What advice would you give someone assuming their first CEO position?
I would say never, ever compromise on your integrity. Never. Always stay true to your core set of beliefs. I would say focus heavily on instilling a set of core behaviors that you believe in in the organization. I would say be perseverant, because the journey ahead is not going to be an easy one, and there are going to be difficult moments. If you’re going to be the person who’s at the helm of the organization, you’re going to have to wade through those difficult waters. You have to be a hard-working, self-organized independent individual, but you also have to be a fun-loving individual. You have to be an outgoing individual. All of this has to be combined with trying to find the right balance between the corporate life and personal life
I’m a true believer in corporate culture. I’m a true believer in corporate culture as an instrument to guide a company through transformation and change. Not everybody may be a believer, but I very much am. I believe that the more daunting the task is, the larger the degree of changes a company has to go through, and the more important corporate culture becomes.
I’ve been CEO of a number of different businesses, some of those startups, where it’s easy to implement your own corporate culture, and some of those inherited businesses of size, where it’s a lot more difficult to impact corporate culture.
Your first couple of days as CEO, regardless of the scenario, should be spent on determining the core behaviors you believe in and establishing the core behaviors everybody can embrace. If you talk about fairness nobody’s going to say, “Hey, I’m opposed to fairness.” If you say inclusiveness, nobody’s going to say that he or she is opposed to inclusiveness. So, there should be sort of universal, almost humanistic principles guiding the way a company is managed.
The strength of corporate culture and core behaviors are the players guiding this organization through its next phase – whether it’s an up-phase or a down-phase. Whenever somebody doesn’t adhere to that corporate culture you don’t have to necessarily address that individual directly, but you can point to the fact that the person is not adhering to the corporate culture that he or she had subscribed to in those first couple of days when you walked in.
That’s the strength of corporate culture: it is a very subtle way of gradually driving behavior. Does it work for everybody? No. Are there people who are ultimately still going to continue to display behaviors that are unacceptable? Absolutely. Should those people be part of your organization in the long run? No, they shouldn’t be.
How does a strong corporate culture develop team spirit?
The first business I ran that I was a CEO of was essentially a start-up, and so we started with nothing. Well, we started with carried over losses that were quite significant, and we didn’t know if we were going make it to the next year.
What got us through was a tremendous amount of camaraderie, a tremendous amount of team spirit, and a tremendous amount of hard work.
With that, we also had an incredible bond that went way beyond way beyond just corporate life. We were also friends outside work and we did a tremendous number of things with the little free time we had with our families, and that was just an incredible time.
Everybody who was engaged with that company at that point in time still thinks fondly – and this is now 20 years ago – still thinks fondly of those days. You know, it was sort of the Robin Hood mentality…it was wonderful.
What are some of the global trends that are impacting business and the economy?
There is an ever-increasing importance of populist decision-making on the policy level, and therefore on an economic policy level. Domestically, but also globally, you have populist leaders in the Slovak Republic, Poland and Turkey, but you also of course have a populist leader – a protectionist leader – in the United States.
I, in my heart of hearts, believe that decision-making that is focused on protectionism is ultimately not the right decision making for the long-term future or the medium-term future of the country.
Most economists, I’m certain, would agree with the fact that open economies do better in the long run than closed economies. The whole idea, for instance, of not taking part in the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), which is the decision that our president has made, really is very difficult to understand.
The economy is globally intertwined – there’s nothing we can do about that. If I were to ask you how many people European companies employ in the United States, it would be four million workers. Conversely there are four million American workers, or workers employed by American companies, in the EU.
63 percent of foreign investment in the United States comes out of Europe. TTIP would have allowed for 5% GDP growth in the United States, and it would have allowed for 2 million incremental jobs globally.
It’s just incomprehensible that we’re not part of that.
Sports are often a tool through which we can learn critical life lessons and skills. However, sports teach more than just teamwork and good sportsmanship, it can also provide a lens through which we can view the path to and expectations of CEOs.
On June 14th of this year, the FIFA World Cup will kick off in Russia. The World Cup is the most popular sporting event in the world by quite a distance. It is estimated that more than half of the world’s population consider themselves soccer followers. With more than 4 billion fans worldwide, it dwarfs any other sport in terms of global appeal. Even more impressive, at any given point, there are an estimated number of 265 million active soccer players, which equals about 4% of the world’s population.
Meanwhile, the 2018 Formula One racing season is in full swing. The nexus of speed and technology, exhilaration and excitement, Formula One speaks to the imagination of an ardent and growing fan base. It is also an iconic sport where a very select few have the opportunity to compete for the coveted world title. Each year, no more than 20 drivers are allowed to participate in the Formula One Championship, two drivers for each of the 10 racing teams in F1.
While it may seem surprising, the experiences of a soccer player and race car driver are quite illuminating on the trajectory and journey of CEOs. With nearly two decades of business leadership experience, Jozef Opdeweegh explores the similarities between reaching success in the athletic and business worlds.
Many of the world’s greatest soccer players had very humble beginnings. The Brazilian legend, Pele – who is universally recognized as one of the greatest players of all time – was too poor to afford cleats or even a soccer ball growing up. He used to make a ball using his parents’ socks filled with paper to play the game in the streets.
Soccer is a sport with virtually no barriers to entry. It is inexpensive to play. The game can be played on any open patch of grass, sand or concrete. Successful male soccer players range in height from 5 ft 6 to 6 ft 2. No less than 95 percent of the world’s adult male population fit within that range (to contrast this with other sports, professional basketball and American football players for instance require levels of strength and height that exclude over 90 percent of the adult male world population).
Simply put, success on the soccer field is available to almost anyone.
The $8 million price tag of access
Becoming a Formula One driver is no easy feat. In fact, there may be not be a smaller or more elite group of athletes in the world. There is a recommended path for racecar drivers whose ultimate ambition is to end up in the most prestigious of all categories. It typically starts with karting. Those who are very successful at karting may evolve to one of the entry-level racing categories to subsequently try their luck in Formula 3 or 2. Very few ultimately make their way to Formula 1.
Are they the most talented drivers? They most certainly are better drivers than you and I. But what separates them from the pack is a very large wallet. It is estimated the path to a Formula 1 seat comes at a price tag of at least $8 million dollars. And while there are driver traineeship programs to promote very talented youngsters, even those come at a steep monetary price.
Best versus good
To excel at a game with more than 260 million active players and become one of the game’s 50,000 or so professional soccer players, you have to be exceptionally gifted. The sample size is so large that it may be concluded the most successful soccer players are also the most talented soccer players. In a game with universal access and appeal, it is virtually impossible for a hidden gem to go undiscovered. In the world of soccer, “best” truly equals best.
Conversely, while a Formula 1 champion is undeniably a very good driver, he (or she) is almost certainly not the best driver on this planet. Countless are the people out there who unknowingly have tremendous potential as a racecar driver but shall forever remain anonymous. Without the monetary means, they simply will never be given the opportunity to sit behind the wheel of a racecar. In a sport with very high barriers to entry, it is virtually impossible for the biggest gemstone to ever be discovered. “Best” equals (very) good, in Formula 1.
Cleats or a racing seat for the CEO?
The path to becoming a CEO is arguably more akin to the story of the race car driver than it is to tale of the soccer player. Certainly, being a good CEO requires a combination of relevant education, experience and skills to handle the role with success. But good fortune undeniably plays a major role in whether a qualified professional ever gets a shot at the top job. Being in the right place at the right time is very relevant to the opportunity of being selected in your very first CEO position. And once you have been chosen to run a company, you will quickly become a proven commodity and your next job will very likely also be a CEO job.
Much like the race car driver though, there are many people who would make excellent CEOs but never get a chance to demonstrate their talent for running a company. In any organization with a sizable workforce, it is a near certainty that there are one or more employees who are intrinsically better equipped at running the business than their CEO. But despite their efforts and their talent, they don’t rise to the top, often due to office politics, shortfalls in talent recognition and development or a predisposition to recruit outside the organization. Consequently, these professionals often leave the organization to try their luck elsewhere, thus depleting the company’s talent pool.
At social functions or industry conventions, you can’t help but overhear CEOs explaining to their peers how they carefully, step by step, crafted their path to the leadership job. They will lay out in excruciating detail how they realized from a very young age that they were destined for success. Without taking anything away from their professional journey, the reality is that these CEOs simply had a healthy dose of plain luck on their side.
Given this reality, CEOs not only are bestowed with luck but immense responsibility. A responsibility to deliver on their good fortune and hard work through thoughtful leadership, a commitment to doing what’s right and a focus on creating value – for shareholders, employees and the community at large. A rare opportunity to truly make a difference.