Marijn Dekkers, Bayer AG

Marijn Dekkers, Bayer AG

Turning cultural heritage into corporate advantage

Marijn Dekkers, chairman of the board of management at German pharmaceutical company Bayer AG, agreed the world is changing quickly. Dekkers said he attends the World Economic Forum every year. “In 2008, there was not a word about financial crisis; in 2011, no-one mentioned the Arab Spring. In 2014, nothing about Russia invading the Crimean peninsula,” said Dekkers. “Things that have major economic and social impact on world are hard to predict. So what about leadership?” Create a positive environment and more forward-thinking, he advised.

The chairman said the workforce has become more global and business people must be aware of geography when leading a company. Dekkers highlighted communication and entrepreneurship as changing factors too. “People want freedom to make their own decisions, and drive their own programmes,” he said. “Leadership must adjust to this with new business models. Only bars can still sell their products the same way they did before.”

Listen to your employees

Dekkers has been CEO in two companies on two continents. Growing up in a small country like the Netherlands forces you to be aware of countries around you, he said. As a leader, Dekkers has learned that to be successful, you “really have to listen more carefully to all of your stakeholders, such as politicians, customers, and employees.”

Don’t obsess over the five per cent that’s unfamiliar

Bayer began as an entrepreneurial start-up in 1863, and is now one of largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. “It’s a true life science company; everything we do relates to animals, humans and planet,” said the chairman, adding that Bayer is a typical German science and engineering company, but that he was unfamiliar with the traditions of a typical German business. “When you enter a different environment as a CEO, do you turn things back to what you know? Or do you figure out how it’s done here and how you can adapt to it?” He explained that people are obsessed with the five per cent that’s unfamiliar to them. “Listen, look and learn, and work with the 95 per cent of things you do know,” he advised.

Adapt to the company

“I tried to adapt to Bayer more than Bayer had to adapt to me,” said the chairman, and pointed out the difference between American boards of directors which is chosen by shareholders and has approval over the company’s strategic decisions, and the German model in which half of the board is chosen by shareholders, and half by the unions. “It seemed like the car’s steering wheel was on the wrong side,” explained Dekkers, but that it’s just the way things are done. American businesses often consider the German process of gathering opinions from different parts of the board as a slow process.

“While the pace of decision-making is slower, the sustainability of decisions is higher in Germany because all stakeholders are aligned,” said Dekkers. “In Germany, people have more patience and more abilities with different stakeholders to pursue a long-term strategy. Over time, I learned how to deal with this.”

Involving stakeholders and employees

Bayer’s company mission is ‘science for a better life’. Dekkers: “I find it compelling to combine passion for daily research with the passion to improve the lives of customers. Passion is a good way to win people for a new journey; this is why Bayer has excellent products coming from the R&D department.”

A profound change was needed to make Bayer the most innovative company in its industry. “We wanted to involve everyone within the company,” he said, explaining that Bayer designed ‘better life training’ for its 1,000 top managers. Training included role plays and talks with experts and CEOs for them to understand how its products affect society, and if external stakeholders view these benefits the same way. Dekkers said an outside-in view is better than a laboratory-driven perspective from the inside out. “This is the best perspective to run your company sustainably: listen to all of your stakeholders and create a sustainable business model,” he said.

Dekkers concluded that this also counts for 360˚ appraisals. “Listen to your employees,” stressed the chairman. “Get more opinions. Your perspectives really change when getting feedback from the people you work with.”