Nils Stamm, CDO of Deutsche Telekom, brings people in and gets them behind him. How does he do that? He creates meaning with clear, powerful visions, translates them into concrete goals and communicates on a regular basis. The result? A tribe with a completely cross-functional working method and people who work together across all barriers.
I’m going to Bonn and am looking forward to talking to another leader who is driven by powerful visions: Nils Stamm, the first Chief Digital Officer of Telekom Germany, started in the former state-owned company as a “one-man show”, he says – with the challenging task of putting the Number One on track in the German market regarding digital transformation. The Bavarian, who is in his mid-forties, is not only a jock – including a CrossFit fan, a surfer and snowboarder – but also enjoyed a fast-paced career before he was offered his current position:
As a young business administrator, Nils started to work for a hip agency before he went to Web.de at the peak of the New Economy. There he immediately took care of the monetization of the entire search machine business. (Those were the days when Google was still just one search engine among many.) Later, he was responsible for telephonic value-added services in various countries from London. He built up virtually the whole e-commerce system, including its online store, for O2 in Munich. Via additional stations at United Internet – today the parent company of his first employer, Web. de – the motorcycle fan finally came to Telekom. We meet at the company headquarters next to the former “diplomats’ racetrack”, Freeway 7 between the centre of Bonn and Bad Godesberg. The ultramodern building also houses a Telekom shop on the ground floor that presents the latest products of the corporation. This is where we’ll take a selfie after our talk.
The Telekom expected from their new CDO to jump right into major projects from the start. That makes Nils an ideal conversation partner for me on the topic of visions and goals in large organizations. How do you achieve good goals in corporates?
“Hierarchy is indeed necessary […], but it won’t get people to follow you. You can accomplish it through visions and communication.”
“For me, it’s fundamental to bring a vision across,” Nils explains. “Here at Telekom Deutschland I had complete freedom and the opportunity to first define what digital transformation would mean to us. So first I developed my vision and then, in a second step, I translated it into concrete business goals that would give the whole thing its purpose and make the vision tangible. The third step was to break it all down: What exactly do I have to accomplish to achieve the goals – both organizationally and in the sense of rather concrete, individual changes? I could never do that by myself but rather have to meet the others halfway. While doing so, I take a psychological approach. Though hierarchy is required – you need a certain position from which you can initiate changes – that won’t get people to stand behind you. For it you need visions and communication.”
I want to know what vision that was. “The best digital customer experience,” Nils says, adding, “We’ll create the best digital experience for our customers on our digital touchpoints, i.e. on all websites, in all apps, and whenever customers interact digitally with us. We’re not there yet, but we’re definitely on our way; we’re getting faster and faster in the things we do, and they keep getting easier, too.” I also find this vision as such easy – in the sense of extremely easy to understand. I’m interested in how Nils and his team proceeded to translate that, how they conveyed the vision in day-to-day operations. “I have to be able to imagine the status when a goal has been achieved,” Nils explains. “Of course, it helps to look at other companies that have already managed to achieve what we want to do. To have tangible examples. That’s the second thing. The third is to not only communicate to your own people how the customers will benefit from the vision but also how it will make things easier and better for them: ‘What’s in it for me?’ That purpose must be conveyed.”
“‘What’s in it for me? That sense must be communicated.”
So how did Nils go about it? He sums it up into three major issues: “Agile transformation, IT transformation, and finally, really implementing the digital business.” Nils lists details and examples of all three issues: “Transformation towards agile work methods means that all our in-house units that are scattered in different companies are turned into one large superordinate tribe – Iet me just call it tribe – and collaborate completely cross-functionally and across all barriers. For example, we introduced OKRs, objectives and key results. What this means for everyone, in tangible quarterly terms, is: What would I like to achieve as an individual, with the team and as a superordinate unit, as a value stream? Everyone positions themselves there – yet it’s still not a target system! This is very important! We don’t check the results but rather say: 70 per cent of your OKRs are already very good! We want everyone to always set themselves somewhat higher goals than they can actually achieve. It’s all about learning. And about measurability.”
What about IT? “We’re completely converting it to the front end. Telko had always been working with large releases before. We’ve managed to get out of that and to change our front ends, i. e. really the digital customer interface, at each spot daily. Do we do that perfectly already? No. But we do it much, much better than we did two years ago.” And the products? The actual digital business with end customers? “Before it had been like this: If we had a new product, it went into the shop, and the salesperson, who was intelligent, could explain it really well. No matter how sophisticated the product was, the seller managed to bring it across to you. A website couldn’t do that. Here we have now arranged for a complete mind-shift: A product idea is first tested online. How does it work for the customer on the web? If it works there, it will work everywhere in our company. So at the hotline and in the shop, too, for instance. That means we actually turned the model around.”
I think that’s a very nice example of how a vision can be transformed in the end. Here, “change” wasn’t “managed”; instead there was an inspired focus and a simple, clear and powerful vision which, broken down into day-to-day operations, led to new and much more effective approaches. I want to know next if Nils had also experienced any particularly emotional moments as CDO of Telekom Germany.
René Esteban (autor of “Do Epic Stuff!“) and Nils Stamm at the Telekom shop, Bonn.
“Yes, in two ways – negative as well as positive,” he explains. “Negative, because our first transformation model was not successful and we therefore hit rock bottom. First of all, we had to admit to ourselves that: Hey, that great big engine we started isn’t working; we have to make some fundamental changes. A corporation like Telekom is not used to changing major things just like that. But we had the courage to do it. It was great that the board agreed immediately: Yes, that’s right, we have to do it differently. That was a great vote of trust, which triggered very strong positive emotions in me. That much trust really motivated me even more and created the emotional basis for everything else. Another extremely powerful moment, not only for me, but for my entire team, was when we could work with the management to establish a completely new decision-making process for digital and agile issues. Now we call it the QBR, the quarterly business review, and it’s based on the fact that, like Amazon, we only submit two pages of text with our main points. Then we spend 30 minutes talking about impediments alone, i. e. things we need from management to solve problems. No more lengthy presentations, no big discussions in the panel procedure, nothing. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Everyone came and said that they always wanted to do it this way from now on, in other areas as well. That was an extremely powerful moment.”
I can imagine it vividly. Finally, I want to know from Nils where he would still like to go. “The sky’s the limit”, he answers spontaneously, laughing. “That’s how things are with us. But what we really want is a high level of automation. For what we’re doing today requires a lot of workforce. And when I look at the big picture, I say: Right now we’re very much concerned with the question how we do things and how we can make them better. How we can realize an agile work method, for instance. At the next stage of evolution, we will no longer deal with the how but only with the what. When we’re at that point, my job will be done, so to speak. Then the transformation will be complete.”
About the book
This interview is an excerpt from the book „DO EPIC STUFF! – Leadership after Change Management”, published by Campus Verlag. Transformation expert René Esteban explains together with senior leaders of today’s business world how to achieve challenging goals together. Learn more about the book and order it directly.
About the author
René Esteban is the founder and CEO of the consulting company FocusFirst GmbH. With his team he supports executives in the global corporate environment to achieve their most challenging goals with focus and inspiration – and at the same time to develop the corporate culture towards more empathy and humanity.