For Susann Kunz, Director Brand Strategy and Business Development at adidas, corporate culture can be created proactively instead of leaving it to its own dynamics. And even if this does not take place overnight, complex approaches and formulas are not the required. It simply starts with actively getting to know the team and always meeting them as humans.
I have an appointment with Susann Kunz at Adidas in Herzogenaurach, where she works as Director Brand Strategy and Business Development for the sporting goods giant. Susann Kunz and I are sitting in the “Adi Dassler Room”, a beautiful workshop room in a newly erected building on the premises of the headquarters of Adidas. A portrait of Adi Dassler that looks like it was drawn in chalk hangs on the wall. And antique tables create an exciting contrast in this new steel-and-glass building, a splendid atmosphere.
I have known Susann for quite a while and am happy to meet her again today to talk about positive culture. As an introduction, I ask Susann what she personally considers a good culture. “That I can just be myself,” she replies. “That I don’t have to be perfect and may make mistakes as long as I keep inviting feedback from others and we work together to get better. All in all, I want to feel good and enjoy working where I work.” So I want to know right away where Susann would start if she was in the position to create these conditions for others. Assuming she had just taken over a department with a staff of 100 and her job would be to ensure that those employees felt comfortable. And even assuming she couldn’t lure anyone with a new vision or strategy because all that would still be in flux. Her job would just be to make sure that people wanted to stay aboard. What would Susann do?
“I don’t sit in my office with the door open, waiting for someone to stop by. Instead I go to the people myself, talk to them, make appointments.”
“First I’d get to know people,” Susann says. ”Personal contact is very important. And by that I mean more than an open-door policy. I don’t sit in my office with the door open, waiting for someone to stop by. Instead I go to the people myself, talk to them, make appointments. Ideally, I leave no one out even if there really are 100 or 200 employees. I also believe in common activities. For example, riding a bike to work together or doing yoga together every Friday morning. Various activities for smaller groups that will bring people together. And I mean as people, not just as colleagues.” Is it actually that easy? Just be human, and you have a good culture? “I think it’s easier than many people think,” Susann says, convinced. “It’s often made complicated to create trust with all sorts of approaches and formulas. At the end of the day, you just have to be human, let the others in the company be themselves and restrain yourself here and there. That’s difficult in the context of a performance culture where everything is getting faster and faster. That’s the real conflict. But here, too, humanity is the solution. Where people are allowed to just be humans, you may say, ‘Hey, I’m not that well versed in this subject; could you please help me? By the way, if you ever have any questions about xy, please let me know and I’ll try my best to help you with that.’ That’s exactly what will help the company in the end. Something like that works well – where everybody is open, people can be human and also admit if they have any weaknesses.”
Wonderful. That also corresponds to my experience. Now I want to look at the top with Susann – not at the employees but rather those who might be supervisors. There are top managers, specially among global players, who say, “Culture? You should be making sales numbers, please!” Or others who may say, “You don’t have to talk about culture. Everybody just be the way you are; that’s fine.” How would Susann respond to such top executives?
“I would say that the issue of positive corporate culture must be formally included in each employee’s annual objectives as a point of evaluation and should be reviewed and continually improved over time.”
“Well, first of all, I’d say it’s counterproductive not to talk about culture, because then a momentum will develop that may not match the values or goals of the company, because the people are still talking to each other anyway. And in that case culture will just develop in an uncoordinated way. If I can control something, I should make sure to steer it in a positive direction and not leave it to chance. Particularly if the company sets itself big goals. Secondly, I would say that the issue of positive corporate culture must be formally included in each employee’s annual objectives as a point of evaluation and should be reviewed and continually improved over time. An important part of this is to hold the relevant executives accountable and to ensure that senior management periodically deals with and continues to promote that issue without compromise as a fixed item on the monthly agenda. In addition, it requires a body of non-executive staff to make concrete proposals, to create simple 3-to-6-month programmes and to implement them successfully. This will be about concrete things: What do we want to implement? How do we give feedback to each other? How do we deal with mistakes? At the same time we should always keep in mind where we want to go, what our North Star looks like.”
Culture is a long journey and nothing that can be changed quickly overnight. After the first three to six months, it would then go deeper and more in detail. But does everyone feel like travelling? I would like to know how Susann deals with any resistance along the way. For example, with individuals who just don’t want to participate. Or with structures in a group that make a further development of the culture a greater challenge, but which individuals stubbornly cling to.
“Basically, I take the time to talk to employees who might have a negative attitude on an equal footing and explain once again what our goals are, that we can only reach them together as a team, and how important the part that each individual plays in this is,” Susann explains. “Everyone wants to be heard and taken seriously, and sometimes they may just get something off their back. Sure, there are people who always complain because they realize they get attention that way. In those cases it’s necessary to set a clear framework and to let these individuals assume responsibility for themselves. To them I communicate unequivocally: ‘Your part in this is very important and we need you, otherwise we won’t get anywhere as a team.’ As long as you have hierarchies – and you will find them in any organization – there will be difficulties, too. Ideally, you don’t have any hierarchies at all.
Here at Adidas, teams ideally collaborate as well as soccer teams. Everyone understands what their role and responsibilities are, be it the striker or the midfielder. Each player’s role is as important as the next one, and each role has the same importance because it contributes equally to success. The coach brings the team forward and keeps developing it to make it better. Clearly, the coach sets the strategy, but the team organizes itself on the pitch, ultimately autonomously. The team is agile; that is, the striker will defend the team if the situation requires it. That’s modern soccer – and that’s a good guiding principle for us. Following this analogy, as a coach – that is, as a manager and coach – you are ideally more likely to ask questions and give impulses than just give directions: You ask, ‘How did we play? How do you see the next game? What do we want to stand for? What does team spirit mean to us? What do we have to do to win?’ I think that’s a nice analogy.”
Absolutely! Specially since in soccer, too, in the end, success is the result of a lot of detail work. Daily – or almost daily – training, practicing running, taking the ball, scoring, standard situations and so on. Everything with patience and just a bit better every day. Many little things will eventually make the difference between a good team and a top team. Sometimes it’s just a small situation that will decide a soccer match. Finally, I want to know how Susan sees that. Not in terms of soccer, of course, but in terms of an environment where people like to work and do great things because they feel good. “A company doesn’t need to spend all that much money to create a great environment,” Susann says. “On the contrary, it’s the little things that count the most. Celebrating birthdays, for example. A little ritual at the end of the week. Or I just telling someone, ‘Good job!’ That, for instance, doesn’t cost anything at all.”
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.