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Frankfurt School of Finance & Management President, Professor Dr Nils Stieglitz: “Why a leader must remain ambitious even during a crisis”

Professor Dr Nils Stieglitz

“Even during a crisis, as a leader you have to remain ambitious. You have to remain focused, not so much on the present, but what are the future opportunities for us? What potential do we have?”

I had the pleasure of interviewing Professor Dr Nils Stieglitz, the President and Managing Director of Frankfurt School of Finance & Management. As Professor of Strategy he is a firm believer in clarity, he feels that as a leader you should never waste a crisis, but instead see it as a time to focus on what is truly important. Despite the challenges associated with the pandemic he remains hopeful for the future, for his organisation and for liberty and free enterprise.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I’ve been in academia for 20 years and, as an academic, I’ve really lived through the ivory tower where I have had the freedom to pick my own pursuits. Even before taking on this leadership position, I was a Professor of Strategy, and I always had a deep interest in how organisations adapt in a changing competitive landscape which I was allowed to explore. But at one point in my career, I started to question whether what I was researching was actually useful? Is this interesting? Is this in any way relevant?

I saw becoming President and Managing Director of Frankfurt School of Finance & Management as a completely new experience. It was a chance to test out my research — and to learn more about myself.

What motivates you?

Essentially what motivates me is having a lasting impact. So, when I was a professor, I was trying to have a lasting impact on my research field, I wanted to be known in that particular field. And I think this has now shifted from having a lasting impact in a particular research field over to having a lasting impact as the President and Managing Director of Frankfurt School of Finance & Management when I’m retired, I wanted to look back and say, yeah, I was actually part of that story, I helped shape it. I believe that is quite gratifying.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

Developing a clear strategy and being ready to make the hard decisions based on that. As a leader you need to understand what is critical for your strategy and what is not.

This has helped us during the pandemic, we have had to revisit many of many of the investment plans that we formulated before the crisis. What has helped our team immensely is having a clear understanding of what is truly critical. Where should we invest now, what investments to put on hold You can only do that if you have clarity about your strategy.

Resources are not abundant during a crisis; you are forced to focus on what is really important. And that alone forces you to make some of the hard decisions, the decisions you might have let slide when times were good and your revenue streams were secure.

But never waste a crisis, see it as time to focus on what is truly important, what’s really critical and remember that clarity in your strategy is crucial.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

Ambition. Even during a crisis, as a leader you have to remain ambitious. You have to remain focused, not so much on the present, but what are the future opportunities for us? What potential do we have?

What people say about Ronald Reagan is that he had this sunny optimism and that has stuck with me. This ideology that yes, the present might suck but, in the future, things are going to get better. And if we do a good job, we’re going to accomplish this. Believing that every event has its risks and its opportunities. I think, especially in crisis, it’s very helpful to focus on the upside, especially when you are in a leadership position — but that alone is not enough. As a leader you also need to instil confidence in your team. They need to believe they have the competency to weather the storm, and they need to be ready to seize the opportunities that are waiting for them in the future.

Ambition is not enough; you need to give your team a sense of security and confidence. That combination is key and that is also what we were trying to achieve at the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management and I’m pleased to say so far, it seems to be quite successful.

Which three words best describe your approach to leadership and why?

I think I am an ambitious person by nature. In the past I’ve never been satisfied with my career. I always believed that I could do better and that drive to do more has kept me going. The flip side of that is that you are never truly happy because there is always something in the back of your head telling you can do better. You have to try and carefully balance that feeling.

I am also assertive. I can make pretty bold statements; I push back and I’m willing to make the hard decisions that others might not want to. I knew that when I took on this job and became top of the hierarchy, I would get all the knotty problems that nobody else wants to deal with. And by making these decisions the reality is you’re going to make some people unhappy. And I was a little bit afraid when I took on this role, I questioned whether I was the right person to make these hard decisions, but I now believe I am.

I’m very much results driven. I try to make sure the people on my team get a lot of leeway on how they do their jobs and how they succeed. I try to empower them. If they are unwilling to make a decision, I push back, I clearly tell them they have to be the one to make the call. I let people have control over their camp. I believe that’s how you get the best out of people.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

But that’s not entirely true. I mean I think we can predict pretty well what tomorrow is going to look like. There are so many relevant things for business that we can predict. On the other hand, there are things that we cannot predict. And I think COVID-19 is a marvellous example of this.

There was always theoretical possibility that there might be a global pandemic, but there’s also a theoretical possibility that a nuclear war is going to break out, that aliens are going to invade Earth! All possibilities… but they’re all very unlikely. And it’s very difficult to plan for these things. I think we should have a little bit more confidence in our ability to predict what’s going to happen under normal consequences.

We have to remember that a plan and a strategy are not the same thing. A strategy is broader and it simply provides a framework for your plans later on, plans you have to adapt and change over time. There’s this famous quote that says plans never survive contact with the enemy.

You can easily spend a lot of time sitting in your office focusing on short term problems and operational problems but, at the end of the day, what really matters is actually strategy. So I think there’s probably an under investment in strategy, and an over investment into planning and this problem becomes more severe the less predictable your environment becomes.

My own research tells me that if you are in a completely unpredictable environment, what matters is your strategy. My sense is that most successful companies did not have to adapt their strategy in 2020.

Frankfurt School of Finance & Management

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

As I said before have clarity with your strategy. And that’s easier said than done.

In a classroom setting this was always very easy because there was nothing at stake. So you could always second guess others and defend your choice. But if you are suddenly the strategist, it’s a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. This is actually hard work.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most mistakes you have seen other leaders make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

I feel that the global responses to COVID-19 provide some good examples of this.

Firstly, again, the leaders lack of clarity. What was the goal here? Were we reducing the number of cases down to zero or was this about keeping infection rates to certain levels so that the hospitals don’t get overwhelmed? What you’re seeing in many countries, is that decision makers are shifting between different agendas and different strategies.

I also think world leaders are making the mistake of overreacting to short term events and short-term fluctuations.

I also think the third point, is this misallocation of attention. As a leader you have to understand what’s mission critical. This is where you should focus on where you have to focus all your energy. I think, when it comes to the COVID-19, the game changer was the vaccine, therefore this is something that leaders should focus their attention on, this has to be the priority.

If you could tell your younger self one thing what would it be?

Don’t be afraid.

It’s easy to look back and say what you could have done differently. But I have to say that I’m actually quite happy about everything I’ve done. And of course, I think there could have been different paths and roads not taken, but I feel pretty good about where I am.

What are your hopes for the future and the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management?

I hope that the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management will continue to grow — but also that we keep our edge, that we remain as vibrant and as innovative as we currently are. I think it’s vital that we preserve this.

I am hopeful about the world. It might seem like a very dangerous place to be right now. But if you look at the broader picture, things have actually improved over the last decades and centuries. We live longer, we are generally more affluent, not just in Europe, but also in Asia, increasingly in Africa, and we have less deaths from wars.

Yet climate change is a huge danger and I hope we address that.

Our right to liberty, freedom and free enterprise has also come under a lot of pressure in the last couple of years not just because of COVID-19. I am hopeful that in the future we come back to this trajectory.

Thank you, we wish you continued success!

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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