Five University Students Reflect on Their Unbossers Network Roundtable

By Georgia Svana, Sofia Carsau, Karlien Eelen, Kostika Prifti & Lorenz Streffer – Students Business Economics at the University of Antwerp

During our Organisational Theory Design lecture, Nick (Van Langendonck) approached us a few months ago, five students studying Business Economics at the University of Antwerp. He asked us a pretty simple question: Would we be willing to join the Unbossers Network Program Y 2024 with four other companies and represent the voice of our generation in the debates and workshops?  We agreed to Nick’s proposal, which resulted in us joining forces with employees and managers from HP, SD Worx, Komma Board, and Technopolis in a roundtable event about self-organization co-hosted by Klaas Ariaans. In this blog we take you through our impressions and key takeaways.

Introducing Unbossers And The Roundtable Event

For new visitors and readers, Unbossers Network is a movement that helps other companies become stronger together by organizing captivating networking, learning and collaboration events. They challenge traditional hierarchical structures and promote a more agile and innovative approach to management. Their objective is to help organizations break free from outdated management paradigms and embrace new ways of working, fostering employee creativity, engagement, and adaptability. This translates into empowering leaders to take on a facilitating role rather than an authoritarian style, encourage autonomy and ownership among team members, and create a safe space.

For example, on the first day of this Unbossers roundtable, we facilitated a walk-and-talk close to where we stayed. Each of us guided a group of 4 to 5 business people through 10 questions regarding topics such as team dynamics, role clarity, communication, and whether there is an impossible dream they pursue. During the walk, the people exchanged their perspectives with peers from different organizations. Later that day, we facilitated these conversations during dinner with members from the same organization. Here, employees and managers had the chance to delve into a comparative analysis and discuss different points of view on these topics.

The Journey Of Klaas Ariaans At ABN AMRO

On Friday morning Klaas Ariaans, the director of Consumer Clients at ABN AMRO, took center stage with his inspiring story on spearheading significant changes in the bank’s operating model and organizational structure, emphasizing self-organization. His journey reflects a transformation from hierarchical management to empowered teams. Ariaans initiated two major shifts: firstly, digital personalized banking through Beeldbankieren, and secondly, transitioning to self-organization by reducing management by 95%.

Reducing management from 278 to 25 leaders in a single day marked a bold move. This drastic shift aimed to eliminate any lingering reliance on traditional hierarchical structures. Tasks were redistributed among teams and centralized groups, with some responsibilities abandoned altogether. Ariaans embarked on a roadshow to facilitate this change, articulating the vision of digital and self-organized banking. Recognizing the emotional apprehension among employees, he employed storytelling, symbolized by a parachuting experience with his daughter, to illustrate the rewards of embracing the unknown.

His belief in the latent leadership within every individual stemmed from personal experiences across various banking roles. He observed that frontline employees often possess valuable insights, challenging the notion that higher-ups inherently hold superior knowledge. The transition towards self-organization was not merely about delegating tasks but empowering employees to determine ‘how’ work is done. Ariaans avoided the term ‘self-management,’ emphasizing that the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ remained defined by the organization’s leadership while granting autonomy over the execution, the ‘how’.

Support mechanisms were crucial during this transition. Teams received coaching to navigate self-organization effectively alongside skill development initiatives. A fundamental shift in performance evaluation occurred, moving away from monthly manager-led coaching sessions to a voluntary, employee-driven approach, fostering a culture of trust and accountability. Creating a sense of psychological safety was paramount. Ariaans emphasized predictable responses to feedback, encouraging open communication. The introduction of Beeldbankieren – e.g. digital personal banking anywhere anytime ) further aligned with the vision of personalized service, leveraging collective knowledge to enhance customer experience.

Ariaans’ endeavor within a corporate environment illustrates the potential for large-scale self-organization. He advocates for an organizational culture grounded in empowerment and collaboration by maintaining clarity of objectives and safeguarding boundaries. ABN AMRO’s journey under his leadership exemplifies a transformative shift towards a more agile and customer-centric banking model.

Our Reflections

After delving into the insights we got throughout the roundtable process and engaging in reflective dialogue, we summarized our discussions into five key learnings that we believe are essential for any organization embarking on a journey of organizational change.

Be critical

Any change, for as simple as it can be, needs to start from a breaking point with the status quo. People who identify that there is a need for improvement also need to feel safe in their environment and express their positive criticism. Building a safe space where all within an organization can give their opinion without fearing unhappy faces from their managers is the starting point of any self-organization.

Being critical is a call that echoes the famous “Know Yourself” of Socrates. Only by a sincere critical approach to the embedded institutional culture can any organization openly comprehend itself and start diving into what can be changed to meet the continuously changing needs of the business and its stakeholders.

Be a coach

After extensive discussions and reflections with members from the participant companies, it became evident that micromanagement is universally disliked. The consensus was that nobody appreciates being told and controlled over every little detail, even for more tactical and strategic tasks. However, it’s also acknowledged that giving up control and overcoming your ego can be challenging, especially for those in managerial roles. Despite their intentions to add value and support their teams, some unintentionally kill creativity and initiative by micromanaging.

According to Ariaans’ experience, the key lies in separating the management from the coach role where coachers arise from within the group and are not imposed by the management. This fosters trust between team members and enhances productivity by allowing space for creativity and initiative to flourish.

Be collaborative

In his discussion on the four phases of organizational change,  Klaas emphasized the significance of the question, ‘How do we want to work together?’. Central to this inquiry is the embrace of vulnerability within working teams. Klaas advocates for a culture where team members actively coach one another, freely exchange knowledge, and feel comfortable admitting when they need assistance or lack expertise.

He highlighted the success story of ABN AMRO Bank as a great example of how senior professionals pass on their knowledge to younger colleagues and the valuable contribution of so-called Generation Z, particularly in digital skills, underlining the importance of intergenerational knowledge sharing.

Be committed

Commitment is essential to any change and development process, guiding all towards a common and almost impossible goal. Every process must start with a common framework, agreed upon by all, which defines the “rules of the game.”  It needs to reflect the common vision and strategy,  how they intend to pursue it, and most importantly, define the red lines that should not be broken.

The commitment to the common framework and respect for its boundaries makes the changing process progress with firm steps.  The lack of it, on the other hand, will serve as an exit path for those who, during the process, don’t feel anymore represented by it.  Only an almost religious commitment will keep change going.

Don’t give up

Maybe the most valuable message we got from Klaas is that a change will give good results, not only because some people firmly believe in it but because they don’t step back once the first challenge steps in. And for sure, all ambitious projects face big challenges. Many people will start advocating that returning to the status quo is the best option. They will try to influence those leading the change. There is always a temptation to get back into what you already know, and don’t experiment with uncertainty. 

Researchers in the field say that more than half of changing processes fail because they get dropped on the way. Organizations often don’t have time to wait for the change to give its fruits.  Success isn’t always guaranteed, but you must go through the process for what it is.

Expertise Unveiled: Wisdom from Leaders

Each and every one of the companies that participated showed skills and expertise that make them pioneers in their field. Whether it is by constantly reinventing themselves, working towards a common goal, or working towards a better future. As last-year students in business economics, participating in this roundtable opened up numerous opportunities for us. This event gave us the opportunity to network with these experts and leaders.

Unlike the typical network event, we were not sitting at a table asking superficial questions. Instead, we were going on hikes while having meaningful conversations, participating together in workshops, and being able to ask critical questions. This free and safe space that was created allowed us to connect on a deeper level and create valuable relationships with one another. We were given one task, ‘ask as many questions as you’d like to.’ This resulted in conversations about challenges that companies encounter in their daily operations, discussions on the importance of sustainability, the implication of the new generation entering the work floor, and so on… Not one topic was off-limits.

Gaining insights on these types of topics from experts with diverse backgrounds, various roles, and tons of experience is not something that you will come by every day. The essence of this roundtable was the possibility to ask questions to challenge the companies, which could benefit us in our future careers. These questions varied from questions about the importance of company culture to questions about application procedures and even questions about the trajectory to take after graduating. To sum up, the questions often left unanswered were exactly the types of questions we were encouraged to explore.

Yours Truly,

Georgia Svana, Sofia Carsau, Karlien Eelen, Kostika Prifti & Lorenz Streffer

Students Business Economics at the University of Antwerp


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