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The black box in our midst

In the evenings in my office - when the day's appointments are over - I like to reflect on the many conversations I have. Recently, one topic has been occupying my mind more and more: corporate culture. It's a topic that concerns all managers, but the majority avoid it. An internal challenge regarding culture has triggered a process and thoughts in our team and in me, which I would like to share and develop further here in the future. How did it come about? That's worth a few lines and a series on the topic: from now on, I'll share thoughts and conversations with other leaders on this regularly here.

Biggest distance: culture, the untouchable in the system.

Many of my conversations revolve around digitization. Almost always, the topic is that internal corporate culture is the biggest obstacle to a comprehensive and speedy digital transformation. Conversely, studies show that companies that successfully master digitization actively invest in their culture. That's why every DAX board member would publicly emphasize the importance of culture if asked about it. In private, things look a little different: When I recently asked a board member about culture change, he laughed and said, 'Try changing culture for 80,000 people in 30 countries.' I could literally see the ocean between the company's international locations in front of me, and I understood his point: the culture shapes the system, and how well the system works determines the success or failure of the entire company.

Why this is a personal matter for me

Before joining the Executive Search Businessg in 2018, I was part of mid-sized and very large organizations for almost fifteen years. When you work on strategy and business development there, you directly touch the interests of upper management. I already knew many political sensitivities and had navigated around countless unnecessary pitfalls when I came to my personal turning point. That day, I was leading a workshop that I had prepared. In attendance was the entire executive team. Sitting at the table were two CEOs working against each other. Throughout the workshop, they carried out their conflict - through me. I was approached harshly, almost personally. It was clear to everyone present that I was being taken down by proxy. My work could have continued like this. But for me, in that conference room, the hope of being able to work meaningfully in such a system ended. It was clear to me that I didn't want a new job; I wanted a new system, a different way of working together. The culture - the way people interact and act - was thus the decisive step for change for me personally. I now know that it's not just about feeling good at work and being able to make an impact personally, but much more. It's about transformation and digitalization.

Why this is important

I have been recruiting in the digital economy for many years. Finding employees for newly founded ventures in the digital sector has been a difficult and ongoing task. In the process, it became clear time and again that classic recruitment consultancies were often unable to help: For one thing, hardly any agency specialized in the required profiles. For another, most service providers worked very classically, without modern tools and processes, so the results were mediocre. The search could not cover all digital channels, and work was often non-transparent and inefficient. Companies from the digital economy, especially from company builders, usually spring from a different logic. They work data-driven, structure their information cooperatively, their learning software thrives on shared knowledge: The machine is fed by the fact that information flows and converges centrally.

The leadership problem in People & Culture

My thesis is that we as CEOs are not yet systematically working with the tools for change, even though they lie with us. What's more, we ignore how much culture is involved in seemingly neutral leadership decisions. By reducing culture to meeting formats, dudeness and yoga classes, we turn it into a black box for leadership and put the brakes on transformation - in an economy that has long since gone digital. Business administration has given us great tools, but it has also led us into culture blindness. Today, the area of responsibility for culture is being looked at more closely, but progressive companies are appointing their own managers. That's all well and good. But if culture is seen solely as a personnel issue, we take it out of the hands of management. This is countered by culture leadership, the theory that managers are the initiators and guardians of culture. Paradoxically enough, this understanding of culture is usually not lived out, especially in top-down managed companies.

Executing Culture: Levers in the System

I am convinced that transformation, technology, diversity, cancel and stay culture cannot be solved by the People & Culture area of responsibility alone. They are deeply rooted in the way we create decision-making systems, whether we believe in competition, how we promote, and what we reward. We are therefore currently developing a new incentive model for our agency group. I have also decided to change my own role. With my team, I've worked out a new setup that allows me to invest more time in actively managing culture, within the company - and through an open series of posts and conversations here. My goal is to systematically discuss executive levers through which we can change culture - and thus the system. That's what I want to write and talk about here in the near future: with other CEOs and Expert:ins. So I'm interested in: What is the market's experience with the friction between culture and management decisions, incentives and values? What tools do colleagues use, where are the obstacles, how have hurdles been overcome?

About the author

Dr. Sebastian Tschentscher finds the best digital minds for your company with his executive search boutique "Digital Minds".

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