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Stefan John at BASF is Passionately Empowering Teams with AI and Compassionate Leadership

Hannah Baxter

As a senior vice president and general counsel at BASF, a large chemicals company based in Germany, Stefan John is plenty busy. He’s an AI Visionary because of how he encourages his team to embrace AI-enabled solutions across functions to enable better business and legal services. He’s also a compassionate leader who prefers to lift up his team rather than beef up his own interests.

The legal sector has a reputation for being slow to embrace new technologies, but you stand out as an early adopter of AI. What are some of the structural barriers that keep lawyers from adopting new technologies? How and why did you take an interest in AI?

AI is part of a new service delivery model for the legal industry. The practice of law may not have changed much over time, but the delivery of legal services has—and continues to do so. Many other professional service industries such as accounting, consulting, or even healthcare have transformed their service delivery models in recent history; the legal industry is currently transforming theirs.

There are many reasons why this has been a slower process, but with massive capital infusions into the legal tech market and with legal buyers no longer accepting law firm hegemony over the delivery model, the horses of change are out of the barn—and AI is one of them.

The in-house legal function is often considered an expensive cost center. How can these teams best prove their value to their organizations? How can technologies like AI help?   

AI is probably the most efficient tool to help organizations turn massive amounts of “senseless data” into more “senseful data.” And if it’s true that senseful data are the new gold of the digital era, then the value of AI should not even be a question.

AI is probably the most efficient tool to help organizations turn massive amounts of “senseless data” into more “senseful data.” And if it’s true that senseful data are the new gold of the digital era, then the value of AI should not even be a question.

The legal function often has a need to make sense out of big data in a short period of time. e-Discovery is a good example, but it’s not the only one. Other legal use cases that lend themselves to AI-powered solutions are: document automation, contract review and management, compliance management, intellectual property management, legal research, and vendor management.

Could you summarize your time at BASF? What have you learned from your experience here?

Many departments and businesses in a global corporations like BASF are run by managers who have some relevant expertise in their area of responsibility, but by no means do they have it all. They are generalists in many ways who focus (and rightfully so) on leadership impact, building the best team, and running high-performance organizations.

They manage by adhering to clear business standards that add maximum value to the overall enterprise. There is significant value to be gained for corporations by applying a similar approach to their corporate legal departments, and I would hope that my colleague Matt Lepore and I—with whom I swapped jobs back in 2018—have proven that case for BASF. If so, that’s something I would be proud of. 

You’ve worked both in Europe and North America. As a senior legal executive, how do you navigate the legal, regulatory, and cultural differences between these worlds? How do you stay on top of everything, despite their differences?

Lawyers are seen as experts in their home jurisdictions. And although I have worked in and with the US legal system throughout all of my career, this is not my home jurisdiction. So, in a way, I’m currently an expert with some but not all relevant expertise.

Doubt, uncertainty, and the fear of asking “stupid questions” have become very familiar companions of mine. To navigate the differences, I felt early on that honesty and authenticity were my only choice and I openly asked the team for help when I needed their guidance. To this day, they have not let me down once. That makes me feel not only grateful, but compelled to uphold my end of the deal: trying to be the best leader I can be for them, creating that environment of trust, and managing the conditions that take them forward, individually and as a team, to their own benefit and to the benefit of the organization.

With their help, the time that others in my position may use to bring their expertise to bear I have available to intentionally empower the team and do more leadership work that otherwise often tends to fall by the wayside. To me that has been the biggest difference maker in my journey thus far.

What were your interests early on and what drew you to the practice of law?

I never wanted to do anything else but law. I never knew why I was so certain of that choice—and I was, as early as in high school—but I was. Maybe it was the fact that I was born and raised in West Berlin during the Cold War. The environment was highly politicized, and I had a lot of questions to which the law seemed to hold many answers. To this day I’m fascinated by the critical role that good law can play in helping to advance modern societies.

What do you do when you are not working? How do you decompress?

My hobbies include tennis, trumpet, travel, Americana, hiking, cooking, and, of course, hanging out with family and friends.

Which person (living or deceased) do you most admire?

I tend admire distinctive traits in a person. For example, the ability to rise to an occasion—like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks showed during the Civil Rights Movement. I also admire the abilities of foresight and stamina to pursue bold ideas, like many entrepreneurs have shown in their endeavors—among them, Friedrich Engelhorn, the founder of BASF in 1865.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

My marriage, which my partner and I were able to grow into a source of great happiness over time.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

Winston Churchill.

What do you consider the most underrated quality or skill?

It’s something that researchers call invisible work or office housework. Here is an interesting article on the topic that I came across recently: “Research: Women Leaders Took on Even More Invisible Work During the Pandemic.”

Hannah Baxter is a strategic partnerships account executive at Relativity.