How do you get people in change processes to rise above themselves? Managers often find they are treading a tricky and fine line now. Without the necessary degree of urgency, the willingness to change is frequently found wanting. After all, even the best strategy fizzles out if it is met with indifference. At the same time, it is important not to ask too much of the organisation by setting overly ambitious goals. Where teams have spent years stretched to the limit, each new "performance programme" can lead more to reactance than acceptance.
In their effort to solve the dilemma presented by lethargy, on the one hand, and overheating, on the other, CEOs are well advised in change processes to refocus on the core of human motivation: people do not follow plans or numbers, people follow people. They follow their own emotions, not those of others.
Return on Culture: the Talanx example
Torsten Leue, CEO of the Talanx insurance group, says: "Culture is Strategy." Since taking on the role in May 2018 he has more than doubled the MDax-listed group's net income and share price. The numbers do the talking. In a one-to-one conversation, however, he reveals: "In the final analysis we of course determine our success not least by our financial KPIs. But good numbers are always the product of a corporate culture focused on the human factor and performance."
After many years of working with Torsten Leue, I know that phrases such as these are not just board cliches or marketing rhetoric for him. A real focus on people is at the heart of his personal leadership philosophy. In my podcast he shares with me just why the return on culture is so crucial to business success in the numbers-driven world of insurance.
As Leue sees it, strategy and a focus on people have gone hand-in-hand since the Talanx Group embarked on its transformation. He wants to bring the group – which has traditionally been highly decentralised in its organisation – closer to customers and local markets. He believes in entrepreneurial responsibility rather than excessive red tape. "Complex organisational structures consume considerable energy that the customer does not pay for. The goal must always be to make it as easy as possible for people in the organisation to work successfully and assume responsibility," Leue emphasises. "That can only be done on the basis of mutual trust."
With this in mind, he has already been quick to invest in an extensive leadership and cultural development programme. The guiding principles – transparency, individual responsibility and collaboration based on trust – are not left as some empty appeal, but instead are systematically integrated into the organisation’s central processes and metrics. As Leue puts it: "We shall only truly live up to our entrepreneurial ambition as a group if we open up the greatest possible scope for action while at the same time intensifying the dialogue among ourselves – and if people enjoy helping one another, rather than just doing their own thing. That makes work more fun for me too."
People follow people, not numbers
Particularly in an environment such as the financial industry with its heavy emphasis on numbers, the human factor is key. "We are a people business," says Leue. Asked about his own career, he comments: "I personally do not know anyone who as a young person wakes up one morning and says: I want to become an insurance manager." Having trained as a banker, what was decisive for him back then was coming into contact at the right time with people who gave him the feeling that he wanted to work with them and learn from them.
"The emotions came as a complete surprise to everyone. He was of course highly valued as a colleague, but he had seldom if ever shown any feelings."
Ultimately, a people-centred sense of togetherness manifests itself above all in moments when managers step out of their role and show their human side. What has particularly stuck in Leue’s mind is the time when a seasoned manager burst into tears in the middle of a closed-door meeting: "The emotions came as a complete surprise to everyone. He was of course highly valued as a colleague, but he had seldom if ever shown any feelings." Through his tears, that very top manager announced that for the first time in his career he would not be able to deliver the target numbers that had been set, adding that he could not expose his team to even more pressure and could not see any solution. In retrospect, this was a key moment for Leue: "To outsiders, this might seem like an uncomfortable situation. But in truth it strengthened our togetherness. The colleague received very considerable support in the organisation following his emotional outburst, subsequently giving the impression that he had been liberated and delivering a better performance than ever before."
Even though such glimpses of vulnerability are still the exception in daily working life, they strengthen Leue's conviction that he is on the right track. "As an insurer, we are responsible for managing uncertainty in a world that is growing ever more uncertain. The less predictable things are, the more reliant we are on leadership personalities who have the courage to personally take risks and share professional concerns or mistakes."
Are we ready for more humanity?
The success and the cultural evolution that Torsten Leue has brought to Talanx demonstrate the economic and social potential of humanity. The organisation that systematically works on a culture, that leaves room for the human factor and makes people strong as a community is an organisation whose best times are still ahead of it.
This news release contains forward-looking statements which are based on certain assumptions, expectations and opinions of the Talanx AG management. These statements are, therefore, subject to certain known or unknown risks and uncertainties. A variety of factors, many of which are beyond Talanx AG’s control, affect Talanx AG’s business activities, business strategy, results, performance and achievements. Should one or more of these factors or risks or uncertainties materialise, actual results, performance or achievements of Talanx AG may vary materially from those expressed or implied in the relevant forward-looking statement. Talanx AG does not guarantee that the assumptions underlying such forward-looking statements are free from errors nor does Talanx AG accept any responsibility for the actual occurrence of the forecasted developments. Talanx AG neither intends, nor assumes any obligation, to update or revise these forward-looking statements in light of developments which differ from those anticipated.