Leadership skills for the long term: Dealing with radical uncertainty
Leadership Development

Leadership skills for the long term: Dealing with radical uncertainty

Sebastian Biedenkopf, board member at Fresenius, discusses the leadership skills that have been essential in navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and what issues keep him up at night.
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In this podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Dr. Nicolas von Rosty speaks to Sebastian Biedenkopf, a board member with responsibilities for legal, compliance, HR, and insurance at Fresenius, a global healthcare group. Biedenkopf discusses the leadership skills that have been essential throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as how to articulate feelings of anxiety and burnout in a way that creates camaraderie rather than discourages employees. He shares how his training as a lawyer is helping him navigate uncertain times and argues that leaders must be able to deal with radical uncertainty, and talks about some of the issues that keep him up at night.

Some questions answered in this episode include the following:

  • (1:33) You have worked in different industries in your career. How has this differentiation helped you develop as a leader?
  • (4:24) How would you articulate the different leadership styles needed for a publicly listed company such as the one you are today versus and a huge, privately owned company like Bosch? 
  • (5:47) What sort of leadership skills have been essential for you and your team in order to thrive through this pandemic? What have you learned as a leader? 
  • (11:05) You are a trained lawyer and now, as an executive board member, you deal with HR, legal, and compliance. Is your training helping you handle complex situations such as leading in uncertain times?
  • (13:47) What issue is currently keeping you awake at night?

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Heidrick is the premier global provider of senior-level executive search and leadership consulting services. Diversity and inclusion, leading through tumultuous times, and building thriving teams and organizations are among the core issues we talk with leaders about every day, including in our podcasts. Thank you for joining the conversation.

Nicolas von Rosty: Hi, I'm Nicolas von Rosty, managing partner of Heidrick & Struggles Germany and a member of the Corporate Officers and Industrial practices. In today’s podcast, I'm talking to Sebastian Biedenkopf, who is a member of the executive board of Fresenius, with responsibilities in legal, compliance, HR, and insurance. Fresenius is a global healthcare group offering products and services for dialysis, hospitals, and outpatient treatment. Prior to joining Fresenius, Sebastian, you were general counsel of Robert Bosch GmbH for seven years and before that, from 2008 to 2012, you held various positions—most recently as the chief financial officer and even as the interim CEO—at Conergy AG, a multinational renewable energy company.

You have worked in different industries in your career, Sebastian, and what would be interesting for us to know is how this differentiation helped you develop as a leader.

Sebastian Biedenkopf: Thank you for the kind introduction, Nicolas. And yes, I have worked in various places. It started with private practice and after that I worked in five different companies in five different industries. Change became a normal part of my professional and private life, and one of the great advantages to that is that when the focus of work is managing risk, you become less and less excited after your experience [teaches you] that the problems companies face show similar patterns again and again, and that the cycles companies go through are also similar. You begin to feel change less as burden and more as an opportunity, and you realize how different companies are. Every company has its individual shape—its own character, its own DNA—and you come to understand that there are some key ingredients which shape the company which make a difference, for example, the type of ownership, the degree of influence of the capital market, the overall culture of the industry the company is part of, and, most importantly, the people.

When I started my career, I couldn't understand why investors always make such a fuss about the CEO. In large corporations, the CEO is just one among thousands of employees. But over time I learned that the CEO can make a huge difference; every executive can make a huge difference. Today I do understand why the right tone from the top is so essential. Changing places helped me to understand what it is that makes a difference, I’ve seen both good examples [of leadership] and bad examples. There are also downsides [to frequent change], of course: sometimes you cannot finish things you wanted to finish or you have to leave teams behind you that you liked to work with, and you will never get the deep understanding of the company and the industry that people can get when they stay on for decades.

What helped me most is the ability to compare. You can explain to people more convincingly that things can be done differently, that many roads lead to Rome. And having survived in different ecosystems can give you a higher credibility, especially when it comes to critical decisions.

Nicolas von Rosty: What would also interest me is the difference between a publicly listed company such as the one you are today, and a huge, privately owned company like Bosch. I would guess that there are also some differences in terms of leadership style required in the different environments.

Sebastian Biedenkopf: Well, you have different stakeholders. I mean, some stakeholders are the same, of course, but some are different. I like to talk about nudging when it comes to the different ones. You have the executives, the group of leaders—they need control, and we have a governance system, a very well-developed governance system, which regulates how this control is designed, but there's also the nudging [in public companies]. The nudges coming from the capital market are quite intense and you have to act to them, you have to act to them immediately. And you have to be very transparent: you have to keep your shareholders informed on a more or less daily basis. If you're in a privately held company, you do not have these nudges. There are benefits and there are downsides, but it makes a huge difference.

Nicolas von Rosty: Let's talk a little bit about the last, let’s say, one and a half years. We have all been through the pandemic and many of us have had to adapt to the new situation. So, what sort of leadership skills have been essential for you and your team in order to thrive through this pandemic? What have you learned as a leader?

Sebastian Biedenkopf: Well, thinking about the leadership skills which were needed, I would say that, in the end, they are the same skills that a leader needs in any crisis—getting a picture of the situation based on the accessible facts, prioritizing, making decisions, creating transparency, and being honest. There was and still is a great deal of uncertainty and fear among my colleagues and it’s important to respond to it.

I'm always surprised at the positive impact that can be achieved when people talk about their own insecurities and fears. I start many conversations by talking about the energy leak, as I call it, that the pandemic has created for me. I feel that energy is flowing out of this leak, and I can't say exactly where this leak is or how much energy is flowing out of it, but I feel that something is different. And, again and again, I find that colleagues will then open up and talk about their perceptions, their experiences, and their fears, and I think these kinds of conversations make a big difference for everybody.

Nicolas von Rosty: Can you explain a bit more what you mean by energy leak? Is that Zoom fatigue?

Sebastian Biedenkopf: Well, for a leader, it’s difficult to say, “I’m tired.” For a leader, it’s difficult to say, “I’m afraid.” I think that if people feel that something is different with their boss, that he or she seems to be tired or scared, I think it’s important to address it, otherwise you as the boss will lose credibility. So I choose this image of the energy leak because everybody knows what a leak is. Something’s leaking—you’re losing water or you're losing whatever, usually something precious, and it’s all of it. Sometimes I feel that I have less energy than I had before, and I think it’s [due to some extent to] the uncertainty. I think that an uncertain environment costs you energy. And yes, it’s also the Zoom, but the Zoom is not let’s say the major ingredient. It is the crisis; it’s the situation we’re in.

Nicolas von Rosty: Can you give us a bit more detail on how your role shifted at Bosch and what you’re taking forward to Fresenius?

Sebastian Biedenkopf: I think the pandemic made me realize the importance of humility—that we should be humbler. We should ask if the sky really is the limit or if there are lower limits. The crisis has also strengthened my conviction that direction is more important than speed. More than ever, many issues get hyped up without things being thought through first. Suddenly, we don’t need office space anymore, and that sounds modern and agile, but what about peoples’ habits and needs? Are we thinking about that enough? What about the fears that such changes have created, and so on? We must be careful to not only involve people in such deliberations but also to give them enough time to make the necessary adaptations. Evolution usually took place over generations.

The crisis has also strengthened my conviction that leadership must increasingly consist of dealing with radical uncertainty. But instead we still plan for each quarter to within a decimal place. And at the same time, we’ve lost a great deal of stability and reliability. Thinking in scenarios is therefore becoming more important than precise planning. We live too much in the belief that we can control the future. I call this the control illusion. If I, as an automotive company, generate more than 50% of my profits in China, for example, do I still have control over the course of the business in the next three years? If, as a logistics company, it takes me weeks to find the containers scattered around the world after a cyber-attack, how do I best position myself for the next few years? Ultimately, I think that accepting some loss of control and thinking in scenarios means increased resilience.

Nicolas von Rosty: You are a trained lawyer and now you wear three hats as an executive board member dealing with HR, legal, and compliance. Is your training helping you handle complex situations such as leading in uncertain times?

Sebastian Biedenkopf: It helps me to position myself differently. For the last more than 20 years, I've been mostly a risk manager, so I would say that I have a risk DNA. And sometimes that puts you in a difficult spot; people feel more comfortable if they don't need you because to them it means they don't have any risks to manage. So when I got the offer to join Fresenius I was very much looking forward to the HR role because it’s more about positive thinking. It’s about designing the future for teams and for the employees of the company, and it's creativity. I wouldn't say that risk management doesn't need creativity, but it’s different. It’s in the HR part of the job that I can smile all the time and I'm enjoying it, and I think in a way it’s changed me over the last seven months.

Nicolas von Rosty: May I ask in what respect it changed you?

Sebastian Biedenkopf: I feel that the job has fewer burdens. I mean, for the five years before I joined Fresenius, I had to deal with a diesel crisis at Bosch and I think in a way that's been the mother of all crises when it comes to compliance. And that was a burden. There wasn’t a lot of positive energy. We had some successes, but it was still a very grim environment. And now what I enjoy is thinking about how we want to design the workspace, how to design processes to create an environment for people that they really like to work in. That makes a big difference and I must say, it’s not a problem to combine both, the risk management and the trying to be creative.

Nicolas von Rosty: So, talking a little bit about burdens, Sebastian, what issue is currently keeping you awake at night?

Sebastian Biedenkopf: Well, as an executive, I have to make sure that I get a good night’s sleep. But you're right, Nicolas, there are many things that are worrisome—more than there were 10 years ago. But they do not keep me awake at night. What keeps me awake at night is wondering, “Am I right? Am I right in what I'm doing, am I right in how I live, am I right in what I taught or try to teach our three sons who are grown up now? Is the way we are living the right way? Are the concepts we have adopted the right ones?”

Let's talk about capitalism, I mean, has capitalism proven to be the best possible system or have we come to a point (and I think we have come to a point because we're discussing it) where we have questions about the free market economy: can the free market economy solve the problems we have better than Brussels? Probably yes. Can we solve the problems at all? Can I tell my kids, as I was told, that for every problem there’s a technical solution? That is what keeps me up at night and I hope I’ll find more time to give it some thoughts over the next months and years.

Nicolas von Rosty: In our pre-discussion, Sebastian, we also talked about sustainability. What does this issue mean for you?

Sebastian Biedenkopf: Well, I think yes—sustainability is probably the roof above all of what I’ve just tried to explain. I grew up feeling that the sky is the limit, but I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s is not the case. I think that mankind is relatively vulnerable. We just experienced that, with the pandemic. We believe that the medical industry can solve that problem, and it probably can, but it’s not going away just yet and there will be other problems. And now we have all these manmade problems that will be very difficult to solve, if we can at all. We have the problem of inequality as well, and sometimes I do feel a little overwhelmed being faced with all these things at the same time and I'm pretty sure that I'm not the only one who feels like that. And sometimes when I do not sleep at night, that's what's going through my head.

Nicolas von Rosty: I think this is a really good closing remark. Sebastian, thank you for making the time to speak with us today. All the best to you.

Sebastian Biedenkopf: Thank you very much, Nicolas, it was a great pleasure.

Thanks for listening to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. To make sure you don’t miss more future-shaping ideas and conversations, please subscribe to our channel on the podcast app. And if you’re listening via LinkedIn, Twitter, or YouTube, why not share this with your connections? Until next time.

About the interviewer

Nicolas von Rosty (nvonrosty@heidrick.com) is partner-in-charge of Heidrick & Struggles Germany and managing partner of the CEO & Board Practice in Germany and Central Europe; he is also a member of the Industrial Practice.

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