For Dr. Christoph Hüls, Internal Entrepreneur in Action at Merck Group, strong visions don’t just appear on PowerPoint slides, but unfold their power through shared emotions and joint passion within the team. Leaders can awaken this power by living the vision first and continuously with full commitment – this is an essential part of leadership.
So before I’ll tell you what to look for when developing your visualization in detail, I want to introduce you to a leader who, in my opinion, stands for harmonious visions. In his career Christoph Hüls has repeatedly succeeded in adjusting people to big goals with the help of emotional images. He knows both the corporate world and the world of start-ups. Christoph was Head of Innovation Strategy at Merck, then managed a protein analysis start-up and later returned to Merck as an internal entrepreneur in action. During our conversation I want to find out how he developed powerful visions of the future in both a young and an established company and plant- ed them in his team members’ heads.
I meet Dr. Christoph Hüls in a small, charming coffee bar in a superbly restored old building in Darmstadt. It’s a lovely, warm summer day and the windows are wide open. We sit on beautiful classic chairs made of solid wood at a square table and enjoy excellent coffee. Christoph is an out and out visionary person; at least that’s how I have always perceived him. Today I ask him directly, “How do you manage to plant your vision – or if you don’t want to call it vision, then perhaps your target image – in people’s minds? I mean, you don’t just go to a start-up, for instance, and build up the company successfully for seven years. There must be something that makes you and your team stick to it. That makes you all do your best to be successful. You couldn’t have done that by yourself. So what did you do to make others follow you and support you?”
“And the key to it may be that you, as their leader, demonstrate it first, with every fibre of your body. That’s leadership. Period.”
“That’s absolutely correct, René. As a new manager of the start-up I knew that I couldn’t do it on my own, and so I quickly got external help. Most start-ups don’t do that, and – just as an anecdote on the side – it gave those who had brought me aboard some serious hiccups at first. But in the end I was able to convince everybody that it was the right thing to do. We were 36 people at the time, and I said, ‘Now we have to create a common vision!’ Most of them thought it was a waste of time. But then I got the entire company to do a two-day offsite with an external coach and do nothing but work on our vision for the full two days. It was a great feeling to walk through the company and see how our vision was stuck to the screens and then realized. For me as managing director that was almost like a salvation: Finally everyone had a common goal and was running in the same direction! It’s true that even in a company with only 36 people there are silos – personal preferences and preferred ways of doing things that are not always the best for the company. That’s where the shared vision comes into play. And the key to it may be that you, as their leader, demonstrate it first, with every fibre of your body. That’s leadership. Period.”
I want to know how Christoph later transferred this visionary approach to a corporate. After all, he was first in a corporate, then in a start-up, and then returned to another large corporate environment. How did he take his expertise with him? After all, the structures are quite different – and defining your own goals leads to much greater conflicts of interest in a corporate. “That’s a huge challenge,” Christoph replies. “I mean, visions have always existed in larger organizations. They are written down somewhere on paper or in PowerPoint. But, frankly, they’re not realized, and frequently not everybody knows about them. So far I’ve always tried to create our own identity in the troop I had to lead. With the proviso that I need connection points, of course. I’ve always tried to clarify what our goal is, what we stand for and what our contribution to the big picture is. And then it was always: a clear focus on it! We focus on this goal! I’ve never set goals with Power-Point presentations; instead I’ve always worked them out together with the people. In the end, everyone has to make the goal their own and live it, not just me.”
Most of the teams in companies still don’t bother to create their own vision away from the corporate vision. What advice does Christoph have for those who want to take that step? What were typical visions he developed together with his teams? What makes a good vision and how do you get there? “For me, the rational component, the clear goal, is where you start,” Christoph explains. “The direction I want to take must be clear. Then it’s the emotion, the passion, for me. Being a start-up, the shortest formula for our vision was, ‘Health is our passion.’ Now you may say that’s quite exaggerated for a small service company doing protein analytics for pharmaceutical corporations. But that was just the core of the whole thing. The people who created this together all had their own personal stories. Everyone felt passionately about contributing to the improvement of the health of people all over the world.”
René Esteban (Author of “Do Epic Stuff!“) and Dr. Christoph Hüls in a coffee bar in Darmstadt
“At the same time, what we did had this pirate-like character: We explicitly let ourselves be different. Break rules.”
The vision was apparently linked to personal stories, emotions, and therefore activated more senses than any phrase, such as “We’re the most successful company in our field“ would have. Would Christoph say that he created a future together with his team? “That’s right,” he confirms. “And I always try to do that. I was Head of Technology Foresight & Scouting at a DAX-30 corporation, which focused on developing its innovation strategy. I set up a very young team within a year. And to give you an idea of the image we created: We called ourselves the ‘Masters of the Innoverse’. That said a lot about our vision, including that allusion to ‘Masters of the Universe’, namely that we create a new world, a new universe, through innovations. We wanted to be the ones who saw something new outside and then promote it inside the corporation. So we had a huge and powerful goal. At the same time, what we did had this pirate-like character: We explicitly let ourselves be different. Break rules. We really wanted to do something different than what a corporate normally does.”
Pirates – how exciting! The target image “health is our passion” probably provided everyone with their own image, each image being different. That’s not a bad thing – after all, all that matters is that everyone can relate to it. “Masters of the Innoverse” and the “pirates” who deliberately break rules – that’s already quite a grand image in comparison to “health is our passion”. These are extremely powerful images that create a sense of belonging, adding fun and excitement. Finally I want to know what working on the “pirate ship” was like. “The atmosphere was just incredibly creative and everybody was looking ahead,” Christoph recalls. “Productive, innovative and ultimately very successful. Nobody was afraid to speak up or go their own unconventional ways. Everything was addressed bluntly. After all, we were pirates! And as for the sense of belonging, the affiliation: When I quit that job and my team broke up, I was accused of having broken up a family!”
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.