Management in the area

An interview with our partner Dr Axel Sauder

undconsorten supports several large area organisations in improving their leadership performance. As experts in leadership and organisation, we know that this is key to improving organisational performance. This is because effective implementation and common alignment are particularly difficult to achieve in large, distributed organisations, where managers often have to be present at a distance and provide effective impetus

In this interview, partner Dr Axel Sauder talks about his experiences from large-scale projects to change leadership in large-scale organisations.

What are the typical starting points for such projects?

We see two main reasons - either the desire for more impact in existing structures or the need to respond to significant change in the organisation, including on the management side. Two examples illustrate the diversity of starting situations: A major client in the public sector has introduced progressive structures and processes in the past and yet has found that considerable friction losses occur across the management line. Another client from the automotive sector has grown over the past two decades from a family business to a global organisation that now has to reinvent itself to some extent - keywords: digitalisation and e-mobility. In both cases, the answer lies in better leadership - from the Management Board to the working level.

What challenges need to be overcome for "leadership in the field"?

Well, first you have to define (or at least emphasise) what "good leadership" actually is and must achieve - without this common reference point, you won't get very far. We often experience a surprisingly broad consensus across all hierarchical levels, business units and regions. In the case of our automotive client, weaknesses were seen particularly in "soft" topics such as feedback, error culture and employee development. The feedback was even clearer that a change to a hierarchical management model with a good dose of "micro-management" is necessary if you want more innovation, more entrepreneurship, more decentralised responsibility and speed.

However, the decisive factor is that a good balance between central management will and decentralised responsibility is particularly important in large organisations. Managers are always in a dual role - they must be able to lead clearly "downwards" but also listen; "upwards" it is important to represent their view of things and their assessment of what is possible with backbone. This is a particularly big challenge at lower management levels. If that doesn't work, then managers are not leading, but executing.

Looking back, are there any particular lessons learnt?

Of course, every project has its own dynamics, but there are some common themes.

First of all, changing leadership always means a comprehensive cultural change, because otherwise you are doing something wrong... This means that these projects must also be understood as major change processes, where a "clean" technical implementation is only half the battle. The more difficult other half is getting people on board and getting them excited. We have seen this particularly clearly in a large professional services firm: In a self-confident and successful company, you need an inspiring overall story and, ultimately, a management board that makes it clear that there is no going back to the old world.

Are there specific areas where adapted leadership behaviour becomes visible particularly quickly in real business?

There are, and they are particularly important in order to quickly illustrate where the benefits lie. When collaboration in a matrix or performance discussions suddenly improve noticeably, for example, this can provide an enormous boost. Unfortunately, however, we still sometimes encounter the attitude of believing in changing leadership behaviour primarily through appeals and adapted HR tools.

Where possible, we therefore work with managers "on the job", on their issues, because you get much further here than through one-off training sessions. However, this requires a skilful approach that focuses on the key points in order to keep the effort manageable.

Speaking of which, how do small consultancies manage to provide decentralised and sustainable support to large organisations on leadership issues?

This is indeed a challenge, even for very large consultancies, as it will probably never be possible for a consultant to work across the board with unlimited resources. Incidentally, we didn't think that would make sense either, as it is much more important to make the organisation itself an agent of its own change as early as possible. And a few approaches can help with this.

We work with our clients in mixed, real teams as standard and involve managers and the local HR organisation. With large projects in particular, it is then a matter of using the right amplifiers for your own resources, e.g. creating early examples of success in relevant parts of the organisation and systematically building up multipliers there. And, of course, to repeatedly hold managers themselves accountable for recognising that changing the leadership culture in their area of responsibility is part of their leadership task.

Looking ahead: How will leadership in the field have to develop in the future in order to continue to be successful in a digital world?

Digitalisation and the "future of work" are rightly on everyone's lips and we are facing major upheavals here. If organisations are increasingly less characterised by their organisational structure and standard processes and more by agile, collaborative forms of work, if the boundary between internal and external employees becomes increasingly blurred and the human-machine interface becomes more important, then leadership must also change.

We believe that as a result of these trends, directive leadership will continue to lose importance and the role of the manager will increasingly become that of an "enabler" of team and organisational performance. The traditional, clear-cut management relationships between line managers and employees will presumably also become less common - with managers operating in several areas and employees having different line managers depending on the topic. As is already the case today in matrix organisations.

However, managers have a very direct role to play in the ongoing change process. Digitalisation and the future of work are a major challenge for any organisation, and in the public sector it is probably a revolution! In such a context, managers have to manage a difficult balancing act: Provide security and at the same time have the necessary openness to actively help shape new ways of working. This requires leadership and curiosity in equal measure.

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Dr. Axel Sauder
Dr. Axel Sauder
Partner

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