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“Remain yourself” Interview with Pauline Bieringa

Pauline Bieringa calls herself an “accidental banker”. She studied History and Art history and yet, she thrives in the banking sector for over 30 years. Pauline is the Managing Director of Triodos Bank in the Netherlands since September 1st 2020. Before, she worked for other banks such as BNG and ING. The human side of banking is what interests her most in this sector.

What motivated you to do a career in the banking sector?

Together with my husband, who is a historian, I lived in Baltimore for a couple of years. When we came back to the Netherlands, I decided to do an MBA. From that on, I ended up working in a bank. I always had the aim to use what I have learned as a historian in the banking sector. This is how I became interested in the human aspect of banking, which I love, and in which I am now fully engaged at Triodos Bank. Triodos is a value based bank, very much focused on Nature and Human aspects of banking. Money is not seen as an end in itself but as a means to an end. And that is what I like about banking and what I discovered in my MBA: money can be used for good things. This is the reason why I have worked in the banking sector for 30 years.

What motivated you to become a leader in such a big organization?

It just happened. I never expected that I would get a position with so much responsibility. I have been involved in sustainable development since I started working at ING more than 30 years ago. Then together with a colleague, I started a renewable energy desk. At that time, I was already in touch with Triodos bank. People encouraged me to work for them, but it was a bit too early. It took a while, but now I have this job and it is really the perfect place for me. I think I am here now because I continued to be myself. It is not the financials, but the story behind them which interests me, as well as the conscious use of money. Using my network and connecting people, that is what inspires me. I have been a manager for about 25 years, starting with a small team, and now I am responsible for four hundred and fifty co-workers, together with my management team. I have a very good team and it motivates me to work with people, to inspire people and to motivate them to take personal leadership.

Do you have any tips for leaders who are facing disappointments?

I have always had colleagues who knew exactly what they wanted to achieve in terms of status, prestige. Those things don’t interest me at all, so that really helps because it reduces the number of disappointments. Try to focus on what you want to achieve in life in terms of what you want to contribute, what gives you pleasure instead of focusing on trying to reach certain positions. Of course, we all face disappointments in life. But try not to get stuck in it. Try to learn from them, and don’t immediately blame others, but question yourself, “what could I have done better?”. And that will make you stronger. Think of the positive side. It is a may be a platitude, but learning from disappointment and showing people how you overcame it and became resilient is the best revenge! And don’t forget it. I never forget my disappointments.

You often say “we need to open up windows at Triodos”, what do you mean?

There is a certain kind of modesty within Triodos bank, especially when you consider all the good things that we have done in the past 41 years. The people that work here have generally a deep feeling of responsibility for themselves, for their colleagues and for the world. They are not driven by money. But I think we should be a little bit outspoken and less modest about what we have achieved. Triodos has not only financed change, it has played a major role in changing the finance sector. We have set up the sustainable finance lab after the financial crisis 12 years ago, and our former CEO Peter Blom has played a major role in this. We're really looking to initiate change especially through the housing and the mortgage sector. We're trying to pay a lot more attention to social inclusion, which is an important part of our mission. So on the one hand, we focus on renewable energy and sustainability, and on the other hand, social inclusion. And that's a hidden gem that we have in and outside our bank.

What still needs to be developed in the banking sector?

The sector is still too focused on risk-return. Instead, financials should have a more holistic approach. What is it that we want to achieve with money? That is a question that matters for us at Triodos, and that is one of our motors: money as a means and not as an end. In addition to the traditional risk-return consideration, Triodos also explicitly considers the impact of money in its decision to invest money. And that dimension cannot always be captured in models. And I think other banks can learn from that as well. We should also focus more on real sustainable development and on societal value, and not only on shareholder value. Of course it is complicated because banks need to make money in order to survive. But I think that a better balance is possible.

That is the remarkable thing about Triodos. The name Triodos comes from the Greek “tri hodos”, which means three ways. And our three ways are people, planet and profit. So a part of our money goes to business, then, we invest a part in projects, and finally, we have a foundation that gives money to caritative initiatives. That is something that other banks have as well as a sort of moral duty. However, for Triodos, it is part of our core values.

What message would you like to share with the new generation of leaders?

Be creative, and create time to be creative. Show courage! You need compassion (the 3rd C) to create a team spirit and to shine through your people.

But more importantly, remain yourself. It doesn’t really matter what education or background you have. Every experience and background is unique. Make good use of it.

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