Former Novozymes CEO: Focus on solving a Real Problem and the rest will come

By March 17, 2021 No Comments



Former Novozymes CEO: Focus on Solving a Real Problem and the Rest Will Come

The circumstances of your career are most likely up to pure chances. You don’t control what task you work on, who you’re working with, or what kind of opportunities come your way.

But you do control how you navigate all of this, the overall direction of where you want to go.

Like a compass.

Most of us are not explicitly aware of our compass. We let it live its own life, having it guide us in many different directions during our careers. And this is exciting! It brings all sorts of unforeseen opportunities with it, some of which we wouldn’t have stumbled upon otherwise.

But others are very conscious of their compass. They play the long-term game by actively choosing a direction and then they start to walk. A perfect example of this can be seen in Steen Riisgaard, the former CEO of Novozymes and now Chairman of the board at COWI Holding.

Steen has had an impressive career where he has held multiple top posts. But in my eyes, we have to go back to the very beginning of it, to get to the most exciting part.

If you take a closer look at his early steps, you see that it has been centered around one thing:

Fighting pollution of the chemical industry from within.

It is this long-held direction that we will take a closer look at below.

It all started during his university years in the mid-70s where Steen played an active role in the first environmental NGO in Denmark called NOAH. As he puts it; the pollution-situation in Denmark and the rest of the world was really worrying and things were quite bad” so someone had to fight back. And so they did, in the typical way of an NGO from the 70s.

But Steen quickly realized that an NGO could not be the whole answer. Other means had to be taken.

“So I sat down and tried to get a greater view of everything. And I realized that the best thing I could do was to make use of my knowledge to make a difference from within. We had to develop real alternatives to fight the polluting sources. And I was a firm believer that these alternatives should come from genetic engineering and biology. We had to make all sorts of bio-degradable substances from renewable sources instead.”

This was a rather radical idea at the time: to join forces with the “bad guys” in the industry was not a popular idea to pursue among his NGO peers.

But Steen’s vision was clear, and after finishing his microbiology degree at the University of Copenhagen in ’76, he joined Novo Nordisk as a researcher. Here he held a range of jobs in Denmark and abroad before he was promoted to Corporate Executive Vice President with special responsibility for Enzyme Business in 1989. In 2000, when Novozymes was spun out as a separate company from Novo Nordisk, Steen was made President and CEO of Novozymes. He held that role for 13 years, where he led Novozymes to become the world leader in enzyme production. And Steen nicely ties this massive accomplishment back to his initial vision:

“Novozymes’s strategy is a clear example of the great impact you can have in the industry. We were some of the first in the world to put sustainability in our strategy. And here I mean sustainability both in terms of the environment and the economy. If your sustainable solution cannot earn money in the process, then it’s not a viable solution.”

The analysis that Steen made for his career before it was even started, is fascinating to me. And it is what the remainder of this post is dedicated to; to extract the elements of this way of thinking to also gain the same kind of Insights as Steen did early on. We’ll digest how to make our own compass. 

The Compass Framework

At the origin is a single question which Steen sums up as:

“Where can I have the greatest impact on a problem that matters to me, given the knowledge that I have acquired. In my case, this question was a combination of three things:

  • The first was that I realized the severity and magnitude of the pollution problems we were (and still are) faced with.
  • The second was that my educational background allowed me to see a huge potential in genetic engineering and biotechnology. If you were just a tiny bit visionary back then, you would realize that genetic engineering definitely would become a large part of the solution.
  • And the third thing was that I have a need for seeing things play out in reality. And if you’re impatient, like I am, then the industry is the right place to go. In industry, you always have to perform, things must happen.”

Or put more generally, if we want to mimic Steen’s framework, we have to:

  • Realize what real and large problems exist today.
  • Then we should assess which big program is best suited for our professional skills and interests.
  • And at last, when we have picked a real problem to dedicate ourselves to, it’s all about doing the work. To go deep and produce value.

At the surface, these questions may seem over-simplistic, or maybe even too broad. But remember, we’re not looking for a route on a map here. A route would be too restrictive and narrow. You would likely become obsessed with following it, as it would give you a sense of walking in the right direction. But the problem is, that it is impossible to correctly populate the map ahead of us. You simply cannot know what opportunities lie ahead of you. And thus, the route is based on a blurred and too coarse-grained foundation.

To me, the compass is a better analogy for what we’re going for. We don’t expect a compass to guide our every step, but instead to be our broad frame of reference whenever we see ourselves at intersecting paths. It gives us direction but does not guide our every step.

So what should the compass guide us towards? By having it point at a real and massive problem, you point it towards an almost inexhaustible source of challenges that will keep you engaged for decades and whose solutions will benefit society as well. Win-win!

Defining The Real Problems

Climate change, self-driving cars, fake news, food waste, animal extinction, cancer, and the list goes on. Each of these problems is vast in scope and is very severe. They affect millions of lives already and are only going to grow in scope and seriousness throughout the coming decades. And there’s definitely more to choose from at different scales in your domain as well.

Choosing Your Real Problem

Before addressing how to choose your Real Problem, we should look into why it is important to choose one in the first place. Yes, it gives you direction and a greater sense of meaning by solving problems that affect millions. But several strategic reasons come to mind. And why not focus on many?

By scoping your career to a single, but large Real Problem, many things will start to compound in your favor.

Your domain knowledge, specialist skills, network, and reputation will all build on themselves – even when you switch company or job role to focus on the same big problem from a new perspective. You will essentially never start from scratch again. And as your domain knowledge grows over time, your insight into the true structure of your Real Problem will also increase. Or as Steen puts it: “When you become better in your domain, you are also more likely to discover in what new ways your skills can be applied to the big problems.”

So what should you consider when choosing what Real Problem to pursue? Obviously, it should somehow be relevant for your area of expertise and what you find interesting. But there are also more subtle aspects to consider.

In Steen’s words; “you need to find a company that matches your skills and what you want to achieve. And one of the most defining attributes to focus on is company size. Company size matters a lot. A rule of thumb: Smaller companies have shorter turn-over rates on their projects. They simply cannot afford a year-long research project that might end up failing in the end.

But this can also play to your advantage! When we were about to spin out Novozymes from Novo Nordisk, I wanted to pull as many great people with me as possible. And one of the key selling points to my peers was that they would be able to see the results of their work way faster if they joined Novozymes.”

Another important aspect is to assess if the problems the company is working on aligning with what you find important. But it can be difficult to assess if a company’s mission aligns with what Real Problem you want to solve. You would like them to have skin in the game. And it doesn’t make it easier than it has become fashionable for companies to brand themselves with what Sustainable Development Goals they tackle. So how do you see through all of this marketing-jazz? Steen’s advice is to “look closely at the systems, products, and services that the company produces and supports. Focus on the output [instead of the marketing] and analyze, whether it is something that actually makes a positive change.”

And lastly, a great way to gain these insights is to get a mentor from the company you are interested in 😉

Do The Work

Choosing what Real Problem to focus on is a huge and very personal challenge. For most, it takes a long time and many smaller experiments where you dip your toes in various domains. But once you see a small spark, you’re ready to do the work. Jump straight into the problems to go deep. Remember, by putting a large and Real Problem at the center, you filter out all “get-rich-quick-schemes”. You’re in it for the long run – and you will reflect this in the kind of work you do.

And when it comes to general career advice in this phase, Steen said the following:

“When young and hopeful Novozyme’ers came to me to ask for career advice, I always gave them this plan:

  • First, make sure that you are performing at your top-level at whatever is in front of you right now. Don’t waste your time and energy thinking too much about what your next career move will be. I’ve seen that fallacy fail so many times.” In other words, you should be so good they can’t ignore you.
  • “And second, keep an eye out for whatever your peers around you are working on at the moment. What are their problems? And can you help them solve these problems? You have to ask yourself ‘Can what I’m working on right now be helpful to my co-workers?’

If you follow this advice; become great at what you do, and be proactively helping your peers, then I ensure that you will be noticed”.


If you have any comments or questions about the article or Conflux Insights in general, please reach out at jakobo@conflux.dk.

Thanks to Steen Riisgaard for sharing his experiences and career history with us.

This interview was performed and written by Jakob from Conflux.


Jakob Offersen

Jakob Offersen

Jakob is the main driver behind Conflux Insights. He interviews cool Conflux Mentors and distills their career stories and gold nuggets into online content for other students to learn from.

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