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Lessons on leadership from Holcim’s CEO

  • Gia Gill and Shira Bell
  • |
  • Apr 25, 2022
Lessons on leadership from Holcim’s CEO

Jan Jenisch speaking to AMBA students.

Gia Gill and Shira Bell are both Accelerated MBA ’23 candidates. In their blog below, they share key takeaways from a presentation from Jan Jenisch, Chief Executive Officer of Holcim, during his recent visit to the Accelerated MBAs’ Managing People class.

Whether evolving Holcim’s digitalization strategy or leading decarbonization initiatives, it’s clear Jan Jenisch prioritizes innovation and long-term objectives.

During his presentation to Accelerated MBA (AMBA) students, Jenisch discussed his insights on leadership and how his own leadership style has evolved over time.

Jenisch told the students he empowers his employees by building a culture of trust in which employee feedback is valued, and tasks are delegated to those with the strongest capabilities in the respective area. Within this approach, Jenisch recognizes that he does not have all the answers – but he’s willing to listen. By setting clear expectations and aligning everyone to the corporate mission, he mobilizes his employees to challenge the status quo and push themselves further.

Embrace digitalization

He also addressed the topic of digitalization, acknowledging that it’s not only for a select number of industries, but applies to all across the board. During his tenure as CEO of Holcim, Jenisch said he has identified this gap in digitalization and acted to mitigate it through various initiatives. These included equipping existing plants with automation and data-driven solutions such as robotics, artificial intelligence, and predictive processing while evolving maintenance and quality. Although Jenisch admits he is not an expert in this area, he said the key to success is to select the right candidates to get the job done.

Sustainability should be a core value

Jenisch shared how Holcim has a strong view on sustainability and acknowledges that the building-materials industry naturally has a large carbon footprint. Throughout his leadership, Jenisch has introduced low-carbon products and solutions. He told the students that companies cannot ignore their carbon footprints if they want to continue to do business in the long term. Customers are looking at what companies are doing to help push for change and create a more environmentally conscious future, he says.

In addition to discussing the strategic changes he implemented at Holcim, Jenisch provided insights on leadership and advice for becoming a great leader.

To truly be an effective leader, Jenisch said one must first experiment with different leadership styles to understand what works best. He told how he often experimented with leadership styles that were uncomfortable for him at first but, over time, became the norm. One example of this was adapting to video calls during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, Jenisch worked strictly through in- person interactions and conference calls so pivoting to video calls was a challenge. While he initially did not enjoy video, Jenisch said he learned that the benefits of increased communication and collaboration outweighed his discomfort.

Balancing leadership styles

A focus of the AMBA class was on the push-and-pull effect of the Hercules and Buddha styles of leading that can help build transformational leaders. We learned that Hercules is all about control, hierarchy, and driving coordination and efficiency. On the flip side, Buddha is all about coaching, experimenting, reflecting, and encouraging teams to seek out variety. Although we’re often tempted to take a 50/50 approach to this methodology, we learned that leaders need to be able to balance both styles 100 per cent of the time. Jenisch reflected upon this approach and told how, at the beginning of his career, he exhibited more of a Hercules style. As he gained experience and wisdom, he took on the Buddha approach. Now in his current role as CEO, he credits the convergence of these two styles to his success and ability to lead the organization and achieve further growth for Holcim.

Leadership is a process of learning

Through the discussion, we gained valuable insight into whether situational leadership, or authentic leadership is more effective. We learned that the most important part of being a great leader is remaining true to yourself. Great leaders must exemplify self-awareness. Leaders must know their own strengths and weaknesses to handle specific situations and always remain inspiring and true to their values. Leadership isn’t perfect; you must experiment with styles and see what works best according to the situation. It’s an ever-evolving process of learning found through employee engagement, industry awareness, and a commitment to embracing change.  

The advice and anecdotes shared by Jenisch bear further proof of that.