Pieter Nuboer is President for DSM Nutritional Products in Asia Pacific. A very engaged and energizing 'global citizen' who shares his inspiring journey as a leader and what he has learned so far.
Q: What are the pivotal lessons you’ve learned that have impacted your leadership style?
I’m fortunate to have lived in six countries on three continents and having traveled the globe extensively. It’s been a massive learning opportunity to live in different cultures. What I’ve learned about myself, is recognizing and accepting what I don’t understand. Anecdotally perhaps, yet when you go to a foreign country and you think their English is not good, it’s really your lack of ability to speak the local language.
In every role, I’ve learned that people can be successful with two qualities. The first is energy or drive. This encompasses resilience and the ability to learn from failure. The second quality is empathy, so adapting to different people but keeping the fine line between staying authentic and adapting. In all this, I’m learning the ability to suspend judgment, which is still an ongoing journey.
I’m learning to accept that I’m not perfect. There’s no such thing as a perfect leader. Know what your strengths are, leverage these, and don’t be blind sighted to the points where you seek to be complemented by others in your team.
Q. You know there’s no such thing as a “perfect leader” but others may expect leaders to have all the answers. How do you deal with this?
I’ve learnt that leadership is with the head, the heart and the gut. The head is about future-sensing, the heart is about the emotional / interpersonal connection with the team, customers, suppliers etc. and the gut is for making decisions under pressure. I prefer to think collectively with my team. I’m inspired by Truman’s quote about how you can achieve anything you want, provided you don’t care who takes the credit. I’m not the guy who goes up to take the prize but I’ll be the first one to compliment someone in my team. You build the right quality of dialogue when you actually listen to each other. I’m very passionate about instilling curiosity in my teams, encouraging them to ask each other, “Tell me more”, as opposed to “yes but…”
We went through a leadership training at my company where we learnt that getting the best out of yourself involves the right combination of nutrition, mindset, exercise and recovery. I have an unwritten rule that, when you’re going for lunch with team members, you’ll get fined for talking about work. When you talk about work, you’re missing an opportunity to recover and personally connect. You could be talking about families, kids, problems at home. Recovery is also about laughter and not least about the need to laugh at ourselves.
It’s about constantly building a quality of dialogue, harvesting opinions rather than denying them. It’s not just about the boss deciding but about individuals taking responsibility and seeking to complement each other; step up and have an opinion as to where you will want to contribute in shaping your team.
Q. What does “a sense of purpose” mean to you in the context of your leadership journey?
There was a pivotal moment in my life when I was at a leadership programme in Singapore. One leader asked the rhetorical question, “At what point in your career do you stop managing results and lead with purpose?” I’d always been good at delivering results. But I was never shaping a vision, for example around sustainability, or around purpose within the team itself. In this moment, I realized that, if I wanted to continue to develop myself as a leader, I needed to start thinking about this.
I’ve tried to connect beyond the natural boundaries of the business unit I work in. By maneuvering myself into an ecosystem of different leaders in different companies, I’ve broadened my perspective and can shape the company with a clearer purpose. To embrace this, I needed to be less selfish and more selfless. Selfish is about, “I do that set of numbers”, and that’s it. Selfless is about, “On top of that, I’m going to do other stuff and give more than I’m asked for.”
It was a conscious choice to go out of my comfort zone. I was motivated by a fear of stillness and stagnation - it’s not good enough to just sit on the sidelines. You will not inspire people if you do the same thing over and over again. We need leaders who go and shape industry dialogue. I like letting other people shine - I’m not the stage guy - but I needed to push myself out of my comfort zone to shape things.
Q. You made choices to step in and out of corporate life. How did you make these difficult career choices?
In my 40s, I left a very good career in corporate life and was denounced mad to do so. Looking back, it was very difficult but I think it was due to that fear of stagnation. I didn’t want to stay in my corporate job just for my pension. Entrepreneurial life was tough and yet great: I certainly learned about the pressure of survival and collateral, unlike in a large corporation that is fine with or without you. However, I also realized that you actually get more sucked into managing results without the stimulus to grow and be challenged personally, so I decided to go back into corporate. Larger corporations provide training and different peer pressure to help you learn and grow, and possibly you can make a bigger impact through shaping the dialogue culture of the team.
Q. As a leader, different forces can pull you in different directions and rock the boat. How do you stay connected to your initial goals and trust that the direction you’re taking is the right one?
In the current climate, businesses are always worrying about what’s around the corner and whether we can deliver on our promises. It’s important to instill calmness in the team. Yes, we are fastening our seatbelts for turbulence, yet we’re not changing course or moving away from purpose. It’s very much about how we can see past the short-term roadblocks - removing them as teams - but knowing that the direction stays unchanged.
Q. And how do you remain calm within yourself?
It reminds me of a leadership programme at Wharton Business School, a professor taught us how to define the nature of any problem, which focuses on your ability to resolve the situation at hand. When there is turbulence, it’s easy to fall into the trap of talking about things that are wrong. But I have a duty to constantly think about what I am doing now to resolve the problem.
One strength I actually have is when things go really, really bad, I actually become more calm, except on the golf course (that’s a different story!)...I don’t mind problems. They inspire me. When things are going well, I get a little bored. When a big challenge pops up, it’s inspiring. I find meaning in solving problems and dealing with challenges.
One time in my early 30s in Indonesia, the key-decision maker of a major client was very upset with a service issue and I was told we were at high risk of losing all our business. So I said, “Let’s go see her.” My colleague warned me that we needed to make an appointment but I told him, “I don’t want an appointment. I just want to go sit on the doorstep and wait to see her.” And so we went to see her, talked about the weather in Holland...for an hour we talked about all kinds of irrelevant things. Then I addressed the problem openly with her and we sorted it out there on the spot. My relationship with her over the next three years was amazing. Not only did we not lose the business but we grew the business dramatically over the next years.
It was bold but also confronting the brutal facts. I enjoy “putting the dead fish on the table” and being brutally honest with each other. Let’s address the issue and not blame individuals, it doesn’t matter how we got here. When things aren’t going right, I don’t blame the circumstances. I’ll admit my mistakes or that I didn’t see this coming and then think about what we could have done differently.
Q. How do you stay connected to what’s important and where do you get your energy from every day?
Seeing people grow gives me energy and makes me tick, going back to the Truman quote about not worrying about who takes credit. And turning the learning I’ve had into becoming a better father. I have three wonderful kids, one grown up and the last two boys, 12 and 14, and I try to connect with them and make them better people and maximize their potential. This gives me the most energy.
I’ve constantly done better than I did since that pivot of constantly trying to lead from purpose. I’m half Extrovert and Introvert in my Myers-Briggs Personality results. I don’t think I’m known for being superior at networking externally, but internally, I’m now known to be a massive networker. It’s quite an interesting disconnect.
I remember to stay curious. There’s so much out there that I don’t know that I don’t know, but I’m excited to keep learning and finding my purpose.
Q. In these unprecedented times, what’s your take on how leaders and companies are driving through it and focus on purpose?
As a company, we are applying our scientific know-how and resources in the areas of nutrition and materials to help ease the impact of covid-19 in local communities. Our teams have been distributing free immunity-optimizing vitamins and personal protective equipment to communities close to DSM production sites across Asia, Europe, Latin and North America. By creating the UNITE4COVID digital platform, we are connecting healthcare providers and manufacturers with open-access 3D printing files and the expertise to deliver faster solutions to many urgent medical needs. And we have also given monetary contributions to NGOs in various countries, supporting those who are most vulnerable around the world.
The covid-19 pandemic highlights the importance of international collaboration to manage issues that do not stop at borders—like climate change. It is critical that the world avoids repeating the mistakes of the 2008/09 financial crash, when the emergency fiscal stimulus boosted the use of fossil resources even further. There is now a real opportunity to ensure that long-term investments are used to build a more resilient future. We can come out of this crisis both greener and cleaner, which is why DSM is a supporter of the Green Recovery Alliance that advocates for putting climate change mitigation and biodiversity at the heart of any post-covid-19 economic stimulus.
If anything, COVID-19 has helped us to determine what’s necessary, what we’ve been doing wrong, and what we can do better. As a purpose-led organization, our business strategy if based on five particular United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These include SDG 2: zero hunger, SDG 3: good health and well-being, SDG 7: affordable and clean energy, SGD 13: climate action and SDG 12: responsible consumption and production. I’d like to look at COVID-19 as an opportunity to create a pivot for the well-being of the triple bottom line People, Planet and Profit. Companies and leaders alike need to understand that economic, social, and environmental requirements are all equally important to help achieve the SDGs in Asia and realize a low-carbon, climate resilient future.
Thanks Pieter, for your wonderful story!