As Geert Dancet prepares to retire from his role as executive director of European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), he reflects on his exciting career, as well as the many things both he and the agency have accomplished. Geert’s early career saw him join the European Commission in 1986, working in competition policy, before enjoying a brief academic career at the University of Leuven in Belgium, followed by a role as a program coordinator for the United Nations Industrial Development Organization in Colombia. 

By 2004, Geert was the head of the REACH unit in the European Commission’s Directorate General for Enterprise and Industry. In this role, he was co-responsible for developing and coordinating the REACH implementation – a strategy that included preparations for a new and exciting chemicals agency. In 2008, he would become the first elected executive director of ECHA, after holding the interim position for nearly one year. “I decided not to reinvent the wheel,” explains Geert.

“We had a very  big crew preparing for the agency. We were making sure that we benchmarked all other agencies so that we would do at least as well as the best one in each area of compliance.”

European Chemicals Agency [!echa!], a leading regulatory authority on the safety of chemicals

With a strategic vision for the new agency, Geert set himself a professional challenge to lead ECHA towards achieving four key objectives. These included: “Getting high-quality information on chemicals so that they can be used safely; making sure authorities use the information to identify and address the most hazardous ones; addressing scientific challenges in cooperation with all stakeholders; and embracing our responsibilities with efficiency and effectiveness.”

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Passionate about planning, Geert highlights that rigorous project and program governance, alongside customer orientation, has distinguished the agency from other organisations. “Development of staff has been very important to me as well. We spend a considerable portion of our budget and time on motivating staff through learning. These kinds of elements have really helped to build this organisation,” he reflects. 

As he considers the agency’s overarching goal of becoming the world’s leading regulatory authority on the safety of chemicals, Geert exudes confidence. “I am of the view that we have achieved this goal. Chemical safety is extraordinarily important for us,” he explains. “We are trying to convince companies to make this part of their strategy. We work with NGOs and organisations that promote substitution of the most toxic substances. Companies have thanked us for achieving better protection for their workers, which is their corporate social responsibility.”

Geert Dancet leads by example

Geert is acutely aware that solid leadership is essential to great outcomes. He shares that a variety of factors and learnings have shaped his own leadership style. “I have a reputation for selecting the right person for the right position, and I’m very firm on delivering promises – as a new organisation, you have to learn to only make promises that you can deliver. You have to lead by example. My motto has always been, ‘Don’t ask more from your people than you’re willing to put in yourself’,” he says. 

Don’t ask more from your people than you’re willing to put in yourself.

Leading the agency into an exciting period of digitisation is certainly a challenge, but not one that Geert has shied away from. “We’re embracing digitisation completely,” he says. “We spend a lot of money developing tools, both for our own use and industry use. We work with the OECD, for instance, on what’s called ‘QSAR Toolbox’ – a scientific tool by which you can predict the properties of chemicals using knowledge you have of similar chemicals.”

Preparing for the future

Between now and December, Geert is preparing the company for its next big change. “I need to make sure I’m handing over the organisation in good shape. I have material in place to facilitate the entry of my successor, and some personal ideas for him or her to continue leading the organisation, knowing of course that the person is free to act how he or she wants,” he says.

With the new strategic plan already underway for 2018, he hopes that the agency will be able to guarantee success in the 2030 World Sustainability Goals, set by the United Nations. While retirement is on the horizon, Geert isn’t quite ready to pack away his years of experience and know-how. “I will most likely combine retirement with some other activity,” he says. “Let’s see if there’s any interest from other countries to take my advice in the future.”