Leadership in AI – Heads Up with Daniel Szabo, CEO, Koerber Digital

In an enlightening conversation with an award-winning leader at the forefront of AI and digital transformation, we delve into the intricacies of leading an AI-centric organization, the journey of scaling Körber Digital amidst the pandemic, and the transition from Chief Digital Officer in Pharma to CEO of Corporate Venture Builder. We also chat about the importance of never-ending learning, the pressures of scale, how to create meaningful digital collaborations and have meaningful digital leadership. Looking back on a colourful career our guest shares sage advice on nurturing your career, juggling work and family and the great vision behind a great leader.

Körber AG, headquartered in Hamburg, is a management holding company that runs the Körber Group as a stock corporation with four Business Areas: Digital, Pharma, Supply Chain and Technologies. With around 13,000 employees and more than 100 locations worldwide, the Group generated sales of more than 2.5 billion euros in 2022.

The Business Area Digital deals with the digital development of the entire Group and develops new digital business models. Daniel Szabo is the initiator and Managing Director of the Business Area Digital with Körber Digital.


Leadership in AI

Effective AI-centric leadership diverges from traditional leadership, primarily in its requirement for deep technological literacy and a forward-looking approach. Such leaders must possess an in-depth understanding of AI technologies, not just superficially, but in a manner that enables them to fully harness these capabilities for future readiness. This includes anticipating the transformative impact of AI on both the workforce and the industry.

Additionally, AI leadership places a greater emphasis on a people-centric approach. This involves nurturing an environment conducive to innovation, where creativity, continuous learning, and adaptability are paramount. Leaders must recognize the influence of technology on their teams, ensuring it empowers rather than impedes.

A key aspect of AI leadership is agility. Given the rapid evolution of AI and related technologies, leaders must be able to quickly adapt their strategies and decisions, a quality less critical in traditional industries.

In essence, AI leadership requires a harmonious blend of technological expertise, a focus on people, and the ability to navigate and respond swiftly to change.

In the process of scaling Körber Digital during COVID-19, we emphasized two core aspects: implementing clear, actionable KPIs and building strong team dynamics. Our KPIs, focusing on leading indicators, provided early insights into alignment with strategic objectives, resembling effective sales management. This approach allowed for continuous monitoring and proactive adjustments, crucial for meeting our goals.

Simultaneously, we prioritized building cohesive teams, understanding the importance of trust and communication, especially in remote settings. This balance between quantitative metrics and qualitative team dynamics formed the cornerstone of our leadership, ensuring not only awareness of business targets but also fostering a supportive and connected team environment.

This dual approach, combining agile, empathetic, and data-driven leadership, was instrumental in navigating the challenges of this period, ensuring both organizational resilience and team solidarity.

Career Path

My transition from Chief Digital Officer to CEO marked a significant shift in my career, shaped by two main factors. Firstly, my entrepreneurial experience in founding a technology-based eyewear company, scaling it to $5 million in revenue, taught me the essentials of business growth and innovation using technology. Secondly, my eight years in a leading life sciences and pharma company enhanced my strategic skills and understanding of complex, regulated industries. The move to CEO was driven by my ambition to prove that an established company can excel in software and AI, combining my entrepreneurial background, strategic insights from life sciences, and a vision for transformative change in AI software. These experiences and my aspiration for impactful leadership in AI were pivotal in my journey to becoming CEO.

My career is defined by a deep passion for technology and an aptitude for innovating business models. Driven to create impact and economic value, I’ve focused on merging advanced technologies with strategic hardware and software synergy. This isn’t just about economic success; it’s about influencing the technology and startup sectors by challenging norms and driving transformative change.

In roles that require pioneering technology solutions or novel business strategies, my aim is always to lead significant transformations. My involvement in tech startups, particularly in areas poised for disruption, reflects my ambition to shape the future actively. My journey revolves around finding and capitalizing on opportunities that combine my technological enthusiasm and business insights to innovate and redefine industries.

Learnings and Reflections

In my book ‘Corporate Rockstars,’ I highlight the importance of carving out a successful corporate career without conforming to outdated corporate norms. The book suggests planning your path, avoiding political games, making decisions, and leading your team to victory. It acknowledges that not everything in corporate life is always positive, but emphasizes the importance of being true to oneself rather than seeking universal approval.

Reflecting on my early career, I wish someone had advised me on the significance of this mindset. True corporate success involves making a meaningful impact and contributing to goals with passion, collaboration, and focus. It’s not merely about meeting personal targets or showcasing skills, but about positively impacting your organization and team. This involves collaborative work, leveraging team strengths, and focusing on shared goals. Understanding this shift from individual achievements to collective impact can significantly transform one’s corporate journey, making it more fulfilling and aligned with personal passions and values. This insight, if understood early, can profoundly alter the trajectory of a career, leading to success and personal fulfillment.

Entrepreneurship demands resilience, a people-first attitude, and decisive action. Rapidly changing conditions necessitate swift decision-making, yet adaptability is key when initial plans fail. Success hinges on valuing people highly; it’s crucial to recruit top talent and establish a resilient, collaborative culture. Leaders should be empathetic and nurturing, fostering teamwork and collective problem-solving.

Entrepreneurs must recognize they don’t have all the answers and should surround themselves with smarter individuals, leveraging team intelligence and creativity for innovation. This team-centric leadership approach distinguishes successful ventures.

Collaboration and Team Dynamics

In my collaborations, I prioritize radical candor, which combines caring personally with direct challenges. This fosters robust discussions where diverse perspectives are vital, striving for optimal outcomes with respectful, direct communication.

Openness to different opinions is key, going beyond just listening to actively integrating these views into our decisions. This approach, rooted in radical candor, builds a culture of respect and continuous improvement.

Effective decision-making and implementation are crucial. Radical candor enables us to embrace diverse opinions, converge them into decisive actions, and ensure effective execution.

I also value collaborators with energy and passion, as this boosts team morale and productivity. The blend of radical candor, openness, decisive action, and enthusiasm fosters a dynamic, successful environment, promoting both personal and collective growth.

Effective leadership in the digital era transcends traditional strategy and execution, emphasizing a people-centric approach that values and prioritizes individuals. This style focuses on using technology to enrich lives in ways that align with human values, not just efficiency.

A key aspect of this leadership is cultivating a culture that nurtures creativity, collaboration, and diverse perspectives, fostering innovation and growth. Such a culture makes the purpose of our efforts – beyond just business outcomes – clear to every team member, enhancing engagement and commitment.

Leaders must understand the rapid technological changes and their business implications, aligning these with a broader vision for societal, environmental, and generational impact. This leadership isn’t just about a passion for technology or innovation; it’s about the positive changes they can instigate. It involves leading with a vision that goes beyond profit, aiming to leave a meaningful legacy.

In summary, digital age leadership is about blending a people-focused approach with a purpose-driven culture, understanding technological and business evolution, and being motivated by a vision that contributes to the greater good. This holistic approach helps leaders navigate digital complexities while making a significant positive impact.
Intricacies of the Role:

In the digital era, effective leadership hinges on a people-centric approach, emphasizing understanding, valuing, and prioritizing individuals. This strategy ensures that technological advancements enrich lives meaningfully, aligning with human values.

Creating a workplace culture that nurtures creativity, collaboration, and diverse thinking is vital. This environment allows the organization’s purpose to become apparent and palpable to each team member, fostering engagement and commitment.

Leaders must grasp technological advancements and their impact on business models and value creation. However, the essence of leadership lies in aligning these developments with a clear, purposeful vision. This vision extends beyond mere business outcomes; it encompasses a broader societal, environmental, and generational impact.

The driving force in this leadership style is not just a passion for technology or innovation but a commitment to the positive changes they can bring. Leaders aim for a legacy that transcends profit and productivity, contributing to the greater good.

In conclusion, leadership in the digital age combines a focus on people, a purpose-driven culture, an understanding of the evolving business and technological landscape, and a passion rooted in a significant ‘why.’ This comprehensive approach enables leaders to effectively navigate digital complexities and make a lasting, positive impact.

In AI solution development, the primary goal is delivering customer value, not just advancing technology. Success hinges on strong connections with both decision-makers, like business owners or CFOs, and end users. It’s essential to design human-centered AI solutions that are not only appreciated but eagerly adopted by users. This acceptance is key to driving transformative changes that lead to real value creation. Solutions must be practically beneficial, simplifying tasks, boosting capabilities, and increasing efficiency. True transformation occurs when users experience these benefits daily.

Economic value is crucial for adoption and purchase. Our solutions must offer significantly more value than just maintaining the status quo, demonstrating a major leap in value and efficiency rather than minor improvements. Thus, our AI development approach is customer-centric, user-focused, and value-driven. We aim to surpass expectations with solutions that are technologically superior and align with users’ practical needs, leading to successful adoption and substantial value generation.

Continuous Improvement

Our organization prioritizes skill development in managing digital change, especially concerning Generative AI (GenAI). Our goal is to reskill our workforce for effective utilization of these technologies, focusing on augmentation to boost productivity and innovation.

We are preparing for future business and technology disruptions by fostering a forward-thinking culture, equipping our teams with skills needed for tomorrow’s solutions.

Our investment extends to continuous learning programs covering current trends and market dynamics, and an innovation-driven culture that promotes creative problem-solving. Essentially, we aim to empower our teams with GenAI knowledge, strategic foresight for market trends, and a culture of continuous innovation and adaptability.

Our organization emphasizes continuous learning through a multifaceted approach that is integral to our culture. We champion open dialogue and knowledge exchange across teams, fostering an environment ripe for collective growth and innovation. A key element of our strategy is our robust coaching culture, which emphasizes the importance of mentorship and personal guidance for individual development. This culture permeates the entire organization, promoting a community where everyone engages in both teaching and learning.

We also prioritize providing substantial resources for learning, evident in our generous training budgets and days allocated to team members. These resources support their pursuit of professional development in line with their interests and career goals, demonstrating our dedication to their growth.

Our commitment to continuous learning extends to sharing weekly updates on relevant industry developments and insights, keeping our team at the forefront of their respective fields. Moreover, we’ve developed a digital training academy, offering a comprehensive range of courses and materials to cater to various learning preferences. This academy facilitates self-paced, targeted learning, making professional development both accessible and engaging.

In summary, our approach to continuous learning is about nurturing an ecosystem of growth, where dialogue, coaching, practical resources, and advanced learning platforms come together to empower our team members for continual professional and personal development.

Work-Life Balance

My approach to leadership is working smarter by focusing on essential tasks and empowering my team with other responsibilities, thus harnessing our collective strengths efficiently.

Parenthood, especially my experience with my daughter, has significantly enriched my understanding of work-life balance. It has taught me the value of time management and the joy of life beyond work. It’s crucial to disconnect and rejuvenate, embracing moments with family to maintain balance.

In my routine, I incorporate ‘focus sessions’ in my calendar, dedicating time to critical tasks without distractions. I also take my time off seriously. This not only aids in my rejuvenation but also fuels my future orientation, keeping me refreshed and forward-thinking.

This personal evolution has positively influenced my professional realm. I advocate for a work culture where balance is paramount, understanding that a team that enjoys both rest and meaningful work is essential for a successful, creative, and dynamic environment.”

This version encapsulates the importance of disconnecting for rejuvenation, the practical application of focus sessions, and the value of time off in driving future orientation, all within the framework of effective leadership and work-life balance.

To manage my time effectively across multiple roles, I use a disciplined ‘time boxing’ method, allocating specific time blocks to different tasks. This allows focused attention on each area. I prioritize responsiveness and quick decision-making to avoid delays and keep processes flowing. I prefer ad-hoc interactions over formal meetings for dynamic and efficient communication.

I also emphasize asynchronous communication, respecting team members’ schedules and fostering thoughtful responses. This approach maintains ongoing, effective communication without the need for immediate interaction, enhancing productivity and flexibility.

These strategies enable me to efficiently handle the demands of my various roles, ensuring productive use of every moment and aligning with the organization’s broader goals.

Interviewer: Christian Pobbig, Partner, H.I.E.C

Please feel free to contact Christian Pobbig directly via email cpobbig@hiec.com should you have any questions or would like to discuss the above or anything else further.