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Stanislav Shekshnia

What makes a good food & agriculture leader? 6 questions with INSEAD’s Shekshnia

August 23, 2023

Editor’s Note: AgFunderNews’ parent company AgFunder has partnered with INSEAD and Agrohub to host the business school’s first-ever executive program for food & agriculture leaders. The Future Food & Ag Leadership (FFA) program will take place in Fontainebleau, France, on October 1-3, 2023, and there are a few remaining places left for executives to join. The in-person program will be followed by an exclusive online webinar on sustainability and innovation with high-profile guests including The All In Podcast’s David Friedberg — also founder of agtech’s first unicorn Climate Corp — Matt Crisp, cofounder and former CEO of the now publicly-traded Benson Hill, Himanshu Gupta, CEO of ClimateAi, Christine Gould, founder of Thought for Food, and Sonalie Figueres, editor-in-chief of Green Queen Media and founder of Source Green.

Stanislav Shekshnia is a senior professor of entrepreneurship and family enterprise at INSEAD and the FFA program director. He has extensive experience in leadership, leadership development, and effective corporate governance, particularly in emerging markets and organizations, and has held various executive positions, including CEO of Alfa-Telecom, president and CEO of Millicom International Cellular in Russia and CIS, and chief operating officer of VimpelCom. 

Stanislav Shekshnia

We caught up with Shekshnia ahead of the program to discuss the key attributes of a food and agriculture leader, reconciling the industry’s long-term horizons with short-term public markets, and why diversity is important.

AFN: What makes a good leader?

SS: Followers and good intentions. Leadership is the art of making people do things they would not have done on their own. Leaders do not exist without followers who make the latter’s visions into reality.

Many things help people to stand up, formulate a vision and attract and motivate followers, e.g., become leaders. Personality traits such as ambition, passion and curiosity. Formative experiences of participating in competitive sports, dealing with uncertainty and adversity early in life, working in different contexts, and making mistakes and learning from them. Specific competencies such as systemic and independent thinking, social intelligence, learning ability. Those elements develop early in life and form the foundation for a future leader.

The rest depends on the choices potential leaders make. Choices about what to strive for, what to do themselves and what to leave to others, how to interact with their followers, how to incentivize and support them, and what culture to promote.

AFN: What makes an unsuccessful leader?

SS: 1. Bad luck. We, humans, control only so much of our destiny. Most capable people driven by the noblest objectives failed because it was the wrong time or the wrong place.

2. Poor judgment. The leader’s vision does not ignite potential followers and the status quo prevails.

3. Poor execution. The leader creates initial momentum but does not manage to sustain it. They do not create adequate organization, collaboration mechanisms, incentives, and feedback systems. Followers get lost, demotivated, and disengaged.

4. Hubris. After initial success, the leader loses touch with reality, becomes complacent, refuses to recognize changes in the context and sticks to who and what worked in the past. Unfortunately, many initially effective leaders follow that path taking their organizations with them.

AFN: How do leaders in industries with long revenue cycles – such as food and agriculture (consider growing seasons) and even longer-term global impacts (on sustainability, human health, etc.) reconcile a long-term perspective with the quarterly reporting requirements of public companies?

SS: By working for a company (long-term) and respecting stakeholders’ expectations (short-term).

Leading a business is a complex task; to be able to perform it well one needs to have clear guiding principles to make choices. Leaders who understand that their main role is to make their organizations sustainable in the long run usually do a better job than those who want to report improved earnings every quarter. Businesses need shareholders, therefore CEOs should understand their outlooks, engage with them and share information. At the same time, CEOs should not be afraid to lose one or two shareholders or to see their company’s stock price go down once in a while. Their business is creating economic and social value in the long term; not pleasing every investor. Many companies have adopted this approach and do very well financially.

AFN: How does board diversity contribute to a company’s success?

SS: The board of directors is the highest decision-making body. It makes key decisions about strategy, allocation of capital and leadership of the company. The decisions the board makes will impact the organization for the years to come. The board also provides oversight to the executives managing the company and advises and mentors them.

It is general consensus today (supported by research findings) that diversity improves the effectiveness of boards. Diverse groups make better decisions, especially when the problems they face are complex and unique. Diversity allows for better controls as independent board members with different backgrounds effectively spot and manage potential conflicts of interest. They also provide feedback and advice to management from different angles.

Diversity has different forms and shapes: gender, ethnicity, age, education, etc. What really counts for boards is the diversity of thought which does not come automatically with the types of diversity I mentioned above.

AFN: How are you seeing business leaders respond to today’s challenges around climate change, health crisis, inflation, war, etc.?

SS: Neglecting, reacting, and mastering – if I simplify this very complex question.

The first approach is driven by a natural human tendency to discount the impact of unpleasant events. It is a well-studied psychological defense mechanism: ‘I run a small hospitality business in cool Canada; why should I worry about global warming? Let the governments and big businesses take care of it.’ This attitude brings comfort and cost savings in the short term but may be detrimental in the long term.

Reacting leaders recognize the challenges and try to deal with them by following government regulations, the recommendations of NGOs, and strategies adopted by other businesses. They risk becoming overwhelmed by external inputs and miss some important developments.

Leaders who try to stay ahead of the game do not shy away from the challenges and try to find their own response to them rather than wait for the governments or competitors to show the way. This may be a costly approach in the short term but could bring huge benefits in the future. Look at Maersk, which rethought its business model, invested billions in a green fleet, and floated the first carbon-neutral vessel this year. Investors, customers, and society adore them.

AFN: What are the benefits of attending INSEAD executive development programs?

SS: INSEAD is one of the world’s leading business schools, renowned for its rigorous, engaging, and innovative approach to executive education. There are four outcomes that most of our participants mention in their feedback after the programs.

1. Practical knowledge acquired. Participants enhance their mental models and embrace new practices, which they immediately apply in their current roles improving their performance and satisfaction.

2. Improved personal confidence. As participants gain new knowledge and skills in a psychologically safe environment, they also gain confidence. This helps them to take on new challenges, make better decisions, and have a greater impact.

3. Global Perspective. Given the diverse and international nature of INSEAD’s cohorts, participants gain a broader global outlook. This helps in understanding different business cultures and practices, and in dealing with global business issues.

4. Expanded networking. Participants connect with leaders from around the world. These relationships are both personally and professionally rewarding and often continue long after the program has ended.

Are you a food & agriculture leader facing today’s numerous and growing global challenges? To learn more about the Future Food & Ag Leadership program and apply to join us, please visit the website here or email [email protected].

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