Don't get too comfortable.
Asbjorn Ethelberg of Coloplast believes that constant learning and driving change should be key elements of any career. That, and a spirit of purpose.
There are points in your career when you are in danger of getting too comfortable. You’ve mastered many of the complexities of a new organisation and role, and although you may be firing on all cylinders, there’s a risk that you may no longer be learning.
So says Asbjorn Ethelberg. And he speaks from personal experience.
Ethelberg is Head of Commercial Excellence with Danish medical device multinational and CEMS Corporate Partner, Coloplast. It’s a role that he has held and made his own over the last four years. Before then he was a global Graduate working in sales, marketing and commercial development with Arla Foods, another CEMS partner.
His decision to make a career switch was very much motivated by an imperative to grow, personally and professionally.
“I think it’s critical to keep learning and developing throughout your career. I was privileged to start my career with a fantastic organisation like Arla, but a few years in, I really felt I was approaching a comfort zone and that it was time for me to switch it up and embrace the next challenge in my career. I wanted to push myself to try something totally new to reboot my learning dynamic.”
This decision dove-tailed with the realisation that he was looking for an opportunity to make a difference, he says; to have a tangible impact on society and the wellbeing of other people.
“I was ready to work for a company with a purpose that really resonated with me. There are plenty of solid reasons to look for your next career challenge – financial considerations and the chance to develop and grow – but for me, the chance to contribute to something bigger was a huge motivation. And this was a company that dramatically improves lives.”
Coloplast is an international market leader in medical devices, specialising in products and services for urology, ostomy, continence, wound and skin care. Its work, says Ethelberg, has the potential to “transform millions of lives.”
“Everything that we do here is absolutely geared to optimising patient care. And if we do it well, we end up really contributing to the greater good of society.”
Ethelberg heads up a small team whose focus is on the wound and skin care part of the business. Within the team’s purview are things like strategic planning across different regions, driving organic commercial growth through investment cases, creating go-to-market strategies and customer relationship management through Salesforce.com for this part of the business.
“The impact of the crisis on us as an organisation was pretty dramatic. In 2020, we saw virtually all elective procedures put on hold in hospitals all over the world, and site visits to sell products and train practitioners were stopped altogether. So it’s been tough, though we continue to grow.”
Just as dramatic was the impact on his own working life, he says.
“In my role, I’ve had to do a lot of travelling to set up projects in different countries. Before Covid, I would easily spend 80 or more days travelling each year. Obviously all that has changed. In some cases, we’ve had to simply postpone our projects and activities, although we’ve learned to adapt to the no-travel situation and we’ve discovered that there’s still plenty we can do remotely.”
One of the greatest challenges of the pandemic, says Ethelberg, has been the disruption to the social ties and interaction that characterises office life. As a leader, it has fallen to him to work a little harder to prioritise his team’s wellbeing.
“I was surprised by how hard it’s been for everyone, not seeing each other in the office. Conferencing tools like Teams are great, but they’re a poor substitute for the one-on-one you have in the office.”
To facilitate communication and support his colleagues through the crisis, he has instituted a weekly “team huddle.” These meetings are key, he says, not only in safeguarding business continuity, but in facilitating conversations.
“It’s been very important to bring the team together and to have these regular touchpoints at fixed times. The goal is not simply to follow up and keep things ticking over, but to share knowledge and support; to catch up with each other professionally and personally and secure that critical spirt of cohesion and alignment that you lose if you’re just using emails or having very focused business meetings.”
Making these adjustments to his leadership style and adapting fast to the emerging challenges of the pandemic has come relatively easy to him, he says, in no little part because of his education.
“CEMS teaches you adaptability. From the get-go, you are encouraged to be adaptive and to build the capacity to adjust to changing environments. As a CEMS student, I spent my semester abroad at St. Gallen, while still focused on deliverables back home in Copenhagen. You learn to be agile as a function of your education. And it’s a skill that has stood me in good stead throughout my career, and particularly at this time leading my team at Coloplast.”
Coloplast is, he says, a “terrific” company to work for, and a culture that is “impressively managed and organised” from within. There is a strong focus on advancement and promotion that supports the development of talent, he adds.
“I joined as a senior manager, and was promoted to the head up a new team within a year. And this is a story that plays out across the company.”
As an employer, he would recommend Coloplast to CEMS graduates looking for an organisation that offers purpose and prospects.
He also has a few well-chosen words of advice for younger professionals navigating the early stages of their careers.
“Stay curious and keep pushing yourself. It’s very easy to settle into a comfortable spot early in your career and enjoy the feelings of familiarity. But doing so can stifle your courage to try something new. Never underestimate the value of change – and the need we all have, at every stage in our lives and careers, to keep on learning.”