LEADERS Newsletter interviews Filip Geerts

14 November 2017

Interview with Filip Geerts

Director General at Cecimo,

The European Committee for the Cooperation of Machine Tool Industries

Mr Geerts, could you briefly describe your role and responsibilities at CECIMO

I am the Director General of CECIMO, which is the European Association for the Machine Tool Industries. I view myself as a professional in international, EU and national public and regulatory affairs, which is I personally continue to lobby on a daily basis. However, I also have the pleasure of managing the Association. I ensure that CECIMO is recognised as representing the common interests and values of the industry and that it has a key role in determining the strategic direction of the sector, promoting its developments in the of economic, technological and scientific fields. CECIMO covers more than 99 percent of total machine tool production in Europe and 30 percent worldwide.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I enjoy being a ‘good lobbyist’, one that delivers solutions; more precisely, a facilitator. I like to create a European consensus at the heart of my association. A particular challenge in leading European associations is that they represent such a diverse range of people and interests; it takes a lot of soft skills.
However, my job triggers also poses a number of intellectual challenges. Where I dispute elements of a proposal, my criticisms need to be justified and my counter-proposals technically and financially credible.
What would you say are the most important qualities of a Director General/CEO?
To be a successful Director General, I need to be like any other CEO; a strategic leader, a competent manager, an excellent communicator. However to be CEO of a European trade association I require other specific skills. I need to be politically savvy, a persuasive diplomat, an energetic networker and increasingly an expert in the EU decision-making process and institutions with a global perspective. If I wish to be an influential lobbyist, I need to constantly re-position myself and stay abreast of all new legal processes that lead to different kinds of regulation being adopted.
The ability to find compromises when members hold different views, and the authority to say ‘No’ if a problem is indefensible, is essential. Where the association is unable to agree on priorities and specific actions, then as Director General, I play a pivotal role in leading the member companies to an ambitious but achievable outcome. However, in order to avoid those differences, I articulate a common purpose.
How has the role changed over the years?
The lobbyist’s environment is always changing; new actors, new policies, a new Treaty, new practices. Therefore, it’s logical that I adapt my lobbying strategies. This also implies that I may have to change how the association itself. I am constantly battling resistance to change. Post-Lisbon lobbying requires upgraded competences, legal tools, communication skills and leadership!
The 2009 Lisbon Treaty profoundly transformed European lobbying. It altered the balance of power between the three main institutions and made lobbying more legitimate, more ad hoc and more subtle, forcing public affairs professionals to reshape their strategies and practices.
My lobbying is no longer a routine activity. Instead, my actions must be targeted and tailored for each given file. Every lobbying action that I undertake has a specific objective, a specific strategy, a specific network of alliances and a specific form of communication. Every lobbying campaign is unique, akin to project management. This new European lobbying requires expertise on both the technical file and expertise on the decision-making process.
Nowadays I am constantly building coalitions. Tactics include aligning with other trade associations, and forming supra-structures of networks to coordinate lobbying efforts, engage a wider group of stakeholders and broaden the debate.
Membership recruitment and retention is crucial to the success of any trade association. How do you ensure your organisation continues to deliver added value for members? Any tips for other associations?
We deliver added value to our members through a clear vision, focus and top quality people.
My association provides EU influence, promotes our industry and its reputation, holds industry information and intelligence, adds Brussels expertise and intelligence, develops standards and offers networking opportunities.
Before you can grow, you need to establish good governance. Do you have any tips for good governance? 
I make sure that there is a good balance in roles and responsibilities between our Board and the Association secretariat, headed by myself; both need to be strong. I need to be empowered to run the daily operations of the association so that the Board or members do not micromanage. At the same time, I also need to play a prominent role in determining the association’s strategy and decision-making.
I established a well-designed decision-making process with remits clearly allocated and accountability mechanisms.
I explained to my membership that if the association fails to make its voice heard through indecision or inaction, it will lose out in this era of online consultations and political processes with strict timetables.
How important is leadership as a responsibility of a Director General/ CEO? Can you provide examples of where good leadership has really made a difference in your organisation?
I take the lead in mapping all European files that present a direct or indirect interest to my members. I divide them into those that requiring only simple monitoring and those that necessitate lobbying action. Then I rank these latter files in decreasing order of priority and assign each to the most appropriate lobbying structure.
Unlike a corporate CEO, however, as CEO of a European trade association I need extra skills of persuasion and diplomacy to broker compromises between multiple individuals and interest groups.
It is important that, as the Director General, I can articulate and promote a vision for my association as well as for the industry. There are diverging views on whether it is more important to be an EU insider or industry expert; I believe that an association Director General must simply develop both attributes. Post-Lisbon lobbying requires both upgraded competences and knowledge of the EU decision-making labyrinth. For me, this lifelong learning is mandatory. In addition, I have worked to become a kind of industry expert to be able to empathise with my members’ interest and to demonstrate a pride in ‘my’ sector that I want to reflect externally in Brussels.
At the same time, I recognise that I need to have the ability to manage people and a budget as well as to operate within the prescribed legal parameters.
Interview published in the LEADERS Newsletter by the Opens external link in new windowEARS.