Flying too high

A DAX30 company. Industry. Engineering and manufacturing. A senior-level manager. German. Let‘s call him Heinrich.

I had done about six months of work for his organization. Several times I sat in on their staff meetings, having been asked to play fly on the wall (or Mäuschen, little mouse, as the Germans would say), to observe the interactions.

Like any team they, too, had their areas of improvement. Heinrich asked me for my recommendations. Since I had only my impressions, I suggested that I do an audit, which is a series of background interviews with his staff and selected subject-area experts within their respective groups: design engineering, product management, testing, materials, processes, etc.

Listen carefully

Audit, from Latin, means to listen. Which is what I do, asking the right questions, in the right sequence, listening carefully and taking down notes as accurately as possible. I then take time to rewrite my notes, analyze them, in order to then go back to my client to present and propose what could be done to improve things.

As is always the case, if you gain the trust of the folks being interviewed, and there is room for improvement, they open up, especially the Germans. Well, one of those areas concerned the communication between Heinrich and his direct reports.

Both sides, the German and the American reports, stated that Heinrich simply did not take the time, or make the effort, to spell out sufficiently what his strategic thinking was. They felt a bit left in the dark, and asked me to please address this with him.

That the Americans would voice this concern did not surprise me, for the reasons I give in the core content on German leadership. But that the German reports were equally concerned signaled to me that this must be an area of improvement.

“I refuse to spell out”

Thinking this would be easy to improve, and therefore not requiring any kind of team session or workshop, I raised the topic over lunch with Heinrich. His reaction was not at all what I had expected. Heinrich became impatient, almost a bit angry: “I refuse to spell out my strategic thinking anymore than I currently do. If my folks don’t understand it, then they’re not the right people for their positions.”

I was taken aback, but kept Heinrich in the discussion on this topic, looking for ways to get him to see things from the perspective of his team: “But, Dr. Künow (not his real name), you know that you think on several levels at one time, and in very sophisticated ways (which was true. I was not patronizing him). Even very capable people cannot always follow you.”

This did not help. He stuck to his initial reaction, at least in that conversation with me. Later I would find out that he did, indeed, put a bit more effort into making clear what he expected from his organization.

“I might just as well do it myself!”

During our conversation, which had lasted no longer than half an hour, Heinrich said something which over the years I have heard dozens of times from German managers: “If I have to spell out in detail the work (meaning tasks, mandates, missions assigned), I might just as well do it myself!”

This is pure-form German leadership logic. Germans expect the next level down in hierarchy to understand the overall purpose of a generally-formulated task, mandate, or assignment in such a way that they can figure out on their own the details of its tactical execution.

The key terms here are generally-formulated, mandate and figure out the details. Why? Germans in leadership positions, regardless of where they are in the hierarchy, believe that it should not be necessary to spell out the how (tactics). Next level actors – management, subject-area experts, support staff – should have the required training, expertise and self-initiative to spell out the mission for themselves. If they can‘t, or are unwilling, they are not qualified to do the work.

On the flip side of this logic is the desire of the Germans to do that spelling out. This is why they feel uncomfortable, and even reject, tasks, mandates, missions or assignments which include too much information about how the work should be done (tactics).

Too prescriptive, limiting, restrictive

An assignment with not only a description of the overall mission (strategy), but also details about the how (tactics), is considered by Germans to be too prescriptive, limiting, restrictive. They want maximum freedom in interpreting the mission and then executing it as they see best, based on their understanding of the situation. “That‘s what I was trained for, and that‘s what I get paid for. The next level above should not get too involved in my work.”

Dr. Künow and his team were a very high-performing transatlantic organization. In many ways they were the forerunners in their company when it came to addressing how to integrate German and American approaches. Yet, they had their areas of improvement, too.

Heinrich continued to fly too high for his organization, but they learned to adapt to him. For his part, Heinrich found other ways to make more transparent his strategic thinking. It was a dance they would do for several more years.