Saviour, consultant, big bad wolf: Henri van Dun.
In 1980, 1,300 people sought asylum in the Netherlands. They were 21,000 in 1990. This was the start of a wave peaking at almost 53,000 claims in 94, and plateauing at 37,000 per annum for the following 5 years on average [i], more than twice the 2017 level.
The Netherlands always had a policy of welcoming foreigners and diligently investigated every file, consistently granting 40% of asylum permits [ii]… And so, the absolute number of rejected requests (A stable 60%...) also grew from 800 to 22,000 on average. Rejected asylum seekers almost systematically appealed the decision, which compounded the problem: The caseload of the IND, the Dutch Service of Immigration and Naturalisations [iii], skyrocketed.
The IND was quickly overwhelmed by the sheer amount of legal cases, as was the Landsadvocaat, the lawyer(s) of the state [iv]. In 1993, the IND decided to transition the legal vetting of asylum seekers in-house and created two registration centres to centralise the flux [v]. The IND then looked for someone who had a double competence in private and public law, and who was not afraid of tackling an Everest of work to manage them.
In a country of gigantic people, the mild-mannered Henri van Dun strikes the onlooker as shorter than average (As a Frenchman he would be doing just fine, of course). And if you're aware he’s been a consultant for many years, you may easily hear his velvety tones as the well-honed machine of mass seduction that many of them acquire along the years. But his kindness cedes nothing to a fierce dedication to upholding demanding standards. An experienced transition manager, Henri has tackled many unsavoury challenges in his career, which inspires this portrait by your friendly neighbourhood leadership journalist.
At age 37, a confirmed jurist with experience both in public and private law, Henri heard of the IND job from a friend, and declared himself happy to tackle the challenge, first as Project Director Annmeldingscentra and thereafter as Head of the Legal Processing Unit.
His idea of how to approach this (For my more regular readers, that would be his definition of the Challenge), was not to just build and manage a team to sponge the caseload, that would have been boring. Henri set out to build an elite legal taskforce, capable of facing the relentless stream of requests with the highest possible quality of output, at the best possible cost.
The team which eventually grew at peak capacity to include 150 in-house lawyers and jurists, was managed around a common culture and the systematic collective and collaborative tackling of the caseload. The boys and girls in his teams were not merely immigration jurists. They were crusaders of quality, work ethics and budget rigor, within an administration that was struggling with all three. They were working with a strong esprit de corps, aware of being part of something truly special.
To build his unit, Henri recruited lawyers in a competitive market by challenging them to enthusiastically accept too much work for not enough money. It was of course not about the money or the work. It was about the story, the fact that they were empowered from day one to handle their own cases, and had the opportunity to become heroes working at the Legal Processing Unit.
His hires would start at a pay-grade 4 levels under the standard of the time but would receive a 4-grade pay-review in one jump as soon as they had proven their worth, a merit mechanism unheard of in the administration at that time. Henri needed to shake a few civil servants to ensure his design would be followed. The hours were long, the pace relentless.
Despite the sceptics who predicted he would fail, offering low pay for a highly demanding job met a solid success, and all lawyers who passed through his department eventually found themselves with more employment offers than they could handle, so solid was its reputation. What he recalls with the most pride is that the thrust, quality and reputation have endured long after his departure in 1996.
As insight, Henri offers that durable performance is built on culture and must be independent from the personality and in fine, the effective presence, of its founder.
To build enduring organisational greatness a leader must see him or herself as the custodian of ethical and methodological pillars and progressively become redundant. The leader of a strong organisation is not its centre of gravity, culture is.
An example of what this custodian role requires, and perhaps one of his toughest memory in this job, was Henri’s decision to let an extremely bright and talented lawyer go, who once did not abide by the rule of sponging the collective caseload before calling it a day. Henri believes (as do I), that individual greatness to the detriment of the team is not worth it. He therefore did not shy away from taking the required decision, albeit with a heavy heart. As he puts it:
Letting someone go is never trivial. It has consequences on their career, their life, their family and it’s not something I like to do.
Little did he know at the time that it would later become for two years the main object of his job. By his employers Henri was not forgotten, as he became immediately afterwards the Director of Border Control and Immigrant Repatriation, a highly visible and operational post in the IND organisation. In frequent interaction with foreign secretaries or ministries and ambassadors, this role came with Director General status, and Henri recalls with a smile that from his all-leather and wood-panelled office, heavily guarded by two secretaries and one chauffeur, this complicated world seemed easier to manage.
He did not stay. Power is a strong and highly addictive drug, and whilst he was not expansive on what taste it had for him, two years of this gig seemed enough. As he puts it himself:
If you think: I am it, there is nothing I cannot do, you have gone too far.
He went back to consulting. And he recalls that day one, buying, connecting and learning to use a phone was a humbling challenge, one he welcomed as a return to normality.
In 2003 Henri accepted a transition management role as Director of Human Resources of the Rijkswaterstaat [vi]. Despite all the good I think of Rijkswaterstaat today (See here) there is only one word to describe what it was 15 years ago: bloated. A 17,000-people organisation that had progressively added layers upon layers of staff, letting it sediment without restructuring, the Rijkswaterstaat organisation was in a state of chronic underutilization, which Henri qualified at the time of hidden idleness. There are very real risks in having people coming to work every morning, but having nothing for them to do…
For the following two years, Henri would get to practice his less favourite sport, and dramatically downsize the organisation to 10,000 people, by a combination of external contracts not being renewed (-4,000), spontaneous departures and outplacement programmes (-3,000). In the end, the ministry fortunately had to contend with only a hundred or so problematic cases, of people who had become very out of touch with the employment market.
And so it was, that after saving the IND from a tsunami of cases, ascending to a senior role in this administration and putting it all on the line again in consulting, Henri became for two years the big bad wolf. As an organisational surgeon, he followed the new blueprint designed by the minister and his direction team, and executed on the people part of the transition. Consequently, it came to him as no surprise that independent of his competence, once the restructuring was done, he had made far more enemies than friends at Rijkswaterstaat.
The one who does the transition and the one who follows-up afterwards cannot be the same person… People just don’t approach you with the same candour and frankness, when all you’ve been doing for two years is making their colleagues redundant.
I agree, and I see a certain grandeur in doing the unpopular jobs as well as the glorious ones, all of them come with their fair share of rewards, albeit with various levels of shine… What Henri suggests is that the shine or the lack thereof is not where the rewards are.
At Van Dun & Partners, Henri now advises companies facing extreme talent, business or leadership challenges, generously sharing his management and legal expertise. Passionate by what drives people, the psychology of influence, leadership and power, I consider him a precursor of the Leadership revolution.
Henri van Dun is the owner of Van Dun & Partners, a consulting firm proposing unconventionnal solutions to complex management challenges. His career spans 30 years of experience in transition management, consulting and juridical work.
Henri works out of his office in The Hague where he lives with his wife and their two children.
[i] Source: Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek CBS (opendata.cbs.nl) – See filtered table on asylum seekers per year 1980 – 2017.
[ii] See focus Migration – Country profile – Netherlands, no 11 , November 2007, Hamburg Institute of National Economics, 11 pp.
[iii] Immigratie en Naturalisatiedienst - https://ind.nl
[iv] The Dutch state, since the XVth century, retains a named person as lawyer of the state (Landsadvocaat), supported by a law firm (Pels Rijcken en Droogleever Fortuijn for more than 30 years) to handle all cases of the various administrations. The Landsadvocaat abstains from representing parties suing the government. The role is today fulfilled by Bert-Jan Houtzagers partner at Pels Rijken.
[v] The so called Aanmeldingscentra, the two main ones being in Ter Apel (North East Netherlands) and in Schiphol (Amsterdam international airport).
[vi] The Dutch ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management. https://www.rijkswaterstaat.nl/