north of neutral dialog

March 1, 2010

by anne lueneburger

Michael Hansen, CEO, Elsevier Health Sciences, Philadelphia

I have vivid memories of an evening at Bowlmor Lanes in Greenwich Village.  Bowling was never my forte – and I only reluctantly joined the group – but socializing with fun, bright individuals sounded like a good idea. I will not bore you with details, but fact is: it was the first time I met Michael Hansen, and with his tireless coaching I won the prize for the ‘greatest improvement in score’. A bitter-sweet trophy, as I had started out very (VERY) low. But what a turnaround!

Hansen and I kick off 2010 with a conversation on his professional journey, its highlights and some of the insights he has gained along the way.

The role

Michael Hansen is currently CEO of Elsevier’s Health Sciences Division, a leading publisher of books, journals, magazines and on-line resources, translated into over 20 languages, for physicians and healthcare practitioners worldwide.  Elsevier is headquartered in Amsterdam, Netherlands, and has over 70 offices world-wide with 7,000 employees.

Hansen’s office is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, “but my team is around the globe, be it  London, New York, Amsterdam, or Singapore, and I am frequently in different locations.” His vision for the coming years: ”Transform our business from print to electronics.  We are not in the business of publishing books, but in the business of helping healthcare professionals make better decisions. Technology will allow us to offer state-of-the art training tools with unique features that make it possible for our target market to learn through visual demonstrations and hands-on examples on how to best do their job.”

The journey

Michael Hansen got his Master’s of Law degree from the University of Bonn, at the time still the capital of Germany.  Uncertain of what he wanted to do next, he started at Columbia University where he graduated with an MBA in 1989. As many of the Ivy League graduates at the time, he joined the ranks of strategy consultants and started in the New York office of the Boston Consulting Group.

Over the next eleven years with BCG, Hansen built the firm’s highly successful global e-business and Media practice which he co-chaired until his departure in 2000. Michael perceived a unique opportunity in overseeing International Operations at Proxicom, a media and service technology company of the dot-com era. Proxicom had gone public shortly before Hansen joined, and the IPO netted Proxicom investors a tidy sum. However, when the dot com bubble burst, Proxicom was sold to Dimension Data, a South African based networking services company, barely a year after Hansen had joined.

Following this, Michael Hansen accepted a position as Executive VP of Corporate Development at Bertelsmann in 2001, a $20 billion media company headquartered in Germany. In his new role Hansen was responsible for a company-wide restructuring effort to turnaround underperforming business units.  He also successfully led a number of mid sized and large M&A transactions.

In 2006, Michael Hansen became President and CEO of Harcourt Assessment, which also meant moving his wife (who had also been a partner at BCG) and three young sons to San Antonio, Texas – a geographic and cultural shift for a New Yorker at heart.  In addition to changes on the personal side, his new role came with its own challenges. Harcourt Assessment, part of the Reed Elsevier group, had seen problems piling up prior to Hansen taking over. “When I started the job, I was stunned by the extent of politics and backstabbing that was going on. One of the first decisions I made was to keep on most of the leadership team, I only let go of two people. I made it clear: foremost, we will operate as a team. And we will either all swim or sink together.”  Among Hansen’s first changes was moving his office to the center of the operations floor, with glass windows, making him readily visible and accessible to his team.  Different from his predecessor, Hansen’s leadership mantra was to be approachable, to empower the right people, to encourage individuals to take risks and to spark innovation: “When I started out, employee satisfaction ratings were lower than 30 percent. Within two years, we saw ratings of close to 70 percent satisfaction.”

On January 30 2008 Pearson acquired Harcourt Assessment, Inc.  Michael Hansen, in turn, was appointed CEO of Elsevier’s Health division, ready to “paint a new picture and vision of what the division can become.”

Moments of pause

“One of my most treasured failures has been my experience with Proxicom,” Hansen reflects when I ask him about his most treasured failure, “I did not reflect carefully enough as to what it is that I wanted and what I was good at. I was lured by the growth potential of the firm rather than looking at whether the start-up business would be an environment in which I can play to my strengths.”

Positive change: preparation, gut & luck?

I wondered during our dialog if Michael Hansen – ever the strategic thinker professionally – always knew what he would be doing at different stages of his life.  Hansen laughs: ”If someone would have told me at the age of twenty about where I will be twenty five years later, I could not have guessed. It seems that often I followed my gut instinct mixed with a good portion preparation meeting opportunity or luck.”

However, gut and luck are only part of the equation.  In fact, it has been said that strategy is the art of being consistently lucky.  And while there is no blueprint for career paths to CEO, essential to Michael Hansen’s success have been his openness to challenge the status quo and his ability to push for positive transformation (aka ‘change can be good’). Throughout his career he has been open to new experiences and learning opportunities, ready to change the world around him and evolve as a person and leader: “Conventional wisdom is not always wrong, but it is certainly worth challenging and exploring.”

In order to drive change in his team and the organization, Hansen believes in exploring what inspires people around him to come to work every day. He probes his team deeply, asking “what makes you come to work?” or “what about the organization inspires you?” Hansen also firmly believes that leveraging people’s strengths – allowing them to do what they are good at and enjoy doing most – creates a culture of resilience, a crucial ingredient of employee engagement, particularly during times of change and turnaround.

Over the years Hansen himself has evolved as a leader, has worked with experienced executive coaches and is relentless about asking himself the same questions he asks of his team.  Through a deep understanding of his own motivations, his strengths and how to use these to inspire others, he creates a positive role model for change.

And when he is not working or with his family, you may meet him in a 105°F heated Bikram studio in some city in the world, counterbalancing the often rewarding but also stressful existence of leading change.

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