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The leader at the back of the room

Christoph Stolle is Head of Latin America at Grünenthal. The pharmaceutical company operates in the therapeutic field of pain, with sales of $2 billion a year. At our preparatory meeting for a conference for its top 100 managers, we discuss the challenges facing the company.

Certainly, recent restructuring and upcoming changes are causing a stir. But a solid plan has been put in place, and a fresh internal survey indicates widespread confidence in the strategy and the future. But Christoph wants more.

“Understanding the company’s vision is easy.
What I want is for my leaders to have a deep emotional connection with this vision.”

A few weeks later, at a meeting in Mexico City, one of the executives gave a presentation on the new strategy. But in the conclusion, he talks about his motivations and his personal connection with chronic pain. He becomes emotional. In front of his peers, the top executives of a major company, he tries to hold back his sobs and a silence descends.

Just then, vigorous applause rings out from the back of the room. The one applauding is Christoph Stolle. Inspired by their leader, the rest of the audience applauds. The presenter, for his part, is now proud of his team’s support.

It was a very touching moment, but also full of lessons. Here’s what we can learn from Christoph’s leadership:

  • To maximize engagement, make sure employees have a deep emotional connection with the vision. By applauding, Christoph reinforces his wish, which in my opinion is also a strategy for success. Because this emotional connection is a powerful fuel that turns into a competitive advantage and a differentiator.
  • Create a climate of psychological safety. Manager or not, we do our best work in psychologically safe environments. This means being able to be yourself at work, not being afraid of failure, being able to share your ideas without fear of judgment, etc. (the list goes on). Several studies show that psychological safety in the workplace enhances commitment, which translates into a direct increase in performance*.
  • Encourage and celebrate authenticity. Leadership is a behavior, not a title. Christoph encourages authenticity, vulnerability and humility among top executives. By embodying these leadership traits, each manager can then build trust and commitment with their respective teams.

I have the pleasure of attending and participating in around fifty of these meetings every year. Very often, senior management is seated at the front, close to the stage. Not this time. I noticed that Christoph spent the entire three-day meeting standing at the back of the room.

Relentlessly, he watched the audience for every reaction. He scanned people’s gazes in a deeply invested way, demonstrating a real love for his managers, the company and its vision. Christoph wanted to make sure he understood and, of course, responded to doubts and dissatisfactions, as well as successes.

Christoph, the leader at the back of the room, was in a position of service.

Thanks Christoph!

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