ivory tower. In the late 1990s, she established the Institute for Integration and Social Resilience at the University of Groningen (RUG), where it was to conduct research that would have a direct impact on practice.
“People had warned her that it wasn’t good for her career,” says fellow psychologist and professor Elaine Gibbs, who met Van Odenhoven in Groningen. At the time, as a scientist, you were doing basic research – and you did it at the highest level – or you were engaged in practice. But she founded the institute anyway, which I thought was really progressive.
Even at the SCP, research is not conducted in a vacuum: the institute is legally obligated to evaluate policy in The Hague. With her appointment, van Odenhoven inherited a privileged position in the public debate. In recent years, the current director of SCP Putters has regularly cracked down on government policy. Miriam van Praag, chair of VU’s board of directors, where van Odenhoven has served in recent years as dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, predicts, “It certainly wouldn’t be any different under her leadership.” “Because she dared.”
Diversity will remain one of its warheads, as all three expect. From an early age, Van Odenhoven was fascinated by anyone who deviated from the norm. “We lived in Friesland, and my parents were a bit of a hippie,” she explains of her interest in a recent VU podcast. We ate pasta and rice and didn’t really belong. But when we got to Randstad, people were asking: Where are your clogs?
Dealing with uncertainty
Although the differences between people can be enriching, in practice it often turns out that it does not work that way, she realized during her studies in psychology. The question of how a team can be more than the sum of its parts is central to her research.
The answer I found has two parts. First, learn how to deal with uncertainty. You can train your brain for it, says the world-renowned psychologist. “Dive into as many different and uncertain situations as possible,” she advises on the podcast. Hence her invitation to dignitaries and CEOs in unusual places, such as the mosque.
After confronting their own biases there, CEOs face a dilemma. Some people need a new kidney, but only one is available. They should decide jointly for whom to donate the kidney. “After that, most people think this worked just fine,” says van Odenhoven. “But there are always people who are not listened to. Not because of bad intentions, but because of the habit of making quick decisions.
And that’s the second condition for a successful diversity policy: To take advantage of differences, you must “start at the point where you’re not always right, and really take time,” says Van Odenhoven. Diversity also means that you are being challenged by people with difficult opinions, and this can delay decision making. She herself is the first to conclude that she can still make a profit there. “As a manager I sometimes think: I want to continue, I have to achieve my goals.”
In a loose mood, Van Odenhoven sometimes describes himself as a “Frisian chief,” says Van Praag, chairman of the VU board. This perseverance makes her a suitable fit for the position of director of SCP, according to Professor Jacquelien van Stekelenburg, Van Oudenhoven’s direct fellow on the VU College Board. She knows how to get people to get things done. In the managerial world, where things do not always go smoothly, this is an important trait.
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