A genuine conversation with Interpolis CEO Kick van der Pol

Psychologists and economists would regard Interpolis as a juicy case, and it is surely no accident that Kick van der Pol, chairman of Interpolis’s executive board, studied social psychology and public finance at university.

Tell us how you saw mankind while you were at university

My feeling was that the idea of man as homo economicus, which dominated economics in the sixties, was an extraordinarily limited one. It was based on the assumption that products and consumers are rational beings that take rational decisions. It left little scope for psychological factors and ideas about power. What I found exciting about psychology was that you studied different schools. All those various theories often came down to the same thing. All roads lead to Rome, even in the way we think about humanity. I’d like to see us trying to understand economics from as many different perspectives…

What was your view of mankind then?

Alongside the rational side, you’ve also got a very definite emotional side. That side still hasn’t been explored properly, even though much of our behaviour is driven by emotion or the unconscious, which we then rationalise to ourselves. What’s important to me is that people have an urge to be free, but freedom is accompanied by responsibility. Freedom is difficult to interpret as an individual exercise. It’s nice to discover that people generally like taking on responsibility, as long as it matches their level of competence.

How do you strike the right balance between freedom and responsibility?

It’s got to click emotionally. I know, it’s stating the obvious, but people have to feel a connection with other people. Just look at the phenomenon of teleworking. People are free to work at home. But if you want to make a success of it, it’s terribly important that people feel connected to one another, and to their flexible workspace, their department, and now to their plaza clubhouses, a kind of transition area between home and work.

That does sound a lot like a club or society…

At first I thought the word clubhouse sounded corny. But it’s like architecture; things that make a big splash at first start to get boring after a while. It took me a while before I got used to the word clubhouse. And they do show how a new type of connection and relationship can evolve between people. You meet people from other departments, but you’re all part of Interpolis.

An organisation made up of genuine people…

People who can shoulder responsibilities and take quick decisions for customers. When I’m conducting job interviews or performance reviews, I always listen carefully to see whether people are speaking normally. Whenever I interview someone, I always wonder whether the mischievous boy is still somewhere in that man, or the girl in that woman.

Why is that so important?

People who make a big fuss are putting up a front. That goes against feeling connected.

Some people think Interpolis’ plaza space is a bit of a fuss…

To be honest that’s just what I was afraid of at first when I saw the drawings. But in reality you get to learn that it isn’t a fuss. Look at the materials, the lamps…it’s an adventure, but these aren’t fussy lamps – they might even be pretty cheap. The costs have been in proportion. The example that makes people change their minds most often is the restaurant. We don’t have a huge staff restaurant that seats fifteen hundred. Just compare that with Philips, where the cafeterias have thousands of chairs that are unoccupied most of the day. No one considers that a luxury. The point is to learn to look at things through different eyes.

Getting back to human image again. It starts with trust… How do you do that when the organisation has fifty-six hundred people in it?

By assessing one another on our output and holding one another accountable for whatever you think the others should be accountable for. We’re still learning, though. You can make everything warm and fuzzy, but sometimes it gets too warm and too fuzzy. We can measure output and processing and all those other things that are quantifiable.

Even though profits can also be attributed to the things that you can’t measure?

That’s right. And I suspect that there’s a connection between doing the things we can’t measure better and doing the things we can measure better. We’re trying to make arrangements with the client about things like trust and connection. We’re actually unique in handling all nonlife claims in a personal call. Our people have a personal encounter with the customer and are able to determine whether we’re right to trust that customer. We don’t do it bureaucratically with forms and bills, but by having a real conversation, in which the customer doesn’t know what the next question will be. If the claim exceeds a certain amount, we do a random check. But we basically assume that someone who’s calling us about a claim has just had a bad experience…

You assess potential employees on the basis of genuineness, authenticity…

We do that in a special close-up interview. A manager who scores a ten on all competencies but isn’t genuine won’t achieve anything. But what about the manager who scores well on three competencies and just can’t get the hang of two of them? But who’s very authentic…loved by his staff…they compensate for his shortcomings…

He succeeds.

Because he’s genuine. People who aren’t interested in other people (and you’ve got individuals like that) can’t solve claims in a personal way.

What are the criteria of genuineness?

Piet van Schijndel had a great definition: “Would he fit in at the warehouse?”

But don’t you make mistakes now and again?

I hope so. People who never make mistakes are scary. We involve a whole bunch of different people in our selection interviews so that we can come to a decision after hearing a variety of different opinions.

What’s the connection between Interpolis’s crystal-clear idea and genuineness?

One clearly leads to another. You mustn’t cheat your customers or your colleagues. No tricks. That’s clear enough.

It doesn’t have much to do with furniture…

I’d like to say it doesn’t have anything at all to do with furniture, just to clarify what our way of working is really all about! Of course the working environment influences people’s behaviour, but that’s “only” a secondary aspect of the true core.

Why is everyone so fixated on the facilities side of things?

Perhaps because the true core is so far-reaching in scope. If other companies only see it as rearranging the furniture, then it will never succeed.

Do other insurance companies understand what it’s about?

They’re copying some of it. But no one yet has had the bottle to trust the customer.

Even though that’s the logical consequence.

Even though that’s the core of it.

The philosophy of trust has survived during economic downtimes?

We can’t let our clear view of working be determined by the state of the economy. In fact, it’s when the economy is in a downswing that you really need people who can shoulder responsibility. The trick now is to keep innovating. I’m optimistic. But aware that self-satisfaction is the flip side of a strong corporate culture.

You’re working hard on the Interpolis Office Network…

We consist of a group of over twenty companies that all have their own histories and have been through their own mergers. You have to respect those different backgrounds, because they are what’s authentic about the companies that we are, simultaneously, trying to bring into one big Interpolis. We’re going to put up new buildings in Zoetermeer and Utrecht. The temptation is to hand over what we’ve dreamt up in Tilburg on a silver platter. But it doesn’t work that way. What we end up doing in Zoetermeer and Utrecht will be different in nature, and better too…

So we’ll be looking back on a revolution in three acts some day…

The point is to find out what ambitions the people involved have. Not to start out where Tivoli left off, but to think through the entire process again from the beginning. Go back to the roots. Go on your own journey.

And if you don’t?

Then it isn’t genuine.

Want to read more about Interpolis in other media?

Gijs Nooteboom Managing Partner
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