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CEO Dialogue Series

Become a Buddha to drive sustainable transformation

20 September 2022 in CEO Dialogue Series

Jan Jenisch, Chief Executive of Holcim, one of the world’s largest building solutions companies, shares in an exclusive CEO Dialogue with IMD President Jean-François Manzoni how he is leading the shift towards...

Jan Jenisch, Chief Executive of Holcim, one of the world’s largest building solutions companies, shares in an exclusive CEO Dialogue with IMD President Jean-François Manzoni how he is leading the shift towards a future of “green” building and sustainable cities.

For decades, the building materials business was driven by a simple proposition. Builders needed materials they could count on, and manufacturers competed to make and sell in the most efficient way.

But the sustainability revolution has changed all that. Now, as Jan Jenisch, chief executive of Swiss-based building solutions leader Holcim, explains, the industry faces a very different proposition: creating high-value, low-carbon materials and energy-efficient building systems, while working with regulators and customers to accelerate the shift to green building.

For Jenisch, the biggest personal learning in leading this complex transformation has been to avoid becoming a roadblock, to listen more, and to learn to judge priorities for driving the process.

Buddha leader
“I think I'm in the Buddha mode more than 80% of the time”
- Jan Jenisch

“A leader should never be the bottleneck,” he says. “When you have too decisive leadership, then everything ends up on your desk and gets delayed and not decided. For me, it’s a case of either taking decisions on the spot (or in a very short period of time), or I delegate to someone else.”

If leaders don’t set the right priorities, he adds, “your day can last 72 hours and you still don’t get things done.”

Be more Buddha… and less Hercules

There is a balance between the “Hercules” and “Buddha” approach to behaving as a leader, Jenisch says, citing a concept created by Martha L. Maznevski, a former IMD faculty member who is now Professor of Organizational Behaviour at the Ivey Business School at Western University, Canada.

In the Hercules scenario, a leader tends – in complex or crisis situations – to lead harder, leveraging characteristics such as mental strength and stamina and using a “mute button” to block out other voices. But this leader is less effective at empowerment and finds it hard to make choices in ambiguous situations. By contrast, the Buddha leader listens, tries to understand and seeks advice from others by spending time with them.

“I think I’m in the Buddha mode more than 80% of the time,” Jenisch says. “I think you have to be aware as an older executive that you gain experience, but you also gain a bit more Buddha. You are able to stop the Hercules side, and don’t push the mute button too often, and instead listen to and work with people, as well as develop them.”

“But you still have to keep that ambition and energy,” he says. “That’s the challenge, and you have to watch it very actively.”

Part of keeping those team energy levels high means focusing on keeping people motivated by avoiding making “emotional decisions”.

“The biggest demotivator is unfair evaluations of people or unfair decisions. I try to be a very sound and fair observer and performance evaluator,” Jenisch says.

Company outsider

The 56-year old German took over as CEO in 2017, after five years leading Sika, a diversified Swiss company involved in building resins, automotive adhesives and textiles.

Inheriting a complex acquisition, creating a company with 70,000 employees and net sales of nearly CHF 30 billion, Jenisch’s priority was to restore Holcim’s financial strength and position it for growth.

Jenisch had the advantage of being an outsider at the time of his arrival at the newly merged company, giving him a fresh perspective. But he was not a sector outsider given his experience at Sika, which has a construction-related business. This made Jenisch something else: a “company outsider”.

“I remember when I arrived, the number one priority was to make the merger a success and basically have a new operating model, make people comfortable, make sure we had the right leadership team, to make sure we got a bit leaner, put a strategy in place, and most importantly, put financial performance to work,” he says.

A leader should never be the bottleneck
- Jan Jenisch

Now, faced with the challenge of helping to lead sustainable transformation in the building industry, Jenisch sees both extraordinary responsibility but also significant opportunity for Holcim.

“We have to transform into making sustainability not only a must for our operations but making it a new selling proposition for the customer; convincing everyone to take the more sustainable alternative,” he explains. 

“So, we are coming from [being] this volume producer, where we had a lot of production engineers very concerned with how many tons they produced each day, and how they could save costs, to now a situation where suddenly we have decarbonization of the whole process, plus selling decarbonized products and making the ‘circular economy’ aspect work.”

Organizational and cultural change

The transformation required by Holcim has involved some organizational and cultural change, but not as much as might be expected for a shift of this magnitude.

One of the biggest changes has been to broaden its set of stakeholders outside the company. Given its pivot towards the world of sustainable cities, for instance, the company is engaged much more with mayors and planners, given that they are fast-adopting green policies in their investment decisions. Holcim is also talking with other large companies to encourage green procurement.

“The key is to make this all work together,” Jenisch says. “Because we need the innovation, we need the regulator to approve the products, but we need then also the customer and the influencers to support it.”

Instead of a wholesale retraining of engineers and other specialists, Jenisch says Holcim hired a small number of marketing experts to make sure that the new sales proposition for the customer was properly communicated. “If you have a good engineer, a good production guy, I don’t believe you should make the person a sales or marketing person,” Jenisch explains.

“Holcim was always close to the customer, close to the owner, the developer, the main contractor, to the architects and civil engineers. But now this becomes even more important because of the urgency of sustainability.”

Watch the full dialogue with Holcim CEO Jan Jenisch to find out more about how he is leading the company through its sustainable transformation to help shape a greener future in his industry and beyond.

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