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“KLM took the assignment as seriously as we did”

How can KLM remain the most sustainable airline? Master’s students from the Leiden Leadership Programme immerse themselves in practice and advise companies on major issues.

In the workplace

Cartoon van Johan Dijk met de drie studenten Koen van der Voort, Gilani Sewdin en Paulien Schuurman
Cartoon by Johan Dijk with the three students Koen van der Voort, Gilani Sewdin and Paulien Schuurman

You only realise the complexity of leadership once you fully acquaint yourself with the workplace. This is the starting point of the Leiden Leadership Programme of the Honours Academy. This year, 87 master’s students, from the most diverse study programmes, offered strategic advice to 25 businesses. The companies varied from a non-profit organisation, like Amnesty International, to a multi-national corporation, like KLM. The students then wrote a report about their assignment. How did it go for the students at KLM?

Dow Jones Sustainability Index

Together with Air France, KLM has clocked in as the most sustainable airline in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, for 10 years in a row. This index is based on the degree to which sustainability policy is integrated within an organisation. In short: what is KLM doing for the three Ps: People, Planet and Profit? In order to maintain this leading position, the organisation asked three three master’s students if they could devise a strategy through to 2020. Paulien Schuurman (Social and Organisation Psychology), Gilani Sewdin (Clinical Psychology) and Koen van der Voort (Corporate Law) were linked to the Corporate Social Responsibility department of KLM, which is responsible for social involvement.


KLM has different social programmes, for instance in the area of human rights and developmental cooperation. As part of this programme, KLM supports the company Close the Cap, an organisation that collects PCs and configures them for projects in the fields of healthcare and entrepreneurship in Africa. KLM’s request was the following: what requirements must such a programme meet to be successful? Schuurman, Sewdin and Van der Voort started with a literature review on corporate social responsibility and the role society plays in this. To tailor their advice, they conducted interviews with KLM staff. This allowed them to figure out what the airline stands for, what the company is good at and where the challenges lie in the organisation.

Benefits for society and KLM

Paulien Schuurman, Koen van der Voort en Gilani Sewdin
Paulien Schuurman, Koen van der Voort en Gilani Sewdin

'"Our research resulted in a decision model that encapsulates all conditions for a successful social programme,” Schuurman explains. Using this model, KLM employees can consistently make decisions about what projects and/or partnerships can truly be successful. One of the elements of the decision model is that it must provide benefits for both society and KLM. Because this generates great support within the organisation, thus ensuring commitment remains high.

Employee test

The students tested the model in the workplace. They gave a workshop for staff members involved in societal involvement and/or environmental policy. They used brainstorming to allow staff members to already practise whether the checklist helps them do their jobs better.


In their evaluation, Sewdin, Van der Voort and Schuurman looked back on a ‘pleasant cooperation’. "KLM took the assignment as seriously as we did." Schuurman even got an internship to develop the model further, so it can be integrated across multiple departments. In their assessment, the three concluded: "The practical assignment was not only instructive at professional level, but was also useful for our personal development. The combination of challenging yourself both professionally and personally made this past year into an adventure that we can look back on with pride."(LvP)

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