Last year, Schouten & Nelissen University of Applied Sciences (Competence, is part of SUAS) was once again voted the best training company in the Netherlands. With a range of now hundreds of courses in more than 60 countries, the company has travelled a remarkable journey in the four decades since it was founded. The first step was taken in the late 1970s by our founder: Jan Schouten.
In 1974, Jan Schouten earned his PhD with the thesis ‘Freedom in Working’. Among other things, this dissertation considered the consequences of the lack of freedom and autonomy for the welfare of the production worker. An employee’s well-being, he argued, is at least as important as production. Autonomy plays a leading role in this because the less autonomy an employee has, the tighter the straitjacket and the greater the powerlessness and frustration that arise. To break out of this negative spiral, Schouten concluded, employees must become more assertive. And in the years that followed, he carried that conclusion far beyond academia.
In this respect, Schouten can rightly be called a pioneer. Although the academic world was paying more and more attention to the well-being of employees, this was still far from the case in the business world. Leadership was mostly directive and few employees spoke up when something was not to their liking. The assertiveness training that Schouten developed on AVRO and for which he was given an aword in 1979 ultimately led to the founding of his own company in 1980.
Together with kindred spirit and university friend Boris Nelissen, he founded Schouten & Nelissen Recovery in Zaltbommel. “Here, recovery implies recuperation and development; promoting the emergence of something new in people, or something that is already long forgotten. The person behind the official is revitalised.” That is how Frans van Gaal described the starting point for the new company in his 2020 biography Jan Schouten – Ondernemer in psychologie [Jan Schouten – Entrepreneur in psychology]. The term ‘Recovery’ would eventually be dropped with the growth of the . But although Boris Nelissen left the company in 1984, Schouten remained loyal to its origins and saw no reason to change the name any further.
The training company’s offer grew steadily. While there are people who could use some assertiveness, there are also people who could do with a little less. Those people – not infrequently managers – obstruct others by being too assertive. Thus was born the second training course: Social Skills, or: ‘Observe well, interpret correctly, and communicate effectively’, as it was called at the time. That course attracted the company’s first big client: the Royal Dutch Touring Club (ANWB) paid 150,000 guilders to give all its employees social skills training.
In the abovementioned biography by Frans van Gaal, there is a beautiful passage about the early offerings of Schouten & Nelissen. “At that time, many product presentations took place at the society De Verdraagzaamheid (...) they were mainly intended for referrers, people who were responsible for an organisation choosing Schouten & Nelissen. During such a meeting, someone always asked: ‘So what’s the difference between the Assertiveness course and the Social Skills course?’ Jan Schouten, who always attended, answered straight away: ‘Look, you refer the person who’s afraid of you to the Assertiveness course, and you refer the person you’re afraid of to the Social Skills course!’”
Ton Epping, one of Schouten & Nelissen’s first students in the early 1980s, remembers the assertiveness course well. He owned his own bookbinding company at the time, and he was asked to re-enact a work situation together with Jan Schouten. “There was a manager at the book bindery, a rather large man, and he was a bit of a gossip. He would hang around my office when I was really terribly busy. According to Jan, I should just say that I was busy and get on with it, and that’s what we practised. Jan – who of course is also a bear of a guy – played the manager, and in the end, I really had to physically kick him out the door. That kind of thing stays with you, but it’s also very important. It really teaches you to say ‘no’”, according to Epping.
Jan Schouten had great ambitions for his company, stemming partly from ideology, and partly from a desire to prove himself. He firmly believed that assertiveness can really make the world a bit more pleasant. If you dare to say ‘no’ without hurting the other person, you feel better in your own skin. That’s not only true at work, but also at home. And the entire world should know that.
In the years following its founding, the training institute’s services were in great demand. In the 1980s, tons of companies discovered the value of people-oriented training for their employees. The Dutch business community spent some four billion guilders annually on training staff, and almost one in six employees attended a course or training session. Jan Schouten had captured a growing market, as would become clear in the following decades. That was certainly true in the 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, an era that was characterised by a high degree of internationalisation. That was also the case for the training institute from Zaltbommel.
In the early 1990s, Jan Schouten outlined his strategy: to have a network of training agencies across Europe in the near future. “If we can do that in Groningen, why not in Belgium? After all, that’s closer to Zaltbommel than Groningen”, he reasoned. The cross-border network expanded, and companies expressed a great desire for sales and leadership training.
In the first decade of the 21st century, the company entered the Far East, where Schouten established a Chinese branch in 2007. This branch mainly provides internal company training to Chinese branches of Dutch and European customers. Chinese employees are still a few decades behind when it comes to assertiveness, so there was still much to be gained in this unexplored area for Jan Schouten. In the years that followed, the training institute rolled out its services across the entire pan-Asian region. The company now operates in more than 60 countries.
Whereas Jan Schouten originally started with a focus on making employees more assertive, over the years the training offer has increasingly taken on the theme of leadership. This is because there is a demand for it among the companies that hire Schouten & Nelissen, but also because the change that is necessary to improve the well-being of employees must take place at the top of a company rather than on the ground level. Still, the step from assertiveness to leadership is ultimately not such a big one.
In Jan Schouten’s philosophy, assertiveness actually revolves around . After all, you take control by clearly stating what you do and do not want. That was important in the 1970s and 1980s, and it still is today. Consider the past 18 months, in which the coronavirus measures forced organisations to start working from home en masse. Some employees feel more comfortable with this than others, and it’s important that everyone be able to stand up for themselves in the process.
Today’s managers are also asked to do much more than simply plot the course. Situational leadership is growing fast, and now that hybrid work seems to be the new normal, managers also must be able to get the best out of their team from a distance. Not only should modern leaders set a good example in this regard, but they must also offer their employees the space and autonomy to develop themselves to their full potential. That way, they can ultimately experience ‘freedom in working’, just as Jan Schouten advocated 40 years ago.