IMD International

5 pieces of career advice from Nestlé CEO Paul Bulcke

Head of the world’s leading nutrition, health and wellness company addresses IMD’s MBA class

When Nestlé CEO Paul Bulcke began his career with the company in 1979, he never imagined soaring to the top. Nor did he ever envision presenting to a group of future leaders in the IMD MBA class. Call it being humble, both acts coincide in showcasing a part of Mr. Bulcke’s leadership style. At IMD “the humility to lead,” is a pillar of what the MBA instils in participants, but seen as an example with Mr. Bulcke, it is also very much a part of successful business today.

Nestle CEO Paul Bulcke speaking to IMD's MBA class

Celebrating 150 years, and continuing to grow despite downturns in both Europe and emerging markets, Nestlé sells over 1 billion products per day. But for Mr. Bulcke, the company’s continuing success isn’t one to be overly satisfied with.

“Success is a dangerous place to be in because you don’t learn from it and it easily leads to complacency,” he warned.

Another of Mr. Bulcke’s challenges lies in how to make a complex company manageable. There is no single method to doing this, but for Nestlé it involves multiple business models that run simultaneously along with a fundamentally fluid structure that allows for short and long term perspective. Mr. Bulcke also credits the company’s alignment with and coherence to its corporate vision.

“Nestlé stays in business because of who we are and my foremost job is to keep our vision relevant and our values present and accurate,” Mr. Bulcke said.

Nestlé’s vision is to: “enhance lives with science-based nutrition and health solutions for all stages of life, helping consumers care for themselves and their families.” Nestlé does this via its classic food and beverage business, and through its new ventures Nestlé Health Science and Nestlé Skin Health.

But what about the nutrition in ice cream and KitKats?

Of course, human happiness can’t only be determined by pure nutritional value. Nestlé looks beyond the surface to promote a healthy life. The mental impact of a child strolling along in a park with an ice cream in hand has a positive value.

“If we get out of ice cream, someone else will still be in the space. What we must do is to see how we can make the best possible product. A better ice cream with less calories and no additives to give the best overall product,” Mr. Bulcke said.

Further, he also emphasized the need for diversification in offerings from a nutrition company. “If you want to be relevant in people’s lives, you have to have a span of products which can accompany your consumers, from morning till evening, from birth to old age.”

Investment in research and development is enormous at Nestlé, in its food and beverage business, but also in Nestlé Health Science, created in 2011 on the opportunity to confer a major therapeutic role to nutrition in health management, and Nestlé Skin Health, created in 2014 and based on Galderma, which offers science-based solutions for the health of skin.

In today’s world, digitalization is of course an area that is increasingly important in helping the company to connect and gather data. And social media has created new avenues for interacting with consumers and making communication conversational.

As IMD’s MBAs embark on a learning journey for their professional futures, Mr. Bulcke also gave some insight on what he believes makes a good leader. Clear thinking, authenticity and industry knowledge are all keys to leadership at the top.

“I believe in contextual thinking and detached involvement. That is, being committed and involved yet still being able to be a part of the public in the sense that one can observe oneself from the outside.”

In concluding, Mr. Bulcke left the MBAs with five pieces of career advice:

Maintain perspective
While we know it’s a VUCA world, Mr. Bulcke says we have some selective memory on the past because it’s always been a VUCA world. He advises to be as open as you can in deciding on careers and not to be narrow minded.

Be flexible
With over 37 years at Nestlé, it may sound odd to hear Mr. Bulcke offer flexibility as advice. But he says being flexible doesn’t equate to moving around. It’s also about being able to stretch yourself and adapt within a single organization.

Enjoy professional life
Our natural strengths show best when we do what we like. Don’t force yourself into liking something. If it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t. Mr. Bulcke encourages finding a career path that gets you excited. A “natural” fit so to say.

Don’t project
Do not define success by where you want to end your career. Enjoy the career journey. Not every move can be about where it will take you.

Be collaborative
Mr. Bulcke suggests you should never work for just your boss. Work for those that are working for and with you. You lose your support and ambition when you work only for the boss.

Nestlé CEO Paul Bulcke was an honory guest speaker for IMD’s MBA class, part of a group of invited business leaders that aim to help participants navigate the future through real world learning.   

Learn more about IMD’s MBA program.

MBA-and-Bulcke



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