Career Story: Stephan Alois Kocher, Saab Bofors Dynamics Switzerland Ltd.

January 11, 2018

Global Executive MBA alumnus

What stages in your life have had the greatest impact on you and why?

Getting over my illness, which I had for the first 25 years of my life and which seriously hampered me in my development. I guess this is why I have become the person I am today and why I am more aware than others, who grew up without having to carry a burden on their shoulders, of the fact that you have to fight in order to succeed.

Moreover, the achievements I reached as a soccer player have had a lasting impact on me. They have made me realize that what really matters is not so much the individual's performance but the performance of all individuals taken together. This is something I benefit from also in my day-to-day work when it comes to interacting with employees across all hierarchical levels and a broad functional spectrum.

Did you originally want to pursue a different career?

Professionally speaking, my biggest dream was to become a radio and TV technician. In the Swiss canton where I lived, there were only 4 apprenticeship spots available for 400 would-be apprentices. I passed the required aptitude test and was told I would get one of them. However, when my mother told the owner of the business where I was to be trained about the impairments from my condition, he decided to take someone else instead of me. As plenty of (wasted) time had gone by, I was unable to obtain one of the remaining three apprenticeships. Not knowing what else to do, I accepted a position as a commercial trainee with PricewaterhouseCoopers, although I had been absolutely sure I would never end up working in an office. Today, I know that this was a blessing in disguise.

How and why did you come to work for Saab Bofors Dynamics Switzerland Ltd.?

After 13 years as a CFO in the defense industry and following my graduation from the Global Executive MBA program, I was looking for a new challenge. As luck would have it, the then CEO of my current employer retired, and so I applied for the vacancy. The excellent training I had under my belt, coupled with my extensive industry experience and my wide-ranging network of contacts, certainly played a key role in the fact that I managed to convince the board of Saab AB that I was the perfect candidate for the job.

What has changed in your career as a result of your MBA degree?

After earning my MBA degree, I decided to give up my position as a CFO in a medium-sized company, which I had held for many years, because I was eager to advance my career. As I said, it was more or less a coincidence that at Saab the position of CEO, which I applied for, became vacant.

I guess there are several reasons I ended up being the successful candidate. My industry know-how and my solid network of contacts certainly played a key role in this context. But what was even more important was the fact that I had recently graduated from an international program that not only boasted modules taught in 5 different countries and on 3 different continents but also brought together students from as many as 14 different countries and cultures. As a CEO, I am required to travel a lot, and I have to be able to communicate and assert myself across all governmental/political echelons as well as a wide variety of hierarchical levels in industrial settings. Thus, cultural awareness was one of the most important things the successful candidate had to bring to the job, and I could not have wished for a better testament to my cultural awareness than the training at WU Vienna.

What is more, thanks to the general-management topics covered in the course of the program, I also have the operational and strategic foresight I need in order to be able to succeed in my current position.

What has been your biggest professional/personal success?

After completing my basic commercial training, I became a sole accountant in the film industry. At the time, I was a "greenhorn" with only 23 years of life experience under my belt. In my first week in my new job, the auditors working there told me not only that the firm had to submit its balance sheet but also that it was heavily in debt. It goes without saying that as a youngster I was not prepared for this kind of thing.

After briefly collecting my thoughts, sorting out the things I had learned and preparing myself for what was to come, I decided to take on the challenge of turning the company around. The process involved collecting considerable amounts of money that renowned actors and directors owed the company. This was not always pleasant (for either side). Yet I managed to recapitalize, and ultimately turn around the company. Afterwards, I felt pretty exhausted and left again in order to find a quieter, less precarious job. That said, in a short period of time, this experience has both taught me a lot and made me “grow up”.

My personal successes are all the small steps that my son takes and that he learns from my wife and me on a daily basis. Every day, we make an effort to teach him our fundamental values and to equip him with everything he needs, so that later in life he will be in a favorable position to assert and prove himself in today's fast-moving world.

What are your goals for the coming year?

Every year, I draw up a wish list and a dream list. All the things I have not yet done but absolutely want to do go on the dream list. Given that doing them takes some time, they will most likely have to wait until I retire. For instance, I dream of having and being able to play my own alphorn. Alphorns are a wonderful part of Swiss culture - a culture I want to enjoy actively. Compared to other countries, the Swiss tend to be reluctant when it comes to celebrating their traditions, but I, for one, do not want to be reluctant.

As for my goals, I have resolved to live a healthier and more balanced life irrespective of the fact that I am required to work and travel a lot. While this means I intend to do sports regularly, and even more frequently (by the way, the Olympics do take place regularly), it does not mean I will no longer enjoy a glass of fine wine with friends.

But most importantly, I have my mind set on starting all my days feeling happy and content, looking forward to the challenges ahead. If one morning I find that this is no longer the case, I won't just grumble and bear it - I will roll up my sleeves and work towards making change happen, and I will do so in keeping with my philosophy of life.

What do you consider a “great luxury”?

As part of my job, I get to travel the world, allowing me to experience the differences that exist between cultures and living standards in all their many facets. I am very grateful for this opportunity. It has made me realize that restroom hygiene towels are an absolute luxury and that I feel sorry for those who have neither house nor home, let alone a toilet.

What was the last movie you really enjoyed?

My favorite movie is Braveheart starring Mel Gibson as William Wallace. It is about the battle of the suppressed and shows impressively that you have to fight for your cause with courage, commitment and unconditional loyalty. It goes without saying that there is also a captivating love story that serves as a frame for the narrative. What I particularly like about the movie, though, is that you are not treated to a happy ending but instead see once again what William Wallace, who is about to die, believed in and stood up for - freedom.

This may sound surprising, given that I have been a defense-industry professional for 18 years. But by working for my company and doing what I do, I stand up for this very cause. Each and every person has the right to be free and feel free.

How would you characterize your philosophy of leadership?

Actually, I do not have what one would traditionally call a leadership philosophy. My leadership style is basically a product of all my experiences. I expect the members of my team to be self-motivated, independent and committed individuals. What is more, I enjoy working with alpha people. I allow conflicts to occur because I am convinced that conflicts help us move forward. The members of my team have to win my trust by performing above average. Afterwards, they enjoy a lot of freedom as I do not “breathe down their necks”, as it were, but give them considerable rope and confine myself to providing direction and support.

However, what hits a nerve is people who talk and think in terms of “problems”. Hence, I have an agreement with my team that they must stop using this term and replace it with something like “challenge” or “difficulty”. At the same time I encourage them to suggest solutions to challenges they bring up with me. Together, we can then evaluate alternatives and decide how to proceed. I am not here to listen to their moaning and groaning, nor is it my job to solve problems on their behalf. It is striking to see the positive effects that this approach has on people in terms of how they think and act.

How do you recharge your batteries when you are not pursuing your demanding career?

I recharge my batteries by being with my little family. My scarce spare time is devoted entirely to them. They help me forget about everything for a while. I love spending time with my son, who still has a carefree and completely open-minded attitude towards life. He inspires me to occasionally be more open-minded myself when it comes to discussing things in everyday life. Children can teach us a lot.

Moreover, I do sports (jogging, fitness training, freestyle cross-country skiing), which provides me with an opportunity not only to reflect on the events of the day but also to come up with new ideas.

If you could change places with anyone for a day, who would it be?

Actually, I would not want to change places with anyone. I guess the other person would not necessarily be too keen on finding himself or herself in my shoes. What is more, I am perfectly happy with being who I am. But if it were possible to change places, I would like to be a clown fish for a day because underwater you can marvel at a world of beauty and quietness while taking a break from all the noise that constantly comes at you in the world above water.

Why would you recommend the Global Executive MBA of the WU Executive Academy?

Almost all “ordinary” schools/universities offer specialist training programs. What makes WU Vienna's Global Executive MBA stand out, in my opinion, is the fact that it boasts a unique international focus and offers added value as far as the cultural side of things is concerned. The result is an overall experience that I will likely benefit from for many years to come.


My motto in life:
You cannot make a pancake without breaking an egg.
I can laugh about:
What sorts of things people choose to post and share on social media today. As if anyone really cared that somewhere someone has run out of toilet paper.
Mistakes I am most likely willing to forgive:

Mistakes that people make, learn from them and do not repeat.

I would spend my last money on:
My family and a Sinalco (a carbonated softdrink).
In 20 years, I will:
Hopefully look back on a rewarding career and be able to start doing things I always wanted to do but did not have time for earlier (my wish list). Moreover, I will find great joy in seeing that my son has become a man who has his feet firmly on the ground and continues to bring our fundamental values to life.

Read more interesting Career Stories from our students and alumni here.

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