Ester Baiget is President and Chief Executive Officer at Novozymes, a global biological company based in Denmark specializing in the research, development, and production of industrial enzymes, microorganisms, and biopharmaceutical ingredients.
Ester joined Novozymes in February 2020 after working as Business President for Dow’s Industrial Solutions and a member of the executive leadership team. During her 25-year tenure at Dow, Ester held manufacturing, technical, commercial, and strategic roles; in her years as Business President for Industrial Solutions, the business has expanded the market, improved its market-leading position, delivered double-digit growth and strong earnings.
Recently, Ester spoke with Diana Horn, Senior Consultant in the Leadership and Succession Practice at Russell Reynolds Associates, and Lars Rønn, Managing Director and Senior Consultant in Healthcare Nordics at Russell Reynolds Associates. She shared how sustainability integrates into Novozymes’ business, representing not only the company’s values but also her personal passions around sustainability and science.
The interview presented below has been edited and abridged for clarity.
Thank you for joining the session today. We are continuing our sustainability discussion with organizations who are leading the way and making progress on the wide range of UN Global Compact goals. Ester, how would you summarize Novozymes’ position on social responsibility?
Lars, thank you for posing the question and for coupling sustainability and social responsibility together, because they are truly interlinked. For us, at Novozymes, sustainability and social responsibility are at the heart of everything we do – how we work, how we run operations, and how we bring our solutions and products to our customers. It is how we take care of our people and how we interact with the world around us. Sustainability is our foundation, clearly expressed in our purpose and vision, embedded into our DNA at Novozymes: together, we find the biological answers for better lives in a growing world.
A very simple way to synthesize our purpose is to say we exist to enable better lives and to address society’s most pressing needs. We create solutions that are based on science – microbes and enzymes. This is who we are – we are proud to discover the biological answers for these challenges – and this is our business driver. Returning to our dialogue on sustainability, what better way is there to drive your business than making the world a better place; this is true for every single one of our 6,000 employees.
At Novozymes, we call ourselves Zymers. Every Zymer shares the passion for science and innovation; it is the pride that comes with being a Zymer. When I joined Novozymes a few months ago, I had to earn the right of being a Zymer. I do not know if I have it already, but I am strongly working on that. This is the passion and pride that come with being able to connect with society and provide the biological answers to the challenges of the world. We are a business-to-business company, serving thousands of customers in more than 130 countries around the world. We have an extremely diversified portfolio, and are present in more than 30 market segments. Each of these unique solutions has a clear purpose: to make the world better by reducing energy consumption, by enabling a better use of water, or by decreasing the chemical use across a broad range of markets. In agriculture, we enable farms to have higher yields while using less chemicals; in farm feeding, we enable farmers to increase nutritional absorption of corn and other ingredients while keeping the chicken healthy; in household care, we enable people to clean clothes using less energy and water. Across every single market that we touch, we make the connection to sustainability.
Through our solutions, we enable our customers to drive sustainability with us. In 2019, carbon dioxide emission was reduced by more than 87 million tons – that is the equivalent of 36 million cars taken off the road. This was enabled by our products.
Thus, one side of sustainability is in our products. On the other side, and equally important, our goal is to set sustainable standards to drive operations. It is not only the products that enable the world to be a better place, but it is also the way that they are produced. We need to embrace our responsibility in this process. As we are decreasing carbon dioxide emissions, year after year, it is important to understand how we are introducing better ways to use water, address facility waste, and decrease our footprint, to be a strong contributor to the Paris Agreement.
The last pillar is around how we collaborate with the society that we are in – how we partner with our communities, with relevant NGOs, universities, investors, and other key stakeholders in our ecosystem. We listen, care, connect, and learn from each other to better understand society’s needs. We can then integrate these perspectives into what we do. This connectivity allows us to be part of the ecosystem, not as a visitor, but as a host and an engaged member.
Sustainability is in our DNA, which is an appropriate metaphor as we are a bio-based company. It drives everything that we do: from the products we develop, to the process itself, to how we treat our people, and to how we connect and engage with the communities we are part of.
Thank you, Ester. Considering that sustainability is so integral to the Novozymes, do you face any challenges in building an identity of Zymers around sustainability?
The challenge is around prioritization. The opportunities to connect society with solutions is unconstrained and is therefore not a challenge. The will to operationalize this is not a challenge, as we receive pride and honor from designing the solutions. It is the effectiveness of the prioritization of our efforts, combined with the versatility and complexity of the markets, for both short-term and long-term. At the same time, I hesitate to call it a challenge because this is the beauty of running a company. This is what keeps us alive. I would say it is more our responsibility to make sure that we correctly allocate precious time and effort and intellectual and scientific capacity to make the highest impact.
How do you incorporate sustainability and social responsibility goals into your business objectives?
I am going to sound repetitive here, but again, it comes naturally. Sustainability is anchored across all levels of Novozymes, so sustainability itself is the business driver. Sustainability is embedded in our boards and executive committee. It is seen across the whole organization and it is a driver of growth, a driver of business. We have very clear, well-articulated sustainability goals, both around environmental and social performance. We talk about the impact our products have on the world, responsible production in our facilities, and also the social goals and responsibilities that we have as an enterprise. The goals are set by us, approved by the board, and cascaded down into the organization through KPIs.
To reinforce my answer to the question, these are not just goals – they are very much embedded in our actions. We review the progress made towards the goals diligently in each business meeting, in each board meeting, and results are reported in our annual report. We do not have two businesses, one for the ‘business’ and one for sustainability. It is all one company, in which sustainability is one of the parameters for success that we are measuring; sustainability determines whether or not we are successful as an enterprise. There is no difference between a revenue goal and a sustainability goal, because they are all enterprises goals, and we are only successful when we meet our goals collectively. This is true across all levels of the board, executive leadership, every single employee, and we diligently track progress.
An excellent proof point is that sustainability is a criterion in our long-term incentive program for executive management and senior leadership, and in the stock program for all employees. It has 20 percent weight in the current incentive program. Not only does it show that we deliver on sustainability targets, but it also a way of recognizing in each other the good work we do. There is no better way of walking the talk when you tell others ‘do’ and then applaud them for the right actions, behaviors, and contributions in a consistent way.
We cannot win without fulfilling sustainability targets. There is no way we are going to drive business without bringing sustainability solutions to the world, because that is who we are. There is no beginning or end – it is the same cycle. Sustainability is business, business drives sustainability. It is part of how we set our targets. It is part of how we recognize our employees, how we empower our customers, and how we better our communities.
Thank you for the comprehensive answer. I would like to take the opportunity now to pose a more intimate question: For you, personally, where does this passion for sustainability come from?
For me, it is a combination of passion and values. My true passion is science and curiosity. Since I was a little kid, I have had a curiosity around how things work and wanting to understand why things happen. Science has always been my friend in bringing about the answers to what makes the world click. In addition, I grew up in a culture where respect was very strongly embedded in you: respect for elders, respect for your family, respect for the nature around you. I see sustainability as a way of showing respect – respect for the planet you live on, respect for your neighbors, for your children, for the future that you are offering to your children. When you combine who I am, a person with a strong sense of respect, with my passion, science, then it all comes together in sustainability.
Novozymes perfectly connects these two together as well. In Novozymes, we translate societal needs into solutions with science, and we do this respectfully. And of course, as a business, we do this by generating value for our shareholders and for our customers. It is not just the what, but also the how. This is what makes me feel very proud of being a part of this fantastic team.
In the context that you have provided for us – both the personal drive and the complexity of embedding sustainability across the organization – what do you think leadership means?
This is a great question. When I look at myself, when I think about myself, I would not necessarily call myself a leader. I think a leader is a title given to you as a result of your actions. It is not something that you choose to be. I do not wake up in the morning and say, I am going to be a leader today – that is not what makes me a leader. My motivation is to drive change, to leave a positive imprint, to develop the people that are working with me, to make the connectivity between science and society, to make solutions become reality. This willingness to drive change and natural ability to quickly strengthen connectivity is what makes you a leader. When people want to follow you and go where you are going, not because you are the boss, or the CEO, or the supervisor, but because the future that you are creating is a better place, and they understand how they can be part of it, that is when you become a leader.
To take it one step further than the organization, what does it mean to be a leader in the marketplace?
Being a leader in the marketplace means having your customers come to you, positioning the organization as the natural place to answer and help them on their journey. This is how the organization contributes to society, by driving, defining, and helping the market understand what good looks like. Similar to leadership on an individual scale, leadership as an organization means making a difference, a change, an imprint, and showing that there is value for others in working with you.
What are some of the things that you see affecting the pace of change in sustainability in the industry?
It is never fast enough, it will never be fast enough. And it is good to be frustrated about this. We just have to embrace the frustration as our friend. It is good to not accept the status quo, it is good to feel that we are not fast enough, but we also should not make it a bigger problem than it is. It is just a colleague working with you on the journey of driving change.
Do not give up. We have to embrace the fact that solutions do not come from each of us individually. We need a little bit more trust. We are more collaborative now with the answers that move us forward, a tiny step every day. Remember to look forward and backwards, because you could get frustrated just staying in the moment you are in. I like looking backwards and seeing the difference, that I am moving. Maybe you take one step ahead, half a step back, two steps ahead, then three steps back – you will not feel it, but if you stop and pause and look backwards, then you can celebrate the success and have the courage to continue to move ahead. I think we need more of this – to collectively embrace the mountain ahead of us and to collectively celebrate the small successes that we have behind us.
The fight for social responsibility and sustainability is one that will continue on for several generations. When you look at next generation leaders, who will carry on this fight, what do you look for in terms of leadership? What attributes will be important to continue this battle?
Collaboration will be important. The capability to connect and engage will be crucial for future leaders, because there will not be one answer. The answer we are looking for is probably going to be spread among many different brains. Humility, trust, and encouragement from others’ successes will also be key attributes. It will be very difficult if you need your own success to bolster you to the next step, because the world is going to move with every breakthrough that comes. Hopefully, future leaders will be much more collaborative. This means sharing, being proud of losing perhaps individually, when we are collectively winning, and this requires a different type of mindset, a different type of education.
What would you tell others that are facing these challenges and trying to champion the cause? How would you advise them to stay motivated or engaged?
It is a combination of pride and business. You know it needs to be a business case, so make it right. Make business about doing the right thing. Only being a business allows you to stay in the game; only being right will not allow you to be in the game. It is a balance. Sometimes you are more business, sometimes you are more right. But it needs to be a combination of having the right to be at the table, and that happens when sustainability and business are together.
Thank you so much for your time, Ester.
It has been a pleasure, thank you.