In our "Directors Sparkle interviews" series, Jo Hendrikx, Stéphane Leclef, Danny Vandevyver and Chris Wouters enter into dialogue with other directors from the GUBERNA network. The content of their interviews links up with the GUBERNA Centres of Expertise research themes: 'Resilience’, 'Board Dynamics', 'Innovation' , 'Sustainable Value creation' and 'Diversity & Inclusion.
Danny Vandevyver, himself a GUBERNA Certified Director, invited Natacha Lippens for an interview in our studio. They exchanged views on board mandates and director qualities, the importance of sustainability on the board agenda and the usefulness of director training programmes. The full interview is available as a podcast and a video. This is the edited summary of a fruitful conversation.
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Who is Natacha Lippens?
As a scientist, having studied biology, zoology, and ecology Natacha Lippens worked as a marine biologist in pollution prevention and response. In that capacity she supported the clean-up of marine pollution incidents around the world, from Argentina to South Korea. She advised on clean-up matters as well as on how to minimise economic and environmental damages.
After obtaining her MBA at INSEAD and Tsinghua (she is half Chinese through her mother) she gradually entered the world of business. She now sits on a variety of boards ranging from food production (Finasucre, Iscal), real-estate development (Compagnie Het Zoute), bioplastic production (Futerro) and talent management (Spencer Stuart). She combines this with various roles in impact investing funds (Confluence, Estari and Telos).
After having completed the GUBERNA Certificate Director Effectiveness and the GUBERNA Certificate Board Effectiveness, both in 2019, she recently obtained the Certificate of Sustainable Directorship (Vlerick, Chapter Zero Brussels and GUBERNA).
She currently lives in Brussels after having spent 22 years abroad. She is particularly known as the new chairperson of the climate governance organisation Chapter Zero Brussels. This non-profit association works both for the health of the planet and the long-term sustainability of the companies by educating and engaging board members on the topic of climate change.
Why and how did you become a ‘multiple’ board director?
My first board mandate, back in 2009, was for Iscal, a Belgian sugar producing company in which my family invested. The board is composed of a wide variety of stakeholders, including other investors and Boerenbond, the Belgian association for farmers and rural residents.
Afterwards the Finasucre (2014), Compagnie Het Zoute (2018) and FUTERRO (2019)… mandates arrived whereI represented an investor. Then came different roles where I am not an investor, such as the advisory board of Spencer Stuart (2022).
As advisors for Spencer Stuart, we meet up to discuss and advise on opportunities and challenges facing the industry. I enjoy and value this mandate as it allows me to learn and remain updated on market trends. This advisory board has included thought provoking conversations on key topics with fascinating peers. I also am particularly interested in the crucial subject of talent management.
I joined the board of Chapter Zero Brussels (2021) at the founding. It has been wonderful to be on this board which has a very startup-like, quick and nimble positive energy. I very much enjoy working with my Chapter Zero Brussels fellow directors and the executive team. Our important mission could not be more relevant in today’s day and age. Working on this board gives me positive energy as well as the opportunity to learn a lot.
Overall, I really enjoy sitting on boards. I particularly like the variety of the roles and the diversity of these companies. Within one same board, the interesting topics on the agenda range from finance, talent management, and strategy. In addition, these responsibilities for a range of companies, is very interesting and also allows me to cross pollinate, bringing what I have seen and learnt from one board to another.
Which competencies and skills do you feel are crucial for you to be a good director?
Curiosity, active listening, courage and humility.
With curiosity I refer to the importance of wanting to understand what is going on and what are other people’s opinions, in particular when they differ from your own. This curiosity is linked to active listening. This is listening, with all your senses and without already thinking about and planning your response. Courage is necessary because sometimes a director has to act according to his or her belief, even if this goes against the norm of the majority.
And then humility…I believe directors have to be humble enough to recognise that they don’t know everything. Therefore, they must be continuously willing to learn, to listen, to read and to educate themselves. This mindset for continuous learning requires genuine humility. I understand that this idea can look different from the stereotypical old image of an ego driven dominant board director…
What do you perceive to be your specific added value to a board?
I feel that it’s most probably having a scientific profile combined with business knowledge and board experience; as well as having lived and worked around the world and coming from a multicultural background.
For some of my mandates, in these times of growing environmental regulations, having someone who has carried out environmental impact assessments and having real onsite experience in her previous career, is useful.
But let’s not forget that it really is valuable to have a variety of skills, experience and sectors around the table, combined with an ability to be inclusive and work as a team.
"It really is valuable to have a variety of skills around the table,
combined with the ability to be inclusive and work as a team."
Let’s switch to your core competence now. Does sustainability receive enough attention in the boardroom?
There is not enough attention interlinking strategy with sustainability. Sustainability should not be a separate subject dealt with on the side in an ad hoc manner or as a ‘nice to have’. It is inherent to all aspects of a board’s responsibility, from compliance and risk, to setting the right objectives and key results or embedded into the cost of capital.
Chapter Zero Brussels just conducted a survey with the generous support of Profacts and the King Baudouin Foundation, with GUBERNA as a partner. The results show that the great majority of directors consider climate change to be strategically important for their companies. Yet, the topic is not given sufficient attention in boardroom discussions.
We have identified the most important barriers that boards are facing to implement effective climate governance including a perceived lack of time and competing priorities, lack of knowledge and understanding and a focus on short-term profitability. To overcome these barriers, boards should work to ensure support from the Chair and CEO, invest in education and upskilling of board members and ensure that climate risk and opportunities are truly embedded into the business strategy and decision making within the board. We will host an event later in the year to explore these barriers and drivers in more detail.
"Sustainability should not be a separate subject
dealt with on the side in an ad hoc manner or as a ‘nice to have’."
Which impact does the climate crisis have on your role as a director?
We are living through an unprecedented time of change. The term VUCA is regularly applied. I feel that in terms of change and transformation, the business world is going through something akin to the industrial revolution. Transformations are transversal across subjects and sectors.
Therefore, more than ever, I feel the need to be inclusive and brave.
Inclusive as this goes in-addition to and further than having a diversity of profiles around the board table by creating a culture where it is OK to express your opinion, even if different or new. Having differing opinions will often make decision making harder, but an environment tolerant of different ideas greatly increases the probability of taking the right decision.
And brave, by being courageous to act and understanding that you sometimes defend a minority position. If this is the case, unfortunately you can not expect that everybody will stand up with you.
I strongly believe that boards have a strategic role to play in the transition towards a decarbonised world. Directors need to be empowered to take this on. (See article in La Libre with Valentine Deprez on this subject)
"I strongly believe that boards have a strategic role to play in the transition towards a decarbonised world.
Directors need to be empowered to take this on."
Partnerships are key to making progress in complex areas. GUBERNA, Vlerick and Chapter Zero Brussels are offering a joint certification. Can you tell us why this program is so interesting?
Climate Change is complex with many interconnected issues, therefore partnerships are absolutely key to overcome the challenges and to find innovative and effective solutions. Every partner brings their own strengths and perspective, which makes the outcome much more meaningful. We are very proud of our partnership with GUBERNA and Vlerick Business School. Our joint Certificate of Sustainable Directorship is awarded to those who follow our Director Climate Journey (Organised jointly with Vlerick Business School and Chapter Zero Brussels) and the GUBERNA course A Governance Roadmap for Sustainable Value Creation.
By following both courses, participants gain a holistic understanding of ESG and the role of the board as well as in-depth knowledge of the climate crisis, including risks and opportunities for their businesses.
"Our certification courses are a real opportunity for directors to become ready for ESG challenges."
How do you look back at the GUBERNA education programs?
I have completed both the Board and Director effectiveness programmes and I am extremely proud to have one of the first “Joint Certificate of Sustainable Directorship”. The partnership between the three involved organisations was put in place to empower directors to bring sustainability and climate as strategic topics to the board.
I wholeheartedly recommend these various programmes to any Director and aspiring Director. They have helped me in lots of different ways. It was stimulating to be in a continuous learning journey. In these courses with real case studies and discussions, one often learns as much from the “lecturers” as from the “participants”.
As a newly arrived person in Belgium these various education programs also gave me the opportunity to meet interesting peers. Hearing them talking through different solutions has helped me learn and build confidence. We are often faced with similar issues when sitting on boards, even if the sectors are different. Moreover, along the way I have made some good friends.
Thank you very much, Natacha. What about a final statement?
Climate is generally not yet at the centre of boardroom discussions. With Chapter Zero Brussels and GUBERNA we are working to equip board members to make corporate practices more sustainable. The company that doesn't adapt won't be around tomorrow!
"The company that doesn't adapt
won't be around tomorrow"
Author: Danny VandeVyver , GUBERNA Certified Director and active member of the GUBERNA Directors Council
Specialised in digital transformation and valuable sustainability
+32 477 57 00 92