The “German Association for People Management” (DGFP) sounds a little like an old and dusty public authority. Which makes the reality all the more surprising. At DGFP headquarters in Frankfurt, you’ll see young people working in open-plan offices with no doors, and others discussing work in the corridors. There’s a great buzz to the place; you get the impression that a lot gets done here.
Just the way things should be, says Katharina Heuer. Three years ago, when she took on the job of managing the 40 men and women who work here, Heuer made it one of her tasks to turn things around at the 65-year-old “specialist organization” and rid the place of its dull and stagnant image. In doing so, she had to get the staff on her side – but it isn’t as simple as just telling people to be modern and dynamic. Heuer speaks with Eberhard Hübbe to discuss what makes a good leader. Hübbe, a partner at advisory firm goetzpartners, recently got together with fellow experts in his field and published a on the topic of authenticity and transformation. Leadership Study
Ms. Heuer, the DGFP is going through a phase of radical change: a year ago, you relocated your headquarters from Düsseldorf to Frankfurt and closed regional offices in Munich, Berlin, and Stuttgart. There was conflict and opposition. With all that was going on, did you still always manage to stay true to yourself?
Heuer: I certainly hope so! When introducing and implementing any kind of change, it’s vital to remain credible at all times. Staying true to yourself through the highs and lows of a change process is a must. Otherwise both the necessary changes and the management will lose support among staff and, in our case, members. This applies in particular to major and far-reaching processes of transition.
Hübbe: I couldn’t agree more: managers need to be authentic. I know several companies with traditional structures – top-down, power-based, and numbers-oriented businesses who swear by Excel tables and where interpersonal trust often falls to the wayside. Speak to the staff, and you can feel their disillusionment. They’ll say things like: “I don’t believe anything they say upstairs any more. For ten years they’ve been telling us things that simply aren’t true. They’ve lied to us in the past, and they’re lying to us now.” In this kind of environment, it’s an enormous task for management to win back credibility if it wants to bring about major change.
Heuer: Change requires time and people who lead by example. You need to use your skills as a manager, but playing your own part in moving things along is especially important, too. Strategic change almost always means a change in attitudes, in how people behave and, ultimately, in culture and collaboration in the workplace – with management showing how it’s done. Bringing about change also means changing yourself or, better, embarking on your very own journey of transition. With the move to Frankfurt, both staff and management had a strong desire to work differently within the team and to network with our members in a different way. An important first building block towards achieving this goal was our new office in Frankfurt at the beginning of the year – an open, flexible, task and project-oriented working space with various areas for discussing views and opinions, either one-to-one or as a team. The management, including myself, works in this space, too, which changes the dynamics within the team and how we work together. Right now we’re working on developing a more effective collaborative and meeting culture. We want to make greater use of agile methods and develop an agile mindset among our staff.
Mr. Hübbe, you know a lot of companies from the inside. What hampers change?
Hübbe: Generally speaking, a lot of companies have issues like target agreements, rankings or bonus schemes brought about in part by a traditional human resources approach. This increasingly puts people under pressure to justify themselves within the company. It’s something employees are constantly faced with if they don’t achieve particular objectives, and it leads to them developing a feeling of emptiness and indifference towards their work. I recommend an alternative approach: giving people a protected space as early as possible where they can think about where they want to go with their careers and which role they want to play in the organization. What do they enjoy doing? In which areas do they feel most absorbed by their work? Where do their talents lie? Most employees no longer know the answers to these questions after 25 years at a the same company.
Is this “protected space” something you can identify with, Ms. Heuer?
Heuer: Absolutely. Companies are giving this very serious consideration, and many have already started implementing these protected spaces where, away from daily business, employees can reflect and learn from their experiences with the benefit of hindsight. In these dynamic and volatile times, self-reflection is essential for successful management. A capacity for (self-) reflection is therefore becoming increasingly important for companies when selecting staff and during personnel development, in particular at management level.
Being authentic means being clear and reliable.
But what does that mean? What makes managers authentic, Mr. Hübbe?
Hübbe: Being authentic certainly doesn’t mean being wildly impulsive or, at the other end of the spectrum, always being friendly. It isn’t about being free to live out your bad-tempered personality in the workplace, nor is it about being a Good Samaritan who is nice to everyone. Being authentic means being clear and reliable. It’s about following your own course and sharing responsibility for the consequences of decisions in a credible way. Authentic people don’t blow with the wind; they take a stance that’s consistent with their company and objectives.
And people find that positive?
That’s at least what the results of our study suggest. Here are two examples: 83 percent of the managers we surveyed say that an authentic approach in management has a positive impact on employee performance. And 76 percent are convinced that transformation processes can be better managed if leaders are authentic.
What specific things can managers do here?
Hübbe: Employees attach particular importance to being able to work autonomously. They want to do things their way, without having to coordinate with other people or ask for permission. What’s more, a company needs to find a good balance between individuality and conformity. A lot of businesses – let’s take new economy start-ups as an example – particularly overdid the latter. Eating pizza in the office together at 10 pm on a Friday evening was meant to be cool, but in truth it was something employees felt indirectly obliged to do: those who didn’t join in weren’t just uncool; they weren’t doing their jobs properly.
Heuer: The balance between individuality and conformity is actually a really important point, and the degree of balance needs to be meaningful for each person. Furthermore, a person can only be authentic if they maintain a balance between their working and private lives that makes sense for them personally. If there’s too big a mismatch between the two over a sustained period of time, it can lead to crises and, unfortunately, even a breakdown. “Protected spaces” and the ability to reflect on yourself can help here.
So let’s come back to managers: What prevents them from being themselves more?
Hübbe: A lot of managers have been raised with the misconception that analysis provides the answer for everything. They believe that as long as they analyze the numbers and the market closely enough, and hire a slew of consultants, they’ll know all there is to know. Then they’ll have all the answers, be in control, and everything will be fine. A lot of organizations are like this. But with business and markets becoming so much more complex, today there’s no such thing as simple explanations and clear objectives. Now more than ever, digitalization is serving as a catalyst for management to let go of this approach.
Is that the case, Ms. Heuer?
Heuer: I strongly believe that you can’t do away with numbers entirely. Numbers are and will continue to be significant because businesses and organizations need to be led using clear economic objectives. But numbers alone are no substitute for visions for the future. In these disruptive and volatile times where companies are constantly having to adapt with ever-increasing speed, there is a growing need for managers to lead by establishing visions for the future, paving the way for inspirational motivation and intellectual stimulation. Leadership that considers the question of how clear and explicit this vision for the future can and must be. That’s why I often compare visions for the future to a mosaic. On some parts of the mosaic you can see exactly what is going on, on others the details are a little blurry, and some parts aren’t recognizable at all. What’s important is that the overall mosaic has a certain sparkle and radiance or tells such a good story that it provides a clear direction for thoughts and actions, and therefore the necessary ingredients for inspirational motivation and intellectual stimulation. The parts of the mosaic you couldn’t make out at the beginning come into focus during the process – together with the team.
So it’s actually no coincidence that now, in the age of digitalization, the debate on authenticity is more intensive than ever.
Hübbe: There’s certainly a connection. Digitalization has proven to be a driving force in uncovering deficits and creating things we’ve never seen before. Like types of business that years ago would never have been possible. Or new ways of working, in terms of when and where, which we have to adapt to. Thirdly, digitalization is changing attitudes towards work in general. More than ever before, people are looking for sense and purpose in their work and asking questions like: Is my job fulfilling? Does it help me move forward and grow? Does what I do have a positive impact? And finally, digitalization includes the prospect of building intelligent machines that one day we will no longer be able to control. This all creates uncertainty.
We need more courage to be individual.
Is authentic leadership an effective way of dealing with this uncertainty?
Hübbe: I call it a message that lightens the load. To tell people that you don’t have all the answers, either. To say yes, you can be more successful going with your gut feeling than basing everything on analysis. Acknowledging that something is complex and admitting to your own uncertainty, at least in part, is a sign of authenticity. You can’t control everything. I am accepted as a manager because people follow me. They join me on a journey and I motivate them on the way. They don’t accept me because I always know better or because of my hierarchical position in the company.
Heuer: For me, the “alpha dog” model – that of a strong “leader” who knows everything, can do everything, and captains his or her “troops” – is behind the times. There’s currently a great deal of willingness to think about leadership and new leadership models and to discuss these topics in depth. This isn’t an abstract discussion, but one that, to a great extent, is being held on a very personal level. This means we should allow a greater variety of leadership styles. We need less conformity and more courage to be individual. The great thing, however, is that this isn’t just talk: companies are already trying a lot of things out.
Hübbe: I couldn’t have put it better myself! And I say that with a measure of self-criticism – after all, consultants like myself used to promote the conformity and pressure created by the human resources tools of the past. This actually made managers weaker rather than stronger, as they suddenly came across as inauthentic. We’ve stopped promoting these old principles, and now put an emphasis on authentic behavior and self-reflection instead.
Which brings us to the question of how to do things differently. Can you learn to be authentic?
Heuer: It requires a willingness among managers – and, of course, employees – to introduce a culture of feedback. They also need be open to and capable of (self-) reflection – in other words, they must be prepared to learn from this feedback. This is the only way for managers to learn whether employees and colleagues see their words and deeds as consistent, and whether they are perceived as authentic leaders.
Hübbe: Saying “I want something,” rather than “I am meant to do something” is central to authenticity. Above all, you need incentives that make you think about your own role and aspirations – and there is certainly enough of those right now in business and society. Taking an honest look at these aspects is a good step towards authenticity. And in this respect, a crisis or radical changes like digitalization are good for getting the ball rolling.