Without a fundamental change in current leadership practice, Germany will remain far below its potential, according to a study by the Ministry of Labour. In the struggle to retain talent, different methods are required to those of twenty years ago. The way we understand good leadership is subject to rapid cultural change.
So what does it mean today – in practical terms – to manage a company in such a way that it develops positively?
My first weeks as new CEO
When I joined alimex in 2014 as the new CEO, I immediately had to make a very tough personnel decision – whether I wanted to or not. It was necessary to correct past mistakes that had caused economic damage to the company. One of the turnaround measures was to fundamentally change the internal structures. I decided that we should dismiss some experienced managers and employees and recruit replacements. In addition, important new roles such as Research & Development and Product Management had to be introduced.
Looking back, these decisions were certainly among the most important of my first months at alimex. Had they gone wrong, I might not no longer be with the company today. Being bold is therefore one of the most important pillars of good leadership for me.
Letting go – sometimes not so easy
You have to be able to let go as a leader – and this takes courage. For me, leadership does not mean that everything is controlled centrally – on the contrary. Leadership means courageously delegating responsibility and creating decentralised responsibilities within certain “guard rails”. Employees grow when given more responsibility and freedom. They also have the right to disagree – if everyone were of the same opinion, there would never be any progress. However, the exchange of views must always remain focused on the facts, and then both sides can grow together.
Does this apply to all employees? No, of course not. Some people are overwhelmed by too much freedom or misinterpret this space for development as a “hammock”. If this happens, the superior is required to correct his or her own decisions. This too, requires courage.
Confidence is contagious
There are other important qualities that, in my opinion, are crucial to success or failure when you lead: confidence, respectful communication and acting quickly. Nothing is “safe” or “guaranteed” these days. You don’t have to say yes and amen to everything, but as a manager you should show an example by being optimistic and bringing in new ideas – if they are good. Only negative people have the right problem for every solution – but that doesn’t help any company.
For me, good leadership means improving employees’ skills, motivation and team spirit, especially among the top performers. The trust you place in your employees plays an important role here.
Emotion is inappropriate in the workplace
Passion is indispensable for the job, but relating to others on an emotional level – positively or negatively – is inappropriate. A good manager solves problems based on facts and with no emotion. Personal animosities must not play a role in important decisions – only the company counts. It’s also important to step back and let the other person take a step forward. Long ago, Lao Tzu put it in a nutshell: “The best leader is the one whose existence is not even noticed […]. When the work of the best leader is done, people say: We did it ourselves”.
Good communication skills are essential for a manager. Only constructive discussions can motivate employees and advance the company. People often see you differently to how you see yourself. And only through communication, above all through listening, can you find out where the causes of listlessness or lack of motivation lie. And if you manage to make the employee want to work again, everything has paid off.
The fast pace and increasing complexity of our times are extremely challenging for almost all managers. Keeping an eye on the overall picture at all times is exhausting. Nevertheless, it must be possible to maintain the correct “flight altitude” permanently: do not dive too deeply into the details, i.e. the engine room, but at the same time do not float too far above the clouds and lose traction. It’s the only way to know what’s going on and really have a say.
In this way, the problem of “window dressing” can also be tackled. Because not delivering unpleasant news does not help a company in the long term – and it can only be avoided through open dialogue.
In conclusion, I’d say that – as in life – when it comes to being a manager, dynamism, optimism and confidence will bring us into the future!
Dr. Philip Grothe joined alimex, a provider of high-precision aluminium solutions, as CEO in 2014. The medium-sized family business based in Willich near Düsseldorf was founded in 1970 and has 190 employees worldwide. Prior to that, Dr. Grothe worked as a consultant for 14 years, including five years as a partner and shareholder of Simon Kucher & Partners.