“Leadership needs to be based on insight”

“The people of the team do not make the team. Just the composition of the quality people of the people do not make the team, but the team is created by the way the people interact. By their joint beliefs, what they stand for. That makes the team. So you have to focus on the story, the values, the style—that’s the cement that keeps the team together.”

On 24 November 2020, NGL was proud to welcome Feike Sijbesma, former CEO of DSM, to an interactive online meeting. We touched upon many different subjects, but the thread that connected everything was our exploration of Feike’s insights into leadership in changing times. And while Feike shared many inspiring insights on his experiences in business, the meeting felt more like a personal conversation.

Feike has been an inspiration to many because of his track record as a leader, but also because of the broad scope of his sense of purpose. Furthermore, he has been an energetic mentor for many upcoming leaders. In our session, however, we focused on his leadership.

Setting the course
– The World and the role of the company: a belief, a clear mind and keeping course

The driving force behind Feike’s vision on leadership is a deeply felt sense of connectedness. Our world is a beautiful place, but there is too much inequality between people. The fact that 1% of the world’s richest have as much as 99% of the “rest” of the population is something that we cannot afford to ignore. That’s why sustainability is a must, as well as a renewed focus on contributing to society at large. Feike sees that Millennials are demanding change, both as citizens, as, consumers as well as employees.

If, as a company, you have the ability to change the world for the better, you must do so, Feike says. This isn’t optional, it’s a moral imperative. There are domains like climate, world hunger and the circular economy, where businesses can have real impact. Doing well and doing good must go together.

Feike talked about his early fascination with biology and the miracle of life. He is trained as a molecular biologist and learned much from Darwin’s theory of evolution, in which the ability to adapt to changing circumstances is key. In his early career, he climbed the corporate ladder very fast. He explained how he felt proud of his successes, but later refocused on his broader responsibilities. When he became CEO at DSM in 2007, he also suffered a personal loss in his family, and the worldwide financial crisis erupted. At the time, he felt insecure, but driven by curiosity, he has always moved forward in a determined way.

As CEO, Feike says, he finally learned what it meant to say that “the buck stops here.” As a Managing board member for eight years, he knew what a CEO’s responsibilities were—but he hadn’t felt it. In his experience, that only comes when you actually take responsibility and feel the full weight of every decision that comes across your desk.

The Team
– The vision, the composition and the cement within

The discussion also covered the question of how to assemble the right team. This is an is essential part of a leader’s job, and in this process, credibility is very important. You need the right people, Feike says, but even more important is the cement that hold them together: their shared values and convictions, their drive to achieve the same goals. And while you may have a vision or story as CEO, people want to follow their own stories. So you have to let them own their story, their vision. They key is to let them take responsibility in a process of co-creation.

A vision and a direction followed by co-shaping with the team

As a CEO, you may have a vision or story to share internally and externally – but people really capture the story when they can tell it in their own way instead of listening to it. Feike talked about how he started to let his people tell the story in their own way, to make the vision their own. They key is to let them take responsibility in a process of co-creation. This marks the shift for supporting the story passively, simply following a leader, and endorsing it actively by taking ownership.

– an invitation to leaders

The year 2020 has been called unprecedented many times, and for good reason. In such changing times, Feike addressed the question: what can we expect from our leaders? He explained his views by identifying three ingredients that are part of any leadership journey.

First, you need to have insight. The insight you need as a leader has multiple dimensions, Feike says: insight in yourself, in your people, and in the world you operate in. You can only gain this insight by observing, listening, communicating—and this is something many leaders don’t do enough of.

Second, you need to develop a vision and connect with your people. After all, even the best leader can’t do everything alone. The team as a whole needs to have an active involvement with this vision, making it a co-creative effort.

And third, as a leader, you are expected to deliver results. According to Feike, this means having a positive impact on the world as well as on your own business, but also helping new leaders to grow—which includes making plans for your own succession, to safeguard continuity.

Authenticity, only when combined with skills 

The insight you need as a leader is threefold, Feike says: insight in yourself, in your people, and in the world you operate in. You gain this insight by observing, listening, talking, hearing—and this is something many leaders don’t do enough of. You need to make sure to gather people around you to support you in your insights.

Finally, there are two other qualities that are essential to the leadership journey: authenticity and the right skill set. Leaders have to be authentic and stay true to themselves, but never at the expense of others. That’s why you need the humility, self-knowledge and personal skills to make sure that your authenticity results in helping people, not hindering them.

What do you leave behind in this world?

Finally, Feike says, if your company performs well, that isn’t enough. As a responsible corporate leader, you have to contribute to a better world as well. If you see a problem in the world that you could have helped to fix, and you didn’t, then your tenure hasn’t been successful. That is why it is so important to actively build a community that shares the same values and goals for society: a leader never walks alone.

We were very inspired by Feike’s candid and wise insights. This interactive dialogue was greatly appreciated by the attendees, and we would like to take this opportunity to once again thank Feike for sharing his leadership vision and his personal transformation with us.

Our next Transformation Dialogues session is scheduled for february. Bercan Günel will then interview Gillian Tans, President Booking.com