Leadership Must Walk The Talk!

Interview with Martin Spilker


For many years Martin Spilker worked closely with Reinhard Mohn, founder of Bertelsmann Stiftung, a formative background that is apparent in this interview. Within his own field – corporate culture – Spilker investigates the impact Web 2.0 tools have on the day-to-day work of his colleagues and has started his first pilot project – a wiki for processing a program proposal for submission to the board.


Martin Spilker
… born in 1959, is a member of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s management committee and head of  Corporate Culture/Leadership. Since 1996 he has served as personal advisor to Ms. Liz Mohn. He studied political economics, business management, economic psychology and economic history at the University of Paderborn and the University of  Klagenfurt.


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we_magazine:
What does corporate culture mean to you, Mr. Spilker?

Martin Spilker: There are many different definitions of what corporate culture means! We have a normative understanding of corporate culture with its roots in the work of Reinhard Mohn after the war. It’s based on principles which were important to him as an entrepreneur, and it foresees that motivation and creativity mainly arise when people are given the free rein and opportunity to act as entrepreneurs. On the other hand, this also means that they bear the responsibility for what they do. Responsibility of employees and managers was a central issue for him.

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Freedom and economic success are not possible without responsibility.

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This idea also covers delegation of tasks and assignments. And obviously this means that employees should share in the company’s business success. In the 1960s, Reinhard Mohn was one of the first German entrepreneurs to develop a model of employee participation in profits.

we_magazine:
How would you define leadership?

Martin Spilker: First and foremost leading people means serving people, as Reinhard Mohn remarks in his book “Success through Partnership”. The manager has to define the agenda, but he also makes sure that employees have free space to bring in their own ideas and participate. This means that a cooperation-based dialog is inititated between employees and managers to achieve a joint understanding on the common goals. I believe that’s one of the most important things – that this identification with the goals of a company but also with the tasks and duties of the individual employee really does take place and that a basis of shared understanding about them is created.

we_magazine:
Yes, but haven’t we now moved away from corporate culture? Is leadership for you synonymous with corporate culture?

Martin Spilker: I think that leadership is a key factor in determining corporate culture – and vice versa. Yet it seems to me that the new directions taken by leadership are even more important. Professor Stephan Jansen of Zeppelin University recently described it as the transformation of “leadership from the top down” to “leadership from the outside to the inside”! This will increasingly involve a shifting of skills towards what I call the six c’s – skills and abilities in communication, cooperation, criticism, conflict-resolution, creativity and tackling complexity.

we_magazine:
How is Web 2.0 changing your understanding of leadership?

Martin Spilker: I was very impressed by Jeff Jarvis’s book “What Would Google Do?” Even the first pages make it very clear what shifts in power and control mechanisms can arise for managers, employees, customers and suppliers when new technologies enter the management process. I deliberately say “can arise”. Greater transparency and possibilities for participation are bound to change what we mean by leadership. I think that authoritarian or patriarchal leadership has had its day. The advent of new technologies means that employees are now much more closely involved in processes, that it’s easier to delegate responsibility and that you have many more opportunities to generate participation. It’s much easier to have your say. In such a setting the basis is a joint understanding of certain parameters – costs, quality and deadlines – in which entrepreneurship can emerge. For me these are then the parameters on which self-responsible teams act.

we_magazine:
What do Web 2.0 tools mean for company employees?

Martin Spilker: Company employees must be put in a position where they can actually use these new possibilities for participation. This is why I also sometimes use a new concept of diversity which doesn’t just escribe the relations between man, woman, young person, old person, national or foreigner, even when there are still a lot of open questions in this regard. The new concept of diversity responds to such questions as “Who is ready to shoulder responsibility?”; “Who is performance-conscious?”; “Who has a certain affinity with technology?” Because it could very well be that those people who don’t come to terms with new technology will very quickly find themselves left behind.

we_magazine:
Would you say that “bottom up” can’t function without “top down”?

Martin Spilker: At the very least “bottom up” would soon encounter its limits. If leadership doesn’t embody leadership-style behavior, if it doesn’t send out clear signals, if it fails to indicate that this or that particular thing is what is wanted, then employees are pretty quickly going to realize that those at the top aren’t really serious or not serious enough. This is why it’s so important that each leader is always aware of what kind of incentivizing messages they’re sending out.

we_magazine:
Is it really the case that employees get the feeling that the boss really does stand behind the process? Or do you let things pass now and again?

Martin Spilker: If you’ve set a particular course, then somewhere along the line there must be consequences if people don’t stick to it. This doesn’t mean these  have to be serious consequences. But employees should have a very clear understanding that if they don’t get involved in the set course, there will be consequences for them.

we_magazine:
Talking about intrapreneurship – how much entrepreneurial spirit do salaried employees actually display? Is this something you encourage or not?

Martin Spilker: Well, obviously it would be wonderful for management if all their employees were bubbling over with exactly this kind of entrepreneurial spirit – coming up with creative ideas, seeking to implement innovative concepts and thinking about ways to finance them. That is by far the best case scenario. But we have to be realistic. And there are certainly a great many employees who, when push comes to shove, would rather say “I’m not prepared to take that risk” or “Shoulder responsibility by all means, but only up to a certain point and no further!” On the one hand, it would certainly be great if this form of company identification and management of deadlines, quality and costs could give us company employees who embody the spirit of intrapreneurship in all their actions. But I suspect that our overall workforce is in two minds about this: we have a handful of employees who really are innovative in what they do, and then we have the others who would rather stick to carrying out orders. Don’t get me wrong – both ways are neccessary to keep your business running.
Which brings me to the question of speed: when we think of speed, we think that each company has different divisions which work at different speeds. Perhaps some people would rather work in administration   and would feel themselves very much at home there. Others are bound up in project structures. In my opinion it’s one of the biggest tasks for management as well as HR to harmonize these different speeds into a substantial outcome.

we_magazine:
If you had to put these risks into a nutshell what would you say? Apart from the ones already mentioned, what would they be?

Martin Spilker: On the one hand you have to be aware that it all goes hand in hand with a certain loss of power and control.

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Whoever believes that they can control a whole raft of processes is completely on the wrong track – particularly against the backdrop of new technologies.

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Such processes are immensely difficult to control, if they can be controlled at all. It would be good for leadership if they could bring people on board who might possible have a different viewpoint. And then it might occasionally happen that somebody, quite wrongly, gets a bad rating.
But on the other hand standard theories have to have sufficient sensitivity and prudence not to overburden your employees with the application of new technologies to your company’s business processes. Because there’s a great danger that employees might be stretched beyond their limits by the permanent state of availability this puts them in. I’m thinking here about the work-life-balance, although that’s a misleading term because it suggests that on the one side there’s “work” with all its tribulations, anxieties and efforts and on the other there’s “life” with all its exuberance and joie de vivre. I think it’s more a question of achieving a proper “lifebalance”. But, sure, you’ve also got to see how employees cope with the issues of new technologies. They really must be able to assess what kind of information is important for them and how they should deal with it.

we_magazine:
What we’ve been seeing over the past twenty years in many companies has been mainly optimization processes, automation … today, however, innovation is very much at the forefront.

Martin Spilker: At this point I’d like to quote my mentor, Reinhard Mohn, who wanted to “get many minds to think”. This basically means give people room, give them the possibility to step aside from hidebound processes and develop something new, try it out and test it. It’s also absolutely essential in this context   that people be given the leeway to make mistakes  and learn from them. And this, I think, can be very instructively applied to the age of Web 2.0. Traditional company management aligns itself to process optimization. “Cost reduction”, for instance was always the big number one issue. Yet costs – and particularly communication costs – might not play that big a role in future anymore. I think that there’s still a need for process optimization, also due to the introduction of new technologies. But it’s still essential to involve people in these changes so that we can develop fresh ideas from a wide variety of sources and keep the dialog rolling. Networking people – whether it be in face-to-face talks or via Web 2.0 – is still the best way to generate ideas for me. That’s why I’m firmly convinced that those companies who spark innovation through new technologies are the ones who’ll keep their competitive edge. Nowadays there isn’t just one winner because copying products is now much easier and quicker. Take the mobile phone, for instance, and see how quickly copycat products came on the market. Earlier on it would often have taken decades before somebody lost their monopoly position or pioneering role; now it’s often just a matter of a few months. Obviously this is why I’m such an advocate of innovation combined with speed!

we_magazine:
My last question is if we look for a moment into the theoretical side of management, where do you find your main ideas, your line of thought reflected?

Martin Spilker: On the one hand most certainly in the practical experience you always glean from corporate life. I tend to stand for a new form of a “behavioral theory of corperate culture”. This means you have to be aware of what kind of incentives you’re setting. Standard theories of management with their challenges in terms of sustainable economic performance,  sustainable HR policy-making, sustainable development of corporate culture but also of new technologies are now all reaching their limits. I believe that there are now completely new laws at work and that people like Don Tapscott, for instance, play an important pioneering role in sensitizing people to the fact that much of what we discussed in the past simply can’t be dealt with in the same way in the age of Web 2.0. Although – and I should emphasize this –

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The keystones of delegation, co-determination, partnership and decentralization still provide a pretty solid foundation. If a corporate culture is aligned with management and socialized on such a basis, I am convinced that it has great chances for success in the age of Web 2.0.

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Rien ne va plus! So Let’s Start A New Game!
(Peter Kruse/ Thomas Sattelberger)
Facebooked? (Klaus Doppler/ Andreas Nau)



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