Theo’s year in the U.S.
Theo‘s year in the U.S. was no less successful than Luke‘s. In the workshop I customized for him and his team it was critical that the Americans understand the German leadership logic. They discussed, debated and decided over two very full days how best to work together.
I had them address the same topics as in Luke‘s workshop. Much was eye-opening for the Americans. Up until that point they had not done much thinking about the differences in leadership approaches.
In fact, in the early weeks it took some adjustment for the Americans. „Theo spends too much time in his office. He doesn‘t get out and work with the organization“, was a comment I heard several times. After relaying the feedback to Theo, he addressed it in one of his staff meetings. At the same time, I emailed my white paper on German leadership style to his staff.
Theo, and I in a handful of phone calls, reminded the Americans that when German management does not proactively communicate or get involved in the daily work of their direct reports it is a positive sign that the team is performing well. I suggested to Theo to lay out in his staff meeting when German management does, indeed, get involved at the tactical level.
On the phone to me, and in his staff meeting, Theo was very clear: „I get involved proactively if I am asked by my team or by an individual team member; if I see a problem which only I can resolve; or if there are structural barriers in the organization or in processes, etc. which need to be removed.
Otherwise, if my folks are performing well, the last thing I want to do is interrupt, distract or otherwise stick my nose in their business. My job is strategy; making sure that the general organizational parameters within which we work are supportive; and anticipating long-term problems.“
I recall very well an instance early on during Theo‘s year in the U.S. when his German approach to leadership did not meet the (perceived) needs of one of his direct reports. I was in the meeting. Jerry, one of Theo‘s top engineers, said: „Theo, I need your help. Whenever I have meetings on Project X, people from other organizations show up.
I don‘t know who they are or why they are present. They claim that their work is influenced by ours, but I cannot judge if that is true or not. And on top of that, they then bill us for their time. You need to talk to their bosses and get them to stop this!“
Everyone looked over to Theo, who was very calm, reflected for about five seconds, then said: „Jerry, what‘s the problem? It‘s your meeting. If you don‘t want them in it, just ask them politely to leave.“
Jerry was not happy with the response. He repeated the problem and his request that Theo get involved, as if Theo had not fully understood him. Theo smiled and replied supportively: „Jerry, just pull out the process on how we do design engineering.
It spells out very clearly how gate meetings are run, including who attends, etc. Just bring it to the next meeting, read it to those who you think should not attend, then ask them why they are there. If they don‘t have a plausible reason, ask them to leave.“
It was clear to me, after so many years in Germany, what Theo meant and where he was coming from. And it was also clear to Jerry and his other American colleagues. Nonetheless, it was equally clear to me as an American that Theo‘s response was not enough.
Sure it might all be spelled out in the process, but Americans expect their team leads to step up and fight for them if requested. That‘s what leadership means. Referring to a document is not leading, at least not from the American perspective.
When I communicated this to Theo he looked at me squarely in the eyes and said: „John, I can‘t spend my time running around bothering other senior-level managers with this kind of stuff (he used another term). Jerry needs to demonstrate a little backbone. He can do it.“
Theo had a great year in the U.S., as did Luke in Germany. Even more important was the learning curve that their respective teams went through. Both sides gained deep insight into the differences between how Americans and Germans lead, and want to be led. What they learned continues to benefit them long beyond that one year.
Do these differences in leadership approaches seem plausible to you? What have been your experiences working transatlantically?