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Gerhard Bley and the empathetic leadership

I have followed the career of Gerhard Bley, a business leader with a background from both private business and non-profit organizations, for many years. We have spoken several times over the years, and it was with great pleasure that we had the opportunity to meet before Christmas to talk about his experiences, leadership, and values.

Most people know Gerhard through his commitment to good leadership and he is a popular speaker and author on the subject. In 2012, he wrote the book “Instinkt eller Insikt” (“Instinct or Insight”) and coined the term “the empathetic leadership”.

I met with Gerhard to talk about his career, his interest in horses, and his view of leadership that puts people first.

Gerhard has recently completed a more than ten-year journey as CEO of O. Kavli. With eight acquisitions, the company has gone through huge changes and has grown from one to fourteen brands, new factories, several reorganizations, and has gone from SEK 400 million to SEK 1 billion in turnover. The success depends to a large extent on his leadership that permeates the entire value-driven business. “Leading major changes successfully, in my opinion, is based on involving, being open and transparent, listening, motivating and engaging.”

“When I was studying for a business degree, I didn’t know what I wanted to work with, but I knew that I liked building and developing teams. That is something that I have taken with me from sports. My choices may not always have been career-promoting, but always educative.”

His career began as an accountant, but he soon got business-related roles. At AST Computer, he quickly got responsibility for the entire supply chain in the Nordic region, something made possible by a very good mentor who believed in him: “Some advice I can give all young people who are starting their career is to get mentors. Listen to their experiences and let them help you in your career and development.”

Already in 1995, he got his first CEO role at Fagerdala World Foams where he led a global venture towards the automotive industry. “Working towards the automotive industry taught me how to manage cyclical fluctuations, enormous global price pressures, and how to work with structures and processes. The role required close cooperation with our suppliers and customers so that could be successful.” When it was discovered by chance that a special kind of foam had offloading qualities, they developed the Tempur mattress, incorporated it into the business, and developed a completely new distribution channel in retail with about 120 stores. Tempur was launched globally and is today one of the world’s largest manufacturers of bed mattresses. As CEO of Tempur, he became interested in consumer products and retail, people and their buying behaviour, consumer insights, and marketing.

After six years, his mentor hired him back to the IT world in a role as CEO of Defcom, a company active in IT security. After six months, it was discovered that the money was gone, and his mission changed from growth to cost-cutting and layoffs. “It was important not to panic but to work methodically with a large dose of humility and humanity.” The remnants of the company were sold and Gerhard’s great interest in horses led him to a role as CEO of Täby Gallop when there was a vacancy. “I’ve always had a great interest in horses and horse riding. I have been involved in Täby Gallop for a long time as a board member and have also been an amateur jockey! It was great to be able to “give back” and work operationally in the business.”

“I think ‘short-termism’ is a big challenge in business, just thinking about the value that the stock market creates, is that really the right way? The work culture is performance-based in a commercial market, but we can work a lot with values too.”

When a new CEO was recruited to Täby Gallop, he wanted to return to consumer products. This time to a new industry as General Manager Classic Coffee for Arvid Nordqvist where he led a turnaround and re-built the brand that had lost ground. His next career step was also within consumer products, as he in 2006 took the role as Sales Director at Arla Foods during a tough period when the entire dairy monopoly was broken up, “It was a tough period with an enormous competition, but exciting.”

After Arla Foods, his journey went to O. Kavli and his work with his own leadership began. Gerhard started to question his own leadership and went through a personal development taking him from a traditional “mechanical” leadership to “empathetic leadership.” His philosophy is that you must start with yourself, and reach the confidence and maturity to lead others, based on four points: be genuine, be aware, be present, and have balance in the big and the small.

Before he reached these insights, he says that his own leadership was traditional, patriarchal, and distanced where the boss came first and went last. While working with himself and his values, he felt that this was not the way he himself wanted to be met by others and the idea of empathetic leadership was born. Good leadership based on compassion builds a trusting environment where people feel included and willing to perform and deliver. The empathetic leadership was introduced at O. Kavli and was started by sending the entire management team to therapy sessions. “You have to start at the top to get down through the whole organization.”

The foundation for strong leadership according to Gerhard:

  1. Start with yourself, your self-awareness, and your self-image
  2. Create close, transparent, and authentic relationships
  3. Create a trusting and safe environment

Going forward, Gerhard will continue to be involved in board work, as a speaker, author, and advisor. He is involved in investing in start-ups active in sustainable plant-based foods, such as for example Oatlaws. He concludes our meeting by saying that he himself would like to be a mentor and contribute with his experiences, which in turn will give him new insights and input.

“Meet people, let them talk, break down the changes into smaller parts that inspires on an individual level.”

About O. Kavli:

“O. Kavli was founded in 1893 by Olav Kavli, and was transferred to a foundation, Kavlifonden, in the 1960’s. The foundation manages and distributes the surplus to charitable causes, both in Sweden and internationally. This structure gives an important add-on to the employees and a clear ‘value culture’ where they contribute to something good. All employees can participate in influencing by nominating the organization closest to the heart.”

About changing industries:

“Many employers are hesitant to bring in a person from another industry, but when you have many years of experience behind you, you know that it is the same toolbox you use regardless of industry. As an individual, it gives me new challenges and perspectives, I see things in new ways and can apply these in new assignments. You should take the best from different industries and reuse them. Working with systems, processes, managing economic situations, market- and consumer insights in different areas have given me a broader portfolio of tools and greater security in my role as a leader. It is all about common sense and good leadership. The specific industry knowledge is not always necessary, the expertise is in the company.”

About mentorship:

“If I had known the value of having a mentor earlier in my career, I would have used it more systematically. There is so much to learn from each other through the generations and I find very awarding to apply the experience from others. My mentor has followed me through all these years, and we still have a relationship. It can be quite lonely in a CEO role, and it is valuable to have a mentor and a sounding board to discuss with and to reflect on your challenges with a person who has done it before. The benefits of reflecting should not be underestimated.”


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By Jannike Falkman

Jannike Falkman
Marketing Manager Nordic Region

Jannike has eleven years of experience from Executive Search & Interim Management and ten years from PR, marketing and communications. Her latest employment prior to Nordic Interim was with Impact Executives as a Senior Executive Researcher.