'I have always worked for a better world. Here at Biology we do the same'
The new institute manager of the IBL studied biology for six months, but went in a completely different direction: development cooperation and the financial sector. Three decades later, Resi Janssen is making a radical career switch. Or isn’t she? 'In ten years’ time I want IBL to be in a new, sustainable and climate-neutral building.'
You have almost 35 years of experience in the development cooperation and international financial sector, why the switch to university? 'In the eight or nine years professional life ahead of me I wanted to do something completely different. A new challenge, a different environment. I took a sabbatical, hiked and cycled endlessly and thought about what I would like and what would suit me. The position of Company Secretary seemed very appropriate and it soon came my way, as interim secretary for academic affairs at the faculty of Science. I did find out, though, also through conversations with others, that a more managerial position would be more suitable.’
Why does your new work environment suit you? 'In my career so far, I have always worked for a better world, particularly in Africa. Here at IBL we do the same. We work on biodiversity, on sustainable food production, on better antibiotics and much more. I was never much interested in the science pages in the newspaper, but now I see how scientists' eyes light up when they talk about their work. That is why I do find it interesting now. As institute manager, I am responsible for five areas: finance, personnel, communication, ICT and housing. I have a lot of experience in the first three areas, I will learn about the other two.’
What is your greatest ambition as institute manager? ‘I want us to move into a new, sustainable and climate-neutral building in ten years' time. That's quite a challenge, because for the time being this old, basically written-off building is only being given a major facelift. That is not enough. There is no financial scope to replace the single glazing, for example. I will have to think out of the box and talk to the right parties to get it done. That's what I want to go for.’
What strikes you, as a newcomer to the university with your background? ‘I learned early on in my career that you have to be aware of cultural differences. I always ask myself what I should take into account and how I should adapt my behaviour. Here at the university many different cultures come together. In terms of leadership styles and communication this might lead to issues and probably we should pay more attention to it.’
You also have board of directors experience, particularly with financial institutions in Africa. What do you stand for as a director? ‘Transparent and good decision-making processes. My starting point is that not everyone always has to co-decide on everything, but that you consult the right people to get the right input and also show that. Communication, listening to people, is very important. In addition I believe in cooperation. Partnerships are crucial to innovate, to progress, to cover risks, to be more efficient, to stay inspired and so on. With external parties, but also within the IBL, with other institutes and with the faculty.’
Do you already feel at home at the institute? 'I've only just started, I still have a lot to discover. But I have already seen a thousand-pieces puzzle in a lunch hall, and I like that. I use to do one of those during the Christmas holidays. I live very nearby: in the Merenwijk area of Leiden, so it's only ten minutes cycling to the office. Very different from all the travelling I did in my previous jobs, and that's what I wanted after all these years.’
Resi Janssen (1962) was not admitted to medicine and studied biology in Utrecht for six months before moving to Wageningen to study home economics. She learned a lot about extension science, sociology, economics and gender studies. She then worked for over seven years in Africa and four and a half years in Albania. As a gender specialist, she supported women in Rwanda to get a job in reforestation; as microfinance specialist, she set up a cooperative savings and credit system in Benin with and for poor urban women. Back in the Netherlands, she worked at Oxfam Novib and Cordaid Investment Management, mainly as an investment manager Africa. She lives in Leiden and has an adult son and daughter.
Text: Rianne Lindhout