Rethinking Growth: “Growth has never been my goal”

An artist and a communications director talk growth

Rabobank Artist-in-residence, Arne Hendriks, considers the question “What is growth?” with opinion leaders from different fields of knowledge. Before Leendert Bikker became the bank’s Director of Communications, he ran his own companies for 30 years.

Arne Hendriks: I want to know what growth is. Like other people, for most of my life I’ve thought I knew what it was, and that in principle it was good. Now I just don’t know anymore. And that’s why I’m talking to different people – both inside and outside the bank – to try to find some answers. These are people who I think can help me get back to a simple, original idea of what growth is. The mission statement, ‘Growing a better world together’ naturally asks that people inside the bank know what that means. And I hope to benefit from that knowledge.

A while ago, I gave a lecture and performance for employees of Rabobank’s communications department about my project, ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man.’ Afterwards, Leendert Bikker whispered in my ear: “Don’t hold back, will you?” This great advice made me curious about his views on growth. As a communication director, you are actually storyteller-in-chief. So what’s his story?

What is growth, Leendert?

Leendert Bikker: I find it increasingly difficult to say. I ran my own companies for thirty years. Each year, we achieved more turnover, hired more people and occupied a larger building. That meant we were doing well. Incidentally, growth wasn’t something I consciously pursued – it just happened. And also, you have to see that development as part of the spirit of the age: the 1990s, a time of unbridled economic progress. At a given moment you’re in the rhythm of double-digit growth and you’re also judged accordingly. That’s the point when you believe that expansion is a normal and natural part of business.

Where does that idea come from? Is it entrepreneurial culture – growth as some kind of confirmation that you’re here?

And that you apparently have something that others don’t. Growth is addictive, too. It’s wonderful when a prestigious client calls you for an assignment. Compare it with running: you want to run that route faster every day. But there comes a point when that’s no longer healthy. And it’s exactly the same with entrepreneurship and growth. With growth I reached a moment when I was no longer occupied with creating, but only with managing. And eventually you become someone who gets in the way, just like everyone else. The greater the growth, the less tangible it is, and the less fun too. As with an addiction, you have to grow faster and faster to keep feeling the high.

“Growth is addictive, too”

- Leendert Bikker, Rabobank

This reminds me of an experience I’ve had with a project of mine in which I’m making a floating island out of fat: drop by drop, until it gets so big that we can stand on it. We started with a drop of fat in an aquarium. With the second drop, ‘the mountain’ was twice as big, which was satisfying. But you can only double in size at the beginning – after that it slows down. At one point it wasn’t drops any more, but big globs – and I moved the budding island to the IJ. Now it’s multiple buckets in one go. When I throw 500 kilos of fat on the island in a day, I can hardly see any difference. The laws of proportion make further growth increasingly complicated. I need so much fat to continue to experience growth.

That’s a nice metaphor for growth. When I started a second company after selling my first, I said: “We’re going to keep it small. Everything has to be done at the kitchen table.” But again, you end up buying a bigger kitchen table. Because you’re apparently doing something right.

Does growth have an irresistible dynamic that you can’t escape? Because when I listen to you, it seems like there’s something outside of you that’s forcefully pulling you along.

Growth has never been a goal for me. It just happens. However, I’ve learned that growth doesn’t necessarily mean ‘more.’ And that you’re better off swapping quantity for quality. The years bring experience, insight, enrichment, and less of a sense of obligation. I have now ended up in the largest building I’ve ever worked in, with the biggest number of people and the highest turnover. I don’t know if that’s better. Or whether growth is the best solution for the issues facing us in the bank.

So growth isn’t always the answer?

No. The mindset of many managers is: “There’s an issue and I have to solve it.” Preferably with the help of a new solution. That dynamic ensures growth. But that’s not good in my opinion. Is there really a problem there? Perhaps the problem will solve itself, anyway. You assume that you always have to intervene, and that isn’t the case. That goes hand in hand with the fact that we want to make everything measurable.

How many people work in your department?

We started with 120 employees and are now we have half that number.

That’s a form of shrinkage.

In the literal sense of the word it is. But you can also see it as a form of growth. Because I think that development is better for everyone involved. Fewer mistakes, disappointments and expectations, and greater personal development and new opportunities. And it’s more fun too.

“At sustainability symposia, testosterone is dripping from the walls”

- Arne Hendriks, Artist-in-residence

Something I’ve learned from my research is that you need space in order to grow. There’s a lot of space here, but what you’re saying is that you created that space.

Mental space, in which you dare to say that ‘less’ can be a form of growth. Less marketing, less communication, fewer products and resources. But more focused, more essential and improved. That’s also what the growth in ‘Growing a better world together’ stands for. I’m now constantly challenging people: “Does what you’re doing contribute to the mission of the bank?” The group embracing the mission is growing. And you can involve the new people who come in. You even have people who spontaneously sign up and want to help to realize that message. These are also the people that we’re looking for in our next campaign. You only do this if you believe in it as an employer and as an employee.

Do you have a way to filter those good intentions? Because people need to know what exactly is meant by this notion of growth. And do people ever tell you something you don’t know during a job interview?

Yes, almost every time. And those talks are never about growth for growth’s sake, or making more, but about development, progress, improvement and greater fairness. And that’s very conscious. Look, of course we don’t have a clear answer. I don’t mind that either. The point is that we are having the conversation. We don’t even have to agree. I think it’s worth it just to accept the invitation to exchange ideas and explore together. Just like I’m doing with you now.

Leendert Bikker: “I don’t know whether growth is the best solution for the issues facing us in the bank.”

I’ve been to symposia about sustainability where green entrepreneurs are speaking, and the testosterone is still dripping from the walls. I can’t put my finger on it, but I often feel that something is not quite right. That there’s a flaw in our thinking. That it’s good that we’re talking about wind, not fossil, energy, but that the basic attitude has remained the same. Growth is, as it were, pulled out of one system and put into another. What I’m looking for is a richer language around the concept of growth, which deepens our attitude towards it. Have we come further in substance, in spiritual terms?

You have to be careful not to do the same trick in a different reality, but instead dare to make a radical intervention. I was at a farm on Terschelling last week. The owner is someone who has turned his back on the advertising world and started farming. I asked him, “Where do you want to go? What is your plan?” He said, “As soon as my harvest has to leave the island, that’s the limit; that’s already too much.” Someone else said, “I know ten places on the mainland where you can send it.” But he doesn’t want that. Because the stuff has to be transported, it’s stressful for the environment and he doesn’t feel like doing it. The island is his market and for him that’s enough.

These are radical choices for limited growth. How do you see this radicalism in Rabobank’s future?

Considering the rapid pace of technological developments, Rabobank will play a much smaller role in existing services such as payments, savings and mortgages. Or even none at all. The future for Rabobank lies in food and agriculture. In addition, we’re increasingly transforming from a bank into a consultancy. We’re already seen this way in Australia. We’re not just a Dutch bank anymore. Rabobank finances 50 of the world’s 100 biggest companies in the food and agriculture sector, and 17 of the top 20 dairy companies globally are customers of our bank. We’re a global bank with a Dutch heritage.

Then you’re back on a very big global scale, and we’re back with growth.

Thinking big isn’t necessarily growth thinking. I look at developments in the world, and who our customers are, and I see the balance changing. I remember that we worked as a bureau for Philips. Out of every ten TVs, they sold nine in China and one elsewhere in the world. Meanwhile in the Netherlands we still thought of Philips as a Dutch company. Cor Boonstra wanted to move the head office to where he thought there was a future for the company: Silicon Valley. There was opposition from the organization and ultimately Amsterdam was chosen as a compromise. A bizarre compromise, in retrospect, seeing as how Eindhoven developed into a European technology center.

These considerations don’t have to do with growth, but with being where you think you belong. And it shows the courage to make clear decisions. I think that there are more effective methods for achieving goals than growth. I also see that in the younger generation. Increasingly, they find having more time more important than having more money. They think, “If I work a four-day week and meet my living costs, that’s good too.” That never occurred to me at their age.

“Thinking big isn’t necessarily growth thinking”

- Leendert Bikker, Rabobank

I always feel happy when I hear about developments like these. You can also be very ambitious in that other way. It’s just that ambition is still largely associated with work, and less with how we are as individuals in the world. For example, spending time with people you love – that’s also an ambition. It could well be that we need to liberate the concept of ambition from the limited sphere in which it generates meaning for us.

I think that a place like Rabobank has the requirements for that. It offers space to do other things and be of use to society: Growing a better world together. And that world can be your street, or neighborhood, or village. There are people in my team who volunteer as ‘debt buddies.’ They devote an evening a week to helping people get their personal finances straight. Then you’re already working on our mission.

Who is Leendert Bikker?

After completing his studies at the Academy for Journalism, Leendert Bikker (born 1963) started a communications consultancy. The company grew into the BIKKER Communications Group. In 1999, it was sold to New York-based Euro RSCG Worldwide, where he served as a member of the Board of Management until 2004. He then started BIKKER & Company in Rotterdam. During the first years of this century he was chairman of Europe’s 500, the association of fast-growing companies in which he was twice a candidate himself. Since the beginning of 2017 he has been director of communication at Rabobank. “I’m fascinated by innovation, imagination and acceleration,” he said when he took office. “In addition, I like to give meaning to the things that I do.” Over the years, Bikker has held a diverse range of additional positions as a director and supervisor in a broad spectrum of civil society organizations and companies. “I don’t want to go through life as a consumer,” he says. “If you can do it, you have the duty to do something for society.” Currently, he is chairman of the supervisory boards of Scapino Ballet and ROC Zadkine in Rotterdam.

Artist-in-residence: Arne Hendriks

Growing, getting bigger, is positive – that’s what we learn from an early age. For eight years, artist Arne Hendriks (born 1971) has been researching why, and turning the proposition around: what if we didn’t always want more and more; what if we were to strive for less? With ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ Hendriks asks fundamental questions about our obsession with growth – down to our own height. He works with examples of people, animals and living systems as sources of inspiration. Banking4Food Innovation Centre, Rabo Foundation and Kunstzaken invited Hendriks to work on his research at Rabobank. Recently, in the middle of his exhibition, he talked to opinion leaders from various disciplines about the question: What is growth? For more information about his project, The Incredible Shrinking Man, see www.the-incredible-shrinking-man.net.

The published interviews in the ‘Rethinking Growth’ series are a collaboration between Arne Hendriks and writer Jens de Jongh.