A Dialogue with Global CEOs – Stan Zurkiewicz: CEO, DEKRA

Stan Zurkiewicz, CEO of DEKRA, GEMBA 2009

Introducing Stan and DEKRA

Stan is the first to admit that his path to the top has been an unconventional one. Fresh from studying in the UK and the US, he headed to China to fulfill his long-held dreams of furthering his martial arts prowess. From training in Shaolin temple and ad-hoc teaching roles, his journeys took him across the country, before it turned into a burgeoning business career. 

After more than 20 years living and working in China, Polish-born Stan returned to Europe in January 2021, taking on first the COO and a year-and-a-half later the CEO role at DEKRA HQ in Stuttgart, Germany. One of the world's largest players in Testing, Inspection and Certification (TIC) industry, DEKRA is best-known for its work in the automotive sector, making Stan's extensive China knowledge highly relevant to the company's future strategy. Under Stan's leadership, the company's position is stronger than ever as it approaches its 100th year of operations. Responsible for nearly 50,000 employees active in over 60 countries producing annual revenues of over €4 billion, Stan has acclimated to a truly global leadership position in a short space of time. 


The Chinese leadership style – Assessing strengths and weaknesses

In the initial dialogue with CEIBS' own Professor Bala Ramasamy, the professor asked Stan to outline his experiences as a European-born leader returning to a leadership role in Europe after such an extensive period in China. He asked if Chinese business leaders, and non-nationals with heavy China experience, have certain advantages and disadvantages over leaders who are formed in other business cultures.

“Clearly, no leader is defined purely by their cultural heritage or experiences,” Stan clarified, “but of course it does influence our leadership style. The work ethic here in China is unparalleled; there is a culture of self-discipline, dedication and adaptability that can help prepare you for the rigours of a global leadership role. We’re all smart people, but leading effectively and consistently does require great personal effort. The Chinese workplace experience can help with that.”

In terms of potential weaknesses, Stan highlighted how the Chinese education system and general workplace norms often do not stress the importance of winning over colleagues with engaging, convincing arguments (the “why”), relying instead on hard data and a focus on process efficiency (the “how”). 


“It can be a sticking point – not being able to convey ideas or proposals in a way that is convincing to, say, American or European counterparts. We're not talking just about language proficiency; it’s about being convincing at both, the intellectual and emotional levels. You have to build an emotional connection with your colleagues, to let them see your vision and make them willing to take that journey with you. That means going beyond the facts and figures.”

Stan also echoed a point made by Jeff Zhu, CEO of Cabot, in the previous dialogue in this series. He pointed out that a growing number of world-leading MNCs (Google, Microsoft, etc) have Indian nationals as their CEOs, citing their ability to forge emotional connections through by “telling compelling stories and selling their vision with conviction”, while Chinese CEOs in this company class with this respective skill set remain few and far between.


Empathy through exposure – Diverse experiences are key to global leadership 

When asked how Chinese leaders can adapt to this reality of global leadership, emulating the success of Indian CEOs, Stan emphasised the importance of global exposure. Time spent in profoundly different working environments is almost a prerequisite for the kind of global leader who wants to lead through empathy and the ability to convince colleagues, rather than overpower them. 

“You cannot overestimate the benefits of immersing yourself in different countries and industries, drinking in the ideas and experiences of those whose backgrounds are very different from your own. GEMBA is a powerful example of this; we came together from across the world to share our stories, and through it we gave each other the means to connect with other leaders on this emotional level, and persuade each other to work well together. This approach isn’t limited to academia either. Chinese companies are branching out globally, and this gives Chinese leaders more opportunities to spend some significant time in other countries.”


How to be noticed – Drawing the eye of senior leadership 

Professor Bala then asked Stan if he thinks it is necessary to plan out the phases of attaining a global leadership role, complete with a firm timeline.

“I think that life is way too unpredictable to be able to plan it out to that degree. I certainly did not have each stepping stone planned – unit, country, region, global. My philosophy was that if my business unit outperformed others, it would be noticed. If I was noticed, it would lead to opportunities that would take me where I wanted to go.”

The inevitable follow-up question duly came from the professor: how can aspiring global leaders get themselves noticed? What criteria are the higher-ups looking for, beyond the more obvious metrics of hard KPIs?

“They don’t just consider what you deliver, they carefully consider the how element of the equation. Do you deliver with an unquestionable level of integrity? Does your team trust you and believe in you? Can you engage in a constructive way on issues where you may have a different perspective?  So, deliver results, but do it in a way that’s consistent with your ethical standards and those of the company. Sure, they want good performers in global roles, but never at the expense of the organisation’s reputation.”


Final thoughts – Be bold, be prepared, be visible 

Preparation is key in all good plans, but Stan clearly advocates for a form of flexible preparation, an adaptive approach to business challenges and opportunities that no doubt stems from his extensive experience in China's highly competitive and dynamic workplace culture. His parting pieces of advice in the more formal part of the event focused on the attitude that aspiring global CEOs should adopt in both their daily work and future plans.

“We don't build greatness by being conservative. We have to be bold. We have to take calculated risks. It's not about being reckless, that is not a path towards career progression. But having the courage to take bold steps based on sound calculations will get you noticed even if some projects or initiatives are inevitably going to fail. It will show that you can adapt to current business realities, forge a bold vision for the future and then communicate that vision to your team and the wider organisation. That’s how you get noticed, how you get buy-in, and how you build your career towards a global facing role.”

Look out for more dialogues with world-class CEOs of global companies, as the next instalment of the series is coming soon. For business leaders with aspirations to take on this extremely challenging type of role, there's no substitute for face-to-face engagement with those who live this reality each day.



Tom Murray