pdf-iconThomas Sattelberger is one of the most prominent HR managers in the world. We had the chance to talk to him and discuss the future of the German economy, the impact of globalization and digitalization on companies, and the role HR departments will be expected to play in this transformed setting.

DMR: Mr. Sattelberger, when you speak about Germany’s standing, you often use the expression of the “sandwich position” between the Chinese engine room and the Digital House USA. What do you mean by this, especially with respect to Germany’s future viability in the international context?

T. Sattelberger: I use a highly visual and radical language. In its final report on the subject “Smart Services”, acatech writes of ominous developments discerned in Germany’s digital disconnection, and the president of the VDMA notes in essence that German machine construction is increasingly too high-priced and over-engineered. These are exactly the sentiments expressed in my metaphor: the Chinese engine room, that has learned quickly and is now serving the markets in Africa and, in part, in South America is overtaking us, and not only in the overengineered, high-price segment, but in the volume segment as well. China has in the meantime become the world champion exporter in machine construction, and even a cursory look is enough to see how its development is moving in the direction of the premium segment as well. The underlying strategy is revealed in the bandwidth of German midsize companies acquired by the Chinese: from Putzmeister, a producer of cement pumps, to Triumph-Adler, a sewing machine manufacturer. We have an engine room here in Germany as well because we have largely withdrawn from biotechnology and information technology, and our companies have never mastered the subject of smart services: the Amazons, Airbnbs, Spotifys, and Googles dominate the field. This is a very uncomfortable sandwich position. Sociologists would describe this as path dependency – we continue to move along the traditional routes that have been pampered by success and fail to recognize that there are more paths to the right and left that others are taking, and at some point we realize that we are locked in.

DMR: We definitely had a situation on the German capital market in which stock prices were setting one record after another. Essentially, we have the sense of being in quite a comfortable position. What must happen to convince large corporations in particular that they must refocus on the subjects of innovation and creativity?

T. Satteberger: The stock market successes cannot be attributed to the accomplishments of the listed companies. There can be no doubt whatsoever that the positive developments have resulted from low interest rates and the devaluation of the euro, and the lower oil price has played its part as well. The decisive factors are of economic nature and are not related to business activities. Or, if we approach it from the other direction: When we look at the DAX 30 companies, we see that at least ten of them are caught up in a serious structural crisis, whether Lufthansa, RWE, Deutsch Bank, E.ON, K&S, or any number of other companies. To this extent, I would not say that the stock market is a good indicator of the future capability of German companies. So what needs to happen? I believe that a lot of company managers have recognized where developments are headed; their juggling of phrases such as “disruptive change” and “transformation” of their own companies is elegant. They have not understood, however, that our problem is not one of recognition and the rational communication of this revelation, but instead the cultural break with traditional patterns. If you allow me to digress slightly: the erosion of the HR function or its inability to guide and support cultural transformation plays right into their hands, of course.

DMR: What role can HR play so that the sermons are followed by concrete activities in the direction of competitive corporate structure?

T. Sattelberger: I believe that nothing will happen until the pain of a crisis forces action. Companies pampered by success – even when the success was actually years ago – still have this sense of entitlement to success firmly anchored in their culture. Then one day, they realize: “We are no longer successful!” Outside, the hurricane is raging, and only now does the organization notice that things are no longer right. I believe that many of our large tankers so accustomed to success, but whose success was achieved by and large in the last century, are sailing through extremely troubled waters today. “Sense of urgency” initiatives, protection for disruptive thinkers, tolerance for error within moral standards, the breaking up of old boy networks and thinking in terms of such networks, early warning radar for talent and innovation, diversity policies – these would be some of the possible preventive measures.

DMR: So there is a need to take action right now, because this crisis is still in the future for some industries while others have almost pulled out of it?

T. Sattelberger: The need to change has been drastically accentuated. Fast action is called for, best of all in a company that is still at the zenith of its success! According to a Roland Berger study conducted on behalf of the BDI, almost 70% of the respondents from 300 German industrial companies see their own digital maturity as slight to mediocre. The majority of German companies are in the midsize sector, and the study shows that 45% of the companies have not even begun to consider what digitalization will require of them! Even more unfortunately, those companies that are taking action to deal with digitalization are largely focusing on efficiency and costs, but not developing any new business models. In this sense, the challenge for midsize businesses is much greater.

DMR: What is the way out, and who can we learn from? We have the cultural background of the Asian and American regions, both of which are different, each in its own way, from Germany. Is there any chance of transferring some of the lessons to the German economy?

T. Sattelberger: According to Clayton Christensen, the chances for ocean liners are relatively slim. Simply because the “Great Companies”, the former innovators, are incapable of revitalizing themselves. Accordingly, attention must focus primarily on two issues. First, can large corporations decentralize or divest at an early enough stage? If efficiency and innovation cannot be reconciled with each other, is it not a smart idea to organize them separately and to have entrepreneurial fields of action and experimentation in smaller units? That is to say, separate the old from the new? Second, how quickly can we develop start-up cultures and produce disruptive rather than merely rationalization innovations?

DMR: This takes us straight to the subject of innovation culture. Can we state your proposal like this: “We need many more small and agile units that are able to build up an innovation culture to start with”?

T. Sattelberger: Absolutely. It has been my experience that bureaucratized efficiency organizations have no interest in trying out new things – innovations are simply rejected or gobbled up by the immune system. Units like this can be managed solely “at arm’s length”. I see exactly the same situation, by the way, when we talk about funding and docking onto innovative startups. Despite the high rate of failure, I believe that these are important steps, but we have too little venture capital and lack the necessary patience here in Germany.

DMR: A provocative question: Are the days of the large corporations over?

T. Sattelberger: No. But their lifetime cycles are becoming shorter. The average lifetime of a Fortune 500 company has declined from 75 years in the 1960s to 15 years today. The DAX 30 is no different. This means, first of all, that the life cycle of the large battleships is becoming significantly shorter and, second, that (if they want to survive) they will no longer be able to operate as gigantic dreadnoughts that can be sunk in their entirety by a single torpedo. It is obviously safer to have a fleet of five fast cruisers. Large corporate groups are extremely volatile. We deliberately encouraged decentralization at Conti so that one ailing business unit could not infect the others. Or, to put it another way: so that an innovative business unit would not be squashed by monoliths. This willingness to decentralize and to turn away radically from the one-company idea makes sense – in terms of the structure, at any rate.

DMR: When we consultants are working in companies to support strategic initiatives, we frequently experience cycles that swing back and forth between centralization and decentralization. But no matter which way the cycle is going, there is always the underlying premise that this one-company idea should be maintained in the culture and that identification with the company should always be assured. Is this at all possible in the construct you describe?

T. Sattelberger: I would question your statement critically. I believe that top managers essentially want to retain control, and the best way to do so is through the “One Company”, both as fiction and reality. Moreover, the “One Company” philosophy that has dominated in recent years aims primarily at enhancing internal efficiency, not at driving innovation. I believe that companies today must learn to ask this question: What is the smallest common denominator that holds us together? Not the largest common denominator, but the smallest common denominator. This strengthens decentralized entrepreneurship and limits centralization to a very small group of topics that hold the company together financially/culturally and in terms of brand positioning. We are entering an economic phase in which it will be more advantageous for more independent units to become innovative rather than simply to train their efficient survival in the cold wind of the marketplace. That can easily take the form of a confederation under the roof of a corporate group.

DMR: Is the subject of control applicable only to German top managers? Are China and the USA ahead of us in this respect?

T. Sattelberger: There are no empirical data on this question. I suspect that China, like us, has engine room supervisors for the most part while the situation in the USA is more likely to be split. In any case, we know from the Roland Berger study “Academics in the Executive Chair” that only 4% of the DAX 30 executive officers have had entrepreneurial experience. That is very enlightening and confirms that hired managers tend to be rather averse to risks and concentrate on using targets and control for management.

DMR: Where does this come from? Why is there so little entrepreneurial spirit and willingness to take risks, in the sense of farsightedness as well?

T. Sattelberger: Putting it negatively, we develop a dictatorship of mechanistically trained economists and engineers from the moment they enter university. The idea of a manageable and plannable future as a desirable goal is hammered into both groups. The one group must design a machine, the other must manage a machine. What is the cause, what is the effect? I have also observed, especially in the areas of technology, that the German university system – to a significantly greater extent than in England, the USA, and Scandinavia – is aligned to the interests of its so-called consumers, and they are found in business. This is a vicious circle: universities conduct research and teach on the basis of what business has proposed. There is mutual enrichment – but in a tunnel. By the way, the concentration of lawyers, economists, and engineers in management and on management and supervisory boards in Germany is not the rule in many other countries.

DMR: Such a constellation is even more dominant in the automotive industry where there are so many commercial experts and engineers …

T. Sattelberger: Exactly. There are virtually no natural scientists, computer scientists, and social scientists, for instance. When you look at the supervisory and management boards, you notice what I lovingly call “homosocial reproduction”: birds of a feather, flock together. John looks for Johnny.

DMR: You once said in an interview that “we need more rebels in the executive suites”. There is one in the Deutsche Telekom Group: John Legere from the USA. He has succeeded in turning a company that was more or less down for the count completely around. How can we create corporate structures that encourage people to pursue this type of career?

T. Sattelberger: To start with, John Legere was far away. It was not such an easy matter to be breathing down his neck all the time. The first key word is a long leash, whether it is granted, seized, or already exists. Second, this enterprise was in such desperate straits that people were prepared to do whatever was necessary to turn things around. Under normal circumstances, no one would turn to such unique and unconventional figures because there is a tendency to believe you need someone you have always trusted to take on this kind of job. This is a very critical point. Long-standing patterns of recruitment and promotion must be disrupted. Third, corporate biotopes could be fostered in decentralized, entrepreneurial units that love freedom.

DMR: Speaking of loyalty. The idea of old boy networks is ascribed above all to the Asians. Nonetheless, we seem unable to put together successful top management teams.

T. Sattelberger: First off, the concept of loyalty is pure fiction; no leader can satisfy all of the followers so completely that they remain loyal. At some point there is a betrayal, as when Brutus stabbed Caesar. Second, the concept of loyalty is in opposition to difference or contrast and so to the question: “How can I do this in another way?” Simply asking the question leads to confusion and discussion. Loyalty does not tolerate conflict. Loyal people know exactly where the limits are. In my opinion, we need to do away with the idea of loyalty. A traditional German manager always believes that the lid has to fit the pot exactly, i.e., as much empathy and chemistry from the past as possible for mastering the challenges to be faced today and tomorrow. No, we need a culture of dispute and creative differences.

DMR: That takes us back to the role of HR. Who else, other than HR, can really provide the regulatory process for this situation so that “different” managers are brought into a company? What role can HR play?

T. Sattelberger: There are very few executive officers or CEOs who take an interest in and concern themselves with the flow of talent that penetrates deep into the company. I can of course create a necessary (although still not adequate) condition through the diversity of the talent flow; I am not talking about traditional diversity dimensions here, but rather concordant and unconventional ways of thinking. I have to break away from the traditional logic maintaining that sociologists and philosophers (for instance) are completely out of place in a company. Or that university drop-outs – and I am one myself – are useless. Or that people who find eloquent self-presentation difficult do not have any leadership qualities. We must rid ourselves of all of these pre-conceived stereotypes. I really know what I am talking about. I tackled the subject of “twisted CVs” when I was doing recruiting for Telekom. When I encountered resistance, I asked: “Do you have rules of procedure? I will add a new principle stating that twisted CVs must be accepted and appreciated.” As is only right and proper for bureaucrats, these things have to be properly recorded somewhere. (Laughs) But then comes the next point. How do you protect talented newcomers from forgetting everything they knew before during the first 100 days? I’m talking here about what is known as the indoctrination processes of an organization. On the one hand, people must of course learn how to function within a company and what rules and customs apply in the environment. On the other hand, however, they should retain their individuality. I always welcomed our young employees in the startup initiative at Deutsche Telekom with this question first: Do you have enough freedom? I mean to say we need talent management that provides a protected zone for mavericks, a kind of dead poets’ society.

DMR: What concrete form can that take, especially in a culture in which every breathing space has more or less fallen victim to an efficiency initiative?

T. Sattelberger: I prohibited anyone to use the term “trainee program” back then because that is merely a hyped-up vocational training program with guard rails to prevent anyone from falling off. The question for new, free talented people is more like this: Do I have a power promoter who defends freedom? You need a power promoter who defends these breathing spaces for talented young people who are supposed to bring a different way of doing things into the company. Otherwise, you can just forget it!

DMR: Are you talking here about opportunities for experimentation and trying out new things?

T. Sattelberger: Yes, exactly. That doesn’t have to be someone from the management board; the head of controlling in a business division can do it just as well. If we take the old model of the dualism of subject and power promoters and apply it to innovations, and if we view innovations as people and not only as products, we ask ourselves the question: Where are the power promoters for the innovation potential in people?

DMR: How can institutional breathing spaces be created to avoid polishing the rough edges of the people who have come into the organization as talented young people?

T. Sattelberger: I am a staunch proponent of hierarchy poverty. We must ask ourselves just how many hierarchies are really needed in an organization. Hierarchy poverty, however, also means that executives must lead so many people that it is impossible for them to control all of them.

DMR: The subject of hierarchy versus network is currently the subject of intense debate. How do you establish hierarchy poverty?

T. Sattelberger: This is easier to achieve in companies that are just starting up than in established organizations. Tearing down hierarchies is certainly not enough in itself – but it is also not possible to achieve this goal without taking down hierarchies. Ultimately, I must overlay the previous organization with a horizontal network organization or methodology like SCRUM or Design Thinking. This means that I must mercilessly starve the traditional hierarchy. I can then create the conditions that will weaken the hierarchy enough to decide the battle in my favor. A kind of real parallel world of cooperation.

DMR: How do you do that? Do you get rid of titles?

T. Sattelberger: That’s not enough. It is merely an important symbol. The success of horizontal, agile forms of collaboration makes possible the radical removal of hierarchical levels without any compromise. When all is said and done, only the management board can do this. And I must make the span of control so broad that it is not possible to control every single individual – transfer the speedboat analogy to the individual level.

DMR: What you are saying in effect is that we need new leadership capabilities, right?

T. Sattelberger: Exactly. Traditional measurement means assuring the achievement of cascaded targets by using red, green, and yellow traffic lights. That reports can be sent up at any time. And that even the people at the very top must know about everything down to the smallest detail. That is something that I can achieve only if I have really narrow spans of control, a management model, you might say, that states: I am the best clerk. Traditional micromanagement. I was a sinner myself, by the way. The form used by employees at Google to assess their managers contains some highly prominent features. One of them is, “He/she does not micromanage my business”, a second; “He/she keeps micromanagement away from our unit”. Then there are a few more focusing on the subject, “He/she coaches me for my personal and professional development.” Translated, this means that the manager creates the framework and the firewall protecting talented people from being disturbed. During talks with Google employees, I learned why coaching is so important. They told me: “We have so many nerds who constantly want to talk about things like personal and professional development.” This brings back an element that was originally a part of the management role and that we have outsourced to dozens of external consultants in every company: coaching.

DMR: Coaching is a key management task?

T. Sattelberger: Yes. I could become melancholic thinking about it. Back in 1991, I wrote an article when the subject of external coaching first came up. My basic message even then was that the rise in external coaching robbed and stripped the management task of meaning.

DMR: Would you say your statement is generally valid for consulting? Isn’t it the same when I need a consultant to develop my strategy as when I, a manager, need an external coach so that my employees are motivated and perform well?

T. Sattelberger: Yes, of course that is the same. With one exception, I never hired a process or strategy consultant. That one exception had to do with the qualitative personnel planning at Deutsche Telekom. I consider everything else to be the outsourcing of intellect to others. And the castration of the brains of intelligent managers. DMR: So you could almost say that the multitude of consultants at all levels of companies ultimately proves how incompetent top management is to manage the business itself.

T. Sattelberger: Yes. Manfred Wennemer, my CEO at Conti at that time, would receive consultants strictly to be polite; he never hired a single one. The management board members had to do their own thinking. There were not any special staffs, either. There is no reason, however, not to make good use of internal creative and project management capacities. And mavericks must be allowed to confront the system selectively so that you don’t get stuck in a rut. And it’s a fact that every problem solution leads to new problems.

DMR: How can HR counter its degenerative development into a mere support function? Especially in a time when people as assets play an important role?

T. Sattelberger: In my view, the HR position is standing at a genuine crossroad that can prove to be either an historical low point or a great opportunity. The function of HR has completely changed in the last ten years: new product and new service and new process. That was not dumb, even though it happened as part of the zeitgeist and the efficiency orientation of companies. But we are now reaching a point where, first of all, efficiency management has more or less come to the end of what it can achieve and, second, efficiency is less in demand than effectiveness. The issue has changed from “higher, faster, farther” to “different”. There is now an historic opportunity to start thinking on a grand scale again – thinking in organizational designs or in designs for work worlds. No longer just in terms of product, service, and process, plus an app for recruiting – I can’t stand to hear any more of this. Whether this will be followed by a great leap is another question – there might be a lot of small steps, but the subject itself must be considered on a grand scale. During my active time, I watched closely to see how the work worlds of innovative companies developed and I asked myself: Does Innovation 4.0 need Work World 4.0, or is Work World 4.0 the humus for Innovation 4.0? As I see it, the question has been answered: they are twins. We began talking about something similar to Smart Work in the HR division in 2010. You will probably be rather surprised to hear that …

DMR: Absolutely. That is one of our key topics …

T. Sattelberger: We started talking about Smart Work in 2010 in response to the women’s quota. For one thing, it was clear that a women’s quota would never function without Smart Work, and for another, the women’s quota could in any case be only part of a general approach with the aim of creating an organizational culture that would be more diversified, collaborative, and autonomous. That was the discussion back then. It was a discussion that naturally did not reach the company public because it was still highly rudimentary. But this mutual context is absolutely clear, and that is why the historic opportunity for an HR is tremendous – but HR will not be able to realize it alone, it will need engineers, computer scientists, ergonomists, HR experts, and the involved parties themselves. It is a highly interdisciplinary matter, these work worlds must be clarified with the participation of all, and then turned into reality. And then HR could show how useful it is.

DMR: Smart Work in the sense of difference and diversity in a company, so to speak?

T. Sattelberger: It goes much farther than that. It is only one strand of a smart organization. A second strand has to do with the subject of crowd working and open innovation, with the dissolution of organizational boundaries – and this is above all a topic of functions, not only of R&D. A third dimension is related to the subject of power, hierarchy, and democracy. A fourth component of this approach has to do with autonomy and consequently with the question of whether I have the freedom to decide myself on the place, time, form of collaboration, working style, or even work content. A final point is general welfare – this is yet another completely separate assessment. Am I an autistic corporate being, or am I a part of the surrounding society like an organ in a body? These are a couple of examples of dimensions that I consider to be important. Back at that time, we not only talked about how the subject of the women’s quota would have to be embedded in the broader topic of diversity, but also spoke of how the subject of diversity is only one of multiple dimensions that are decisive for Smart Work.

DMR: So why did we end up talking only about the women’s quota?

T. Sattelberger: Topics like this are driven by the people with a compelling interest in them. If these people leave, priorities are reshuffled. Without blinking an eye. While at Lufthansa, I watched my successor allow HR development to go completely down the drain. That’s the way things are. Essentially, any one of us is a transient existence whose significance is relevant only within a given context. There is no such thing as linear progress in an organization.

DMR: Must diversity be commanded if it is to be utilized with respect to high-performance teams? The subject of quotas in certain areas is not limited to women; it extends to internationality in companies.

T. Sattelberger: Honestly, a pious declaration is a pious declaration and nothing more. Diversity that is not guided has no consequences or is arbitrary. As HR director, I put numbers, quantifiable values, on so many things in the company, from processing times for an application to compensation spread. I consider that to be completely normal managerial work. I would be happy to include internationality. By the way, the subject merges into the context of “people analytics”. Shell has already begun to staff innovation teams on the basis of “social footprints”. DMR: Must HR become more measurable and tangible than in the past and concern itself less with cultural and esoteric subjects? T. Sattelberger: Yes and no. HR must provide the proof that it resides in the land of the “here and now” and does its work here, but it must also demonstrate that it can equip vessels for an expedition into the unknown.

DMR: At the moment, HR is concentrating more on the role of the support function …

T. Sattelberger: Yes, but no war has ever been won with support, logistics, and service alone. The reduction of people to “the one does the manual work, the other does the thinking” or “the one takes care of realization and service, the other takes care of the strategy” – these are ancient models. I would have left any company where I did not have the feeling that I could set out on a goodly number of expeditions. When it comes to work, the same principles that are found in research and development apply. Just as engineers build test stands or scientists have laboratories, HR staffs must experiment with possible future forms of work.

DMR: In this sense, what would be the next step for an HR structure in a corporate association?

T. Sattelberger: Trimming HR into a support or service function is counterproductive. I have just read a study showing that the IT avant-garde companies build outstanding HR functions. That has to be said so bluntly. Anyone who allows himself to be closed in mentally does not deserve anything better. Basically, a certain degree of personnel reform will probably be required, i.e., an uprising of the younger HR employees. However it is achieved, good people must be brought onboard, both men and women, people who, for one, can contribute greatly to the subject of Work World 4.0 and transformation of the company in this direction and, for another, have a command of people analytics, because the HR function of the future is also digitally competent.

DMR: And this ultimately means as well that a CEO must be supportive, right?

T. Sattelberger: Not necessarily. Recently, the HR director of a larger startup came to me and said, “Mr. Sattelberger, we have grown so much that my CEO and I have decided to introduce employee interviews. We can’t continue with the informal talks in the corridor. What corporations can provide us with good training for employee interviews?” I responded, “Just stop right there! Your first mistake is to ask this question at all. Why don’t you just assemble all of the relevant people in a small laboratory and let them experiment with changing roles for two days? Large corporations have already segmentalized all of that. They have a seminar for executives called ‘Conducting Employee Interviews’. And if the companies are progressive, they have a program for employees called ‘Conducting Bottom-up Interviews’. So they have ‘stuffed’ the hierarchy into the nature of the learning process.”

DMR: So, a grass-roots revolution?

T. Sattelberger: There has been a lot of research on innovation in organizations. Most of the research work assumes that genuine, innovative experiments begin on the periphery and that a few powerful individuals are in a position to create structures that will promote the autonomization of units and eliminate hierarchical silos. But real innovation is more likely to take place at the lower levels or on the periphery in submarines, garages, or gray areas.

DMR: That would be a lovely work order for HR: securing the flow of talent you describe and creating the framework that would really cultivate these opportunities and breathing spaces.

T. Sattelberger: The deregulation of HR processes is the prerequisite. These dreadful processes that only consume time and do not generate any added value! Hays has conducted a survey and determined that 60% of general managers and HR directors think that careers are made by strategic succession planning and good talent management. Executives and people at the grass roots level, on the other hand, say that careers are made by old boy networks and “by being at the right place at the right time”. It is an interesting question: What can I simply do away with? Succession planning is definitely unnecessary. It is not used to do any work. Basically, I would have to do away with the entire system of individually variable compensation and replace it with a collective merit bonus if I wanted to prevent any manipulations in the system. We have had so many manipulations in this target management process. But it would also promote solidarity in the way people think.

DMR: What would have been an alternative?

T. Sattelberger: When all is said and done, only one result is important: achieving a certain financial gain, securing employee commitment, and assuring customer satisfaction, and x% of the EBITDA, for instance, is earmarked for this purpose. This amount is distributed at every level according to a defined logic.

DMR: But contingent on performance?

T. Sattelberger: But business-specific, not individual performance! What is individual performance today? When you look at the targets that I achieved with my direct reports, two-thirds became more irrelevant because others were more important, and creativity was not honored at all because it is virtually impossible to quantify it. They were efficiency targets that had been set up voluntarily. The apparatus needed for the measurement of the targets and the erosion effects on solidarity resulting from individual performance management – completely obsolete. I would rely today on results achieved through solidarity. The greatest destruction of economic potential is caused by poor management and not by poor performance. I regard departmental structures, hierarchies, and poor management to be the key drivers of poor performance by organizations and individuals.

DMR: Would you say that the primary task of management is to draw the best out of every employee so that there is not really such a thing as poor performance?

T. Sattelberger: Yes, working with the people who are available and assuming that they have potential. During my 40 years of management work, I severed ties with fewer than 10 of my executives. DMR: That speaks against all of the programs for headcount reduction. Wouldn’t it be better to aim at achieving the best possible performance with the people who are available rather than concentrating on how to get them out of the company? T. Sattelberger: Excess personnel are the topic of another discussion. I was a great fan of Shape HQ and I was convinced that this monster had to be radically reduced in size. I cannot implement flat hierarchies in a corporation if I still have a gigantic feudalistic bureaucracy at the top. I will never forget how my former CEO at Conti went to Autoliv in Sweden and was at their headquarters on the fourth floor of an office building. The company had more than 50,000 employees – but there were only a couple of dozen at headquarters. I am strongly in favor of extremely lean steering cockpits.

DMR: We have one final, personal question for you. When you look back at your HR manager career, which has been a very long one, what has made you especially proud? What can be learned from this?

T. Sattelberger: You must remember that I was chief operations officer for an airline for five years – that was where I first learned that the operating personnel also put their trousers on one leg at a time. That is why it is important for me to remark on this. Before I became chief operations officer at Lufthansa, I, the HR man, approached my work with an underdog attitude. Not toward the finance department, because all of us can do calculations, but toward the people in charge of the business. Then I was put in charge of an enormous operations sector at Lufthansa with almost 35,000 employees, and I noticed that simple management was much more important than the subject of transformation and innovation – and fell back in love with HR work. I have always found HR work to be one of the most complex sides of business operations because it reflects the unpredictable side of a company. Pricing, production can be highly predictable, but when it comes to people or work, you can predict only half of the world; you have to explore, so to speak, the other half. The most intriguing part for me was always that HR work also involved experimenting in the social system, whether as a young man doing vocational training at Daimler or as chief HR officer discussing the women’s quota at Telekom. I have never given that up.

  • Voggenberger, Elisa
    Voggenberger, Elisa Consultant
  • Wagner, Marc
    Wagner, Marc Managing Partner
  • JBS

    Neither having HR nor executive managing responsibility, yet being in the treadmills at a large German Corporation, I can say “yes” and “Whoa, so true” to many statements made. The interviewee has the liberty to be blunt and direct, and surely faces no negative consequences for his awakening and provocative statements, some of the more mild and more appeasing ones go as follows:

    – Our problem is not one of recognition and the rational communication of revelations, but instead the cultural break with traditional patterns.
    – Nothing will happen until the pain of a crisis forces action.
    – The Roland Berger study “Academics in the Executive Chair” shows, that managers tend to be rather averse to risks and concentrate on using targets and control for management.
    – The idea of a manageable and plannable future is engrained in mechanistically trained economists and engineers.

    I just would wish that top-level decision makers would finally be
    1) truly open and receptive to understand the dire need to act now to enable the change needed to remain relevant and competitive in a fast-changing world.
    2) wise enough to understand that clinging to classic hierarchical decision-making powers is hindering the urgent need to transform the corporation from top-down and the inside-out.

    Sattelberger´s statements aligned with the observations and experiences in said organization however do put in question an optimistic view, that this will happen fast enough to enable retain an industry-relevant position in 10 years.

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