Up close and personal with Frank Appel

  • Business
  • Saturday, 14 Jul 2012

HE has a master of science in chemistry from the University of Munich and a doctorate in neurobiology from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, but he does not look at test tubes nor neural networks. Instead, he looks at how businesses and societies are linked and how they can be further connected.

A scientist by training but a corporate figure by profession, Frank Appel heads one of the world's leading postal and logistics company. As a PhD student, he was involved with spinal chord regeneration research.

Despite the disparity, he claims his science training has not been for nought.

“To a certain extent, yes, my training influences my work because it's a network business but it's a different kind of network,” he says with a knowing look.

“What I've learned is definitely to digest a lot of information and figure out what is important and what is unimportant. So if you give me a deck of 30 pages of numbers, I can tell you afterwards what is more important and what is less,” he says of the most useful skill he now has.

“If you digest that much information all day long, (and) I was in chemistry for almost ten years, then it's easy.”

However, understanding numbers is not all that makes a leader. Appel notes that knowing how to deal with frustration was another important trait senior executives should have.

Making connections

“The number of negative messages increases from the bottom to the top of the hierarchy. On my desk, I get all the problems that others cannot solve because if my board members could solve them, they wouldn't come to me. They come to me when the problem is too big and they don't know what to do next.”

In times like these, he approaches his duties as an experimental scientist. “You start every morning doing experiments and 95% of experiments go wrong.”

“I learnt during my studies that you have to start every day in a good mood and be excited even though you know that in the last five days, everything you tried went wrong,” he shares.

He says that this is an important talent for leading a large organisation. “To acknowledge a problem and wake up the next day thinking now, let's see what we can do' because every day something happens which is not according to plan.

Upon completeing his doctorate in 1993, he landed a job at McKinsey & Company and went from doing laboratory work to management consultancy.

“They hired me as an associate for business consultancy and I became a managing partner in the German office after six years.”

At that time, he was the advisor to Deutsche Post DHL and his predecessor had hired Appel to be part of his team.

“I was in charge of corporate development including the strategies, mergers and acquisitions before I moved to Deutsche Post DHL in 2000,” Appel says.

After two and a half years with the postal and logistics giant, he becomes a board member and in that capacity, overlooked logistics, customer base and major transformation programmes.

Appel was appointed to the chief executive officer position in 2008.

Perhaps his science background has given Appel some imagination and ideals, making him a boss that is not just focused on number crunching.

“My leadership philosophy has several elements: you have to give people a purpose. People want to work for a company that makes a difference and our company makes a huge difference every day because we help countries to grow. We enable prosperity,” he says.

He believes that if a leader wants to generate purpose, he has to have clear values and in Deutsche Post DHL, Appel says they live by respect and results.

“You have to generate results because without that the company cannot survive for long but without respect for employees, customers, investors and the society, the company would not be around tomorrow,” he says.

Leadership styles

Appel opines that a leader needs to have three assets: “You need to have your head to give direction, your heart to show empathy and compassion for the people you are working with, be it employees, customers or suppliers, and guts to make difficult decisions under significant uncertainty.”

“That's what I try to do at DHL. To lead the company in a clear direction, to mobilise the people and not analyse everything but take a decision when it's ready to be made,” he says of his leadership style and what he expects from his management teams.

On whether that was the culture Appel would like to have practised in all DHL companies, he believes it would take another decade to streamline a common culture for DHL globally.

Deutsche Post DHL has acquired more than 100 companies the world over in the past few years and with that, inherited various working cultures.

“We have an immunity towards change. Just as our body has immunity towards bacteria and viruses. There is something that tells us not to change,” he says, dropping a scientific analogy of the situation.

Appel says that it is important to convince people that they would get better with change. “It is part of leadership to push people out of their comfort zones because if they don't go out, they won't grow.”

For Appel, his corporate experience to date has taught him that the toughest calls were always those that move the heart.

“As a senior executive, the most difficult decisions are actually those that impact the lives of many people,” he says, speaking from the experience of handling big scale restructuring programmes.

Being responsible for 470,000 employees in 220 countries and territories, Appel believes that it is important for big companies to train employees not only for the job they are required to do under the company.

He notes while there are no situations to refer to at the moment, businesses always go through changes and employees are usually the ones bearing the brunt of a company's decisions.

“You have to train the people so that they are easily employable elsewhere in the case you have to restructure,” he explains his foresight.

Appel opines that a responsible leader has to do his best for his employees, even if goes beyond the parameters of the company.

“I would be happy for all employees to say that they are ready to go but happy to stay,” he says.

“So they have prospects somewhere else but they can't imagine the grass being greener anywhere else.”

He adds that he hopes his managers share the same goal when it comes to Deustche Post DHL's human capital.

Making a difference

What comes clearly across when speaking to Appel about his work at Deutsche Post DHL is his altruism reflected in the way he leads.

“I want to shape things and make a difference. I want to influence things, to find something that may help people,” he explains his inclination.

With that, he feels grateful to have a chance to lead an organisation that makes a difference every day.

“Without DHL, the growth in Malaysia would have been different in the last few years. Globalisation would not have been possible without companies like ours and that excites me,” he admits.

“I see the prosperity in Asia and (feel proud) we are a part of that,” he says, noting that his life's goal is to make the world a better place.

This unselfish concern for the welfare of others was ignited a couple of years back at the World Economic Forum where Appel heard one of the most vivid sayings from a teenager responding to a question about what she expects from politicians and senior executives.

“She said this one sentence that moved my heart. She said if all (the politicians and senior executives) remember what their dreams were when they were 18, that would be her wish,” he shares.

“I was very idealistic when I was 18. As all teenagers are you always hope tomorrow is a better day, that we can do so much for so many people and you wonder why are so many still living in poor conditions when the world is so rich.”

He says that one line reminded him of the reason he went into neuroscience almost two decades ago.

He admits: “You forget that as you grow through the hierarchy. You think your needs are the most important but what is really important is to collectively make the world a better place.”

Natural leader

As for his personal aspirations, Appel confesses to being contented with his family life.

“I wanted to find someone that I could love with my life and I found that in my wife. She is probably even smarter than me,” he praises his significant other of 19 years.

The father of two teenagers believes in keeping a work-life balance, choosing to work only from Mondays to Fridays and sparing the weekends for his loved ones.

Even though science has helped mould Appel into a rational yet idealistic leader, Appel does not see himself going back to that field any time soon.

One could say he was a natural for leadership roles, having stumbled into the management realm after he completed his PhD.

Appel describes himself as a patient person, a quality his years of being a scientist inspired, and one who is passionate about his work.

And after a pensive pause, he quips “and relatively smart.”

Fact File BORN: 1961 in Hamburg, Germany PERSONAL: Married with t wo children HIGHEST QUALIFICATION: PhD in neurobiology , Swiss Federal Institute of Technology CAREER: Managing partner in McKinsey & Co; Global chairman and CEO Deutsche Post DHL HOBBY: Mountain biking

BORN: 1961 in Hamburg, Germany

PERSONAL: Married with t wo children

HIGHEST QUALIFICATION: PhD in neurobiology , Swiss Federal Institute of Technology

CAREER: Managing partner in McKinsey & Co; Global chairman and CEO Deutsche Post DHL

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