“Our culture is a competitive advantage!”

Roberto Brunazzi
June 30, 2020
C-Level Insights
Thomas Sieber, Head of the Corporate Centre, is leaving Baloise Group after 23 years. In this blog post he looks back over two decades at Baloise, examines the highlights and the low points, and reveals what he is particularly looking forward to in his post-Baloise life.

Thomas, you were with Baloise for 23 years, including 13 years on the Corporate Executive Committee. Do you still remember your very first day at work?

Only too well! There were two events that I still closely associate with the essential nature of Baloise. I joined Baloise when I was 32, as Deputy Head of Legal and Tax, after working for a global technology corporation. And when they showed me my office, there was no computer and no laptop. In response to my anxious question whether I would have access to one I was informed that I would need to take that up with my boss. Two weeks later I finally got one. This shows how much Baloise has changed in the last two decades when it comes to technology. Back then we were very much analogue; today we are leading the way among Swiss insurance companies in terms of digital transformation.

And the second event?

I see the second event as representative of the culture and cultural change at Baloise. My new department had scheduled its departmental outing specifically to coincide with my first day at work, which I took to be a very good omen. It was a very successful affair, beautifully planned by an employee who is still with Baloise today. At the drinks reception, I suggested to one of the secretaries that she could call me Thomas. But she wasn't keen on that, which was my second revelation. We went on to have a very good relationship for many years, even after she left Baloise, and we got onto first-name terms eventually (laughs). This demonstrates something which makes Baloise unique: a close-knit culture that is characterised by respect and familiarity. I'm even tempted to say that this Baloise culture is one of our USPs, and therefore a competitive advantage.

What was your most formative experience during that time?

Although I can be a bit of a coward when it comes to animals, such as dogs or spiders, I'm very brave when dealing with people. Possibly my nicest individual experience happened some time ago now. We had behaved badly towards a Jewish family at the start of the Second World War, and we found out about it a few hours before the publication of the Bergier Report. I was convinced that we should try to apologise to the family. Our American lawyers considered that to be very dangerous on legal grounds and advised against it. Late that evening I spoke to our former Chairman, and he told me if that was what I thought then I should do it. I was able to speak on the phone with the family's son, who'd had to flee to New York via Amsterdam as a child, and I apologised on behalf of the company. The son, who was almost 80 years old by then, knew exactly why I was calling, and after a frosty start it turned into the beginning of a friendship. He and his wife visited us twice in Switzerland, and I have also been to see them at their home in New York.

That sort of event is formative, and it makes me even more determined to have the courage to do the right thing. But you do need to strike a balance, because it could be dangerous to only ever listen to your inner voice. I hope that I am capable of sufficient self-reflection, otherwise my next career step would not be suitable for me.

Were there any disappointments?

Thomas Sieber

If you're passionate about your work then there are bound to be disappointments. Time and again there were projects into which I invested a lot of energy and personal commitment and which failed for a whole variety of reasons. That does lead to disappointment, but you just have to get over it. The important thing is to be able to say: “We tried, so what can we learn in order to do better next time?”

Is there any one colleague you particularly remember?

There are lots of them! But if I had to focus on a specific one, it would be our Honorary Chairman, Rolf Schäuble, who was also my boss for many years. He has a pretty dominant leadership style, and he knows the insurance business inside out. But he was still receptive to my input, even to criticism. He later told me that I was the only subordinate ever to try to coach him. We have made progress since those days, not least at company level, but this is still not the norm, so we have some learning to do yet.

How have Baloise and the insurance industry changed over the past two decades?

The economy is buoyant overall, and the insurance industry has made enormous gains. Baloise itself has become more innovative and more courageous. Compared to other sectors, the primary insurance industry continues to be predominantly organised according to countries rather than business segments. I'm interested to see how it is going to develop in this respect.

What do you see as your greatest contribution to the success of Baloise?

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Thomas for devoting almost a quarter of a century to Baloise, during which time he consistently gave his very best. ...

Gert De Winter, CEO Baloise Group

I have been in charge of quite a few large-scale projects (e.g. the demerger of our German entities) and initiated FRIDAY. But I hope that my greatest contribution was in terms of culture. Gert likes to quote Peter Drucker, who said that culture eats strategy for breakfast. To help Baloise become a learning enterprise, with a strong value proposition, where we address critical issues just as much as positive ones – that was my ambition in building bridges between stakeholders. In our most recent 'pulse check' survey, 90 per cent of employees stated they would recommend us as an employer. That means we rank among the top placed firms in a comparative sample, which is a nice leaving present.

In hindsight, what would you do differently?

Not an awful lot; I had a great time at Baloise. One thing I felt was lacking is more of a global focus. My recommendation to younger employees is to change jobs frequently, even if it is only within the company. And to spend some time in the core business –not that I've set a good example in that respect. The classical line management structure is overrated, in my opinion; lateral management is more effective.

What are your plans in the short and in the long term?

Coronavirus permitting, the whole family will be moving to Boston for a year. We rented a house there last summer, with a huge front porch. That was a good step for us as a family, because it made our plans more specific. I submitted a research proposal to the Harvard Business School on the subject of 'The Board of Directors as a team', and a few days ago I received confirmation that I've been accepted as a research fellow. I'm planning to dedicate myself to my studies, take a step back and enjoy my new-found freedom. I will also be preparing for my future coaching career – with my own company, SieberBoardCoach AG.

What are you particularly looking forward to, now that you'll be able to schedule more of your own day?

More autonomy and freedom – to be less driven, though I will still need to have something going on. I'll definitely keep active (laughs).

Personal details

Thomas Sieber (1965, Switzerland, Dr iur., M.B.L., lawyer, SCCM mediator, EMC INSEAD) studied law at the University of St. Gallen. At the beginning of 1994, he qualified to practise as a lawyer in the Swiss canton of Zurich. From 1999 to 2002, he lectured in corporate law at the University of St. Gallen. After brief spells working at Lenz & Staehelin, Landis & Gyr and Siemens, he joined the Baloise Group in 1997 as Deputy Head of Legal and Tax. He became Head of this division in 2001 and, in addition, was secretary to Bâloise Holding's Board of Directors until April 2012. Since December 2007, Dr Sieber has been a member of the Corporate Executive Committee and, as Head of the Corporate Centre, is responsible for Group Strategy and Digital Transformation, M&A, Group Human Resources, Legal and Tax, Group Compliance, Run-off and Group Procurement. He will leave Baloise in the middle of 2020. Dr Sieber sits on the Panel of Experts of SWIPRA Services AG.

Following a research year in Harvard, Dr Sieber will be setting up his own business as a board coach with his company SieberBoardCoach AG. As part of his executive master's degree, Coaching and Consulting for Change, at INSEAD he wrote a thesis on the subject of Improving Board Dynamics and Open Dialogue – How Speaking Up Could Transform Corporate Boards.