The Agenda

#8 - Susanne Ruoff - Why every leader needs a sparring partner

November 09, 2021 The Agenda
#8 - Susanne Ruoff - Why every leader needs a sparring partner
The Agenda
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The Agenda
#8 - Susanne Ruoff - Why every leader needs a sparring partner
Nov 09, 2021
The Agenda

On how to gain trust and build a dream team: Why every leader needs a sparring partner

The Agenda podcast series uncovers the path leaders take from challenge to decision. In this podcast, Susanne Ruoff, CEO & Owner Ruoff Advisory GmbH, speaks about ways to gain trust and build great teams. For more podcasts, stay connected at  

The Agenda is brought to you by Sherpany #Leading Together

Thank you for listening! Visit us at or follow us on LinkedIn for board, board committee, and executive meetings solutions.

Show Notes Transcript

On how to gain trust and build a dream team: Why every leader needs a sparring partner

The Agenda podcast series uncovers the path leaders take from challenge to decision. In this podcast, Susanne Ruoff, CEO & Owner Ruoff Advisory GmbH, speaks about ways to gain trust and build great teams. For more podcasts, stay connected at  

The Agenda is brought to you by Sherpany #Leading Together

Thank you for listening! Visit us at or follow us on LinkedIn for board, board committee, and executive meetings solutions.

Nisha Pillai 00:00:06

Wherever we look, our world is facing a huge range of unprecedented challenges. So if you were a leader right now, how would you navigate your way through this? How do you make decisions in the teeth of so much uncertainty? How are you going to reconnect your people and rebuild your team so that they're fit to face the future? And what does that even mean to be a leader in such an increasingly challenging world?

These and other questions I've been putting into top business leaders from across Europe and I've had some surprisingly candid responses. So why don't you join me, Nisha Pillai, for the latest episode brought to you by Sherpany of The Agenda.

My guest today is steeped in data analytics and digitalisation, and she also mentors other business leaders on the challenges of leadership. Her name is Susanne Ruoff, and for over seven years she ran Switzerland's third biggest company, Swiss Post as CEO.

She now runs her own advisory company, working closely as a sparring partner with other C-suite executives. Well, let's meet her, shall we? What makes her tick?

Hello, Susanne, welcome to The Agenda.

Susanne Ruoff 00:01:27

Hello, Nisha.

Nisha Pillai 00:01:29

So, I want to start by asking you what it was like when you first joined Swiss Post? You were an outsider. You had a long career at IBM, and then you led BT in Switzerland. You came in with a digitisation mission, also the first female CEO.

How did you gain the trust of the people in this very different organisation, Swiss Post?

Susanne Ruoff 00:01:54

I think when I remember back trust this something, first, it starts with yourself. Do you give people trust, and then do people trust in what you will achieve?

And I was called for the CEO job because of my digital and my technical background and the whole experience I had there. So looking for trust, first you have no distrust when people see a new CEO. What will he or she do? Do they eliminate jobs?

And all these fears come up and, therefore, I started really to make the first months only in the employee area. I was going around all over Switzerland as well as abroad to learn from the people: where they are, what kind of fear they have, and things like this. You need to know your base.

Nisha Pillai 00:02:52

What did you find most difficult about putting your stamp on Swiss Post?

Susanne Ruoff 00:02:59

I think you need to first make a clear lighthouse way of how you go forward with this because everybody has different things, even those who say digitalisation, everybody thinks something different. This is a buzzword. This is not clear what happens and, therefore, we really define first a vision.

What should be a positive future and then how it looks. The strategy that leads the way to this vision, to this lighthouse, and then how we take everybody with us and always, according to customer needs.

And the most difficult thing is to really bring running up this, this vision going in the direction, bring everybody, 60,000 people at this time into Swiss Post, how can you bring them behind all these ideas in this development, and how can you engage them? That was, for me, the most important, but also the most difficult process.

Nisha Pillai 00:04:00

So there must have been quite a lot of suspicion about you and your mission. You were an outsider, you were trying to change the organisation.

How easy is it as a leader to live with that? The fact that there are many people who probably don't like you and are very suspicious of you.

Susanne Ruoff 00:04:17

You can imagine it's not only employees, there is a lot of stakeholder around, you know, not everybody sees what you're doing in a good way. It's a lot of criticism. It's a lot of different opinions.

I think you need to dance and to bring all these people together, but you never will achieve that. I know that already. But the most difficult thing is to have a message of why you do this. It needs this pain to change, and if you don't do this, the competition will come in and there will be a lot of other pains we have to do, and that's change, this painful drill to really get it and then push people forward.

That's really the most important and most difficult thing. I had to fight with myself as well. And I'll say, do I really make it in the right tempo or is it too fast? Is it not too fast? Do we have to accelerate?

And yes, people have to be convinced that they need to go with you because otherwise you can't do it, but you have to convince them on the way. You can't do it from the beginning because they don't think it's right. They have different ideas.

Nisha Pillai 00:05:34

So you have been a trailblazer as a woman in a very techie world. That couldn't have been easy. Were you having to work harder to make your mark?

Susanne Ruoff 00:05:49

Yes, as a woman, you are always in a very high observation, especially when you start. And I was always the first woman in a team, and I think it's very important that I always looked at more females and more women, they can join my team, because it makes a difference in the atmosphere. I can't describe this really, what this is exactly, but there is a different thinking and it adds more to inclusion.

And if you look at customers, they are always different, different people and as well women, and I felt that when we go in the customer area and there were some women, and we were only men, and I'm the only one, I don't feel so good. So, I think it's really good if we have mixed teams. That makes a difference.

Nisha Pillai 00:06:46

And do women have a different style of leadership? Do they make better leaders? 

Susanne Ruoff 00:06:53

I think you can't say better or worse, I don't know, but it's a different style. I'm personally, when I was leading the Post, I had such a different style. I was not the same leader than my predecessor. 

And I think it's really, you need to live your style and women are often very inclusive, and they want sometimes, you probably wait a little bit longer or you ask questions.

One example, I was asking a lot of questions, and men always said to me 'why do you make so many questions? don't you know the answer?' And I said, no, that's a misunderstanding. I want to know your souls, and I want to know what you think. That's why I'm asking.

So you need to explain what you do as a woman, because you are not exactly the same as the men, that's clear.

Nisha Pillai 00:07:53

I know you had a difficult experience and had to step down as CEO of Swiss Post and there's an ongoing case with the POST-BUS subsidiary, so you can't talk to us about it in any detail. Of course, I totally get that.

But one of the things I've been exploring in my conversations with leaders is how do they respond to the setbacks that they encounter? Is it possible to turn them into learning experiences, for instance?

So what was your experience? How did you deal with that setback?

Susanne Ruoff 00:08:25

I think when you get in a crisis, or in a very difficult situation as a leader, you have two sides to deal with. You have you personally, how you take this. You can't change it. You probably don't find it fair or right, whatever you think, but you have to deal with yourself, and you have to accept that's the situation, how we go out.

And then, the other is the company. How you deal with the company. How you steer the company in a difficult situation, in a crisis, and in things like this.

And my personal learning is first take your mirror and ask yourself, what do you want to go? You can just go out and say, OK, I leave everything and walk away.

Or you can say, this is more my opinion and my spirit, what I have to do that we can go in the right direction? And then you have to lead the company, but you also have to see when the company, and you personally, are dividing because often, and you see this in all cases of leaders, at the end, especially the media, is focussed on the leader.

And this, you have to deal with yourself. So divide in the right moment, but steer the company, but also be very honest and clear with yourself, and look in the mirror what you're doing.

Do you want to walk away? Do you want to go on? Do you want to solve? What type you are?

Nisha Pillai 00:10:05

It couldn't have been at all easy, Susanne, when it came to that point when there was a parting of the ways and your path moved on from Swiss Post. How did you cope with that? How do you cope with it as an individual?

Susanne Ruoff 00:10:20

You have to integrate all the different stakeholders, and just do it very professionally, be communicative as good as you can or what you can and what not, and involve also the right people to analyse.

And on the personal side, you have to cover also your direct family members or friends. Because this is important, because they are also involved, because the name in my case was clear. And the children, you have to protect them from this, because this is also a thing I learnt.

Not very fair, but it is like it is. You have to protect.

Nisha Pillai 00:11:00

Now you run your own advisory firm, Susanne, and you are giving advice very closely on a daily basis with other very senior leaders and with governing boards, I understand.

What advice do you give based on your own experience regarding managing difficult situations?

Susanne Ruoff 00:11:23

Look, I mean, in many transformation projects and with leaders, I think every leader knows it's not one way. There are always different situations and different options, and I'm working with this person to elaborate, and to make judgements on these options because as a leader, you need sometimes a very neutral person that can help and advise you what are the protocols, what will be the consequences of this.

And I think our world is so complex, and leaders are sometimes very much alone. I support leaders, and I like this because I can help them to make this acting role. This different angle, different inputs.

Nisha Pillai 00:12:13

Leaders are very much alone. You said, can you elaborate on that?

Susanne Ruoff 00:12:19

That's a good point. Alone means not alone. You have always your team, you have your board, you have your consultants, whatever you put around you. But there are sometimes moments you're really alone with you, and you need to make very difficult decisions. And that's when I step in.

Nisha Pillai 00:12:43

So, you can provide that sounding board to leaders when they have to make those decisions. Is that how you see your role? Because on your resume, I noticed that you call yourself a sparring partner to senior leaders. And I thought, oh, I wonder what that means?

Susanne Ruoff 00:13:01

OK, we talked before of a difficult situation. It's not always a difficult situation. It's also having a sparring partner, on the same level you can exchange certain ideas about the future because the future is always a journey to go on.

There are many, many roles in this sparring partner, coaching, mentoring, whatever you wanna call it, it's different. Or it's also onboarding for new leaders, because if you become the CEO, you need to learn certain things, and if somebody can help you and give you some advice, that would also be a good start for them.

Nisha Pillai 00:13:41

What are the kinds of things that young leaders, new leaders grapple with when they first make that transition to being the top person, the main decision maker?

Susanne Ruoff 00:13:53

They don't have this experience with certain types of people, probably. I don't want to generalised, but that's what I see, young leaders, they have a lot of ideas and a lot of power, but they have to look how this team works together.

Is it an inclusive team? Is a team diverse? Do they really catch all these different opinions? All these different types of people?

Because you can't have only green on blue. You need to have all the colours. That's important. So you need this team that really brings all the aspects in, because if you miss one, later it could be a mistake, and I think it really makes sense to have a diverse team. But diversity is not only gender, it's all facets of diversity and inclusion.

Nisha Pillai 00:14:54

And the work you're doing with leaders now, what do you think are the key issues that they are grappling with? The key uncertainties, decisions that they have to make right now?

Susanne Ruoff 00:15:08

I think the complexity is very much growing. There are so many points to include and especially if you drive a business who is not only one product and one service. So you have to be very careful that you are not disrupted to have so much complexity around that.

You can't do this alone. So, my variables are always take the best people around you so that they can make you aware, and that they can prevent you from making the biggest mistake.

Nisha Pillai 00:15:47

What are the top three tips you give them about how to run their businesses?

Susanne Ruoff 00:15:56

Three tips.

First, look at your team. What is your team around you? Is it inclusive enough that you, as a leader, can be sure you don't miss an aspect? Very important.

Probably a second one is: Have you built up a good governance? A good controlling, this is sometimes operational, but it's important, especially today in cyber. Are you really on the top of this? That's for protecting the company.

And then, of course, the business topics. How will you look in the future? What are the disruptions that can come? What could be important for your company so that you can grow or on the other side, you are in danger? What are these points? and how do you work on this?

There are many others, but I think the three are always the topic with every leader I've talked to.

Nisha Pillai 00:17:01

And at the moment, with so much uncertainty around how we're going to emerge from the COVID pandemic, and what the new world of work will look like, what are the kinds of discussions that you're hearing different leaders are making and going through?

Susanne Ruoff 00:17:19

You can divide it in financials. How can we survive? Do we have enough cash, so we can really come out of this crisis? Not every company has this.

Then to deal with where you're working. It depends on your business. Do you have a hybrid model? And then as well, how does the customer change? The customer behaviour.

For example, I'm working very much in  logistics and delivery, and there is a lot of customer change since the pandemic, and so quick, so fast. So you have to adapt.

Nisha Pillai 00:17:55

Our podcast series is all about leaders talking about leadership. Is there a final thought that you want to leave our listeners with?

Susanne Ruoff 00:18:05

My credo, or my fill rouge, or however you want to say, a leader is as good as his team, and he has his company behind him or her. And I think never forget the base of the people. They need to come with you. They are on the front of the business. So it's a people business.

Even you are in a very high tech environment, take the team with you, engaged the team, motivate the team, but also take out a lot of positive things from the team.

Nisha Pillai 00:18:43

Susanne Ruoff, it's been so interesting talking to you. Thank you very much for joining us on The Agenda.

Susanne Ruoff 00:18:51

Thank you very much, Nisha. I enjoyed it very much. Thank you.