Professional knowledge is important, but by no means is it everything, argues Roman Stein, CFO of Swiss Life Switzerland. The Physics graduate shares his thoughts on a good management culture and work-life balance.

Roman, what sort of company culture do you exemplify for your employees?
I would be happy if my 130 or so colleagues in Finance & Actuarial Services learned from me that specialist know-how is only part of a larger total package. I would like to show them that work can be fun, and should be fun. It’s important to me that the human aspect is not overlooked in a very complex, number-based, fast-moving environment.

But as CFO you are Lord of the Figures. And if they don’t add up …
… then we have a problem, of course. Naturally, the figures, our profit, that’s our bread and butter, if you will. But my area, like every company, and the whole wide world out there, is made up of people. And we only exist as a company because of the relevant human demands. Every single one of us expects to find the path best suited to our own needs and desires. Enabling people to lead their own, self-determined life is the example we give the outside world as well as within the company.

How do you shape decision-making processes in your teams?
As a company of a certain size we have the luxury and resources to try things out now and then. And yet we are also small enough to make quick decisions. People know each other, they eat lunch together and lots of things happen quite easily.

«Sometimes I have to apply the brakes»: Swiss Life CFO Roman Stein talks about what has influenced him in his career. (Kamera & Grafik: Dario Grasso, Vitronic AG)

You had leadership positions from an early age. What helped you on your career path?
You always need a certain amount of luck, of course, on the one hand. On the other hand, I had lots of good line managers, people from whom I was able to learn a thing or two. I also had one or two managers who taught me how definitely not to do things. And I was able to keep expanding my scope of management. I would have been completely overwhelmed if I had had to lead a team of 20 from the very beginning. After all, as a physicist I wasn’t particularly good at the so-called soft factors. That was something I had to learn, since they are at least as important for good leadership as technical expertise.

What would you advise someone eager for a leadership position?
Even if other tactics promise success in the short term, it pays over the long term to remain true to yourself. It isn’t always easy to say «no» occasionally, for example not to do something because it doesn’t feel right to you.

When you compare the current crop of graduates with your generation, do you notice any differences?
Today’s graduates are more self-confident than my generation was 20 years ago. Here’s what I can do, this is what I want, and if I don’t get it here I’ll go somewhere else. They don’t necessarily think about whether they can afford it. And that’s exactly what I think is so terrific. Because that too means self-determination. It used to be you would spend the first ten years of your professional life more or less obsessed with career planning. It was only when you had achieved a certain financial freedom that you could be self-determined.

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It pays to be true to yourself.

What brought you to the insurance industry?
When I finished my physics studies I founded an IT company with friends, in a sector like Google’s, in the data base area. In those days, in the early years of the new millennium, it was a young, up-and-coming sector, and we had sought-after know-how. And that won me a pretty attractive offer from Zurich Insurance. At the time I thought to myself, hey, I’ll do it for a few months. It turned into more than 14 years.

And what became of that company?
We had come to a point where we said, either we do this 100 percent and hire people and grow, or we let it go. I quickly took on quite a lot of responsibility at my job and self-employment wasn’t such a good fit alongside it. My two colleagues were in the same situation. In the end we chose the second option. We probably also lacked the courage. Of course I have sometimes wondered what would have happened if we had pushed our idea further at the time, other companies have had success with it. On the other hand, I am someone who seeks his fortune in the here and now.
 

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Roman Stein, born 1974, is CFO of Swiss Life Switzerland. Alongside classical grammar school he graduated from Pre-Flight Training with the Swiss Air Force (now SPHAIR). Instead of going on to become a military pilot, however, he decided to study physics at ETH Zurich. Roman Stein held a variety of leadership positions at the Zurich Insurance Group for a good 14 years, including Group-wide Controlling, Forecasting and Management Reporting. In January 2017, after a stint as CFO at a large health insurance company, he was appointed Head of Finance & Actuarial Services at Swiss Life Switzerland and Member of the Executive Board Switzerland.

What happens if something doesn’t suit you in the here and now?
Then I try to do something about it. I’m the only one responsible for it, that’s important to me. Indifference is something that bothers me. If I only come to work because I must, for example, then it’s time to think about whether there’s something else I would rather be doing. Of course, there are certain pressures in life, but in the end so much is within our power and we can do something about it.

What gives you balance in your life?
My family, my partner, my friends and physical exercise. Although work-life balance has never really been something I have explicitly thought about; it’s just what worked for me. Perhaps because I grew up in a generation that had stopped making such a distinction between the two. In today’s society you are rarely really offline. On the other hand you can take a couple hours away from the office every now and then to go swimming. That would once have been unthinkable. Life for me consists of many different puzzle pieces, which need to fit together, for each of us in a different fashion. I am quite good at finding those islands of free time in my sometimes hectic everyday life.

Do you have anything like a career plan? Did you ever?
No. But I had a sort of image of what I wanted to achieve someday. At 27 or 28 I took part in a talent workshop and I said to an HR person that I wanted to be CFO one day. She gave me a bemused smile and asked how I imagined that, precisely. I think she found my attitude rather arrogant. I was self-confident then and I still am today, it’s true. But that has nothing to do with arrogance, for me. I was only trying to consider my interests and decide where I wanted to go. And I believe it pays for everyone to think that way.
 

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