DSM’s diversity and transformation journey

Dutch life sciences company DSM’s commitment to innovation has seen the organisation take a progressive position on diversity and inclusion.
By: | August 14, 2017

One of HRM Magazine’s cornerstones, the monthly HR Insider spread is an in-depth feature exploring the people management teams of some of the region’s most prolific organisations. 

Dutch company DSM’s quiet profile belies its ubiquity in everyday lives.

The company, which brands itself as a global “science-based” entity, is, in plainer terms, a supplier of raw materials to the world’s largest manufacturers. Its products are used in food and dietary supplements, medical devices, automobiles, electronics, clothing, and a host of more everyday goods.

Consumers do interact with the brand daily, but most would be unaware that its materials, from liquid chemicals to resins and adhesives, are present in such a wide range of products.

Despite being a century-old establishment, the nature of its value chain business means it is rarely public-facing and lacks visibility in consumer areas.

Jan Anne Schelling, Vice President of HR, acknowledges there is room to grow in the area of public recognition, but DSM Asia’s brand as an employer is something that has been painstakingly cultivated over many years.


A transformative company

This is worlds apart from where it all started.

While DSM’s history is foreign to many, the company’s colourful transformation journey provides a strong insight into its present practices, says Schelling.

The acronym DSM originally stood for “Dutch State Mines”, a name that dates back to 1902 when it was founded by the Dutch government as a coal mining company.

In the last century, the business has transformed several times. It first diversified its portfolio outside of mining with the opening of a coke plant in 1919. After World War II, this diversification into bulk chemicals and petrochemicals accelerated so that when the last mine closed in 1973 DSM was fully reborn as a chemical company.

In the 1990s, the company again changed course, this time selling almost all of its commodity chemicals activities as part of a privatisation deal. It then evolved to become the global manufacturing value chain supplier that it is today.

The organisation was nimble long before agility became a buzz word because it has always understood the importance of change in staying relevant, says Schelling.

The secret to DSM’s business agility, he reveals, lies in its two main guiding principles of innovation and sustainability.

“One of the things that stands out is we are a very transformative company,” he says.

“Overtime, we have continuously changed and improved our portfolio, divested in more chemical-based solutions to more sustainable bio-technology products and services.”

Making diversity a priority

This focus on innovation, sustainability, and adaptability has continued into this century, providing the conditions necessary for DSM to remain a market leader.

The progressive stance has also allowed its HR policies to be ahead of the times, and one area where HR’s advancement has been apparent is in diversity and inclusion.

While these kinds of workforce policies are now just making their way to the top of most HR teams’ agenda, this focus is already eight years in the making at DSM, Schelling notes.

“Many companies call it ‘diversity and inclusion’, but we say ‘inclusion and diversity’ because we start from inclusion and create diversity with that,” he explains.

Schelling says inclusion issues first came onto the business’ radar as an HR-driven topic. In 2012, it was incorporated as one of the cornerstones of the One DSM Culture Agenda and then, with much advocacy from the HR team, it was made a specific business objective. The group’s leadership saw how diversity was the key to DSM becoming a truly global entity, and driving greater business growth.

While most organisations still view diversity as a solely HR objective, this is no longer the case at DSM, where department leads are already taking charge of each of their teams’ multiplicity.

In fact, DSM’s global Inclusion and Diversity Council consists of 12 business leaders, of which only two members are from HR. The Council plays a lead role in driving the inclusion and diversity targets across all DSM businesses.

“This has now become a senior management topic,” says Schelling.

“In the last few years, I have observed in my role here in HR, that our regional colleagues can grow into more global positions,” he says. “We saw more colleagues moving from Asia to Europe and the US, not just Europe to Asia.”

Incentivising inclusivity

Although inclusion ranks high as a priority, Schelling reiterates that it is still HR’s job to implement a framework that continually encourages managers to champion workforce diversity.

“Those insights still come from HR and the good thing is our line management has picked that up and are now driving it forward,” he says.

Promotion is one incentive employed by HR to encourage line managers to actively build an inclusive culture. Managers are rated and held accountable based on internal inclusion and diversity indicators.

All corporate executives are also required to undergo routine unconscious bias training.

In the third quarter of 2016, for instance, HR brought together top executives for a day of intensive training and conversations regarding hidden personal bias, based on concepts shared in The Loudest Duck: Moving Beyond Diversity while Embracing Differences to Achieve Success at Work.

As the book title suggests, one of the key concepts revolves around the importance of embracing perspectives different from one’s own.

The Chinese, for example, teach their children that “the loudest duck gets shot,” a viewpoint which gets carried into adulthood. On the other hand, many Americans are taught, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

As a result, two distinct ways of conducting business emerge, neither one necessarily being the “right” or better way. But by understanding and respecting others’ stands, individuals can learn how to work more effectively and harmoniously with others.

“The concept is important to drive diversity conversations. We aim to actively invite people to speak up and have open dialogues – not just brainstorming, but also in matters of decision-making,” says Schelling.

These days, senior management also leads by example. The current composition of DSM’s board is well-balanced in terms of gender, with more than one third of the members women. But the proof is still in the pudding, as Schelling says the best motivation for line managers ultimately boils down to the fact that a wider workforce profile leads to significantly higher productivity.

Having said that, Schelling admits that HR is concerned about the possibility of its talent composition sliding back into an overly homogeneous category. To prevent this, it monitors managers closely and conducts quarterly checks on their performance indicators.

“We do have tangible goals on diversity, with regards to gender, nationality, and the like. In some countries we even go beyond the legal compliance where it concerns sexual preferences and disabilities and such,” he says.

Schelling is himself the chairman of the Women Inspired Network, a group initiated eight years ago by a few female employees with the aim of inviting men to champion women managers.

The group holds two to three get-togethers each year, where it discusses topics like career advancement, work-life balance, and even personal finance.

More work to be done

Being so advanced in its talent management approach has helped to raise HR’s stock within the company.

While many organisations still view HR as a support function,  Schelling says at DSM, HR is regarded as a business driver.

“I’m very much a business leader as much as my colleague who drives profits and losses,” he says. “ By creating a good culture and mindset across the company that talent is important, we’re contributing to the business objectives.”

This concerted push for a more dynamic workforce has certainly paid off for the business, not just in terms of sales and revenue, but also employee happiness.

Last year’s global employee engagement survey, which has been run annually since 2007, recorded a favourable rating of 71%, up two percentage points from 2015.

Perhaps the most important indicator is the reactions to the statement: “I believe DSM has a promising future”.

The proportion of employees agreeing with this moved up from 65% in 2015 to 78% last year. This large jump is a clear indication of the belief that employees have in the overall DSM strategy.

Still, Schelling acknowledges there is more work to be done on the inclusion front, especially in masculine-dominated cultures like Japan. He says the number of female senior executives in Asia is just shy of 20%, below his team’s aim for 2020 (when 25% of corporate staff are hoped to be female).

The representation of non-Dutch employees also increased to 53% globally in 2016, but the company admits that this is still considerably low. It aims to further diversify its executive population and aspires to have at least 60% of executives from under-represented nationalities by 2020.

“The thing that drives me the most about creating an inclusive and diverse environment is it gives employees room to pursue their passions,” says Schelling.

“It’s a continuous, quarterly conversation. We are clear that you don’t change mindsets in a quarter and that it takes considerable effort.”

At a glance

HR Team (Asia-Pacific): Over 100

Workforce size (Asia-Pacific): 7,000

Key HR Focus Areas:

  • Inclusion and diversity
  • Workforce engagement
  • Leadership development


One DSM Culture Agenda

Launched in 2012, the ONE DSM Culture Agenda aims to support material supplier DSM’s strategic objectives and equip its staff with the skills to respond to the needs of an ever-changing world.

The agenda focuses on four themes, and is aimed at supporting employees in:

  • How they align with their environment;
  • Setting and delivering on ambitious targets;
  • Encouraging active collaboration; and
  • Fostering an inclusive culture.

“This is a prime example of HR and senior leaders working closely together, and analysing what is needed for DSM to be agile,” says Jan Anne Schelling, Vice President of HR, DSM Asia.

Last year, particular emphasis was placed on the way the four themes and their related behaviours support the implementation of new operating models.

One of HRM Magazine’s cornerstones, the monthly HR Insider spread is an in-depth feature exploring the people management teams of some of the region’s most prolific organisations.