Frank Sielaff, Founder & Managing Director of entrusted and former Head of Digital Media at Merck, emphasizes the value of staying on the ball to achieve big goals. Changing plans is not a failure, but almost inevitably part of the journey towards the goal. The goal, however, remains unalterable.
Sometimes you need great perseverance to reach a big goal. For leaders who believe in themselves, giving up is not an option. One such leader is Frank Sielaff, born in 1975, formerly Head of Digital Media in Group Communications at Merck and current CEO of entrusted, a digital strategy consulting firm. Frank is a prime example of someone who has made epic stuff in a corporation that the group is still talking about after all these years.
He initially created a globally standardized platform for internal digital communication. Then he started to work on the company website and adapted it to the newly redefined brand core with a relaunch. Huge tasks that required incredibly many hurdles to overcome. What mental programme let him manage to stay tuned and achieve these great goals?
The Lufthansa conference centre in Seeheim is located on the edge of a dense forest, surrounded by greenery. Here I meet Frank Sielaff for our talk. We’re sitting next to a tall glass front and enjoy a great view of the beautiful mountain range called “Bergstrasse”. “Success starts in your head” is the topic of this chapter. I want to know from Frank with what mental attitude he has managed, over a period of several years, to virtually revolutionize the entire web architecture of a global and widely distributed corporation. I’m also interested in the attitude the others had at the beginning. Who said right away, “That will work!”? And who said something like, “Forget it, you can’t do that anyway”? Such huge IT projects usually mean tall hurdles. To sustain motivation and spread determination and optimism is doubtlessly an enormous challenge to the mental strength of any leader. I ask Frank to tell me a bit about his experiences.
“As far as internal communication is concerned, the corporation was initially quite a mess,” Frank begins. ”There weren’t only countless intranets in the Merck subsidiaries around the world but also very different ideas about how to communicate with each another. In contrast to the relaunch of the website at a later time, regarding internal communication it was also a lot less clear at the start how much we would be able to achieve with our project at all. The conditions were much more challenging. At the time there was no common concept yet concerning what the internal communication at Merck should be about. This concept has developed only through our project.”
How was Frank able to start under these conditions? After all, you have to start somewhere. “In small steps,” Frank explains. “And the first step was the technology. In 2008, it was first all about how to structure the technical mess. It was not until much later that I started to better understand the organizational and communicative chaos, which went hand in hand with the lack of a uniform technical basis. Since we were so focused on the technology, after the first pitch in front of the IT board we only got the okay for a small solution. We had heated discussions about licenses, budgets, and so on. Nobody campaigned for the big solution. So the small step I got the okay for meant to add to instead of rebuilding the structure.”
Frank Sielaff and René Esteban (Author of “Do Epic Stuff!“) in the Lufthansa Conference Centre in Seeheim
I want to know more about that: So Frank jumps in with a vision of how things could look in the end and comes out with a maximum of 10 per cent of what he really wanted. Wasn’t that a huge setback and didn’t he already think of giving up then? “The disappointment came a bit later,” Frank says. “At first I was still hoping that the new little tool we were allowed to use would help us to attract and engage more people. But that wasn’t the case. First there was a short buzz of enthusiasm and then a valley of tears. People were disappointed.” So what happened then? “In a second attempt in 2011, I had already integrated a communicative concept and set up the whole issue. The fact that we again had a discussion about the budget and everything was reduced to the license costs was another set-back. The motivation of the entire team plummeted again. We had already placed announcements in the staff magazine, and now everything was questioned. During that time I collected my strength mainly by telling myself: Okay, that’s now a decision of the whole company, and however it’ll turn out has nothing to do with how well my arguments were. We then benefited from the fact that the company was about to be newly positioned and our project fit in well with that. In 2013 we finally got the go-ahead for the big solution from the board. But even then it still took two more years to find a supplier who would do exactly what we wanted.”
“For me, failure didn’t mean to deviate from an original plan. Only giving up is failure. Not to stick to my goal anymore.”
In the end it turned out to be many years with several setbacks. After the go, Frank and his team had the big goal in mind, but they still didn’t have the opportunity to start implementing it immediately. How can you stick to something that long that you have your mindset on? “We gradually built up a community for the project within the company,” Frank explains. “The exciting thing was to keep the momentum there. About 500 people were involved, and we had to keep them motivated the whole time. It helped us to get support from senior management on a regular basis. In the final phase in 2015, we were then able to really speed up the process.” Failure was not an option? “Back then I would generally ask myself: What does failure actually mean? For me, failure didn’t mean to deviate from an original plan. Only giving up is failure. Not to stick to my goal anymore. The goal I had in mind was a unified communication platform. That goal was absolutely unalterable. I also asked myself: What would ‘not to go on’ look like? Okay, you may not feel like doing it anymore. But it’s going on go on somehow anyway. I think I’ve always been good at motivating myself. Of course I would have liked to have everything done faster. But then I got used to the fact that it didn’t go fast and told myself: Well, if it won’t be done that fast, then it’ll be done step by step.”
“Of course I would have liked to have everything done faster. But then I got used to the fact that it didn’t go fast and told myself: Well, if it won’t be done that fast, then it’ll be done step by step.“
That sounds like great serenity and mental strength for me. Qualities that all executives need if they want to achieve epic goals in organizations. Was there anything else that helped Frank to remain mentally strong for such a long time? “What really helped me was to have a very large network inside and outside the company,” Frank says. “I always asked for lots of feedback from others. That concerned both my ideas and the internal perception of these ideas within the company. I knew people I had a real bond of trust with and who also were very good at abstract visions; they could show me where we were at the moment and why we weren’t getting ahead. Talks like these reassure me enormously.”
Anything else? “Exchanging ideas with managers from similar companies in forums helped me a lot, too. And discussions with peers at conventions were enormously important as well. I could always share something relevant, and in return I learned how the others were doing things. That was very helpful. A great confirmation was when we received one award after another in the U. S., Germany, and even Australia for the project. Then even Microsoft became aware of us, and we started to talk about strategic partnerships. In the end we excelled as the ones who took a giant leap and who are now way ahead of everybody else. You can lose such a lead quickly again; then others will follow suit. But what was interesting was that gap between your own perception and the evaluation from outside. After all those years in which things had been really tough sometimes, outsiders now considered us to be the ones who had just ventured the big solution.” Epic stuff? “I guess that’s what it looked like.”
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.