Companies are like a biosystem and as employees we form a natural part of the biosystem itself. To achieve our full potential as business leaders we need to be selective about which biosystem we choose to work in.
A fateful day during my MBA exchange programme at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland marked a paradigm shift for me. I had the opportunity to interview Stefan Loacker, who was previously the CEO of Helvetia Insurance for an impressive nine years since the age of 37, a company which has over 5000 employees and now makes a turnover of over £6.5 billion. The interview took place as part of my MBA programme requirements to interview a leader, demonstrating the unrivalled opportunities Imperial provides for one’s personal development.
Stefan’s insights were straightforward and profound: an organisation is like a biosystem and one has to play their role within that entity while making sure the biosystem is healthy and encourages personal growth.
The most crucial piece of advice I obtained from the interview was the importance of the colleagues and managers to whom one’s work is visible. It is imperative that they are encouraging and willing to promote you according to your work. Climbing the ladder into a leadership position is not about overworking yourself to exhaustion. It is sufficient to deliver above average work provided that you are surrounded by people who are keen to ensure that you succeed.
In Stefan’s case, he worked with top management from the beginning, and he found this to be a key factor in accelerating his career. Working with organisational leaders made him visible to people with the power to promote him into greater roles. Stefan was surrounded by people who believed in him and thus were happy to give him responsibility at the highest level.
Stefan’s humble leadership style was noticeable during the interview which was extremely encouraging. His style communicated to me that reaching the top can be achieved without being assertive, pushy or overly competitive, as often is the case in the business world. As expected, Stefan is extraordinarily knowledgeable about business, but even more importantly, he is deeply interested in people. He describes himself as being loyal to people. He explained how throughout his leadership career he worked with all different types of individuals and did not try to replace them for unreasonable motives.
Stefan explained how people can sense when we seek our ambitions at the expense of others. That affects the biosystem. On the other hand, people know when our intentions are good and they contribute to the success of the project or the organisation. That promotes the positive development of the biosystem.
Sometimes, however, the problem can be a person, he said. When a person becomes the problem, and they refuse to change their ways they should be dealt with to keep the biosystem healthy. When it came to people, there were two values that Stefan did not compromise on: integrity and the reputation of the organisation.
When asked what skills would he advise a business student to master during their studies, he said that working in a team and focusing on delivering results within the team is key. Another valuable skill was to connect projects between different groups in the organisation. People work in silos, he said, and someone has to connect their projects in order to create further value.
Stefan’s success was achieved through people who believed in him. Thus his final piece of advice was that one should be very selective about the people they work for at a company, to make sure their colleagues have their best interests at heart and that they do not block potential promotions for any wrong reasons. In other words, to achieve one’s full potential, be selective about which biosystem you work in and make sure it is not clogged up in a way that would impact your natural growth.
Teodor is a Weekend MBA student.