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Culture does not happen by itself - Article by Caroline Schlienkamp

The case against the "coolwashing" of corporate culture

We want them – and we need them: Motivated employees who deliver outstanding performance, who think and act in keeping with the company's interests and who feel a long-term connection to their employer. I am convinced that only with the right corporate culture is it possible to attract and retain the most talented people and inspire them to dedicate themselves to the company's success. With this goal in mind, we should put the spotlight on the work we do on our culture and its strategic anchoring.


Source Handelsblatt

The "coolwashing" phenomenon

The path to our success does not, however, feature fruit baskets, table football and empty words. I refer to this phenomenon as "coolwashing". Companies sell their culture as cooler than it is, although they do not really mean business or change anything. There is much more behind a culture that we need if we are to enjoy lasting success. It is intended to create an environment for employees in which they thrive on their work and are able to unleash their full performance capability.

New ways of working and new values

We can no longer depend on individual Board members to have the right idea at the right time. Instead, decisions must be taken where the knowledge is: in the teams. What we need are talented employees who never stand still and strive to perform to their highest potential, have an agile mindset and design customer-centric, innovative solutions. They work at their own responsibility and organise themselves. Managers, on the other hand, are increasingly taking on the role of coaches who set goals, offer sparring opportunities, encourage feedback and cultivate the team's continuing development.

Such a culture is not based on fruit baskets and table football. It is grounded on shared values embodied by all the people in the organisation, observance of which is fostered and required by the company.

Culture as a driver of success

Successful companies have recognised that culture is not an end in itself. Having the right culture is absolutely crucial to maintaining future-readiness. A recent survey conducted by Heidrick Consulting revealed that this view is shared by two-thirds of international CEOs. They consider corporate culture to be a primary factor in the success of their business. And not without good reason.

Dedicated employees are the beating heart that drives any company. They are the ones who deliver the results and personify our culture, day in, day out. At the same time, corporate culture is increasingly becoming a decisive factor in the war for such talent. At a time when the shortage of skilled workers is growing ever more acute, top candidates are already in a position to pick and choose their company and hence their preferred culture. And that is exactly what they are doing.

Better to give notice

A good two-thirds of people in Germany who recently quit their job or intend to do so shortly cite cultural considerations as a factor in their decision. By changing employer they are hoping to cross over to a cultural environment that is a better fit for them. These are the findings of the new HDI Job Survey. What is more, every second employee would be willing to quit on account of a "poor supervisor". The salary level does not influence their decision. 44 percent of employees state that their employer does not support their continuing professional training or personal growth. At the same time, three out of five workers feel the shortage of staff in their organisation – yet in more than half of all companies no strategy for overcoming it can be identified.

Wake-up call for work on culture

For all companies that have hitherto dismissed culture as an insignificant accessory, these findings should serve as a wake-up call. They should ask themselves whether they are really cultivating a culture in which people feel sufficiently at ease and secure over the long term to commit wholeheartedly and deliver their peak performance. Whether their culture is so attractive that it draws and retains the right talent on a lasting basis. Whether they foster and support their people, for example with learning opportunities and development programmes. And if not: What can they actively do to bring about change.

A good start is to put in place a common framework for culture in the form of values. At HDI, these are transparency, engagement and collaboration, based on mutual trust. In concrete terms, what this means is transparency of strategies, decisions and results, and collaboration among empowered staff in self-organised teams. The basis here is the trust that managers bring to their teams. It is the prerequisite for employees who think and act with the company's success in mind on a self-reliant basis and feel a connection with their employer. In order to bring the right values to life on an enduring basis, it is important to systemically anchor them – in development programmes, for example, and also in the form of a criterion for rewarding individual and team performance.

What makes a culture attractive?

One aspect of an appealing corporate culture is giving space to the desire inherent in everyone for a holistic perspective in which they feel included. People want to get involved and see that their contribution matters. They want to be themselves, not just in their personal but also in their professional lives, they want to be seen and supported wherever they may be in their respective life cycle: whether as a veteran employee close to retirement, a new father or a recent graduate looking for international experience.

For companies, this means offering suitable opportunities for every phase of life, from flexible mobile working to leadership in a part-time capacity. It means strengthening diversity, establishing a real culture of feedback and constructive criticism and focusing on continuing growth and development. A targeted People & Culture strategy has measurable effects on the affinity employees feel towards their company. This, too, is revealed by the HDI Job Survey. Some six out of ten employees who feel supported by their employer express the view that their job means a lot to them and they find it meaningful. This number drops to only around four out of ten among those who do not feel supported.

Culture is strategy

Culture, then, is not an end in itself and also not something to be taken for granted. Culture is an essential precondition if we, as a company, are to succeed on a sustained basis. The work we do on our culture is not a project that at some point will simply be completed. Cultural values must form an enduring basis for our daily actions. If we are able to make the workplace a location where everyone can participate to the fullest, we shall ultimately achieve the best results. Yet this only works if our culture is strategically anchored. For there is no strategy that emerges in isolation from culture. Culture is strategy.

About the author

Caroline Schlienkamp is a member of the Board of Management of Talanx AG. In her capacity as Labour Director and Spokesperson of the Management Board of HDI AG, her scope of responsibility includes Group People & Culture.

This article was published in November 2023 in the Handelsblatt Journal on the occasion of the Handelsblatt Insurance Summit.


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