Never Satisfied and Always Moving Forward: An Interview with Dr. Nicolas Guggenheim

I’ve known Dr. Nicolas Guggenheim, the President of Heraeus Medical Components (HMC) and worked with him and his team for a couple of years now. We have (hopefully he agrees!) a strong, positive working relationship and yet I find him a bit of a mystery at times.  That is a big reason why I wanted to have a focused bold leader conversation with him. It is clear Nicolas enjoys the respect of his team and the larger Heraeus parent company leadership. He is building a global company filled with leaders that are energizing to be around and who know they have many opportunities before them.Dr Nicolas Guggenheim

It is one thing to build a company and culture when everyone sits in one building or one country.  I’ve worked with many larger companies, operating in many countries, that don’t have the truly global orientation of HMC.  Nicolas’ leadership team is spread from Switzerland where he is, to Germany where the parent company is, to the US where the HMC headquarters is, to Puerto Rico, Costa Rica and Singapore.

Leading an integrated team of people from not only various functional areas of expertise, but also country and cultural differences requires translation.  Nicolas speaks several languages, so of course when I asked him if he sees himself as a bold leader we started with the translation of bold. Doing that reveals nuances. In French the most relatable word is audacious.  So in that sense, when he researched the word he said, “My first reaction was yes and no.”

“You have to consider the context and the risk. The calculated and cultural risk. At Heraeus one of our core values is to be entrepreneurial. We want our people to take calculated risks.  My company is also privately owned and 160 years old and wants to be around for its 200th anniversary. So taking risks must be measured.”

At the extremes audacious or bold can be reckless, unrestrained, even brazen.  Very much not Nicolas. It is also imaginative, inventive, curious, and original.  This is the man I’ve met.

Bold is also ambitious.  “I am ambitious. I am never satisfied and always moving forward.  I’m not interested in the past. Really. I know this may frustrate some people but my interest is forward, what we do next.”

Bold is owning the decision. “In my role, the decisions we will make will decide the future of the company for years to come.  Sure you can fail. But I find this responsibility and the possibilities really exciting. You need energy and enthusiasm to move in a direction. These are the kinds of people I want to follow.”

When facing a big decision I asked Nicolas his approach. “I like to put the customer in the equation. Thinking about your question, I’m an analytical guy and use the aggregation of data, opinions of others, our values, prior experiences as inputs. But if you only think rationally, you can’t make a decision. You will never have a completely clear answer and in the end after all the analysis it comes down to gut feel.”

In sum I took this exchange to mean – do the work. Understand the risks. Gather all the information and perspectives you can. And in the end, do a gut check. Move if the decision feels right.

Bold is curious. “I am always wanting to learn.  Some people are very happy where they are. Not me. I love challenges. This is something you can’t be taught.” You are either curious and apply learning to new challenges or you don’t.

“Business is a system. It is a game. The environment and the rules are changing all the time. Some people are frustrated with that.  The rules change and you have to figure them out. I love this.”

I asked Nicolas who has influenced him.  His 92 year old father: still working and still very independent! “My father is a true entrepreneur. Not afraid of the future.  He failed several times. Lost everything!  He taught me resilience. For sure he has influenced me.”

Bold leaders enroll others into their ideas. We talked about how to do that. “What I try to do, and I admit I am not always successful, is to bring them to a certain point so that they can find their own conclusion. It is both a rational and emotion process. I know when I am not successful. It is because I’m not patient and jump to the conclusion. I know that if you don’t have the buy in of the team, you don’t move.  This takes a lot of energy but is really important.”

Many people trust first and then trust grows or is diminished by actions that follow. Nicolas is the opposite. “I don’t trust people at first sight.  If, in the first few minutes, we click it is because they have a clear mind; they understand the environment; they are quick learners and thinkers…People say I can be very critical. I am not critical to blame. I challenge to say we can change, improve, and do better. I like people that challenge me, and I can feel frustrated by ‘yes’ people.  Just tell me. We can go further if you just tell me.  In this way people earn my trust.”

At the end of our conversation Nicolas brought up the topic of doubt.  “As a leader you always have doubt. In front of your people you have to be strong. You can’t share your doubt, but inside you are never 100%.  It is part of the job, even helpful and healthy, to have some doubt and never be able to explain everything.”

Where Nicolas and I started our conversation is what sticks with me in closing. Bold leaders are constantly translating: their vision, the environment, changing rules of the game, culture and organizational expectations. They pull in information and interpret it for the challenge at hand. As virtually all of the bold leaders I’ve interviewed have said, they move forward bringing people with them, knowing they will never fully have all the answers and that is perfectly fine.

As the first Aveusian to work in the U.S., Asia and Europe, Chris has a unique perspective on how leaders drive material and positive outcomes in today’s global marketplace.