Route to the Top 2020: Interview with Guillaume Boutin, CEO of Proximus
Chief Executive Officer

Route to the Top 2020: Interview with Guillaume Boutin, CEO of Proximus

Proximus CEO Guillaume Boutin discusses the evolving role of the CEO and the organizational cultural changes in relation to digitalization. Author(s): Heidrick & Struggles
Heidrick & Struggles
Route to the top 2020

To gain more insights on today’s CEO, see the full Route to the Top 2020 report.

Guillaume Boutin

Buillaume Boutin image

Guillaume Boutin was appointed CEO of Proximus on December 1, 2019. He is a board member of BICS and Proximus Art. Prior to his current role at Proximus, he was the chief consumer market officer and a member of the executive board. Boutin started his career joining a web start-up. He then joined SFR, where he successively held various positions in strategy, finance, and marketing until he joined Canal+ Group in 2015 as chief marketing officer. He holds a bachelor’s degree in science as well as a degree in telecommunications engineering from Telecom SudParis and a degree from HEC Paris, Programme Grande Ecole.

Heidrick & Struggles: How do you think the role of CEO will develop over the next two years?

Guillaume Boutin: As a young CEO, I know that I still have a lot to learn, but I see the fundamental changes driven by mega-trends include consumer behavior, technological breakthrough, social contracts, and systemic risks. We are trying to better understand the impact of these mega-trends and how we should approach them strategically—some of them were deemed so improbable that they were not really integrated into corporate strategic thinking. Another consideration is leadership style; today’s CEO must be able to provide meaning and purpose to their employees and customers. Companies with purpose have been able to navigate the pandemic better and have changed the conversation about the role of business in society.

At Proximus we took a different approach as the crisis started, both with our employees and wider within our society. We made time and resources available to some companies to absorb the shock of the pandemic—through providing free minutes on contracts and connecting hospitals to sorting centers, for example. We saw an increase in customer engagement and satisfaction. It also had an impact on our employees, as they felt we were rolling up our sleeves and giving back to our society, which matters to them and will matter for their loyalty to Proximus long term.

The crisis has also acted as a catalyst, improving our ability to have very short decision-making circuits and adapt strategy extremely quickly—we are talking about a few weeks to adapt the ways of working and determine our strategy. This is also a fundamental reflection on corporate culture and the role of headquarters, on how we can run our business post-COVID-19. We saw five years’ worth of accelerating digital adoption happen in a few weeks. It is this ability to adapt strategic principles to environments that are evolving even faster than usual that has allowed us to have extremely short governance circuits. For businesses, if governance is complex and could not decide quickly, they are likely to have lost ground during the crisis.

Heidrick & Struggles: What role does the CEO have to play in the cultural change in relation to this digitization?

Guillaume Boutin: There are several elements in your question. There is the digital adoption, which is not new. For many companies it was already a work in progress. But there has been an acceleration in the adoption of digital tools by employees and the way we serve digital to customers. While this requires cultural changes, those changes had already been in motion before the pandemic. What is more current and urgent is the need to find the way of working that is suited for our organization—that will impact our business more profoundly. More than digital, I think the focus should aim for data, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and the ability to exploit and rethink business models based on data analytics.

Heidrick & Struggles: What qualities do you see as necessary for the CEO of tomorrow? What are you going to work on, personally, to grow as a CEO in the next two years?

Guillaume Boutin: The sustainability issue has been growing in importance on my agenda recently, particularly the importance of the energy transition as it pertains to technology companies. Even if I intuitively knew we had to become carbon neutral a year ago, I didn’t quite grasp all the implications of such an ambition for Proximus. Implementing these energy transition plans will be one of the most complex things for CEOs, but only those brands that tackle these issues will survive. This is a true cultural transition—carbon emissions and circularity are being integrated into all processes, businesses, and in all choices, just like cybersecurity and the digital importance of interfaces, just like respect for personal data is now integrated into business. This environmental and societal impact component must be added to the business transformation plan. It's much harder, but essential. If, in two or three years, my whole value proposition is not responsible from an ecological, sustainable, or societal point of view, I am in trouble as a CEO. I will be discredited by our customers. It will start from our children, who are being thoroughly educated today about sustainability, and it will spread extremely quickly through the rest of our society.

Heidrick & Struggles: We have seen the increasing importance of purpose in the way leading companies run their business. How do we get managers and teams to adhere to this purpose?

Guillaume Boutin: This is not a simple proposition, because to do so, the DNA of the company—of what we represent—must already be in alignment with the purpose we have set for ourselves. Just like strategic positioning, having the right purpose depends on a precise representation of what you are as a company. Secondly, the purpose must resonate on an emotional level to allow us to amplify it through our culture. And, ultimately, we must walk the talk, because the management team must embody our purpose through our actions. It is the same principle as standing up for diversity and respect for differences. In both cases, your personal beliefs need to align with what the company stands for.

Heidrick & Struggles: For you, what is the role of your board and how can they support you?

Guillaume Boutin: I believe that the role of the board is very important as a guardrail, particularly in these areas such as purpose, diversity and inclusion, and sustainability, for holding the management team accountable as to how they embed them into the company’s strategy. Boards need to ensure that the management teams who are tempted and incentivized to focus on short-term financial metrics integrate diversity in leadership teams and sustainability into all strategic decisions. I have four strategic priorities, and 25% of my strategy is about sustainability. Do I spend 25% of my managerial impact on the subject? Not yet. But the board asks me during each monthly strategic review what progress we have made, which pushes me to implement our approach faster.

It is the same on the issue of gender diversity, which is an important topic, as most companies are aiming for balance; I think that the collective intelligence coming from different generations, countries, and different people creates the richness of an executive committee. I believe it is the role of the board to advise us and encourage us to go beyond communication and regulatory compliance, and truly embed these issues in our strategy.

Heidrick & Struggles: We can still see that in most European countries, the overwhelming majority of CEOs are of the nationality of their company. As you are a non-national, has that created any challenges for you? Was there anything that was more difficult than you thought or that required you adapting?

Guillaume Boutin: I was lucky to have been working for Proximus [when I became CEO], so I had one less complexity to manage, because I didn't have to learn about the company and also learn the role of CEO at the same time. I knew the environment. However, I think having different perspective and a somewhat objective position might have been of benefit, particularly when it comes to the relationships with the government. The board is also helping me navigate the issues that I perhaps don’t understand in-depth, such as stakeholder management.

Heidrick & Struggles: I asked Martin Bouygues what he thought a CEO should do and he said, “There are two things. The first is, every morning when you get up, watch that your two feet are still touching the ground. Second, keep learning, never to be overwhelmed.” What do you see as learning or as elements that will be challenging and will be needed in the next few years as CEO of Proximus?

Guillaume Boutin: I think it's more the state of mind that you have, to keep this desire to learn alive. I quite agree with what Martin Bouygues says. If we no longer want to learn, we don't get up at 200% every morning with this growth mindset and the desire to share it. I admit that every week I could almost write a chapter about what I learned that week. It’s just amazing. It goes so quickly, and it requires a lot of energy and resilience at times, but this thirst to confront complex problems, new problems, and to approach them each time with this same humility in the face of difficulty, [even] subjects we’ve never seen before, that’s what makes this job so wonderful. And who knows what the topics to learn about will be tomorrow, with technology progressing so fast? If we don’t have this need to challenge—our desire to understand, for instance, the workings of this technological world, we might get left behind in a world where technology is at the heart of value creation. 

Heidrick & Struggles: How do you have the biggest impact as a CEO? 

Guillaume Boutin: It’s mostly understanding the scale. Today, the choice between writing an article in a major newspaper or composing a tweet that has resonance is quickly made depending on who you want to reach. It’s very important to keep up with the times. I realized this when one of my tweets got 200,000 views because it touched upon a topic that was current. But it is critical for CEOs to understand how society is evolving in real time, that is, what’s important to people, and to be able to capture that in the same way that, perhaps, artists capture life. The difference between a talented artist and an artist who is just a technician is this ability to feel the zeitgeist and to express it in a way that is relatable. I believe that there is an element of that in the CEO role, that translates into doing something with a clear meaning and purpose, and to find the right direction for your company.

Stay connected

Stay connected to our expert insights, thought leadership, and event information.

Leadership Podcast

Explore the latest episodes of The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast