Leadership: do it the millennial way

At the young age of 29, Alexandre Pouille has made it all the way to the top management of a large multinational company. Is there a millennial approach to leadership? We take a closer look.

Youthful, energetic and always with a big smile on his face: Alex Pouille is the type of person you could easily sit and chat with over a glass of beer. You would then quickly find out that he is actually quite knowledgeable about the blond liquid made from malted grain. At the age of 29, the French-American citizen is country director for Spain at Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewing company. In less than seven years, Pouille has gone from trainee to leading a team of 90 people. But his ambition reaches much further: “Despite our global position, we are still a niche player in Spain. We want to change that,” he describes his mission. “It’s a huge pleasure to lead my team through this growth journey.”

On the occasion of Julius Baer’s Young Partners Talk in Madrid, the dynamic millennial shared his thoughts on leadership, boiling it down to seven principles.

1. Understand the business
Alexandre Pouille: I am quite a curious person to begin with. One of my favorite strategies when I want to learn something is to map the process. This is especially useful in a big company. If you know how something happens from the beginning to the end and you know who is involved, then you have all the necessary information to improve that process or improve the output of that process. I was lucky to start my career as a trainee in finance. The finance department is like a hub in a hub and spoke system. If you see the marketing plans, if you see what’s going to happen in trade, if you see the type of relationships we have with our customers, you gain so much knowledge. You gain that network and you ultimately can use that to empower your decision-making, make you a better and stronger asset to the company.

2. Be dedicated
I would say that I am 150 per cent dedicated to my company. If I see that there’s a missing product I’m willing to go and fill shelves – even on weekends – to make sure that we don’t lose a specific sale. As a result, you just end up learning so much. You become more valuable to the company and ultimately can have another position, another promotion, and build your way up. That also means very long working hours. I usually wake up at 5.30 in the morning and I often don’t get home before 11.30 at night – but I love every minute of it.

3. Fight hierarchies
Many millennials haven’t grown up in a hierarchical culture. It sounds so clichéd, but the Internet has given you all the information you need, levelling the playing field. That means that the relative difference in experience is diminishing year by year. In my role as country director for Spain, breaking the hierarchy is one of my main challenges, as the local culture is hierarchical in nature. Coming in at only 29 and telling my team, “hey guys, I’m here to help you”, has been a bit of a shock and awe method. Within my first four months, I had one-to-one sessions with all of my 90 employees. My key message in those sessions was: “Listen, we’re both humans, we both like certain things, while we know that there is a lot we have to change. So why we don’t join forces to build a better company together?”

4. Set bold goals
Spain is known for its wine, but Spain should also be known for its beer. This is one of the largest beer markets in Europe, not the least because of its climate: thirty-six million hectoliters are just a lot of beer. Beer dominates the pre-meal occasion. So before you go to that glass of wine at the dinner table, you’re on the terrace, you’re having the tapas and you’re drinking a glass of beer. Our goal is to ‘premiumize’ this market and get the beer on the dinner table. Another challenge for us is our market position. The Spanish beer market has been very insulated for the past 40 years, with big, domestic players controlling the terrain. Even though we are the largest beer company in the world, we are still relatively small here in Spain. Now, how do we break this up? How do we actually sell the beer to the end customer if the entire route to market is controlled by our competition?

5. Give ownership
You can direct people to do things, tell them: “do this or do that.” Or you can just give them the ownership, let them take on a project themselves from beginning to end, so that they really feel that they are making the difference. That’s my management style. It’s not so much telling people what they should or shouldn’t do, but to help them when they need help the most and to ultimately guide them in the right direction.

6. Embrace diversity
Some people in my team joined the company when I wasn’t even born. I have a huge respect for them, because they bring a very special skill set to us. The power of stability, connections and experience is sometimes underestimated in business, especially in my generation, which switches so quickly from one topic to another. I am proud that we have people of different ages, skills and cultures in our company. Diversity is not just nationality, it’s not just gender, it’s not just language. It’s also age, it’s culture, it’s a thought process. We have to make sure that we are respecting other people’s points of view, to ultimately create a better strategy overall.

7. Act as an entrepreneur
Entrepreneurship is in my blood. My grandfather started a fake fur business in the North of France. My dad started a private plane travel agency. Even in a big global company, entrepreneurship is possible. This certainly applies to Anheuser-Busch InBev, where I can run my market region as if it was my own business – including those late nights in the office and those early-morning meetings. I love going to the office and thinking: What’s going to happen? How are we going to solve it? And also, how are we going to grow this business? Aren’t those the same questions that an entrepreneur would be asking to himself?

Video production: Scott McNamara, Julius Baer

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