Rijnconsult and the Rhineland Way.
The names suggest our collaboration is self-evident, but for the past 45 years we have largely lived past each other.

The Rhineland Way is a way of organizing a business that values collaboration, employee participation, and social responsibility. It is based on the idea that companies should focus on creating long-term value for all stakeholders, not just maximizing short-term profits for shareholders. It is usually used as an alternative to the Anglo-Saxon model, in which free market forces are left to their own devices.

With the appearance of author and ‘organizational-activist’ Jaap Peters at our Learning Days in 2021, the collaboration between Rijnconsult and the Rhineland Way has accelerated. Jaap can eloquently articulate a methodology that we ourselves cannot always put into words. Within Rijnconsult, Jaap finds a large number of ‘Rhinelanders’ who unconsciously live by his principles such as ‘intelligent disobedience’ and ‘the front-end steering the back-end.’ In order to practice what we preach, a critical self-reflection on Rijnconsult cannot be omitted. The Dutch saying that the plumber’s tap leaks (meaning even Homer sometimes nods: nobody’s perfect) bodes ill for shared leadership within Rijnconsult. Yet, as this article will show, the similarities between Rijnconsult and the Rhineland Way go beyond being named after the same river.


Rijnconsult was founded in 1978 as a spin-off of the internal advisory department of AKZO, a Dutch multinational corporation. In the process of becoming independent, the employees of the advisory department offered an alternative bid to prevent the sale of the department to a large accounting firm. This decision was made by all employees, including support staff, and it demonstrated the non-hierarchical culture of the organization. Today, all employees of Rijnconsult, both advisors and support staff, own shares in the company through the ownership of certificates. This ownership model has significant consequences for the management of the company. The board has a broad mandate, but strategic decisions are made together. A change in leadership or a major investment decision is made with consent of all employees.

The two-headed board of Rijnconsult is also appointed by the certificate holders. This means that after a maximum term of eight years, all employees can nominate themselves to become a director. This model ensures continuity, a flat organizational structure, and open communication between the board and employees. The phrase “if you know better, you can do it yourself” is not just an empty slogan at Rijnconsult. In difficult times like COVID, the consultants do not wait for the board to take action but work together as co-owners to find a solution.

An external person supervises the functioning of the management on behalf of the certificate holders and is responsible for ensuring the proper functioning of the interaction as chairman of the certificate holders’ meeting. The external chairman plays a key role, especially in the elections for a new management: organizing a careful process that results in as much support as possible for the new management and as little damage as possible to the candidates who were not elected.

A team of teams

In 2016, the acquisition of executive search agency Rieken & Oomen and growth of the organizational consulting firm resulted in the number of employees becoming so large that the span of control for the two-headed management became too large. It was sometimes difficult for new colleagues to land well among 40-50 colleagues. The adage “if it belongs to everyone, it belongs to no one” seemed to apply. Instead of expanding the management team or adding a layer of management, we chose to work with self-managing teams.

The teams are responsible for recruiting new colleagues, dividing work, proposition development, professionalization, and marketing. Additionally, the teams form a “care system” so that we keep an eye on each other. Various supporting cross-links have emerged between the teams. In guilds, we exchange knowledge on topics that are relevant to all teams, such as leadership, processes, and chains & networks. In several operational management meetings, those responsible for marketing, recruitment, etc. from the teams coordinate their activities. Back-office functions such as administration, secretariat, communication, and HR are directly managed by the management – our external professionals do not have expertise in all areas. The board oversees the coherence, ensures that the game is played, is a sparring partner when the teams cannot agree, and relieves the teams in organization-wide matters. In addition, the board fulfills the classic hierarchical role of manager towards all employees, so we do not apply the theoretically ultimate form of self-management. Our organizational model is therefore classically Rhinelandic from the perspective that the front end drives the back end. Some colleagues even dream of a boardless organization, but whether we will ever get there remains to be seen in the future.

Autonomous professionals

Perhaps the most important element of the Rhineland Way is the centralization of the professional. The front-end or ‘living world’ should steer the back-end or ‘system world’ instead of the other way around. We see within numerous clients how professionals are hindered in their functioning by procedures, habits, or information systems that do not contribute to the intention. Naturally, we try to learn from this.

We offer as much autonomy as possible to our colleagues, which manifests in various ways. For example, we abolished vacation days in 2017. Our experience is that highly educated professionals can easily decide for themselves when they can and cannot go on vacation, and it saves a lot of pointless administration. Time and place independent work was already the norm for us before the pandemic crisis broke out. If a colleague from the healthcare team wants to take on a project for a municipality, that’s no problem. We don’t have any hassle between partners about where revenue comes from, because we are all co-owners of the same company. Autonomy is also reflected in our employment contracts. About half of our consultants work part-time (80%-90%). In addition to employees on permanent contracts, we have a flexible pool of associates and former employees who work with us on a project basis. And we offer entrepreneurial colleagues the opportunity to start new businesses under the Rijnconsult brand. Of course, we share the risks and rewards. In this way, in recent years, the brands Rijnconsult Education, Rijnconsult Digital, JETZT and of course ICG Rijnconsult have been launched.

As in any self-managing organization, freedom can only exist within clear frameworks. There may be obligations, but they always have a good reason. And if you manage, you must really hold each other accountable (“high trust, low tolerance”). All advisors have a turnover and sales target with more than just a symbolic value. Everyone keeps track of their hours worked, or else we cannot send invoices. In each annual cycle, all colleagues are obliged to collect 360-degree feedback and develop a plan for their own development. And despite the time and place independent work, we have a limited number of mandatory team meetings and office days, because else we will end up working in silos.

Freedom and responsibility go hand in hand. The fact that we do not impose things means that colleagues are responsible for their own development, daily schedules, and taking vacation days. Autonomy is an important reason for many colleagues to choose for Rijnconsult, even though they can earn a higher salary elsewhere. However, autonomy comes at a cost. Younger colleagues sometimes have difficulty dealing with the freedom offered. Solving problems within self-managing teams is a challenge for the board. And the fact that we do not use standard models means that colleagues use different approaches on similar questions.

Back to the plumber

Like any other organization, Rijnconsult needs to adapt to the changing needs of customers, employees, and society. The choices we make often turn out well, and sometimes they don’t. We regularly evaluate our model and determine together what can be improved. The experiences we have gained in the past 45 years are then applied to our customers. It’s a good thing that the plumber’s tap also leaks, because then he knows how to fix mine!

By Boris Gooskens