#MeetTheLeaders: Stefan Karlen

September 3, 2020 | Dione & Hazel

For Stefan Karlen, ex-CEO of Panalpina, authenticity and transparency guided him through his journey with the Swiss logistics company. “Stick to your core values, your personal values, your mission, and the sky’s the limit.”

“I joined with the great opportunity to travel and work abroad with this company, and not just go in and out like a tourist, but actually understand cultures,” Stefan recalls. His journey through Panalpina spans over an impressive nineteen years, during which he took on various positions across three continents. Appreciated as his most “memorable” role, he became CEO in 2016 at only 43 years old. 


“I was given the trust by the company to lead a global organisation of 14 and a half thousand people. Being relatively young, taking on that responsibility was certainly a big challenge. I was really out of my comfort zone, but with the right team around and the right mindset I’ve done a good job here, and we as a team did a good job.”


Throughout Stefan’s career at Panalpina, his roles developed in tandem with the company itself. “It’s almost like I’ve worked in different companies because there were different continents, we had different leadership, we had different strategies, and it always just happened to be the same name of the company.” 


He finds motivation through continual goal setting. “It was not just a big overarching goal, but steps in between, and by reaching those, that always motivated me to go for higher and more challenging goals.” As a man “comfortable out of [his] comfort zone”, Stefan finds achieving these goals not only rewarding for himself, but also for the company as a whole. 


His core values are of great importance to his actions and his work. “I had different incidents or situations, where I needed and wanted to remind myself where my roots were, what my values are. If you keep that in mind, that’s what keeps you going on, irrespective of the situation you get into.” 


Stefan describes his leadership style to centre around empowerment. “For me it was really about empowering people, supporting them, helping to resolve conflicts, and giving them a vision for them to understand, coming back on purpose and also to say why do you get up in the morning and why do you come to work”. He feels that this allows for a “trusted environment” to develop within the workplace, prompting them to become more satisfied and focused on their projects and tasks. 

Additionally, for one to become a successful global CEO, one needs to remain authentic, approachable, and close to employees. “Being visionary, being able to articulate what strategies of the company, where do we want to go, and not only financially is what makes a good CEO. Depending on what stage you are in, and we were in transition, for me it was important to remember where we’re coming from, where we are and where we’re heading towards.This ensures we don’t become complacent and stay competitive. That is something a CEO together with the executive team and the rest of the management team has to drive.”


Through all the different transformations Panalpina has experienced, as the global CEO Stefan ensured that both he and his employees maintained the values and culture of the company. To navigate the company’s digital transformation, he determined that strong communication within the company is more vital than ever to be able to maintain Panalpina’s strong company culture. 


“Culture is the key to Panalpina… Just defining it through the internet by sending an email or with a short clip is not good enough. When I was travelling I was always in front of the people from different seniority levels. Not only top management, but also the desk level people, the ones who work day and night for the company, so that they could understand ‘why am I doing this’.”

Stefan sees the recent digital transformation of talent management to have boths its strengths and weaknesses. With digital recruitment, the opportunity to sit face to face and spend time to understand both the “individual and the environment of the individual” is lost. However, this has also created a new space for digital headhunting partners. 


“A lot of people today are now optimising internal processes through a database.” Stefan names increased productivity with less effort as a benefit of so, allowing for better and more focused interaction with companies looking for or hiring talent. “Now, one can have more complete, educated discussions… It’s a great opportunity here for those hiring to get better and more valuable accurate information, more in depth analysis in order to make better decisions.”


The function of HR has expanded immensely beyond the typical recognition of a department. As companies progress in the digital age, the people a company is composed of play more important roles in collectively driving growth and defining its direction. 


“For us it was not admin; there were admin parts of course, but the main part was they were really involved with the business and understood the business. They were helping to drive the business, and they were challenging business leaders, P&L owners, on how to potentially run the business with a different mindset,” says Stefan. 


In the future, Stefan hopes that technology will evolve to further accommodate the HR field. When asked about what HR tool he wishes to be created, his vision focuses on encouraging growth. 


“I would wish to have a tool that I can go into where I have addressed my needs on one side and then there is, on the other side, opportunities challenging me and bombarding me with ideas in a very efficient, new way.” For the new tech savvy generation, he hopes there will be tools which future leaders can use to make HR interactions more interesting and “sexy”. 


The COVID-19 pandemic has affected companies worldwide, but Stefan shares insight on staying focused during this tough time. “Be agile, be close to your teams, support them.  Communicate what is going on in the company, so they don’t lose the belief that in everything bad there is also the opportunity. Be open and honest about where you were headed [towards].”

“Opportunities are out there and there are many, it just requires a different approach and requires agility to tackle those. It’s going to be a great opportunity for the company to expand.”