For Dr. Rahmyn Kress, Epic Stuff is enabling entrepreneurs and corporates. His strong belief is that entrepreneurs are the ultimate game changers, that will drive sustainable transformational change for our society by setting milestones to deliver a more desirable future. Addressing economic challenges and creating the right partnerships for large and medium size corporates, has allowed the entrepreneurs to find solutions to retain relevance in the future.
At the Henkel headquarters in Dusseldorf I meet the [at the time of the interview still] CDO, Dr. Rahmyn Kress. He was born in Germany, spent the first 14 years of his life there, and has been living in London ever since. I ask Rahmyn right away how it came about that he switched to Henkel as CDO and was responsible for digitization. Before he joined the traditional consumer goods company, his career had been diverse as well as exciting: The economist started as a banker, which is an obvious profession to get into in London, but in the long run it wasn’t his cup of tea.
“It was either a coincidence or my destiny” that he ended up first in the film industry and later in the music industry, Rahmyn says with a wink. At MCA and Universal Music he had already shouldered a lot of responsibility at a very young age and could “always decide which role I was to play in small teams and create my own job”, he recalls. In 2010, he left the music industry to establish a technology company in France. It was eventually bought by Accenture and became one of the first pillars of today’s Accenture Digital. Rahmyn initially joined Accenture and managed Accenture Ventures to bring start-ups and corporations together, among other things. Which almost brings us to Henkel. But how exactly did that happen? And what motivated Rahmyn to assume responsibility as CDO?
“I was managing Accenture Ventures when a partner said to me, ‘I have a major client who wants to understand the issue of start-ups. Can you help me? I’m supposed to bring the management team in Berlin together with a few start-ups and founders for one day.’ Together with a few friends from the Axel Springer Accelerator – APX today – I presented a kind of general introduction to start-ups for Henkel and showed what they mean for corporations. Then one of Henkel’s board members approached me and asked, ‘We’re looking for a CDO; do you know anyone? Or could you help us and tell us what to look for?’ My first reaction was, ‘What do you think you need a CDO for? This is just a fad; everybody wants a CDO now. But what should that person do for you?’ So we started talking about that subject right away. I said, ‘I can give you some guidelines, but it’s not for me.’ Later, we had a lot of discussions in the larger circle, and in the end they asked me, ‘Wouldn’t you be interested in doing it after all?’ And yes, at that point and after the rounds of discussion that we had been having until then, I actually was interested.”
“A good CDO should be aware of the fact that he’s a pioneer and a catalyst […] If he has made himself redundant, he has achieved his goal.”
At first, Rahmyn had not only asked why Henkel needed a CDO but also contributed his own ideas and experiences to the discussion. “I said if Henkel wants to hire a CDO, then this and this should be the task areas and reporting lines,” he recalls. “Henkel then made me that offer, and because I thought it would be a great opportunity to help an organization with such a history to continue to play an important role in the future, I became CDO in June 2017. Henkel is now 142 years old; it was founded by an entrepreneur and has many incredibly positive values. In addition, I had been in the same boat in the music industry when it missed the digital disruption. Now I can almost say: I repent and will do a better job this time. So in the end I was happy to accept that job. And I felt and still feel really very, very humble, considering the enormous heritage of this company. With such a story, you have to be respectful and can’t just say, ‘That’s all nonsense; we’ll change it.’ At the same time, you really want to make a difference. It‘s a very delicate issue and quite a challenge.”
How does Rahmyn now see the role of the CDO, since he can no longer dismiss it as a fad because he has played it himself? “Today I think, yes, a chief digital officer can be useful, but it depends on the organization and on how long he stays on,” Rahmyn says. “In my view, the CDO always comes with an expiration date. I joined Henkel in the summer of 2017. Now it’s the summer of 2019, and in October I will hand my digital transformation tasks over to my successor.
Dr. Rahmyn Kress
A good CDO should be aware of the fact that he’s a pioneer and a catalyst, no more and no less. If he has made himself redundant, he has achieved his goal. When I started here, I said that I wanted to make the transformation within the next two years. Now everyone out there suddenly thinks we’ll permanently be seeing transformation in the future, but I disagree. We will have permanent innovation, but the transformation itself – other processes, a new culture, the integration of all pilot projects into the core business, and so on – is a unique event. And I really believe that corporations can do that very well. They’ve been doing it for more than 200 years.”
The way Rahmyn describes his task sounds like he’s already on the home stretch after his two years with Henkel. “That’s true. I’m very proud of what has been achieved, and it’s not all on my account. You’re always measured by your results. If you take on this job and realize after a year that you can’t get the organization transformed, that doesn’t mean you’re no good. You may just be the wrong person for this job in this environment. Then you should be honest enough and look for someone else who will replace you and give them better results than you can.” Not everyone will assume so much responsibility for the big picture. “No, only a few do that. It helps if we see ourselves as being some kind of drug: Even the best drug won’t work for some patients. Not because the drug is bad, but because these patients need some other kind of medicine. Only if you, as CDO, realize that you really are the catalyst of change, you’re the right person for the job. That’s what happened to me in the last two years. Everyone here has been doing a great job. Therefore the right time for me to change jobs will come soon. Henkel will hire a new Chief Digital and Information Officer, who will then secure the scaling and continue to support the company by using the current momentum.”
Let’s talk a bit about Henkel X. It’s kind of the centrepiece of what Rahmyn has initiated at Henkel. “I founded Henkel X in February 2018,” he explains. “I wanted the corporation to do it all on its own, which has shown to be successful when it comes to start-ups and young, fast-growing companies. And to do it without entering the world of start-ups and incubators, which I don’t consider value-adding. I think that it may even be potentially harmful. It’s best for a corporation with all its talents and competencies, financial resources, distribution channels, customers, and so on, to bring the start-up methods into the company. For that purpose we first looked for excellent mentors. The approximately 200 mentors Henkel X has today come from the venture capital scene and entrepreneurship. You find some real game changers of the digital economy among them. When we got the mentors together, we wanted to network in our industry across Europe, and we launched the Industry Partnership Program, which today brings many German DAX corporations and similarly sized companies from France, Spain, Italy, and other countries together.”
What is at issue? “We’ll think about ‘Retail 2030’, for example, and tell ourselves that we don’t want to leave the visions up to Amazon. When Henkel, Nestlé, three large retail chains and two other consumer goods companies sit around the table, exchanging ideas and even getting entrepreneurs to join them as mentors, this may result in an idea that makes us think, ‘Let’s try that.’ By that I mean: We’ll try it together; we’ll either fail or suceed together. The success Henkel X enjoys is groundbreaking. Our relationships with other companies are getting better and better, we can be out on the market extremely fast, and more and more entrepreneurs want to join us. We can finance these entrepreneurs, support them and let them try out our products. Henkel X has already grown enormously. We believe in Europe and want to become the Central European platform for open innovation.”
“Try things, make the results quantifiable, and if they’re not good right away, ask yourself why they’re not good.”
Many companies have people who would like to do something similar to what Rahmyn does. But they don’t even start. They are like people who don’t want to learn to ride a bicycle because they’re afraid they might fall off. Or they don’t want to be beginners because others might laugh at them. But everyone has to start somewhere. What advice does Rahmyn have for those who can’t muster the courage to assume the responsibility for big goals and just start? “First of all, there are no patent recipes that work for everyone,” Rahmyn says. ”With BMW, I’d already have to do a lot of things differently from here. So when people say they don’t want to join Henkel X but would rather do their own thing, I say, great! We don’t see them as competitors. Not everything someone touches will turn into gold right away. Nevertheless, I think ‘fail fast’ is utter nonsense. It’s not about failure. So don’t focus on it. Try things, make the results quantifiable, and if they’re not good right away, ask yourself why they’re not good. The next point: inspiration is important, but inspiration alone is boasting. You must achieve quantifiable results. You need tools; you need mentors; you need good communication. What you don’t need are 50,000 ‘entrepreneurs in the company’. That, too, is utter nonsense. Be proud of your people in production and use their knowledge because their knowledge is tremendous. Pay attention to your messages and never promise too much. If you say your door is always open and anyone can come in to see you, then you must mean it. Otherwise, don’t say that sort of thing!” So you could also summarize it in one sentence: Take full responsibility for your words and deeds!
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.