Leading Business in the 21st century, a talk by Royal DSM CEO Feike Sijbesma

Royal DSM is a big player in Life Sciences, not only in the Maastricht region but also worldwide. CEO Feike Sijbesma, who travels the world to drive his company forward, shared his experience and advice on 7 October with an audience of about 200 students and professors at Maastricht University.

Sijbesma started off with a simple question: “Are you happy?” Some students reluctantly tried “Yes”, others hesitated “Not really” but they didn’t really understand the context yet. Sijbesma went on by wondering out loud whether anybody in the audience was aware that 3000 people had died in the afternoon. This was apparently not reported in the news because it’s a daily occurrence that does not reach mainstream media. In the US alone, 50 million people live below poverty level. Silent hunger, global warming, food scarcity and a growing population are just a few of the challenges the world is facing today, Sijbesma said, pointing out these issues require our attention.

“Sustainability is not only a trend, it’s a requirement,” he declared, adding that as a big company, Royal DSM should and does play its role in shaping the global business landscape. “If you have power, you’d better show your responsibility,” he urged.

Royal DSM developed over time from coal mining to life sciences. “The fittest will survive,” Sijbesma said. “It’s not the strongest or the fastest but the one who can adapt most to a changing environment.”

He elaborated on the logical move towards life sciences and molecular sciences by giving a few examples of products and key markets. The agriculture industry needs more innovation. At the moment, 30 to 50 per cent of what we produce is thrown away. This means that the opportunity is there and we have a social responsibility towards future generations to help improve these odds.

Sijbesma also spoke about Royal DSM’s leadership model. “Leaders start with insight, into themselves and others,” he said. “If you don’t understand yourself, nobody will follow. Even if you are right, all you will have in the end is the certitude in hindsight that your opinion was correct.”

Leaders also shape and connect. They set a direction and inspire others to follow. They also focus on results, deliver the targets that have been set and they keep developing, themselves and other people. “You will not achieve anything alone,” Sijbesma pointed out. “Your vision is worthless if nobody follows.”

Taking this idea to a broader perspective, Sijbesma stressed the importance of Royal DSM’s triple bottom line: People, Planet, Profit. “You cannot be successful in a world that fails,” he said. “There is a new economic reality that we have to adapt to. Taking into consideration the whole picture is the only way to leading a good company.” This applies both in good times as well as in times of scarcity. “If you are willing to jeopardize your values when it counts, then you have no values,” he declared.

Out of many questions that emerged after the talk, one stood out: What is the role of education and students in this changing economy?

Sijbesma indicated that the Netherlands has the highest level of education in the world, mostly subsidised by the government. In his view, this privilege also comes with a great responsibility. “You’re much too educated to consume the world,” he concluded. “Play your part and help shape it!”

 

By Ana Mihail
Chief Inspiration Officer at Maastricht Centre for Entrepreneurship

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