The Agenda

#9 - Carsten Sudhoff - The courage to plunge into the unknown

November 16, 2021 The Agenda
#9 - Carsten Sudhoff - The courage to plunge into the unknown
The Agenda
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The Agenda
#9 - Carsten Sudhoff - The courage to plunge into the unknown
Nov 16, 2021
The Agenda

Empowering leaders to be agents of change: The courage to plunge into the unknown

The Agenda podcast series uncovers the path leaders take from challenge to decision. In this podcast, Carsten Sudhoff, entrepreneur and member of the Management Team von Rundstedt Switzerland, speaks about the courage to plunge into the unknown. 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

Empowering leaders to be agents of change: The courage to plunge into the unknown

The Agenda podcast series uncovers the path leaders take from challenge to decision. In this podcast, Carsten Sudhoff, entrepreneur and member of the Management Team von Rundstedt Switzerland, speaks about the courage to plunge into the unknown. 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 believes that our leadership models are broken. They need to be fixed in order to deal with the very pressing economic, ecological and social problems that we currently face. Carsten Sudhoff, was for many years, head of HR at the World Economic Forum until he had a moment of epiphany. So what happened next? Well, shall we meet him and find out?

Welcome, Carsten. Good to have you with us on The Agenda.

Carsten Sudhoff 00:01:19

It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.

Nisha Pillai 00:01:23

So you felt so strongly that we were on the wrong path, collectively, the world, that you gave up a plum job at the World Economic Forum to do something about it? What was the trigger may I ask?

Carsten Sudhoff 00:01:37

I had the incredible privilege to run a think tank or, in the forum nomenclature, it's called a council, which was called the new models of leadership. All these councils, and there were about 85 in my time, would meet once a year in Dubai for the World Economic Forum calls the world's biggest brainstorming event.

And so, in that year, the idea of the three-day period was to also build bridges to other councils and find connections. And so my role was to stay back in our little cubicle, and see if anybody from other councils would come and seek connections with us.

So I was kind of an ambassador of our council. And so what I'm going to camouflage are the names of the councils, the story, nevertheless, is the way it happened. So I stood there and the door was open and a person would come in and say, Hi, I'm from the Council on Oceans. We have a fantastic idea how to save the world's oceans but before we start, we need new models of leadership. You come from the council, new models of leadership. I'd like to learn what you do.

The person sits down the door, opens. A second person comes in, Hi, I'm from the Council on African Hunger. We have a fantastic idea how to save the African hunger crisis. But before we start, we need new models of leadership. The person sits down. The door, opens four more times and people with almost the identical wording come in and sit down, and I look at myself.

This can't be true. We have collected and brought together twelve hundred of the biggest minds and brains from around the world on 85 different topics who come up with all these fantastic ideas, but they can't start because the leadership is wrong.

Something needs to be done. And that was my epiphany.

Nisha Pillai 00:03:29

So what was your prescription then? In what way was it wrong?

Carsten Sudhoff 00:03:33

So, leadership today is still taught in school and at university, as if one person, mostly a man, was the saviour or is the saviour. When we look at history, it's one king or one General who won the fights or the war. It's one leader who turned the company around.

But never has anybody ever done anything successfully by himself or herself. So, what I think what we need to, let's say, refocus on, is the fact that we fragment our interest groups, that we try and focus on maximising our own benefit irrespective of what it does to other people.

Our short sightedness and short termism is a real problem. And companies have started this try and break out of it. And so I think there's a movement that has begun a couple of years ago, and the energy behind it is getting more and more strong, and more and more visible. And I think this is a fantastic thing to see.

Nisha Pillai 00:04:40

And you have been trying since you left the World Economic Forum, what was it, seven, eight years ago to work with leaders to bring about this kind of change? But I'm guessing that they weren't all very open to this. What's your experience been?

Carsten Sudhoff 00:04:55

Well, the first five years of my company were rather difficult, and I do have a large network of senior leaders from all over the world, which is something that's pretty much everybody who used to work at the World Economic Forum has.

But I remember sitting on the sofa of some of these CEOs, and I was trying to sell the services and the products of my company to these leaders. And what I would hear really devastated me, and they would look at me and say: You know, Carsten, you seem like a pretty cool guy, but what you're trying to do there sounds a lot like holding hands and singing Kumbaya.

And I thought to myself: Where on earth is Kumbaya in this? But the time wasn't right there, and I realised today a good idea that is five or eight years ahead of its curve just isn't a good idea. But what we were trying to do there just didn't fit the needs of the companies. Today this has fundamentally changed.

Nisha Pillai 00:05:52

But are they really changing? Are the times changing?

Only a few months ago, Carsten, the CEO of Danone, Emanuel Farber, was ousted by activist shareholders because he didn't deliver shareholder returns as they wanted them while pursuing a sustainability agenda. So I am sceptical what you're saying.

Carsten Sudhoff 00:06:14

You shouldn't be. I think times have changed. We are in the midst of a massive seismic shift in money being invested into impact solutions, and if you study those numbers from the GIN, if you listen to Larry Flynt from Blackstone, etc., etc., the numbers are very promising.

So I don't agree with what you say. I think we have seen the change happening, and now we're seeing an upward sloping curve of money following impact opportunities.

Nisha Pillai 00:06:44

So in the early years of going it alone Carsten, when things were not going so smoothly, were you tempted to give it up and go get a day job?

Carsten Sudhoff 00:06:54

Yes, I had a lot of very dark moments. I was laughed at, I was ridiculed. People didn't understand what I was getting at.

People were looking for profitability, maximising solutions and all the stuff around ecosystems and collaboration and feeling and sensing. And that kind of stuff that we sold didn't resonate.

So yes, I had a lot of moments where I was actually risking my family. I was spending my savings or our savings. I should say kids were in expensive schools. We had the lifestyle of an executive and I was worried and, you know, when you get feedback from so many leaders in so many different industries would say, you know what, I don't need what you sell. I thought maybe they're all right. Maybe I'm the crazy one. Maybe it just doesn't work.

But today. I am happy and proud about two things: That I continued working on my vision that I did not give up, and 'B' that I had my two sons watch me in the good moments and in the bad moments. Because life is difficult sometimes and giving up is easy.

Pursuing your dream because you believe in it, it's not so easy, but it's the right thing to do.

Nisha Pillai 00:08:18

What do you think kept you going? Why didn't you give it all up?

Carsten Sudhoff 00:08:29

When I  decided at the World Economic Forum that I needed to leave this fantastic job to try and improve the world with my own means. I was driven by this idea of what if my two sons come to me when I'm 80? And they would say to me: Daddy, why did you never do anything to make the world a bit of better? And I would say: Well, sorry, guys, I didn't know that it would be so bad one day.

And then they would say: But hang on, you used to work for the World Economic Forum. You must have seen it come. And then I would say: OK, I did see it come, but it didn't have the guts to try it. That was just not an option.

I knew what I was doing was right, I felt it everywhere in my body. It was just a question of can my mind survive the ridiculing and the difficult times that I was going through and persist long enough for the moment to kick in when the curve will go up?

I was convinced it would come. I was just worried that I wouldn't have enough stamina, enough energy, enough mental strength, and emotional strength to stick with it long enough.

Nisha Pillai 00:09:47

But you stuck with it. Do you draw on some of those experiences when you were down at the bottom?

When you're dealing with really stubborn and difficult leaders who you're coaching, you try and try and try and you're just not able to get through to them. And what do you do in that situation?

Carsten Sudhoff 00:10:10

You know, people use words like resilience as if it were the most normal thing to talk about. If you've never been in a situation where you're really challenged or your resilience is really challenged, you don't know really what you're talking about.

So, I think my personal story does help some of the more difficult leaders to reconsider, to rethink and to maybe open up a little bit to an alternative that I'm describing, because they see a live example of somebody who had a corporate executive job, very successful with a lot of visibility, and then he took a rather crazy route to becoming an impact entrepreneur.

And it took this person years, and now he is fine. So if I can do it, maybe I can help other people to do the same job. Well, to go through the same journey.

Nisha Pillai 00:11:00

Well, fingers crossed, Carsten, that you're right and my scepticism is out of date. I want to ask you about your own experience with working closely with CEOs advising them.

I want you to tell me about the most difficult experience you've had in the last seven, eight years in trying to shift somebody's thinking and getting them to be a different kind of leader. Tell me what the stumbling blocks have been.

Carsten Sudhoff 00:11:31

The big problem in pretty much every leader is that they feel that they have to obey by certain social rules. To me, a leader is somebody who dares and who does. Not somebody who talks and pushes responsibility away.

So even though many, maybe even most, leaders that I've worked understand that the times have changed, and that they also want to change because they're suffering from the current status quo.

So it's predominately the question: Can I actually be a real leader and do what I truly believe is the right thing to do? Or should I rather continue the path that my investors, my stakeholders, my shareholders, the public are expecting me to do?

It's a question of risk taking, not in a commercial, but in a personal way.

Nisha Pillai 00:12:22

So, what have you personally done to try and shift this thinking when a leader has been stuck in this way as it were? He can see that that change is required, but doesn't personally have the tools to do so. And so the organisation is still dysfunctional.

Carsten Sudhoff 00:12:41

I would look at the organisation or organisations in two or three different tiers. So, obviously the top might be restricted or few limited to what they can do, and how they can change because of all their regulatory requirements.

But there's a massive middle block of high potential young men and women who are realising that something is changing, and many of those will sooner rather than later be the CEO, be the executive team member of these companies. So over time, three, five, ten years, the change will have materialised.

Nisha Pillai 00:13:22

Right. So there's kind of a generational disconnect that I think you're saying between perhaps the idealism of Gen Z and somewhat older leaders and the kind of pragmatism perhaps of the elite layer of leaders currently.

Carsten Sudhoff 00:13:44

Well, ultimately, we are all to be blamed, we are all in this together. We can't point fingers at some person expecting that person to change if we don't change.

I mean, if I invest in a share of a company where I expect a certain, let's say, capitalist behaviour from the CEO, I can't expect the CEO to suddenly be all free, floating and creative. If I put my money because of a certain behaviour that I'm expecting, I am part of the problem.

So, it's not just good enough to point fingers at individual people. I think we all as leaders, irrespective of hierarchy, can and should think: What is it that I can do? What small step can I take to improve my life and the life of people around me?

It doesn't have to be a massive step. It's the small incremental steps that make a huge difference.

Nisha Pillai 00:14:37

Can you teach leadership? Can you teach leaders to change oldish dogs? Can they learn new tricks?

Carsten Sudhoff 00:14:45

Absolutely, and I think there are hundreds of examples. Some people need more time. I mean, if we look at the suffragette movement 120 years ago, I mean, if you compare where we are with diversity now, I mean, we've come a very long way.

Have we reached the goal? No, but we've taken a huge step forward. And I think it's the same thing here. We have left, as I said, an old status quo and we haven't arrived in a new status quo. Give people and society time. It takes time to get accustomed.

It takes time to adjust processes and tools and also to realise that maybe the profitability is one, only one, of many things that a company should aim for. One, and not the only one.

Nisha Pillai 00:15:26

Another status quo we haven't reached yet is the post-COVID world. We've been grappling with the COVID pandemic for the last year and a half, and now we're beginning to hope to think that there might be a different kind of life ahead of us in some parts of the world.

What kind of leadership challenges is that going to throw up do you think, Carsten?

Carsten Sudhoff 00:15:47

There're a couple of challenges that I see and that have already materialised. Leading people remotely is not the same thing as if you see people physically in the same room, day to day. So what this means is a couple of things.

First of all, it means that you need to be able to be much more diligent in setting targets. And that's one of the big problems of leaders. What is it that I really want to achieve, not by tomorrow, but by the end of the year? And how do I then cut this into bits and pieces that my team can then basically work on, even if I don't see them every day? So that's one point.

A second point is reading people's emotional states. So, how can I detect personal well-being or emotional problems of my employees via the video camera if I don't sit with them in the same room? Things you can learn. It's not rocket science. You can learn that.

Nisha Pillai 00:16:45

Our podcast series is called Leaders on Leadership. It's all about leaders on leadership. Is there a final thought that you'd like to leave our listeners with? What do you think the leadership challenges boil down to right now?

Carsten Sudhoff 00:17:02

I think there has never been a better time to get going and to do stuff. There are so many opportunities. Technology is helping us and there's so much need.

So if I could ask leaders around the world, then I would say do and not talk. Talking is so much easier. Doing is considerably more difficult, but that is what needed, and that's when you call yourself a leader.

Nisha Pillai 00:17:29

Carsten, it's been a pleasure having you with us on The Agenda. I'm going to let you go off and do now. Goodbye.

Carsten Sudhoff 00:17:38

Thank you so much.