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beyond corporate purpose

An interview with Åsa Lautenberg (Part 1)


Christoph Werner
Dr. Markus Röth
November 1, 2021
Agility, self-organization, employee experience, new work and digitization are current trends that are of equal concern to companies and their HR departments. We had the opportunity to talk at length with Åsa Lautenberg about these topics, exchange experiences and also discuss provocative theses.

Åsa Lautenberg, a Swedish citizen, was most recently Chief People Officer (CPO) on the Executive Board of Viessmann Climate Solutions SE. Prior to that, she held various HR management positions at Samson AG, the Lufthansa Group and LSG Sky Chefs.

Christoph Werner, Managing Director, and Dr. Markus Roeth, Senior HCM Consultant, from i/Con Unternehmensberatung GmbH spoke with Åsa Lautenberg.

The German Association of Human Re-sources Managers describes the "radical focus on people in the work process" as a major new trend in HR. The HR Trend Report 2021 from Deloitte also derives from this the demand to "place people at the centre of all activities in the company". HR departments have always been there to focus on the people in the company and to take care of the staff. Why is this requirement now becoming a new HR trend in 2021? Isn't that per se a matter of course?

That's a good question, and for HR this should be a matter of course by now. As HR professionals, we have always worked for people and tried to meet their needs in the company. But have we really talked to them regularly, have we really included them in all processes and developments? Certainly not, and that is why it is right and important that this is an essential trend and will definitely become a matter of course in HR (again). Just as today in the areas of sales or product development, the wishes and enthusiasm of clients are naturally included in decisions, HR must also focus more and more on the issues that are important and helpful to employees in per-forming their jobs. They should be involved and asked, and the task of HR is to identify the real "moments that matter" of the employees in order to design their processes in the right places in a way that is appreciative, beneficial and inspiring for the majority of the employees. So, for me, the most exciting work in HR at the moment is actually when we learn from the close and agile customer relationships of sales and marketing and transfer this to our dealings with our clients, the employees.

Therefore, we are talking about the adaptation of the client experience to the employee experience in HR. In this context, Kühlböck, the Head of Success Factors at SAP, recently said in an interview that people today expect "the same seamless consumer experience in their working world as in their private lives. And client experience means that companies not only sell products, but also scenarios and great experiences. For HR, does that mean finding out what employees want and then creating an inspiring work experience?

It will probably go in that direction, but I don't quite go along with it (yet). For me, work is not a fun park. I don't have to inspire and entertain the employee at all times. He comes to work because we have an employment contract with each other, because he wants something from me and I want some-thing from him. It is clearly in my interest that what he does at work is as easy, uncomplicated and self-determined as possible. It's about delivering the message credibly in the right place: We trust you, dear employee, to do your best independently. We value your performance, we see potential in you, and we therefore want to give you the freedom to make decisions so that we can continue to improve together and use your creativity and entrepreneurship for the long-term success of the company. But not because we simply want to make the employee happy. That's too one-sided for me, and the discussion is often too unobjective.

And how can we succeed in anchoring this message sustainably in the company?

We currently have situations in almost every company where deep change is necessary and where real urgency is also developing in the leap from products to solutions. And that means that at the same time we are forced to demand a great deal from people: that they open up, that they change, that they overcome their fears and remain motivated. And for that, neither cool feedback systems or highly efficient HR processes nor a systematic talent management system or individual reward building blocks are enough. In my opinion, something completely different is needed for this. Namely, a culture with a lived basic attitude and a human image. A culture of trust. There is a great deal of re-search on this in Scandinavia in particular. If we want people to work in a truly agile way, if we want self-organized teams to be able to work innovatively and to take responsibility for completely new ways of doing things, then they will not do so if we continue to manage them in the same way as before. There is a big difference between trust and confidence. Trust has to be earned. Trust is an attitude that I basically trust people to want to do their best, to complete tasks, and to solve emerging problems smartly. Because they want to fulfil their part of the contract and have earned their salary well when they go home at the end of the day.

I have always had difficulty with job profiles and organizational charts, where people are pigeonholed by boxes and fixed descriptions. I believe that people are capable of much more than what is described in their job pro-file. For example, how many are an IT crack at home but have a job that has nothing to do with that at all? We have such a hard time getting the right skills into our companies, but often we already have them. So, if we allow and are willing to give a person room to use what they want and can do, then people will feel taken seriously and won't need much extrinsic motivation or even meaning in life from the employer, because they already have that. If they feel seen and have the freedom to do their best every day, then they will be fulfilled and motivated by them-selves.

As a vision, this sounds good and coherent. But if we look at what it looks like in practice, we can't help feeling that the majority of internal measures and tools used are still ultimately control tools. Who achieved certain goals, how was the performance? Bro-ken down to payment, we mostly see a form of control. This discrepancy between the proclaimed vision and what is lived in companies often leads to uncertainty and doubt among employees. Shouldn't we first and foremost question the leadership?

Yes, I also see a lot of scepticism among employees, because they always hear that they should be agile, that they should take responsibility and be open to new things. And then they continue to be managed in the same way as they always have been, and the trend is even moving in the direction of even more control. That's really still a huge problem. And so, yes, I think that's a clear leader-ship task and challenge. It all depends on how strongly the desired culture and change is lived by the management team (all the way to the top). Is there a known strategy, a purpose and values for the company and are these visibly followed and exemplified on a daily basis? And if, for example, it is said that we want a culture of trust, then we must force ourselves to give up control to some extent. This is a huge challenge and very difficult to reconcile with the current business challenges, but it is necessary in order to re-main credible in the transformation and to avoid uncertainty among employees.

We experienced this at a large corporation when the employees were suddenly offered the "you" by the management board with-out any preparation. This caused more uncertainty and confusion than what the action was originally intended for.

Yes, and that's where I think we have to be careful. We managers quickly lose our credibility if we're constantly afraid that we won't be able to motivate every employee in exactly the way he or she needs. That's not the point. I think a modern, flexible employment contract, a fair wage and - very, very important for me - a clearly defined purpose that is truly lived and to which employees feel drawn are crucial. As long as the strategy and the lived corporate values are reflected in everyday life and especially in the actions of the management, then this also leads to a certain satisfaction of the employees. Then they feel good, know why they are working, what they are working for, and know about their added value. There is no need for something individual or tailored to the employees on top of that. If the manager re-mains authentic and honest, even with his or her own difficulties in the change process, then the employees will gladly forgive one or two weaknesses in the manager.

What role do HR and the personnel departments play in this?

In the end, we as HR are the ones who know the people in the company best. We are therefore also the ones who can best help the management team understand who we are (and want to be) and what our employees want and need. But again, in the end, all management is measured by how authentic they are in the leadership role. I really think our main role as HR is to make sure that the leadership team is properly selected, that they feel ownership - not just of the business but of the culture and the how. In the end, everyone is looking up. And that's also where the big focus is right now in HR. Enablement, consulting, coaching and facilitation are, I think, the key to the future of HR.

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