The 2008 recession sent automakers reeling, and it redefined the industry in ways that are still unfolding. Volvo Cars is in the middle of its reinvention: The company in 2014 enacted a six-year, multibillion-dollar turnaround plan.
In America the execution of that new vision falls to Lex Kerssemakers, who became CEO of Volvo North America in January 2015. The 30-year Volvo veteran credits his leadership views with a particular mix of his native Dutch determinedness and the flexibility of his new home country.
“I’m European, and we are quick to put people in a box: Once you are a lawyer, you’re a lawyer for life. It makes us inflexible,” he says. Americans, by contrast, are practical about change – even welcoming of it – and adapt well to being placed on a new path.
That’s key to life at Volvo, Kerssemakers says. In a wide-ranging discussion at Volvo America’s New Jersey-based headquarters, he told Glassdoor about revamping an iconic brand, how to stick with the plan amid chaos, and why he loves conflict.
Have confidence in yourself and your plan – and stick to it
“I tell all youngsters here: You need to believe in something. If you want to have responsibility, you need to dare to take it. And if it goes wrong then you have to be responsible for the consequences. I’m 56, and even 10 years ago I wouldn’t have dared to take this job. I didn’t have the mental readiness.
In our case, in 2008 we made some major decisions. We decided we would do only 4-cylinder engines. That was a very controversial decision in those days. But it was based on where we thought society was going, and who are we, Volvo, to fit into that?
I had former Volvo executives, retailers, journalists, all calling and saying, ‘What the hell are you doing, Lex?’ Even internally – even as our engineers were working on four-cylinder models – it still wasn’t fully accepted two years later since we still had five- and six-cylinder models at that time. People don’t think that far ahead in that way.
If it had been the wrong decision, it would have sunk the company. But if you’re confident in your plan you have to stay the course. And it wasn’t until about a year before we implemented the strategy that the world finally began to change.
You ultimately have to trust the strategy, believe in it, and execute it. [Volvo’s turnaround plan] is a six-year journey. There will be dips and you’ll need to adapt. But as a leader you have to stay in charge of yourself; otherwise, other people run you. So you do need to be a little stubborn – but it’s a fine line between arrogance and stubbornness, and you need to stay on the right side of that.”
Radical transparency and embracing conflict
“We did [the turnaround] in a very transparent way. I’m very ‘what you see is what you get.’ I could be good at playing politics, but I think it’s a waste of time. So I’m emotional. I’m moody sometimes. I say what I think. I like to be challenged. I’m Dutch; we love conflict. The key is that it leads to the decision that’s best for the company. Let’s move on and close that door.
That [attitude] had to be brought back to Volvo. When I came here, I would purposely make a stupid remark and wait for someone to say something. Early on I said some nonsense thing and no one really said anything. After about five minutes I asked, ‘Do you agree?’ And eventually they said, ‘Well, no, Lex.’ I said, ‘Good! Then you need to tell me that! We don’t have time for this!’ I was coming from headquarters to the U.S. and I didn’t know anything. I needed this team of experts to be straightforward and be willing to have that dialogue. But it took time to change the culture in that way.”
How to stay focused on the end goal
“Everybody has a tendency to jump on everything. There was so much going on when I came here, and the team was already working on what was a very sharp, detailed, focused turnaround plan. We had identified a number of activities for 2015, 2016, 2017.
So when I first started I had to remind everyone, including myself, that we have limited resources. Our plan was very black-and-white. Is it on the list? No? Then I’m not going to spend time on it. Otherwise you’ll drown. Then, I don’t overcomplicate. I try to come to the essence of the issue and separate the main things from the adjacent areas. Make the decision and move on.
Sometimes I have a tendency to make a decision too quickly, and someone should speak. If a competent person tells me it should be this way –while I’ll always ask questions because I love to challenge them — if they’re confident I will trust them. Trusting competence gives the organization the ability to make a decision itself.”
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Wrong decisions are better than no decisions
“If you screw something up, fine. Every day I make a mistake – sometimes I manage to hide it and sometimes I don’t, but I’d rather make a decision that is wrong than not make a decision at all. If we sit down and have a discussion about something, I want to decide right there. Let’s not have another meeting in a week. We’ll make the decision, try it, and if it doesn’t work after three weeks, we’ll change it. I want to make a decision only once, and then adapt when necessary. Better a poor decision than none.”
Don’t try to be a leader you’re not
“Unless you’re an entrepreneur with your own business, it’s not about you; it’s about the organization. So as a leader, you need to find your place in the organization where you and your skills have the most added value. You need to be who you are.
I’ve learned a lot over the past 30 years, but I’m still as emotional as I was then. People got triggered by my emotional nature, for positive or negative, and people told me when I was 29 that I was too passionate and not serious enough. But this is me: I’m engaged, I’m driven, this is my passion. I can be no one else.
My goal was never to get here [in this job]; my journey just wasn’t that specific. I took steps where I knew I could add value and I dared to take the opportunity. Now it is my head on the block if something goes wrong. But I trust in the organization and its people.
It’s rewarding. We’ve had so many troubles in the past that I invite people to take a look back for five minutes at where we were just a few years ago. It starts to resonate. Walking around and seeing happy employees, and talking to retailers who are investing in us – well, who could need more? You see little sparks on the human side, and you can say, ‘Good. It’s working.’ Then you go to sleep and do it again.”