superior supervision Making Change From the Top Down

Holding an impressive number of supervisory board mandates, Paul Achleitner, in his own quiet way, has helped improve corporate oversight in Germany.
Paul Achleitner, supervisory board chairman of Deutsche Bank.

“Persistence,” Paul Achleitner recently said in an interview, “is possibly the best prerequisite for being able to make real change.”

The way he lives, personally and professionally, is the best evidence for the truth of this guiding principle.

Because the first thing you notice about his impressive resume is the consistency and perseverance with which he quietly and methodically achieved his goals.

Mr. Achleitner stands at the center of a special network, unlike anyone else. Wolfgang Reitzle, Continental Supervisory Board Chairman and Former Linde CEO

His studies in St. Gallen, Switzerland, his stepping stone to a career at Bain and Company, the development of Goldman Sachs in Germany, his appointment to the Allianz management board, and now the chairmanship of the supervisory board at Deutsche Bank, as well as seats with Bayer, Daimler, RWE and Henkel – all of them lined in a row like a pearl necklace.

And that can sometimes leads to irritation. His consistency, perseverance and continuity are not necessarily the attributes that large portions of the public primarily expect from the chief overseer of a banking institution pitched into one of the biggest tests in its history by the financial crisis.

In a situation like this, revolution is what is expected, not evolution. And Paul Achleitner, at least at first glance, seems to stand more for evolution.

But those who look closer quickly recognize that Mr. Achleitner thinks and works in larger dimensions. His understanding of profound changes goes far beyond knee-jerk measures. Instead he is oriented more on the sweeping arc of history. Where others only see a financial crisis at work, Mr. Achleitner speaks of the excesses and origins of a “financial revolution” that preceded the crisis, the historical import of which is comparable to the Industrial Revolution.

He understands the dialectic character of this financial revolution from close up and knows: The force that during the 1990s and the beginning of the new century generated each innovation among financial products would not have been possible without globalization or an increase in prosperity. At the same time, it bore the seeds of its own dismantling.

Today, it is necessary to separate the productive and destructive sides of this force to analyze and draw practical consequences. For example, to preserve investment banking, but to give it modified and clear rules that would preclude a repeat of the crisis.

Mr. Achleitner has stepped up to secure the legacy of the revolution – for a German bank steeped in tradition, and for Germany as a financial hub. And in doing so, ensuring the sustainability of global markets, which cannot do without a strong European component.


WTB 2013


In this sense he is setting the course, and is seeking primarily the balance between a new start and continuity. He has prescribed a change in culture at Deutsche Bank and anchored it institutionally. For example, that is how the system for compensation was adjusted. It is now less focused on short-term profitability and more on factors applicable over the long term, such as sustained success, personnel management and customer satisfaction.

Mr. Achleitner takes personal responsibility for criticism of these types of changes – from those who think the changes are not happening fast enough and are not far-reaching enough, and also from those who think they have already gone too far.

These reactions speak more in favor than against the coherence of his course -- just like with the success he has helped achieve. Under his supervision, Deutsche Bank reduced its own cost basis by €2 billion, and €500 million has already flowed into making procedural changes, so the bank can find its way back from its occasionally excessive focus on products to return to its core competency of advising customers.

But more important for gaining the distinction of being named “Supervisory Board Member of the Year” are the less noticeable contributions that Mr. Achleitner has made in a very fundamental way to the culture of corporate management.

In his own quiet way, he has contributed considerably to promoting the professionalization of supervisory board work in Germany. Supervisory boards monitor board decisions and hire and fire chief executives. Mr. Achleitner devotes 100 percent of his time to his mandates. Directing supervision and giving advice are not side jobs for him, but rather a calling done out of conviction.

One of Mr. Achleitner’s outstanding abilities is to win over suitable people for a common cause.

At the same time he is fostering close links with his colleagues on the boards of other companies. In this way, he stands at the center of a special network, unlike anyone else. It is a network that for a long time has not been distinguished by a close, reciprocal involvement among these companies, but instead focuses on the sustainability of another currency -- on the connective force of mutual trust, which in turn gives root to common values.

These values traditionally focus on the competitiveness of a company, but they also aim above the individual interests of the company to the competitiveness of Germany’s position in a globalized world. The fact that a company and its supervisors do this largely in a calm, persistent, steady, and purposeful manner, and that they draw the strength to change through the stability of their connection, that is substantially due to the influence of Paul Achleitner.


Wolfgang Reitzle is a supervisory board chairman of Continental and is on the boards of Axel Springer and Hawesko, a German wine retailer. He is the former executive chairman of industrial gases firm Linde. To contact him: [email protected]