Peter Schwarzenbauer says his baby boomer generation has always celebrated pushing the boundaries of business and technology – but from an early age, he has struggled to completely connect with that mindset.
Speaking at the One Young World conference in London on Wednesday, Schwarzenbauer, an outgoing member of German automaker BMW Group's board, said it was sometimes important to prioritize alternative values.
"Higher, faster, further – this was the mantra of my generation," he said. "But early on I had feeling that this couldn't be everything in life."
Schwarzenbauer spent many of his formative years in Brazil, where he said he encountered poverty in a way that Western Europeans "only see on TV." These experiences sparked his interest in addressing societal issues.
Throughout his career, Schwarzenbauer said he has pushed for positive change in corporate policies, which most recently has involved a leading role in BMW's move toward electrification and sustainability. For those wanting to influence big changes, he said keeping an open mind is paramount.
"The first thing I learned on this journey is if you want to be part of something that addresses big topics around the world, you have to be open and listen to other people," he said.
"Listening is not enough – it's more trying to understand others' opinions. Over the last 10 to 15 years, I've worked really hard on myself to be open and understand why people argue in different direction to my own conviction."
However, being open to other people's ideas doesn't mean compromising your own values, he noted.
"Being more open to another opinion doesn't mean you have to give up your own, but it adds a lot to your view of the world. I'm totally convinced that this gives you an advantage, because you might be able to see things earlier than other people – and you'll have more time to react (to new challenges)."
Having an open mind is still influencing Schwarzenbauer's approach but in order to tackle one of the auto sector's biggest issues – working toward zero emissions and addressing climate change – the executive said he sometimes needs to reject a flexible approach.
"I'm on a journey – I never liked black and white answers because between black and white are so many great colors," he said. "With the challenges we are facing right now, for the first time in my life we are now in a black and white situation. We either take the 'white' approach and lead this transformation, or we take the 'black' one and we fail – for me failure is not an option."
Delivering change at BMW, which has a huge number of employees, has been difficult, Schwarzenbauer added.
"As long as the current system works well, it's extremely complicated for us to make changes," he explained. "I've dedicated my life to really make these changes within big corporations – we are company with 130,000 employees, and to get them all on board we've had to fight a lot."
One of the ways he worked to overcome this was by starting the "BMW Accelerator" program, which Schwarzenbauer said has been particularly popular among younger employees. The initiative asks all employees to come up with ideas that can help the company deliver value to society.