An interview with the German “Pressesprecher” magazine (www.pressesprecher.com) about communications in its adolescent phase, the challenges of managing international teams from afar, employee selection criteria – and how to switch off from the job.
Mr. Ehrhart, how do communications and leadership complement each other?
Christof Ehrhart: Interestingly enough, in German we say to “lead” an interview or to “lead” a conversation – much like you say “conduct” for both in English. That illustrates the close relationship between the two in everyday speech. Successful leadership depends on communication and vice versa. You could say they have a symbiotic relationship.
Successful managers are usually good communicators. And successful corporate communications goes hand in hand with effective leadership. Organizations that fail to reach their targets often have a thick layer of middle management blocking the flow of communication. If the verdict is, “we didn’t communicate that well,” and managers blame corporate communications, then they’re merely covering up the problem. In fact, it’s the responsibility of company management to create a strategy that employees understand. And the new generations of employees want to see more purpose and value in that strategy. So, the question we need to answer is: How can leaders communicate purpose so that people find both material and intrinsic value in their work.
What role does leadership play in communication?
Communications used to involve sporadic, reactive public relations that largely met immediate needs. Today, it is part of corporate management with long-term, strategic goals and clearly defined resources. Within an organization, this obviously requires a division of labor and leadership. But like other fields, we have also said goodbye to management hierarchy. Empathy is now the name of the game – with it, you recognize what motivates your people and what their skills are so you can put them to work where they’re most likely to further your cause. In the past, we led with our heads – with logic and reason. Now we must lead with our heads, hearts and guts.
A chief communicator needs two things: trust and a long leash.
Leadership also plays a role in a company’s public image. Becoming market leader also requires being an opinion leader. And to reach that position, you need a communications strategy that engages in public discourse with certain messages and objectives. This used to be a one-way monologue designed to influence public opinion. Today, communications is a two-way dialogue – one that is also empathetic. To become an opinion leader, you have to be relevant, convincing and proactive.
Are you easy to manage?
A chief communicator needs trust and a long leash. If I’m involved in the decision-making chain and can add my input at an early stage, then I’m easy to handle. Because then I can ensure the issues we address and the messages we communicate, both internally and externally, are credible. It doesn’t help if I’m at the end of the conveyor belt and have to rework something because its utility – its meaning and purpose – was not properly thought through.
When I joined Deutsche Post DHL Group back in 2009, I told the CEO who is still my boss that I will only be able to do a good job if I can take risks. If I didn’t have that freedom and always had to be on my guard to avoid making a mistake, I’d never do anything really well. This is the attitude I try to adopt with my team. I support them, give advice, and back them up, but I work hard not to be a micromanager who constantly tries to prevent anything from going wrong. That curbs creativity, productivity and ultimately the effectiveness of everyone involved.
So, managers should be enablers. Isn’t enabler just a buzzword right now? Shouldn’t leaders take on the role of a midwife – someone who helps to bring things and ideas into the world, allows them grow and then lets them go?
Yes, that’s a bit of management speak. An awful lot is read into it, but both leadership styles and people’s expectations have changed. The “VUCA world” we live in – one which is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambivalent – has made the “do this, do that” principle of management obsolete. Generation X and Y need more. Leaders not only have to tell them what they have to do, they must also explain why and then motivate them to actually do it.
A colleague of mine recently described it this way: “If you’re a manager and you walk into a room in a bad mood, you cast a dark cloud over everything and everyone – regardless of the overall mood in the room. You have to walk in and shine like the sun.” So, managers must remain positive despite the challenges they face. But that’s not exactly management rocket science.
When conducting interviews with job applicants, I often encounter an attitude that is very different to the one I learned years ago. Applicants now ask what we can offer them rather than the other way round. How do you choose people for your team?
Obviously they have to be experts in their field. I also need a variety of skill sets in my team – a bit like what you see in the super hero movies that are so popular today.
I don’t yet have anyone from Generation Y on my management team.
It’s very important to me to have a multinational team. Our company needs to reflect global opinions and cultural aspects, which, for example, is why I brought an Indian woman to Bonn to head up our global media relations team. She lived and worked in the US for many years and can gauge our image within the media and the moods in international markets far better than we Europeans can. My strategist is also a woman and isn’t from Europe – she’s an American.
Also, I’m literally obsessed with the concept of empathy, both in one-on-one talks and within my organization. It’s easy to find a loud voice that can mediate and be persuasive. But it’s much more difficult to find someone who listens and uses silence to their advantage. I think empathy is particularly pronounced in women, which is probably the reason why most my team is female.
We also need diversity – different genders, sexual orientations, personalities, people with analytical skills, those who think with their hearts and those who act on their strong gut feelings. Large organizations like ours need colorful backgrounds. That’s why my team includes people with sales, consulting and staff experience. I’m only missing young people. I don’t yet have anyone from Generation Y on my management team yet.
How big is your team?
I have seven direct reports and a team of 130 people around the world.
What are the challenges involved in leading an international team?
You might think distance is the main challenge, but that’s not the case. What’s important is to ensure that you follow a common strategic path. In that regard, I’m more of a strategist than a networker.
We put a lot of thought into where we want to go and we work together to produce a plan for key projects. Then I trust my team to do the right thing. You’re bound to fail if you sit in your office at headquarters and think you know better than your people on the ground. Plan together, but then give your team space.
We’re a big organization with more than 500,000 people in 200 countries. Everything that happens in the world affects us in one way or another. Natural disasters, political change, technological innovation – there’s a constant flow of issues that we have to deal with. We hold morning meetings every day to discuss what’s going on and form a common position.
How does distance leadership actually work?
I try to visit my teams in Singapore and Miami once each quarter. That helps us maintain personal contact. Our morning meeting is at 8:15 am every day. I’m an early riser so I’m always in the office by 6:45 am to prepare for the meeting because it determines our internal and external communications agenda for the day.
My management team and I have a weekly call to discuss current issues and address broader topics such as talent management or strategic planning and implementation. We meet in person about four times a year.
And we hold town hall meetings about once every quarter, with our communicators around the world participating via teleconference or live streaming. I also have weekly one-on-one talks or calls with my direct reports. And whenever there’s something urgent to discuss, we talk on the phone or exchange emails. The dialogue never ends.
I’m not a workaholic.
How do you relax and unplug?
Resilience is extremely important for people who work in communications. Believe it or not, I’m not a workaholic. When I leave the office, I leave work behind. But I do have a back-up system: I don’t have to check my Blackberry constantly because my colleagues take turns keeping an eye on the news flow and sound the alarm if needed. Unplugging has to be a part of your company’s leadership culture. If you don’t give your people the opportunity to do so, they won’t remain productive over time, no matter how high their performance was in the past.
I also exercise regularly, even though it’s difficult at times. I don’t drink alcohol during the week, not even at special events. To clear my head, I like to do things that have nothing at all to do with my job. I give talks, I write and I lecture at a university. Getting an outside view of my work helps keep me mentally agile. My students don’t really care that I’m an executive vice president – the main thing is not to bore them! (laughs)
At lunch time, I prefer to eat with my students in the cafeteria rather than with my fellow lecturers at some posh restaurant. And I let them ask me anything they want while we eat. I get questions ranging from how much you can earn in communications to what my wife thinks about me being away from home so much and whether it’s really necessary to work as much as I do. At work, I might be the boss, but at the university, I’m just me.
In many communications departments, a clash of cultures ensues when an “old hand” boss meets a youngster who knows some things he or she doesn’t. What do you do?
Foster mutual respect and create learning communities. For example, we introduced workshops to test agile management methods like design thinking and scrum. In mixed-age teams, we focused on the ability to be spontaneously creative. With no access to the internet and just a white sheet of paper, the group had to come up with an idea under pressure. Generation X came of age in these working conditions, but tackled them mostly on their own.
That’s how we grew up. I loved Legos myself and saved mountains of the stuff to pass on to my kids, complete with the original building instructions. For Christmas, we gave our then 14-year-old son a robotic set. It was actually recommended for children aged 10 and up, but even I couldn’t manage it on my own. When I compared the instructions to my old ones, I realized that back then the sets were designed so that children concentrated on getting the pieces in the right place and figuring it out on their own. Today’s Lego sets work best when children work together and solve things as a team.
That’s how the working world works today. In our workshops, I was really impressed with how spontaneous, open and relaxed everyone was. The Gen Yers on my team, who aren’t hindered by hierarchical thinking, developed the best ideas without caring who came up with them first. Young people are also the real “digerati” – their older colleagues can merely look on, nod and learn. But it was the Gen Xers who made sure that the ideas were actually feasible.
You can certainly measure aspects of good leadership, and it pays to do so.
What KPIs do you use to measure successful leadership?
We survey our 500,000 employees worldwide annually. To assess active leadership, we ask whether our managers know what motivates and inspires their employees. Or whether they give clear and concise instructions. The results of the survey impact managers’ bonus payments, including mine.
Obviously this raises questions. For example, aren’t we putting employees in a difficult position if they know that my income is affected by their answers? But the survey is anonymous, so they can put a lot of thought into their answers. That’s evident in the responses to questions that invite written comments. You can certainly measure aspects of good leadership, and it pays to do so.
Do you think communications demands enough in terms of its own potential leadership role, or is it still too often content to purely be an issues membrane?
Things have improved, but corporate communications is still in its adolescence. Management would probably like to use communications differently, but communicators often fail to convey their message properly. For example, to really resonate, corporate communications should be able to persuasively explain and communicate how the company benefits society. In that regard, we have a lot of catching up to do. Communicators must decide whether they only want to communicate decisions or whether they want to add real value, such as striving to make the company an opinion leader – and then act on it accordingly.
Communicators help to promote brands, but at the same time people in the labor market must first protect their own personal brand, meaning themselves. Isn’t there a conflict of interest here?
In my view, it has always been about doing the right thing, not just about following my own interests and instincts. Only in the past there was a lot less leeway, because you operated within a hierarchy and had to deliver results. Today, you need to independently use your head, heart and guts. I’d say the opportunities for personal fulfillment have actually grown.
But you also have to see an individual’s expectations as the results of the environment they grew up in. Generation X was shaped by uncertainty about the future and a focus on performance because their professional lives were characterized by competition and the Cold War. There were clear divides – black or white, right or wrong.
Generation Y grew up in the age of globalization and digitization, with myriad opportunities that made things extremely complex and questions of meaning and purpose all the more important. They not only want room to develop themselves, they want to shape the way they do it.
What they all have in common is that they must first learn self-management skills.
The next generation, Generation Z, are digital natives who have grown up in a world of networks. They understand the role of media presence and could rightly be described as “Generation Selfie”. They seek recognition and influence and have a strong will to change the status quo. What they all have in common is that they must first learn self-management skills.
What about leadership in your private life?
My wife is a journalist and is currently very involved in refugee aid. We see ourselves as equal partners. If ever I tried to be the boss at home, my family wouldn’t hesitate to remind me that I’m just another member and that my voice and my vote have no more weight than theirs. We live out of town in a village-like community, far away from the world of business and media. The local carpenter lives next door and we sometimes get together for a beer. When he tells me about the chair he designed and built while I was away in Hong Kong or doing an interview with CNBC, it reminds me that I live in an artificial world and brings me back down to earth.
Conducted by Hilkka Zebothsen.
Compiled: February 19, 2017