Lead and let lead

A hub of ideas: At Zurich International Airport, Bodo Janssen, Managing Director of the hotel chain Upstalsboom, and Alexander Birken, CEO of the Otto Group, outline their visions for a modern management culture. A conversation about transformation, the boss as service provider, and meaningful economies.


When did you last have to admit that one of your employees was right, not you?

BODO JANSSEN That happens to me every day. So often that I do not even think in the categories right and wrong any more, and no longer claim to know better. My colleagues often have much more insight into specific topics and have ideas that are much more effective than mine.

ALEXANDER BIRKEN I’m very familiar with that. Just yesterday we discussed a major event in which we will be bringing together the managers of the entire Group. I had very clear ideas as to how this event should take place. But then there were quite different ideas – and finally I was happy to admit that they were much better.

What you’re just saying – that bosses can be told what to do – would have been very much the exception years ago. Why is a new corporate culture so important today?

AB I think that the social upheaval triggered by digitisation is the most powerful change since the Renaissance. We cannot fully predict this yet, because we are in the middle of it. The new technical possibilities have a massive impact on how we communicate, how we perceive, how we shop and how we work, in short: how we live. Generation Y – those born between 1980 and 1990 – has completely different demands with regard to jobs than the generations before.

BJ Most corporate structures come from the late nineteenth century. This was a militarised society in which people went to work with a kind of sense of duty. Their personality was given up at the factory gate. That’s over now. I believe that the next generations will increasingly also perceive themselves as spiritual beings who no longer want to separate work and leisure.

Is it a matter of a more equitable work-life balance?

AB The term work-life balance has bothered me for a long time. It suggests that the moment I go to work, I stop living. And when I stop working, I start living again. I think such an attitude makes you ill in the long run. People also want to be alive at work, and to evolve in their work. I would like to think my colleagues are happy to go to work, that they don’t regard it as opposed to life. We also initiated the Kulturwandel 4.0 (cultural change) process in the Otto Group for that reason. I’m firmly convinced that if we don’t commit to radical changes, we have no chance of survival.

How so?

AB The upheavals in the Internet business of the past ten years have been disruptive. E-commerce is now entirely dominated by mobile devices. Even our wall units are bought via smartphone today. The world has changed. If I only react to it, I’m too slow and too passive. It’s about speed and agility. With rigid structures you can no longer do justice to the demands of today.


Can you give up control and build up speed at the same time?

BJ It can actually only be done this way. In our company, it’s been our experience that the teams that have a high degree of self-determination and are not subject to classic management have the highest degree of innovation. And that’s speed. Innovation is only about speed.

AB A rigid structure that works through military values such as orders and obedience hinders agility. We know this from the software engineering area, where agile methods are now commonplace. We know that only with these methods are we able to react quickly to changes in technology so that we remain competitive.

Mr. Janssen, you have subjected your company, a family-run hotel chain, to a massive transformation. It used to be very hierarchical. Today, you emphasise values such as own initiative, self-organisation and humanity. How do you organise such a change?

BJ I consider management as a service. I believe management should have only one goal: to support people in becoming aware of themselves, their own abilities and inclinations. The task of management is to accompany this process and then to give colleagues the tasks that correspond to their personality. If this is how you understand management, change is something quite natural.

AB In the Otto Group we simply try out a lot of things. We are in a test phase, which is also a kind of cultural change – just look and see if it works. For example, we have started to hold what are called stand-ups. Anyone who wants to can come along. And I, or a colleague, stand at the front, give a talk, and then virtually anything can be discussed.

BJ We have a kind of internal Facebook. There are no barriers, which means the dishwashers can look at everything I am working on if they want. Everyone can see everything. There are no secrets. This is symbolic of our corporate culture.

But all change provokes resistance.

BJ Resistance – the word sounds so negative. But it’s central to any change. We know this from the human body. When we do sport, we need resistance to grow. We need resistance; it’s essential to develop strength. And this also applies to the company. Resistance is a very important factor, provided it arises out of a constructive attitude. Destructive or purely passive resistance is problematic. But my experience here is also that if you openly approach people and engage with them, you can use this productively.

AB I think the biggest changeover process is actually taking place in middle management. These are often colleagues who have been part of the company for many years, who have grown into their role and a certain type of management. I always encourage colleagues to articulate very clearly what they have a problem with. Various channels must be open for that. One person is keen to express their criticism at a stand-up in front of a large audience. Others have a problem with this – but they also have to be heard.

Changes bring along complxities . Make use of them.
– Bodo Janssen

Can a change process such as Kulturwandel 4.0 also trigger anxiety?

AB Of course. As a manager, I have to face this. The question of attitude is key to the entire cultural change. You have to be aware of why you act and how to behave towards others. This applies to individuals as well as to entire business areas. Anxieties are often initiated by unconscious triggers – but if you become clear about them, half the anxiety is already gone and you can work with it. The task of management is to enable employees to be aware of their inner attitude. And when they are self-aware, they are freer from external things such as status, recognition, position, function. If you base everything on only that, there is a risk that is breaks away once change happens. This creates anxiety. But if you’re aware of what you stand for, what you can do to make sure you yourself are a key player and not just a plaything, then strength comes from this – and you’re ready to endure the complexities that changes bring. Or even to make use of them.

We say quite honestly that we don’t know how it will all end.
– Alexander Birken

Do you find it difficult to exemplify what you expect from your colleagues every day?

AB Of course. You’re always falling into the efficiency trap. Often the days are clocked by countless telephone calls, conferences and other prescribed topics. This is something you want to complete quickly and efficiently, but you can also quickly lose what’s important to us: listening to each other, interacting with each other, perceiving each other. I still catch myself out too often. Then I tell myself: Alexander, you should have taken two or five minutes for the other person. This is all the more important since the process of transformation in which we find ourselves is completely open. We say quite honestly that we don’t know how it will all end. We are getting involved in something we no longer control completely. This is in itself already an incredible cultural change. But it only works if this openness is accompanied by a different openness: constant dialogue with our colleagues.

BJ Anyone who wants to manage others must first learn to manage themselves. And this is an incredibly difficult task that you have to face again and again every day.

What does the transformation process mean for corporate culture? Aren’t you running the risk of losing your identity?

AB To do this, we first have to define the corporate culture we’re talking about. Each company in the Otto Group has its own. We’re firmly convinced that it’s a good thing, because this is the only way to trade meaningfully or provide services appropriately in the various countries. But of course, there’s something like a common thread which runs through all Otto Group companies. It has something to do with passion for the customer, but above all, with a sense of responsibility – and the process in which we find ourselves at the moment doesn’t challenge this. It’s rather the expression of this consciousness that we have responsibility.

There’s a common thread which runs through all Otto Group campanies: passion fort he customer.
– Alexander Birken

What does this actually mean?

AB That, for example, we should shape relationships with our suppliers in such a way as to create reasonable working conditions. If we want to buy products made under humane circumstances, that costs money in case of doubt. But I’m firmly convinced that this is becoming more and more important – and that customers also pay more attention to this and hold us responsible.

BJ The sensual orientation can be a decisive sales argument. If I have two similar products, and behind one is a  company that stands for something that is reasonable to the customer, he will decide for it. This also applies in the company. We talked about generation Y before. Their representatives no longer give up their personality at the factory gate. These colleagues are not only bound to the company by money. They want to do something meaningful. Responsibility and meaning are clearly the unique defining characteristics of the future. Profitability is only the basis of our existence. The purpose of our actions is to make people successful. AB At a time when no one was even talking much about these issues, our company founder Werner Otto said something very similar: “Our employees are not there for the company
– the company is there for our employees.”



Alexander Birken and Bodo Janssen have a CEO talk at Zurich Airport


Kulturwandel 4.0

Businesses need to move faster, to become more streamlined and open to experimentation.