Spross Group: Deeply rooted for generations
Among the strengths of Natalie Spross Döbeli, CEO of Spross-Holding AG, are the ability to communicate clearly, see the big picture and keep all of her employees on the same page – and this has allowed her to transform Spross from a top-down to a team-based enterprise. It has also made everything more authentic, she says.
Playing the all-powerful boss – that’s not who I am.
Do you have a garden at home?
Yes, but I use it mainly for reading or playing with my children. I like spending time outdoors, but I don’t find gardening very relaxing.
What helps you relax?
Hiking in the mountains, or being out on the water. And reading.
What book has most influenced your approach to entrepreneurship?
Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” which talks about gender issues and having confidence in yourself.
Sheryl Sandberg tells women to take a job even, and perhaps especially, if they don’t feel confident – because it’s a challenge. If they lack certain skills, they can learn them on the job. Do you agree?
Yes, and that’s exactly what I did when I accepted my current position. I appreciated the gravity of becoming the company’s CEO. Although I was familiar with real estate management and back-office jobs like bookkeeping, I didn’t have a traditional background in horticulture and waste management, so there was a lot to learn. Establishing a good relationship with the professional staff was helpful; we learned to trust and rely on one another. But the fact that I am able to see the big picture and recognize what needs attention, even if I don’t know all the details, has also been useful.
What other strengths do you have?
In addition to seeing the big picture, I’d say emotional intelligence and an ability to think intuitively – and those are strengths I’m glad I possess. Even when I’m under pressure, I care about the people around me. I make sure that no one falls overboard. I’m also good at dealing with facts and figures; I need to, and can, rely on hard data.
Vision, uniqueness, dependability – these are the key attributes of the Spross company. To what extent are they also the principles you live by?
As the Group’s CEO, I embrace and uphold these values. That means that, both as CEO and as a private person, I must stand behind them. Dependability is absolutely essential. Uniqueness doesn’t mean trying to be trendy, but being authentic. For me, vision means looking ahead, together, so that you notice quickly where improvements are needed, but at the same time preserve things that are working well.
Let’s talk about values. Why was it so important for you to shift from a patriarchal to a team-based management model?
Aside from the fact that my father initiated this change, for a number of reasons – both he and I are team players – it’s important to note that I’m not a traditional expert in any of our three business areas. That’s why waste management, gardening and real estate each have one or two division heads. They are expected to provide successful leadership, so they should also have the right to give their input and be heard. This inevitably results in a team-based approach to leadership.
I’ve learned that, to do well, I have to be authentic.
That makes sense from a business perspective. Were there also personal reasons?
Yes, of course. At first I thought I needed to play the strong, all-powerful boss. [laughs] But that’s simply not who I am. Over the past few years I’ve learned that, to do well, I have to be authentic. Today I feel comfortable; I like my job, and my team is fabulous. I also love the fact that I can be flexible in combining my job with being a mother.
Has that dual role affected the business?
The business has literally become more like a family, since my children come to work with me from time to time. Employees know that I will be understanding when they’re dealing with personal problems, and I expect the same in return. Of course there are limits; it’s always a balancing act. But my children come to our Christmas receptions, and when the company celebrated its anniversary, my daughter competed against a gardener’s daughter in the children’s “Schwingen,” or Swiss wrestling, competition!
Where do you turn when you need an outside perspective?
It depends on the issue… my husband is very honest, sometimes even when I haven’t asked for his opinion. [laughs] I talk to my father, too, but it’s usually the board of directors that I consult with, not only about technical matters, but also about personal issues related to management. I can learn from their experience. And once or twice a year, I make a point of contacting a particular individual who can provide an outsider’s perspective, and ask them a few questions. In addition, I value my discussions with middle management personnel and with other executives with whom I have a good relationship.
Were those around you accustomed to this kind of dialogue? Or did you have to make structural changes?
In most cases there was no need for changes. The current board of directors was put together by my father. I got to know them in a fairly informal way – while I was a member of the management team but not yet CEO. So we started out at almost the same time, and we’ve grown together. For middle management, however, the process of moving from a patriarchal to a team-based leadership style took several years. Meetings were held only sporadically at first, but now we have regular conversations. There are seminars and conferences on such topics as human resources, perception and communications. You might say, figuratively, that we’ve moved from a high-rise building to a ground-floor apartment with a patio – from a very steep to a very flat hierarchy. When you move, there is a great deal to do. Lots of things have to be dusted off and rearranged. I wondered sometimes why I was tackling all of this, but just had to forge ahead.
For employees to be passionate about their work, we need fair working conditions and rules.
What was your focus during that challenging time?
I wanted people to be passionate about their jobs, bringing with them all of their strengths, weaknesses and personal history. That means putting in place fair working conditions and rules, and these were among the first things I focused on.
So it’s all about transparency and communication.
Exactly. Under my leadership, there has been considerable change in those areas. All of our employees attend regular meetings, including supervisors. Communication is a constant concern, since nearly half of our employees are from Portugal and many of them don’t understand the language. Half of our employees have no work email account. So one of the visionary ideas that are currently on my desk is a “Spross app” for use in internal communications.
What would be the benefit of such an app?
For example, it would be a quick way of sending out invitations to employee events and distributing important information, such as rules and regulations. Nothing would get lost. With the current system, some of the printed information just disappears – which I can totally understand, because it happens to me, too! [laughs]
What limits should there be on transparency, in your opinion?
I’ll give people practically any information they ask for. But not without commenting on it – that applies to our annual results, for example. If I didn’t comment, there would be too much leeway for interpretation. The limit is when transparency no longer serves the purpose of providing information.
What are the essential features of successful corporate management?
The financial aspect is certainly important. If success lasts more than a few years, it can be measured. But a few basic conditions have to be met. First, employees need to benefit from their company’s success and be able to advance in their careers. Second, I don’t want to be ruthless in pursuit of success; I want employees to enjoy the benefits of engaging in long-term thinking with our customer, supplier and partner networks.
What is particularly important to you when communicating with partners?
It all boils down to being open, honest and consistent. We need to know that we can rely on our suppliers and partners, and they on us. And that brings me back to the question of corporate success: We are happy to work with a partner that charges four or five percent more, as long as we know what we’re getting and can occasionally expect to receive something in return. Of course, customers are also a key factor in communication. As human beings, we all act out of personal need or intrinsic motivation. Although digitalization is happening everywhere, the human component will never be lost.
That practically answers my last question: Where do you want to move the dialogue in the future?
It will always be crucial for me to step back from day-to-day operations on a regular basis, so that I can see the big picture. I make a conscious effort, when dealing with my business environment, to maintain these different perspectives so I can gather a range of opinions. But that is, and will remain, one of the greatest challenges not just for me, but for corporate leaders in general.