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Just do it! #5: Piet-Hein Daverveldt

In our interview series ‘Just do It!’ with inspiring leaders, we met with Piet-Hein Daverveldt, Chairman and Dijkgraaf at the Regional Water Authority Delfland Netherlands (Hoogheemraadschap van Delfland).

What is driving you in life?

Well, I have got a broad range of interests from physics to economics and social political matters. I seek to use my experience acquired in different organisations such as Shell (energy), NEN and ISO (standardization) and, since 2018, Delfland to contribute to the societal challenges of our times such as sustainable water management in times of climate change. I enjoy shaping with others a common goal and then going after it. Personally, I am conscious of the limits of what you really know and thus the need to keep on being curious and learning.

What does a Dijkgraaf do and what motivated you to accept this role at Delfland Water Authority?

Simply put, the Delfland Water Authority ensures we all have dry feet and access to clean and sufficient water. Not many people are aware that the lowest point in our territory is -6.40 (!) meter below sea level. Without continuous water drainage, over half of our territory would be flooded. Ever since the Middle Ages people have worked together to protect themselves against the water and gain new land. The Water Authorities originate from those days and are the eldest governing bodies in the Netherlands. Delfland was founded in the year 1289 and is one of the oldest Water authorities of our country. My role as Dijkgraaf compares best with the Mayor of a large Municipality.

What attracted me in this role is the link between water and sustainable development and the paradox between the very low public awareness of our world class water system and the profound implications of climate change on our future water management. This requires a new vision and new solutions for sustainable water management.

How is climate change affecting the strategy of Delfland Water Authority?

One of the major challenges we face is how to deal with extreme weather patterns. When we have long periods of heavy rainfall, we need to find solutions to contain the water to compensate for long periods of dry weather. Where do we want to build these water reservoirs? The urbanization in our territory is the highest in the Netherlands. To give you an idea, the Westland area alone covers 3000 hectares of greenhouses. Urbanisation together with climate change is a toxic mix. It results in heat islands where the temperature may be up to 7 degrees higher than elsewhere and where there may be flooding during downpours. In short, the Water authority is in the frontline of Climate change!

How are you adjusting the organization to meet those new challenges?

We have changed our mindset by thinking from the outside in. We can’t do it just by ourselves and need to partner with others to accelerate our impact. Consequently, we have improved the quality of our leadership and interaction with our people. Our Secretary Director (Pieter Janssen) and his team have played a major role in this effort to focus on delivery and continuous improvement of execution. Our employees are the experts and need the freedom to act. Our leaders have created conditions for successful execution and coaching. This in turn, has enhanced the intrinsic motivation and collaboration of our staff. Our focus and ambition is to excel in our core tasks of water management and at the same time contribute to the delivery of broader societal goals: climate adaptation, the transition towards sustainable energy sources, circularity of freshwater and raw materials usage, zero greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity restoration. The big challenge is to achieve much better cooperation and alignment between stakeholders and to have the courage to make difficult choices.

Why are the Water Authority organizations in the Netherlands (21) relatively unknown to the public?

I mentioned already the low public awareness of our world class water management systems. We simply take it for granted that we keep our feet dry and are not aware that because of climate change our successes in the past do not provide guarantees for the future. Until now water levels could be set to suit the desired usage of the land. When soil subsidence caused polders to become too wet, water authorities like Delfland would pump away excess water. This, however, becomes increasingly unsustainable. Lowering water levels affects the wooden foundations of older houses in cities as well as biodiversity. Hence, we will need to accept that usage of land will more often be determined by the desired water level. Water Authorities need to become much more visible in the public domain, providing clear guidance at the start of spatial planning processes.

How did your organization adjust to COVID-19 last year? How impactful was that for your employees?

At the time of the lockdown we realized that this was a very different kind of crisis that would not go away soon and may even trigger the start of a new normal. We facilitated that everybody had the home office environment equipment they needed. Remote working became the norm from day one, whilst ensuring that daily operations would continue undisturbed. We have also invented new ways of communicating and connecting with each other. The ‘Delfland Draait Door’ show is one example, displaying how creative our people can be. Last, but not least, we have supported local communities economically with our unique capabilities and have helped our citizens and businesses affected by Covid-19 with extended payment terms for their water taxes. The extended duration of the crisis caused real stress for our people as they lacked the normal social interactions while working from home. Still I am very proud of the way we have responded and acted so far as we continued to do what was expected from us!

How do you keep your employees connected and healthy while working remote?

The most important thing was to keep everyone informed in a much more intense way than ever before. We deliberately invest more time to catch up informally. Our weekly board meeting always starts with an hour of exchanging informal topics. I truly want to make sure we know from each other what’s on our minds and if there are concerns we should be aware of. We encourage our people to do the same and reach out to each other. We also stimulate to have regular walks and exercise, organize vlogs, provide small gifts, etc. I guess many organizations are doing that too. The key thing is to acknowledge that the COVID-19 crisis impacts us in diverse ways and that our approach needs to reflect this. That’s the real challenge.

What do you foresee the workplace will look like in your organization post Covid-19?

I am sure we’ll move to a hybrid way of working. In what shape and form exactly I don’t know yet, but I don’t expect us to move back to pre Covid-19 working patterns. I recently had a funny experience. I chair the Dutch Waterschapshuis board. When I started two years ago, I had suggested once to also try board meetings to be held virtually sometimes. Out of the question the reply was. It’s too important to meet in person. Recently, I suggested we might also meet face to face again, as I felt that it would be good for group dynamics. Ok, but rather by exception was the reply, as it is very convenient and time efficient to continue to also meet virtually. How quickly we as people can change our minds!

How do you give meaning to the concept of Digital Leadership?

The lack of skilled technicians in the labor market will only grow going forward. New digital technologies and data will change the way we work. These two trends will reinforce each other, I believe. For instance, controlling water quality using remote sensoring or dike inspection using drones will require new capabilities and skills. Our first and foremost priority is to make sure our people can adapt and continuously grow their expertise. Simultaneously we are also structurally embedding technical knowledge in our expert systems. By upskilling our workforce as well as embracing new technology we will and can be ready for a most challenging climate adaptive future!

What’s your key lesson as a leader and as a parent during this crisis?

My key lesson as leader is not to use risk management as a ‘tick the box’ exercise, but as a tool to facilitate the discussion on how to enhance our preparedness for ‘shit that will happen’.

As parent my key lesson is to ensure that my 13 years old daughter maintains a positive outlook and does not worry over things she cannot influence.


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