How to Own Your Career: Lessons from Stefan Dobocsky, CEO of Lenzing AG

HCLI Research
Published 13 October 2017

HQ Asia sat down with Stefan Doboczky, CEO of Lenzing AG, an Austrian manufacturer of manmade cellulose fibres and a firm with a reputation for technological pioneering, to ask him what has influenced his philosophy of leadership, and get his advice for Asia’s emerging leaders.

Stefan Doboczky joined Lenzing AG in June 2015. Prior to that, he spent 17 years at Royal DSM, joining the Dutch chemical and pharmaceutical multinational as a Business Manager, and rising to become a Member of the Managing Board before he left in 2015.

What have been the defining influences of your career so far?

Firstly, I have a curiosity about new things and I am comfortable with experimenting — both factors that led me to take on a variety of vocational experiences early in my career. When I was just starting out, my roles ranged from order entry and SAP (Systems, Applications and Products in Data Processing) administration to sales and marketing. I did everything from business intelligence, strategy and business unit control to finance, product and supply chain management, and R&D. They were generally short stints, but this wide-ranging experience across different functions helped me later on as it gave me an in-depth knowledge about the nuances of various aspects of business.

In the early part of a young exec’s career I think it’s important to create breadth of experience — to take on and experience hands-on vocational roles — rather than to go too fast for leadership roles or impressive-sounding job titles. In 1992, after completing my PhD, I joined an American company as a Customer Service Representative in the company’s Eastern European headquarters. In those days, being a Customer Service Representative meant keying customers’ orders into the Enterprise Resource Planning software.

Although this data entry position was not a typical role for someone with a PhD, it meant I learnt exactly what happened when a customer placed an order, where the bottlenecks in the supply chain were, the typical complaints that customers had and how those complaints were dealt with. This experience helped me gain a more holistic understanding of the supply chain, which became useful later in my career.

Secondly, I was fortunate to have had several overseas assignments with great mentors and bosses and, most importantly, a family who was willing to move with me. I have moved from Austria to the UK, back to Austria, and then to the Netherlands, China and to Singapore. With each of these assignments, I got a little more comfortable dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity. I began to realise that there are no rights or wrongs when it comes to culture. Being exposed to all these differences made me less judgmental and more comfortable dealing with experiences that were different from my own background.

It can’t have all been plain sailing through. Have challenges and reverses ever shaped you as a leader?

My biggest ‘learning’ was an investment that turned into a stunning failure. I entrusted the responsibility for an extremely complex investment — with big money at stake — to someone, who in hindsight, I shouldn’t have. I didn’t pay enough attention when selecting the right person for the job, I didn’t ask the questions I should have asked and I trusted the judgement of others too easily.

The tension between trust and accountability is very important. It’s similar to a rubber band; if you hold people too tight, they cannot move, but if you hold too loosely, it’s negligence. Trust and accountability is a very delicate balance.

Another challenge I have faced is identifying what makes an inspirational and successful leader. My gut feelings and instincts were off at times. Whilst leading in an unknown cultural context, I would advise overseas leaders to watch out for their initial instincts, as they may not be the best guide. Over time, when you are immersed in one particular culture, you will develop a better sense of your biases, but this will not happen immediately.

A third challenge was after I first joined the Board at Royal DSM; I struggled to communicate the right priorities. If you move to the executive committee of a large organisation, compared with your previous roles, you must change how you communicate what is important to you and the way you track and trace the needs of the business.

It was during this period that I learnt the importance of simplicity in communication. Keep your messages simple and repeat them.

A simple line of communication must be aligned with clarity of thoughts, especially when there are competing priorities.

How would you describe your leadership philosophy?

My leadership philosophy can be summed up quite simply: trust your people, prioritise and over-invest in those priorities.

I give trust. This means I discipline myself to not ask the questions my direct reports should be asking themselves. After I put someone on a job, I want to show others — by my actions and my signals — that I selected the right person for the job, and I trust that person implicitly to fulfil their role.

By the same token, I ask for trust from my direct reports. In some cases, the context of the decisions I make as a CEO may not be clear or transparent to them. So it helps if they trust me and follow up decisions swiftly, rather than spend time second-guessing me.

You also help your organisation by being very clear about your priorities. It is important to be simple when communicating what you actually expect. I feel that if you have more than three key focus areas and more than three priorities, you run the risk of having an unfocused organisation.

Once you are explicit about the organisation’s key priorities, make sure to over-invest in making these priorities happen. Over-invest in terms of the talent you put in place to lead those initiatives, as well as the financial resources to drive them to fruition.

You’ve been a business leader in both China and Singapore; what advice would you give to Asia’s next generation of leadership?

I am amazed at times by how few emerging leaders know their boss’s priorities. And I mean knowing not guessing. In the short term, I would recommend an emerging leader to ask their boss and their boss’ boss, “What are your top three priorities?”. This is very helpful for managers, especially in Asia, as it allows them to focus on those areas that drive the company forward. In turn, this will positively impact how they are perceived, improve their performance and elevate their careers.

In the longer term, Asia’s emerging leaders need to ask themselves whether they want to be a global, regional or local leader. When I look at the education and skill set of Asian leaders, they are on par or even better than many Western leaders.

However, the career ambitions of Asian and Western leaders are at times different, and many Asian talents are reluctant to relocate and to take up global roles.

Not moving overseas could be a career-limiting factor. If you decide you don’t want to have a global or regional career, that’s fine, but it might prove more difficult for you to change your mind later on.

What can Asian talent do to make themselves into global leaders?

Today, a lot of the growth and wealth being funnelled into Asia is still influenced by multinationals (MNCs) headquartered in the US or Europe. The West has done something right, and it is useful for Asia’s aspiring global leaders to learn how American and European economies work and what makes their MNCs tick. Understanding the processes and systems of the US and Europe is an excellent skill for Asian talent to have in their managerial toolkit, especially if they intend to take a larger role in their home country or in the region.

On a more personal level, I would say that Asian emerging talent should further cultivate pride in the Asian way, but also remain humble enough to say, “Even though Asia is experiencing rapid growth, there are many opportunities outside of my home country.”

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