For Jörg Hellwig, CDO at LANXESS, digitization is above all about clear and simple communication that reaches people and involves them in a personally relevant dialogue. Because often it is not yet clear where the journey will end up, and details are of little help. That’s why he focuses on creating “aha”-moments for himself and others that give meaning to the digital world and lead the team to its goal.
Simply portraying complex issues has always been an art: How does a scientist in a pharmaceutical company explain a new substance in a way that the layman will understand, too? What arguments does a salesman at a plant manufacturer use to tell a brewery that their old bottling plant still works but that nevertheless they would greatly benefit from a new one? How does the managing director of a consumer goods manufacturer inform shareholders of a persistent problem with the supply chain? Due to digitization, there’s now the added problem that even the greatest experts’ expert knowledge is outdated within a very short time.
Even the gurus and cracks of the digital age have to make sure that they keep pace with it. It is only then that they start thinking about what they want to implement in their own company – and how to communicate it to everybody. I have an appointment with Jörg Hellwig about the particular challenge of communicating digital change. He is CDO of the chemicals group Lanxess, which emerged from sections of Bayer AG in 2004.
We meet in Jörg’s office in Cologne; it spontaneously evokes the associations “vision” and “reduction to the essentials” in me. For me, Jörg is also a particularly interesting conversation partner because his career is very atypical for a chief digitizer in a chemical corporation: He is neither a scientist nor an engineer or computer scientist; instead his training started in the production facilities of Bayer when he was 16. He literally worked his way up from the workshop. Today Jörg considers it a great advantage that he went through almost all areas of the company over a period of several decades: production, supply chain, marketing, sales, purchasing, human resources – and that’s not all. Precisely because he knows many of the company’s processes, he can assess the possibilities of digitization particularly well. Added to this is his ability to look outside the box. Jörg worked for a long time in the United States as well as in India. “I know the world pretty well,” he says.
First of all I’m interested in learning what exactly, in Jörg’s view, are the opportunities digitization provides. Particularly in the chemical industry. “We open ourselves to new technologies we haven’t invented ourselves but that we combine with the enormous knowledge we have about chemistry,” Jörg explains. “The same applies to other established industries that have their roots in engineering, for example. In this combination, 1 + 1 is not 2 but rather 5 or 10 or 20. That’s what we’re seeing right now, and that makes my job so incredibly exciting. In addition, as a CDO, I can do something that has always been my principle: looking for people who are much better than me. Otherwise it won’t get us anywhere. I’m not a techie, and in many things I was an idiot at first. I had to look at things and learn a bit.”
“There’s something very awkward about digitization: […] Who really expects that even the top executives don’t know exactly where the journey will end?”
Perhaps that helps in later being able to explain how things are related to each other and to communicate the intended change? “That brings us to digitization as such,” Jörg says. “There’s something very awkward about it: The goal is unknown!” A fundamental difference to traditional change management. “Exactly. We don’t know what exactly it means to want to digitize ourselves. We also don’t know if we’ll be more digital in a year from now. We are starting something new without being able to really say where it will lead. We neither know what it will cost nor whether there will ever be a return on the millions of dollars we’ve just spent on it. Oddly enough, we only know one thing for sure: If we don’t digitize, we’ll have more problems than if we digitize.”
This unprecedented situation naturally has consequences for the employees. Who really expects that even the top executives don’t know exactly where the journey will end? “Absolutely. Specially in a conservative and solid industry like ours. It’s all very challenging. You first need a visionary CEO who says, ‘I want digitization now. And for a CDO, I’ll get an insider who probably thinks like me. Then we’ll just start.’ That’s what happend in our company, and it scared off many people. There was irritation and many fears. Questions like: ‘What does digitization mean anyway?’ If I don’t understand technology, it scares me at first. But then the first people said relatively quickly, ‘That’s cool; I want to be part of it!’ Some of them are people I brought with me from my old job.”
One exciting thing about digitization – not the only one, by far – is that we’re not able to define goals one hundred per cent. On the other hand, Jörg has a vision. He may not say so explicitly, but that’s how I perceive it. How does Jörg succeed in inspiring employees for this vision? Especially people, for example, in production or administration? After all, it’s sometimes about extremely complex things. How can I get people excited about issues that are not fully comprehended?
“A lot more important than comprehensive details are stories that act as eye openers: ‘Oh, it has something to do with me!'”
“Clear, simple communication!” Jörg says promptly. “That means we focus on the effectiveness of communication. We keep asking ourselves: Which stories, which examples do all employees understand – from warehouse workers to lab technicians? What can they really relate to? Stories that act as eye openers are a lot more important than comprehensive details: ‘Oh, it has something to do with me!’ We’ve been taking that storytelling approach from the start. And what’s important, too: Right from the start, we ensured that we had a unique image we could use to communicate the digitization initiative. Recognition is important because there are many initiatives within the corporation. Whether film, newspaper for employees or intranet – we want everyone to immediately understand: ‘This is digital’. But that alone is not enough because we can’t spread digitization out of a tower.”
What does the alternative look like? “We also have to go into production, for example. At least two-thirds of Lanxess employees work in production or close to production. That’s still our backbone; it adds value. So what did we do specifically? We bought a few barrels, put a computer unit on top and a screen on top of that. With that, we started the production and showed people some things that are possible with iPhones, QR codes, and so on. We adapted our demonstrations to the different shifts, that is, we didn’t do demonstrations Mondays to Fridays from eight to five but according to the shift rhythm; sometimes we even stayed there for 24 hours.
René Esteban (Author of “Do Epic Stuff!“) and Jörg Hellwig in his office with a view of the Cologne Cathedral.
We first coordinated with production regarding the best spot where to set things up and how to reach people when they had some spare time. It really added momentum and we were able to get most of the people involved.”
What other approaches did they have? “We started a staff blog relatively early,” Jörg says. “Many companies do that, but in our corporation it was something that was totally new. There were those at management level who said, ‘We want to read everything you write first before you release it.’ But that would have been censorship and wouldn’t have served the purpose of such a blog. These were just concerns because we had never done such a thing before. We did it anyway, and now it works very well. At the beginning everything was a bit bumpy, but now it really is daily communication and even collaboration! People we would never have reached in any other way – or who we never expected to be interested – are getting involved in digital issues. You just never know the kind of ‘other’ lives people who work for you have. Somebody might have VR equipment in their basement or develop games in their spare time. We were able to mobilize these people, and they contribute a lot. By the way, it was quite something to learn that we don’t just have to let a few board members and business unit leaders play with this issue, but 16,000 people in the company. We want to make 16,000 people more digital!”
I’m also interested in other examples of how Jörg’s team reaches out to the company’s employees. “’Digital Morning’ is another format we use,” Jörg says. “Once a month, we invite someone from the outside to talk about any subject related to digitization. We already had people from Amazon and Google here, but also Thomas Lilge from the Humboldt University in Berlin, who specifically talked about gaming. Before the lecture, some people inquired what good that was supposed to be. After the lecture and the subsequent discussion, many people realized that gaming is one of the most successful new tools for further education. ‘Serious games’ and ‘game-based learning’ get people a lot more involved than just studying some stupid PowerPoint presentation. We then went so far as to go to gamescom with people. Even a board member joined us. That was when most of them started to understand what’s going on in that scene. Our idea was also that someone who’s walking around the trade fair halls in a Darth Vader costume today might be the purchasing manager of our largest client tomorrow. We’re in an industry that still sends order confirmations by fax and where many people are still using the phone a lot. We want people to say themselves, ‘No, we don’t want that anymore’, and that’s what’s happening now.”
My conversation with Jörg once again clearly illustrated what good communication is all about. It’s important to go to people instead of spreading messages from the top. And not only to go to them but also to get them involved and to start a dialogue with them. And, particularly – but not only – where digitization is concerned, the insight that everyone of us is still learning is important. Those who still consider themselves to be omniscient are not credible. Even the CEO of Lanxess, as Jörg mentions, says quite openly that he has to learn something new every day because there are more and more new things. Finally, the conversation has also shown that simple and effective communication requires many small approaches instead of one big hit. That’s what I believe in, and that’s why I want to conclude this chapter with some specific tips and hints.
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.