Events | October 18, 2023

The ultimate leadership – a conversation with Hans Stråberg

Boards shouldn't become too specialized, they should only know enough to ask the right questions. This was a key takeaway from the discussion on the topic "The ultimate leadership" between board professional Hans Stråberg and Marie-Louise Kjellström, Chairman of the Board at Novare Leadership Academy.

Hans Stråberg is the Chairman of SKF and Atlas Copco and a Board Member of Investor and Mellby Gård, among others. He is one of Sweden’s foremost industrialists with leadership experience, for example from Electrolux, where he has had the position of both CEO and Chairman of the Board. In a conversation with Marie-Louise Kjellström, working Chairman of the Board at Novare Leadership Academy, he discusses how leadership is reflected in the work of the board of directors and the chairman of the board.

Marie-Louise: To start off, what’s your perspective on the times we’re living in right now?

Hans: We’re living in challenging times. For my generation, there’s been 30 years of incredible development. We witnessed national companies becoming multinational, and then global. There was great optimism about this continued growth, but now we’re realizing that not everyone wants to be part of this journey. I believe we’re still on an upward trajectory, but we’re experiencing some setbacks, shifting back to multinational entities. Yet, all chains are so globalized now that we can’t fully disconnect. Am I worried? We usually pull through, but tough times lie ahead.

Marie-Louise: Today’s topic is the ultimate leadership. Are topics like the one you just mentioned a part of your board work?

Hans: Firstly, it is the owners who hold ultimate responsibility, and the CEO reports to the board, not the chair. I’m just the primary point of contact. But, of course, as the owners’ representative on the board, I have significant responsibility. I look at these long-term challenges, and one benefit of being on a board is considering these future perspectives.

Marie-Louise: You’ve been doing this for many years. Looking back over the past 20 years, how has the landscape evolved?

Hans: There’s a huge difference, mainly in professionalism. In the past, it was very much an “old boys network.” If you were a CEO in one public company, you could be the chair in another. Not anymore. Another shift is from the importance of network to valuing competence. Another change is that I work more as a coach to the CEO now, as opposed to just getting reports. The CEO role is challenging and isolating, so the chair’s role is essential. When I was a CEO, I didn’t have mentors, but I learned from the great people around me. At Atlas Copco, we say, ‘there is always a better way’, and that’s how I’ve approached my career, not being afraid to seek advice and that’s how I try to operate now.

Marie-Louise: The leadership role of the chair – what’s important? And how does it differ from your previous leadership as a CEO?

Hans: The most crucial aspect is hiring the right CEO. I often say we can run a company with a mediocre board and an excellent CEO, but not the other way around. I focus on attitude, presence, and leadership during recruitment; all other things can be learned. As for my leadership style, I don’t know if I’ve changed much. The main difference is that, as a CEO, you make operational decisions. Now, it’s about long-term strategy. Here in Sweden, our governance code clearly defines roles, which is very helpful. I used to be more hands-on as a board member, but now I rather ask questions and support the CEO in making decisions. The pace is slower, I like to think I can walk with dignity instead of running as I did as a CEO. I’ve always believed problems should be solved at the lowest level possible, and I hold onto that belief as a chair.

Audience question: What skills are in demand on the board? And how often do you check in with your CEOs?

Hans: AI is a given, even though I believe its hype is dwindling. Sustainability is also always crucial, as is industry-specific knowledge. But boards shouldn’t become too specialized; the specialists should be within the company. We should only know enough to ask the right questions. I check in with my CEOs once or twice a week to discuss issues that are on top of the agenda. I serve as a sounding board and share my experience, while decisions rest with the CEO. Close contact is vital.

Question from the audience: How do you view the changing risk landscape?

Hans: The key is to be prepared and frequently reassess. There’s no use in making long-term forecasts anymore. Instead, be agile. Constantly review and revise your assessments. Be ready for the unexpected. Geopolitics occupies more of our time on the board, and that’s unlikely to decrease.

Marie-Louise: How do you approach leadership within the board?

Hans: It’s a challenge sometimes, given we only meet a few times a year, and members operate in different countries and time zones. I occasionally take an hour with each board member for input and to discuss the path forward. I believe it’s essential for everyone to understand the company’s culture, so I make sure everyone makes one or two visits to familiarize themselves with the operations. This also makes board meeting discussions more relevant. I try to avoid focusing on numbers in meetings – those should be in the background materials. I also start every meeting with a global analysis round, much like you started our conversations here today, to jumpstart the conversation.

Question from the audience: Career and personal life, what are your thoughts?

Hans: I could speak at length about work life balance, but do I practice what I preach? Not if you ask my children. They might say I wasn’t present when they were young. Achieving balance is tough. I believe you must give a bit extra to get somewhere. Have I worked towards specific goals? No. Setting goals might lead to disappointment, and you might not be open to other opportunities. I’ve just kept working and stayed curious.

Marie-Louise: Your joys?

Hans: I’m elated when things go well. It makes the tough times more bearable. I’ve made many mistakes but also successfully recruited seven individuals who are now CEOs of public companies. That brings me joy. I enjoy being part of discussions, conversations, and witnessing the emergence of something new. However, I need to be careful not to keep reiterating advice from the 1980s. I approach my role with humility, which I believe is a good thing since it keeps me in check.