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Strange coincidences propelled Henrik Poulsen (MSc, ´94), CEO of DONG, to the pinnacle of the Danish business community. Here, he talks about luck, unforeseen assignments, paranoid business managers, studying in Aarhus and a future that should ideally leave more time for mountain stages in the Alps.

“You might as well get used to the idea that much of your career will be down to luck.”

The comment comes across as almost an expression of regret when the top man at DONG Energy lays out his career for the students in the auditorium at the School of Business and Social Sciences on Fuglsangs Allé in Aarhus. 

It is the annual Career Festival at the university, and 46-year-old Henrik Poulsen has returned to the address he left in 1994 with an MSc in Business Administration in his pocket to talk about the 20 years that have taken him to many different areas of the Danish business community and led him to senior positions both in Denmark and abroad.

Hatchet man in the Danish business community
“I have without doubt changed jobs more often than most people,” admits the CEO of DONG in a subsequent interview. Looking back, however, he can now pick out a pattern.

“I like to get involved in situations where it is time to chart a new course. I didn’t plan this as I went along, but that’s how it turned out,” states Henrik Poulsen, who has almost become a kind of hatchet man in the business community, performing what are known as ‘turnaround jobs’ at companies including LEGO and DONG Energy.

“The consistent theme in my career is probably the fact that I tend to move on when things settle down again,” says the man who was instrumental in turning LEGO around. He joined the company before there was any outward sign that the top Danish toy company would find itself caught up in a perfect storm resulting in multi-million dollar losses.

Henrik Poulsen, DONG: Even though I came to DONG with a clear expectation that it was to be all about growth, events on the global market forced me into the role of hatchet man once more. It is definitely not something I’ve sought out, but I somehow end up doing it anywayLeft LEGO when the upturn started
However, when the figures on the bottom line were written in black ink again, he parted company from the toy-making giant, where he had become part of the management triumvirate in 2003.

“The obvious choice would have been to stay and enjoy the upswing, given that I’d been there for the tough part of the journey. But I’d spent seven years at LEGO and I simply couldn’t find the energy to continue,” he says, explaining his decision to swap toys for the world of finance. 

However, he only worked in that particular arena for two years before starting a four-year stint with telecommunications at TDC. And then in 2012 he was head-hunted for the top position at DONG Energy.

Understands companies by looking at their figures

“Even though I came to DONG with a clear expectation that it was to be all about growth, events on the global market forced me into the role of hatchet man once more. It is definitely not something I’ve sought out, but I somehow end up doing it anyway,” says Henrik Poulsen. 

There was one time he actively sought a job – the first time, when he applied for the position of finance controller at Novo Nordisk.

“I thought that financing theory was hugely exciting, but in practice there was no real challenge in simply churning out budgets month after month, so I decided that I didn’t want my career to go in that direction. However, I’ve always like working with numbers, and that has had a major influence on my career. I largely understand a company through its figures,” says Henrik Poulsen.

Strange coincidence shaped his career
This is also the skill that has allowed Henrik Poulsen to navigate safely between very different sectors.
“It may well be that my profile lacks continuity. On the other hand, this is offset by my ability to familiarise myself with a new industry very quickly,” he says.

So does this mean that a career is not necessarily a question of a large helping of luck?

“Yes it is – after all, you have to find yourself in the right place at the right time to be able to climb the next rungs on the ladder. And in this regard I have to say that strange coincidences of different circumstances have shaped my career,” relates Henrik Poulsen.

He has also turned down a few opportunities along the way. And this proved to be a good move on several occasions.
“There were also times when I thought that I should perhaps have seized the opportunity. But you have to accept that chance and luck become a charming part of your career in this way.”

Managers are always looking over their shoulders
Is there a ‘leader gene’?
“I think so, although I can’t characterise it exactly. But you have to want to map out a course and place yourself in the driving seat. I don’t think that I have ever consciously sought out that seat, but when the chance presented itself, it turned out that I could do it.”

You have said that managers have a tendency to be a little paranoid?
“Yes – but in a constructive way, I hope. We’re always looking over our shoulders.”

Afraid of what?
“Of having overlooked something or other in the market. That the plan won’t pan out, and that something will go wrong. That there is something you haven’t seen coming, or that the others are outpacing you.”

It must be pretty exhausting ...
“It is, unless you come up with a mental model you can use day after day, year after year to keep on soaking up the uncertainty. It’s a high-profile job, and if things go wrong, you’re out – not quietly through the back door, but splashed all over the front pages.”

Henrik Poulsen has learned to live with this aspect of the game.
“Of course, a lot of privileges come with the job, and you’re allowed to make your mark and build something up,” he adds.

Talent must blossom under pressure
Long rides on a racing bike make up part of Henrik Poulsen’s mental model. Football is another one of his hobbies, and he is quick to identify an analogy between business leaders and elite sportsmen and women.

“You have to live a very disciplined life to be able to do the job at all. And if you chart the life of a business leader, it will come across as very schematic and dull,” he says, before highlighting another parallel between the two worlds.

“To be able to perform, you have to be in an environment where you feel the pressure,” emphasises the CEO of DONG. This is the same advice he gives to the students at the Career Festival.

Henrik Poulsen, DONG: Henrik Poulsen, DONG “Work yourself hard for 6–7 years so that your talent blossoms, and make sure to be on the right track when you’re 35–40,” he tells his audience, without making it sound like encouragement to become a workaholic.

“Work yourself hard for 6–7 years so that your talent blossoms, and make sure to be on the right track when you’re 35–40,” he tells his audience, without making it sound like encouragement to become a workaholic.

“My own personal business-related wake-up call came during my two years at McKinsey & Co. in Manhattan. I’m just not built to work that much.”

Learned discipline the hard way
On the basis of the results he achieved in the Danish business community, Henrik Poulsen was awarded the title of ‘Alumnus of the year 2012’ at his old alma mater. However, he is quick to admit that he was not the ideal student.

“I’m actually quite undisciplined. Over the years, I’ve learned the hard way to live a disciplined life comprising work, family, cycling and sleep,” says Henrik Poulsen, who was born and raised in a small village in Jutland.

For him, it was an almost intoxicating experience to come to Aarhus, where he began studying in 1988.
“A whole new world of social opportunities and parties instantly opened up. It is probably true that you tend to have a melancholy, romantic image of that period when you look back on it. But it was a good time,” he emphasises.

The Day Before Tuesday Club

During his time at the university, Henrik managed to fit in the roles of student counsellor, teaching assistant and fresher instructor. The club – the students’ local bar – also took up a fair amount of his time. And he found time today to revisit his old haunt – which was an almost surrealist experience.
“It’s exactly the same as it was 20 years ago.”

If Henrik Poulsen was pushed to highlight something special from his time as a student, it would be the group of fellow students with whom he spent his time.

“There were six of us who met up every Monday for what we called ‘The Day Before Tuesday Club’. This was the hub that my world radiated out from and a platform of deep social relations. Some of the club members are among my best friends to this day, and the club still meets once a year,” he relates.

DONG’s potential weighs more heavily than a new job
Today, Henrik Poulsen has reached a point where he no longer feels driven to move on to a new or bigger job in Denmark or abroad.

“It might sound a bit ambiguous, but I’d like to make DONG Energy the company it has the potential to become, and this is more important to me than my desire to move on. And I’m keen to have more time for all kinds of other things,” says the CEO, who has recently made the Alps the seat of his exertions in a racing bike saddle.

Born: 10 September 1967 in Givskud, Denmark
Married to Anette Ahm. The couple have two children
Upper secondary school-leaving certificate from Tørring Gymnasium in 1987
MSc in Business Administration (Finance and accounting), 1994.

1994 Controller at Novo Nordisk
1995 Senior Consultant at Aarsø Nielsen & Partners
1996 Project Manager at McKinsey & Co. 
1999–2006 LEGO
1999 Business Development Manager 
2000 Senior Vice President, Global Segment
2002 Senior Vice President of Global Innovation and Marketing
2004 Regional Managing Director for Europe and Asia
2005 Executive Vice President, Markets & Products 
2006 Operating Partner at the investment firm of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.
2008 CEO and President of TDC
2012 CEO of DONG Energy
Directorships in Chr. Hansen, Falck, the Denmark-America Foundation and ISS, consultant to EQT Partners