Martin Stork, Head of Workforce Enablement at BASF, believes that the key to achieving major goals is to balance guiding inspiration with creative freedom. After all, an inspiring and at the same time space-giving leader automatically attracts the right people – across silos and highly motivated to achieve the goal together.
Martin Stork’s mission is to get about 120,000 people around the world excited about digital transformation. He has only a small team in the classical sense of reporting directly to him. “Small but perfectly formed,” as he puts it, “but sadly not sufficient, considering the long list of tasks and ideas.” As Head of Workforce Enablement, Martin is in charge of the HR side of digital transformation at BASF. His job is to get everyone in the entire HR value chain – from employer branding to recruiting and onboarding to employee and leadership development – interested in the digital age.
One of his tasks is to initiate a transformation in people’s minds. He is to motivate employees to contribute their own ideas for digitizing the company. This is an exciting time for him and his job is a lot of fun, he assures me. Not least because he managed to expand his actual team to include other colleagues who, although they do not technically report to him, simply believe in the matter and therefore want to make a contribution. Martin’s whole career was shaped by BASF. He joined the company 14 years ago as part of a dual degree academic course and then decided to stay. Apart from HR, he already worked in controlling and IT. We meet in “Speicher 7” in Mannheim, a stylish and very fancy hotel located in a former granary at the harbor. The bar we settle in has its own unique style and immediately reminds me of Indonesia. We enjoy a great view of the Rhine. You can discern the gigantic manufacturing plant of BASF in Ludwigshafen on the other side of the river.
For me, Martin is the prime example of a leader who keeps recreating his own team. His job is to reach virtually all BASF employees. They are scattered all over the world, in countless areas and on many hierarchical levels. Apart from his small circle of closest associates, Martin has no authority over anyone. Everyone reports to other managers. Greatly committed to his job, Martin still does ingenious things with them. I frequently follow up on this via LinkedIn. Anyone who acts like Martin needs special qualities, mindsets and strategies for success. Sometimes they are not even strategies but simply creative and experimental approaches. It’s not a child’s play to get tens of thousands of employees in a corporation to find a status X better than the status quo and get involved in new situations. What exactly does Martin do to get his team members involved? How does he make sure that everyone is happy to deal with the digital future? That’s what I want to find out first.
“Instead, they should just take a look around to see who feels like doing what. As a result, people who have intrinsic motivation will approach the issues. “
“For me, getting people involved first of all means understanding what digital transformation means to them,” Martin explains. “That’s the only way they can actively contribute. That means we make the topic tangible and comprehensible. Not only in theory but also in practice. We always rely heavily on experience. It’s not enough if people in the seminar room undergo training. You must experience everything first hand. For this we use different formats, because everybody experiences things differently. We use barcamps, for instance.” This is the design of an open event during which the participants first define the exact content themselves, then intensively exchange ideas and finally produce results together. “Exactly. Employees come together in a barcamp and work exclusively on their own ideas. On their own ideas! That’s what makes the difference. At events like this, it’s always great to see how people can show what great ideas they have and how they themselves can contribute to the digital transformation.”
That’s not necessarily the rule in a corporate. A lot of topics are still dictated by the top management. Not every leader dares to just let people do their own thing. “Yes, and that’s why it’s so great to experience the energy and dynamics that are in the air. It’s simply fun. Of course the goal is also to get out of the silos and bring people together. The digital transformation can only happen if people work together, in networks and communities within the company. We are now breaking through the silos and creating cross-functional and cross-organizational teams. Recently we had a special barcamp where employees completely organized themselves and teamed up to develop their ideas. What was special about it was that this was later pitched in front of a jury, based on the model of ‘Shark Tank’. The objective was to find a sponsor for every good project idea in the company. We had no idea what would come out of it. I think that with three out of five ideas, one sponsor immediately got up and offered their support. Everyone was happy to have space for their ideas and to get so much encouragement. That was really great.”
Are there any other examples? “Yes, there are. In order to advance our employer’s brand, we have already conducted several hackathons,” Martin reports. ”Students and young professionals, most of whom didn’t yet know each other, came together to work 24 hours on the solution to a problem. And after those 24 hours they did present a solution that really blew us away.” I think that really rocks! Goosebump moments like that are extremely important. Afterwards the people may be exhausted, but at the same time they also get new energy. It’s similar to mountain climbing. Yet now I can imagine that some readers will say:
“All this without asking how many FTEs someone has on paper. If I manage to inspire people and just convince them that something is a good thing, then a project will take off by itself.”
Sounds great and really easy. But my own situation is totally different. I have a major project to accomplish and only get seven FTEs for it. But I would need at least 50 full-time equivalents of workforce. How am I supposed to swing that? I guess it would be best not to accept this mandate at all.
“Once in a while you just have to be courageous and go new ways,” Martin says. “Actually the potential is always there in a large company. I think many organizations have no idea what skills they have in their own ranks. To take advantage of this potential, everyone should stop focusing only on their own silos. Instead, they should just take a look around to see who feels like doing what. As a result, people who have intrinsic motivation will approach the issues. They just want to get involved in a topic, and so they will somehow manage to spend part of their time on it. No matter who they report to. I think you have to start making that more visible. In other words, you should provide a platform for people and give them the opportunity to come together and work together on a specific theme. All this without asking how many FTEs someone has on paper. If I manage to inspire people and just convince them that something is a good thing, then a project will take off by itself.”
“If people believe what you’re saying at any given moment, and if they sense that you’re really convinced of it, then you can move mountains.”
Today, self-organization is everything when it comes to teams. Our conversation has convinced me of that once again. At the same time, you actually always need someone who will lead and inspire and motivate people. Finally, I would like to know from Martin what his personal approach is to inspire people. “Being inspired yourself is enormously important to me,” he says, “and what inspires me most is to see what people can do together when they get the chance. That’s why I also believe that one of any manager’s tasks is to create the necessary freedom for that. Ultimately, then, as a leader, you inspire because of your authenticity. If people believe what you’re saying at any given moment, and if they sense that you’re really convinced of it, then you can move mountains. Plus you need trust and empowerment. That means you trust people and have the confidence that they really can make a difference. When people know why they’re doing something, they will realize their full potential.”
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.