Interview: Oliver Bendig on leadership

Jens Müller-Oerlinghausen, undconsorten: Oliver! Thank you very much for allowing us to talk to you today about leadership. It's the first interview in our series "CEOs & Consorten on leadership." And you are the CEO of Matrix42, a really successful software company. Leadership is very important to you, as we know, and you're a CEO who values leadership very highly, so I'm all the more pleased that you've taken the time to talk to us about leadership.

Oliver Bendig: You're very welcome, Jens, thank you for the invitation.

JMO: And we would like to talk about four areas, Oliver. One is about you and your personal experiences as a leader, about "what makes a CEO stand out in their leadership and what sets them apart from the others?" Then we would like to take a closer look at a topic that we consider very important in our leadership model as one of five dimensions - that is the whole topic of mindset and the attitude to leadership versus certain leadership skills. And of course we would like to know a bit about Matrix42 and why leadership is so important to you.

OB : With pleasure.

JMO: Then let's start with a general question: What is your personal leadership credo - the Oliver Manifesto when it comes to leadership?

OB: There are certainly several things that are important. But you know, first of all, I am someone who lives by the principle of "leadership by example". And I think that if you ask people, whether it's me here in the team or people who have worked with me in the past, they will always emphasise this topic. So, leading by example, being part of the team, helping to push things forward, not being too shy to help shape things. I think that would be one thing that would be part of this credo. But the second thing - and this characterised me very early on in my career - is the assessment: "Perception is reality". This is an important principle for leadership - for me at least, and also for the people I work with - because it gives you the necessary change of perspective to be able to assess situations. You hear that again and again. So, if you ask people who work with me, they will hear it again and again: Perception is reality. That often comes from Oliver.

JMO: You're not born a manager or CEO, but there are always formative moments along the way. What were these "moments that matter" that shaped you as a manager?

OB: I would like to give a few more examples where it was more about leading from behind, i.e. supportive leadership. As someone who managed product teams early on in his career, there is one topic that sticks in my mind. At the time, we had the challenge of building a "new product release" at a German start-up and we were a close-knit team. And that was the first time I learnt how powerful the force of meaning and purpose is. Because we worked for over a year on this release of the new product, where we were all so intensely committed to this purpose in a team of almost 30 people. We all wanted to change the world with the product we wanted to generate. And the energy that was released was sensational. And it was a lot of learning for me, because leadership is about completely different things. It's about iterating again and again: Why are we actually doing this? Why is it so important? Answering the "Why?" question again and again and motivating yourself and others. It was a sensational feeling back then when the release came out and everyone celebrated it and said that the work had been worth it. It was more about co-designing, co-pushing, i.e. leading from behind.

The interview with Oliver Bendig in full length

JMO: Do you have the feeling that the topic of purpose has become even more important in leadership?

OB: Absolutely. Well, I can only speak for myself, but I think that's where it starts. If you answer the "Why?" question and clearly formulate the purpose again and again, then leadership becomes much easier. Then people follow more easily, or run in the same direction. Here at Matrix42, too, I keep mentioning the example that some of you have probably picked up on when John F. Kennedy visited the Houston Space Centre and then saw a person cleaning the floor who was totally happy and passionate. And then Kennedy spoke to him: "Hey, I'm John, what are you doing here?" And the cleaner said: "Mr President, I'm helpin to bring a man to the moon." That was the point of the moon mission. What a powerful response! The cleaner also helped put a man on the moon through her contribution - cleaning the Houston Space Centre. This is a great example of how powerful "purpose" is in leadership.

JMO: What are your role models or people from whom you have learnt something in terms of leadership, or who you admire to some extent for what they have achieved on the leadership side?

OB: That is a very difficult question to answer because there are so many people who I find exciting and who have achieved great things. On the one hand, people I have worked with and really got to know. And on the other hand, I've read up on things. But I'll start with people I know. For me, the most exciting leadership achievement in recent years, especially in the tech environment - that's where I come from, I'm passionate about it - is Satya Nadella from Microsoft. What a great transformation of this company! And I attribute that to him because, in my view, he has achieved one thing extremely well: Changing the culture, changing the mindset of this organisation. In other words, the way the logic of action works. You really notice this when you are travelling with Microsoft - today compared to 5-8 years ago. And on the other hand, the transformation of the entire organisation. The book 'Hit Refresh' is sensational and he describes very well how he changed the culture of a large organisation. And it's also very much about "growth mindset" and "purpose-driven". That impressed me. I also try to implement that in my actions. And of course there's more. I'm a big fan of John Chambers, former CEO of Cisco. He's also about how I manage to rally teams behind a goal and continuously motivate the organisation. And then the father of management, Jack Welch, there are also great anecdotes and books that describe how he established complete modernisation and change management. That kind of thing impresses me, because leadership is very much about bringing about change. That is why I have not named one person, but several, but I also have people with whom I have worked intensively in the past and from whom I have learnt a lot. It starts with the people I started my career with. I spoke earlier about a start-up experience where I worked with the managing director, from whom I learnt a lot. Above all, how important people are for an organisation - people's needs, empathy, showing understanding, seeing the people behind the work. I was lucky enough to work for and with many people from whom I learnt a lot. Whether it's board members, consultants or investors - I always see it this way, you are the reflection of the top 10 people you spend most of your time with. And that's why I also try to spend time with people where we can learn from each other.

JMO: Perhaps this is a good time to ask another personal question afterwards, which goes in a direction where I also wanted to rule out two answers again. One is: What is your personal strength? You can't say "creative drive" here. And what is your personal weakness? You can't say "impatience" either.

OB: That's a shame, those are the classics in interviews (laughs). When I interview people, I do it in a similar way. But I do reflect a little - what do I hear from my team and from the people who work with me? Because, of course, I am also someone who always asks for feedback. I would put it this way: I am often told that I am enthusiastic about a better future and "big picture thinking". If you ask my leadership team, "What's it like working with Bendig, what makes him tick?" The answer is often: "He can draw big pictures, and very clearly." After all, leadership also has something to do with drawing a better future and conveying it with crystal clarity. The way in which we get there is something we shape together. But the fact that this picture of the future is crystal clear is a strength. And the second thing that comes to mind is the ability to motivate people and to emotionally contribute to this target image. And the third is perhaps - I think this is simply part of being a manager - never being satisfied and always challenging the status quo and the team and saying "look, there's room for improvement". We have - you know the background to Matrix42 - had an excellent history up to this point. We are very successful, have strong growth, are profitable and are a very good medium-sized software manufacturer in Europe. But that's not enough for us, we want to expand our global success! And then it's also about exactly how we achieve this. And that is my challenge. If we now look at weaknesses - or I call them potentials, areas for development (laughs) - then I've had the nice situation of being able to go through several leadership training programmes in my career, and you always learn something about yourself. And one thing I've learnt in recent years is that it's sometimes a challenge to jump to conclusions about others too quickly. Whether it's stress levels, energy levels, passion or clarity - I would say that's one thing I always look out for. Because sometimes you get into a mode where you say: it's all clear, it must all be clear - it works for me, then it must work for others too. And I've learnt over the last few years that everyone is different and has their own speed, perception and reality. And that's a good thing. Promoting diversity is good. But to summarise: I can still work on drawing fewer conclusions about others from myself.

JMO: Thank you for your candour. And let's continue with openness. You mentioned the topic of tech, and it's a welcome vehicle for telling anecdotes and, above all, learning from them where things have gone really wrong. Where would you say that in your time as a manager as CEO, but perhaps also before that, something really went wrong on the management side? And what did you learn from this?

OB: I think we've all been there. Any manager who says they haven't had any failures is lying. We learn the most from mistakes. But again, I have a few examples. And again as background, so that you can understand this better, I come from technology leadership roles and am a CEO who has a tech background. And I can think of one "fuck-up", if I may use the word, in my career that cost a lot of money. It involved carrying out a major product customisation - actually a re-architecture - of an existing product with a nearshoring team relatively early on in my career. That was at a German start-up. And when I reflect today, I went through life back then with the attitude: "Potential beats experience". I was a young manager, everyone told me that you have to have experienced certain things, but I always thought that potential beats experience. I thought I could manage a large team, a nearshorer. And I have to say, I was offered a lot of support back then and always said I can do it, I can get this project realised. And we approved a budget and I was also given a lot of freedom to organise it. And I had the challenge - it was a project lasting a total of nine months - that after two months I realised it wasn't going to work. We were behind schedule, the budget and the money we were investing didn't fit, the quality didn't look so good and the functionality wasn't so good either. And then I thought again, I can do this, I don't need any help. As a young manager, my first reflex was that I needed to put more pressure on the team. Not that I would offer support, but that I would put even more pressure on them - along the lines of "you have to". And that backfired completely. So much so that the project was a shambles after 6 months. And I won't mention how much money I burnt back then, but it was significant for us as a relatively young company. I learnt a lot from that, namely 2 things. The first: don't be too sure of what you're doing. And since then I've realised that potential doesn't always beat experience. Some things have to be experienced.

JMO: And the combination of potential and experience actually makes it particularly good. Listening helps.

OB: Exactly. And the second thing: when things go wrong, the first reflex is to exert more pressure and increase the pressure on employees, which is exactly the wrong thing to do. It's better to be more supportive. Because what did I create with the pressure back then? It created fears, even more fears. The client, the leader for this topic, is unhappy, he creates even more pressure to deliver, so people didn't address the real problems and speak their minds, but rather tried to cover up the problems. And a shadow reality was created where the truth was not told - which made the problem much worse. And I always remember that, even though it was 15 years ago, when things don't go as planned. And we all know that as leaders. And my current reflex today is to say: "We need to take a step back and talk openly about the problems, and not just exert more pressure and believe that this will make things better". So maybe this is a fuck-up story that helps. It was a seven-figure sum that we burnt through back then, and that hurt for the size of the organisation at the time.

JMO: That's a great story, thank you very much for your openness. You can learn a lot from that. And that would also be a good segue into leadership as a CEO - the second topic we want to discuss today. What actually distinguishes the leadership of the CEO from the next level or the rest of the team members? What is special about this role in terms of leadership?

OB: That's a very good question and of course I can think of several things. I would like to start by saying that in my world, the "C" in CEO stands for culture. The topic of shaping culture is more strongly represented in this role than in any other management role, second and third line management. It's a lot about modelling values. So, what is behaviour that is encouraged in the organisation, that is tolerated, and that is not okay? I believe that the CEO must set a strong example. But as a CEO, I was also influenced by the fact that even more attention is paid to what you don ' t say or do.

JMO: What unites all managers, from the CEO to the team lead at the grassroots level?

OB: We've already talked about this briefly. I think the most important thing is the "why" question, the reason, the purpose. That's how I always look at teams and management teams. If we are in agreement about our North Star and we will do everything we can to execute against this North Star, that unites us. And then also derived: If the "why" is clear, the logic of action must also be defined somehow in a leadership team. Of course, this is about values again. And I believe that if this is not clear, then it will be very difficult for a leadership team to function well. That's why I always refer to it as a logic of action. What logic of action do we have in the organisation to implement things? I'll give you an example to be specific: In my organisation, it's okay to hold skip-level meetings as a manager. There are some larger organisations where it's a no-go for a manager to go for a coffee with someone to understand the processes, for example. In my organisation, this is part of the culture in order to recognise challenges more quickly and remain approachable as a manager. I myself take the liberty of holding skip-level meetings and saying that I would like to have a coffee with someone who works at the front of the support team and with whom I don't normally have that much to do. Where there are also two management levels in between. But then I come back to culture, values, the North Star - that's what unites us.

JMO: Where do you personally see the biggest risks for you, and as a CEO in general, in terms of leadership?

OB: What do I see as the biggest risk? That applies to me in my organisation but also to leadership in general, as hard as it sounds, that's success, Jens. Bill Gates once put it so well, he said: "Success really is a lousy teacher." Because it seduces smart people into thinking that they can't fail. And of course we have our failures and ideally we deal with them openly and learn from them, but quite often we naturally position our successes and what we have achieved. And the more you accelerate this over the course of your career, the more you think: I've got it under control. I've done everything. I know it all. I know how to build organisations. I know how to internationalise. I know how to launch new products. But the reality is that the world out there is constantly changing. We know that things that have worked in the past cannot automatically be transported into the future and produce success again. The world is not linear. Change creates a lot of oscillation, and then to believe that I was successful in the past with my pattern and my management style and that I can carry it over into the future is dangerous. And I keep telling myself that. Now at Matrix42, too, we have the wonderful situation of having been able to celebrate great successes for many years. But I keep saying that we shouldn't take that for granted. We have to constantly [re]invent ourselves. And in the tech sector in particular, Jens, this is perhaps even more noticeable than in a market that doesn't move as quickly. In my market, the world can turn completely upside down within a year. I always say that in the technology sector, one year is almost comparable to five years in a traditional industry. Success is an issue that can be dangerous - as daft as it sounds. I think it can also be dangerous in my role ... You called it loneliness, I would put it another way: the issue of no longer being tangible. The more responsibility you have, the more you are limited in terms of time. And then it's about: who do you get your input and feedback from? And now I come back to the topic of skip-level meetings. Of course, I spend most of my time in my role with my leadership team and with my investors and my board. But where the music really plays, for example, is with the customer, with the people who are directly on the frontline. I always think of an inverted pyramid. My role is at the bottom of the pyramid so that the people at the top of the pyramid can work well. And to summarise, the issue of being 'touchable' is really about using the feedback channels and taking the time to question your own position. I think it's dangerous if you don't include dialogue with customers, partners and employees in your calendar.

JMO: And staying approachable.

OB: Yes, exactly. It's dangerous, and I'm open about that - people often say that if you're too approachable as a CEO, that's stupid too. Then people think they can come into the office at any minute with a micro-problem - that shouldn't happen either. Because that can also undermine your leadership team. But the healthy balance, that's what it is. And that's something I keep telling myself and planning into my calendar: the feedback channels.

JMO: How much do you also show fallibility or vulnerability as CEO, and how is that compatible with stability and an image of the future?

OB: That's also a really exciting question. And I'll answer it with what I've experienced. Because, as you said, you're not born a CEO and you're not usually born a manager - you develop into one and pick things up from the people you work with. And I've had the nice situation in my career of working with people who weren't too shy to say "I don't know" or "I need help" - and not from peers, but from the team or people from other areas. And what that did to me emotionally, Jens, was always the same reaction: I didn't interpret it as a weakness, but as a great strength. A seasoned manager who can stand up and say "I don't have the answer, I need help" has always generated the same reaction in me, namely: "I want to help, I want to support, I believe in you." And that's exactly how I try to live it. Sometimes, when you lead an organisation - I now have almost 500 employees - people look at you: Can he lead us, does he give us guidance, does he give us a clear picture? And of course you also have to provide guidelines. But I'm not too shy about it at all, and I think it's a very important element as a manager to say: "I don't know". COVID was a good example. When COVID started in March last year, a lot of questions naturally came up in the all-hands meetings. The key question when it started was: "Do we have to lay people off?" And how do we deal with the crisis? And my answer to that was: "I don't know. I don't know yet. I don't know how it will turn out and how we will react, but we will get through it together. It's like flying an aeroplane on sight. We don't have any instruments, we've never experienced a situation like this before - none of us, no company. And we don't know how hard it will hit us. But I can give one thing as a commitment: We are very clear in our communication and we will be very clear in how we deal with the issue. And we need your help." And that shows vulnerability. The CEO stands in front of his team and says: "I have no idea what the next few weeks will look like." But what I experienced was that this was authentic and created trust. And for us, the nice situation was that once March was over and things had cleared up a bit in April, it was clear in May that we wouldn't be hit so hard. And then, of course, clarity helps. But to answer the question, I think showing vulnerability is a form of strength, not weakness.

JMO: As Consorten, we have a leadership model with five dimensions, and there is one very important dimension that revolves around mindset. How important is mindset when it comes to leadership in relation to certain skills and experiences that you have gained?

OB: I think that's very important. There's a nice saying that I keep quoting: "The mind is like a parachute - it only works when it's open". Hence the link to Satya Nadella and the growth mindset. What I believe a successful manager needs to have today is this idea of a growth mindset. That means I have a "learn-it-all" rather than a "know-it-all" view. I keep coming back to my topic. What we have learnt in the past, how we have generated success, does not automatically mean that we can continue to transpose this into the future because the world out there is changing so quickly. That's why I'm currently talking about "Never Normal". And to answer your question, I think it's incredibly important to train your mindset, to question your own position, to learn continuously and aggressively, to acquire new skills in order to be a better leader. Of course, there are all the buzzwords like agility and adapting to change. But, as we've talked about before, I come from a technical background, I'm an agilist. For me, it's in my DNA to think in small steps and to accept that I can't predict what the future will be like in two years' time and carve long-term plans in stone. For me, these are all issues that have to do with mindset. Because if I go in with a know-it-all attitude - and I often have this with people I interview where we don't come together - if someone gives me the image of "I'm an expert, I know what I'm doing, I've been doing this for 25 years, what should someone on the left and right tell me?" then I know they won't fit in here, and they won't fit in with me either. I've also been doing leadership for many years. I've been a tech CEO for many years, I've been a tech CTO for many years. But I learn every day. Your knowledge, my knowledge becomes outdated every day. And how can you counteract that? If you have the mindset: I learn, I build new things, I adapt new things. That's why I think one of the most important elements as a manager is to sharpen your own mindset. But remember the parachute!

JMO: To what extent can you learn mindset, and to what extent can you work on your mindset and be trained?

OB: I think there are things that you - unfortunately - have to bring with you. I've repeatedly described it to teams, I'll give you an example: there are things, let's start there, that you can learn - that you work accurately, work hard, do things on time. This also has something to do with mindset - am I accurate and reliable, both as a manager and as an employee. That's something I can learn, a skill. But there are also mindset issues that I have to bring with me, and three things always come to mind: Passion, creativity and initiative. I can only learn these to a limited extent, I have to bring them with me. I can't tell you: please be creative, or bring creativity, or you have to be passionate. I can create an environment that allows you to be creative and passionate, but you have to bring that with you somewhere intrinsically. And that's why I believe that "creating an environment as a manager", being passionate and creative and showing initiative, is what I can learn as a manager. But I also have to bring some things with me.

JMO: There are also simple exercises that can definitely help and can take you further. At Matrix42, you have generally placed the topic of leadership very much in the foreground. You are growing, you are changing, you have a new investor. Why is leadership so important for you and for your further development?

OB: It's about scaling and, in this case, speed in our market. And it starts with optimising the system, making the organisation better... it starts with leadership - clarity in leadership and how quickly we get things done. And I don't need to tell you that, you are experts in this and have given us great advice in this area, so it's all about: What is important to me in terms of leadership? What are my guard rails? And we first had to define these for ourselves as a leadership team. What does good leadership mean at Matrix42? You've already mentioned a few things, such as entrepreneurship, there are think-big topics, it's a lot about inspiring and people development, for the very simple reason: if I have that and have developed it as my DNA, then at some point I will have a management team that I can align and optimise accordingly.

JMO: Which is now more consistent with the business model or the logic of action that you mentioned.

OB: Exactly. And then I need an organisational model in which this can also work - an organisational design. This is another example that I like to use here again and again. I can then build a leadership team and also an organisation. For example, I can build a system that is supposed to fly, which is a parachute, or a rocket - both fly, but have very different speeds, prerequisites and reasons. And for me, it starts with the leadership principle in the logic of action that we can implement, and then you can build a machine based on that. We are doing well, but now with the new investor, as you described, we are concerned with the fact that we have allowed the organisation to grow profitably in recent years, and now the question is: "How do we make it steep?" And then it is quite clear that what has brought us here will not take us into the future. Because if I continue with the same logic of action and the same system, I will probably continue to generate success in the same way as in recent years, but also at the same speed. This means that if I want to turn things around now, I have to change something. And that simply starts with leadership. And that's why this project to define leadership principles was absolutely essential for us.

JMO: So, leadership as a gradient, as a trajectory shifter in the growth of a company and as an enabler to be able to grow even more, to be able to grow with a little less friction, loss of quality and risks.

OB: As every manager knows: at some point you have the issue that if you are on the gas, your organisation is swinging, you have found your model and are applying your pattern, then at some point you have a scaling issue. I determine this by the fact that at some point you realise: I can't solve it with any more energy. I can't put more energy into it and invest more time, there's just not enough time in the day. And that's exactly where we were, and where we had to take a step back and say: We've doubled the company in the last four-four and a half years. Now we want to do the same again, but we don't want to take four more years to do it. And how do I manage that? Of course, I have to establish management models that have speed, that are more effective, so that I get much more traction with the same effort. And that has to start from the top. And, derived from that, there are a lot of initiatives that are starting - the value creation programmes that probably everyone who works with investors is familiar with, that's also exactly our topic. And it's all about traction. So, how do I get more traction with the same energy?

JMO: That's super exciting, because you have a doubling in less time but "on a higher base". Logically, that makes it a bit more demanding in absolute terms, which is then also to be achieved in additional time.

OB: That brings us back to the topic of agility. Jeff Sutherland, the inventor of Scrum, even described it in the title of his book: Twice the work in half the time. How do you manage that? Leadership, organisation, process. And you actually have to work on all three things, but it has to start with leadership.

JMO: And you would probably add culture. But it's probably also part of leadership.

OB: Exactly, that's part of leadership for me.

JMO: And you've defined 2-3 other principles at Matrix42. We've already talked about "Act like entrepreneurs" and "Think big and beyond borders". You have another very exciting principle: "Foster mutual trust". And interestingly, that's the first one you set. Why was that actually number one of the leadership principles?

OB: It certainly has something to do with my personal DNA. I go through life with this model not only in my professional life, but also in my private life: Give trust and you will get trust. Trust is a difficult topic - we all know that it may take months or years to build trust, but you can lose it in a microsecond. And what I have experienced in team building and building teams over the last few years is that this is the basis of everything. When I have found a model like this, or in a high-performance team, it makes a difference to me that this basic trust is simply there. I always compare it to football: if I understand each other blindly and I know I'm going to run into the front 16 somewhere, then I already know that the person further back will pass me the ball because I simply have a high level of trust in him and know him well. And that's how I like to work together - level 5 leadership, shaping something that's bigger than yourself, no hidden agenda, no elbows out, we're in this together and can only be successful together. That's why, for me, trust is the basis of good collaboration and, above all, of high-performance teams.

JMO: Oliver, thank you very much for what you have shared with us and what I hope you will share with many others in terms of leadership.

OB: I'd love to. I have to thank you, that was exciting. Thank you, Jens.

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Dr. Jens Müller-Oerlinghausen
Dr. Jens Müller-Oerlinghausen


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