As a CEO, you have to live up to your company’s values

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Robert Walters’ Executive Leadership Series brings you inspirational stories from fellow executive leaders. In this edition, Adrian Meili, CEO at Zino Davidoff SA, talks about his personal experiences.

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Adrian Meili joined Zino Davidoff SA as CEO in February 2021, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. It gave him a fresh perspective on leadership, becoming more open-minded and learning to embrace the discomfort of uncertainty. 

  • You were CEO of SIGG – known for its iconic bottles – for three years before joining Davidoff. What made you decide to pursue this new role?

“I had intended to stay with SIGG for a few more years, but when the CEO position at Zino Davidoff SA became available I regarded it as a great opportunity. It is a brand still with a lot of potential, and I was using Davidoff products myself even before the application process started. 

After meeting the board of directors it became clear to me that there were many interesting challenges and that I would get the opportunity to truly make a difference, and really move the company forward together with the different teams and with the board. Of course, the short term goal is to get through the Covid-19 crisis, but in the long run we aim to further strengthen the brand, expand the product portfolio and gain a foothold in geographical locations which are still blind spots to us. These goals of expanding and further building the brand really motivate me.” 

  • You started with Davidoff during the pandemic. How has this affected your leadership style?

“It has made me more open-minded regarding specific subjects, such as flexible working. Two years ago I would have never imagined to give the entire workforce freedom to work from home, but Covid-19 has taught me that it works, and that there are many advantages to it.

But the pandemic has also made me take decisions faster, almost embracing the discomfort of uncertainty. You are either afraid of this uncertainty, or you say: there are external factors which cannot be controlled, so let’s take it for what it is and look for opportunities. It has changed my mindset in a way that now I look for positive developments which can come out of uncertain situations.”

  • What would you advice new or aspiring c-suite professionals to focus on when starting in a new role or in a new company?

“This is my second CEO role, and something I have learned is that the job already starts when you sign the contract, and not on your first working day. 

I had a six month notice period in my previous contract and after signing with Davidoff my first priority in that half a year before I officially joined the company was to really understand what was expected of me and of my new role, so that after actually joining I would not realise after 90 days that I had been running fast during my first few months at Davidoff, but running in the wrong direction.

Once you have those expectations clear, in the first 90 days the challenge is to strike a balance between further developing a clear strategy and showing results at the same time. I can imagine every company requires a different approach, depending for example on whether it is a start-up or if the company is in a turnaround situation, but in my experience it is important to be able to give guidance towards a clear direction as well as show progress you’ve made.”

  • The Zino Davidoff Group is a family business and a private company. How does that influence your role as CEO?

“I believe it is a big advantage that there is limited short term profit pressure. For the board, which is a mix of family members and external directors, the most important thing is that the company is successful in the long term on a sustainable basis.

For a CEO that’s actually a very positive position to be in. Of course there is still pressure to be successful and to deliver, but I believe this long term vision enables us to take the right decisions. I’ve seen it in other companies that there is excessive pressure to reach a certain profit margin the next quarter, which can block you from taking decisions which would be better for the long term.” 

  • Having worked in the consumer goods industry your entire career, what are some of your key learnings you would like to share with aspiring c-level professionals working in this industry?

“I regard the following three points as crucial: 

First: good is not good enough. In the consumer goods industry and in retail, the details make the difference. If you just had a successful event, or a successful opening, or anything successful for that matter; celebrate, but the next day ask yourself the question ‘what can I do better?’ Instil this mindset in yourself and in all the teams you are working with.

Second: be willing to learn constantly. There are so many interesting developments out there; be open to them. At Davidoff we are currently going through a digital transformation, and I can see this is turning into a success because all the teams are within the company are open and willing to learn new things. 

And last but not least: you are only as good as the team you are working with, so act and think as a team constantly.” 

  • In a leading role, how can you elevate a team to the next level?

“As a CEO you have to create an environment where employees can learn and where they can take on responsibilities, and where they have a certain freedom to take decisions. Trust your colleagues, and at the same time give them the opportunity to fail. People should be able to make mistakes, because they learn from them.

Besides, if you as a CEO just take all the decisions by yourself, sooner or later you will burn out. It’s just impossible. And you will never attract the right talent as a company, as colleagues usually enjoy a role in which they can take on responsibilities and learn to make the right decisions.”

  • Which soft skills do you believe will be important for the future generation of c-suite leaders?

“To be agile and open-minded, in all aspects of leading. Just coming back to the Covid-19 situation, where suddenly the entire company is working from home, you have to be open to those sort of fast changes.

In addition, what I see more and more is that employees are looking for more than just a good compensation package. They look at the values of a company, what it stands for, and if they can identify themselves with the business. As a CEO, you should represent your company in a very sincere way. Not just hang up posters with the company values, you yourself have to live up to these values too. Otherwise you will lose talented co-workers.

And finally, I think executives need to change their leadership style as to make it less directive. I look at Davidoff, but also at other companies, and I see the business eco system is changing. Reporting lines are getting more blurred, you work together more and more with third parties and external stakeholders. A pure command and control style, I believe that is becoming something of the past.” 

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