Interview: Focus on Leadership

From the outset KLU has been committed to training the next generation of leaders for the logistics sector. What defines good leadership, today and tomorrow? What challenges await our students? We spoke with three managers.

This article is part of KLU's anniversary magazine celebrating our 10th anniversary (see page 38-43). Have a look at the whole magazine.

Is there an example of particularly good or bad leadership that especially sticks in your memory?

Victoria Herzog: Relatively early in my career, I had a supervisor who had difficulties trusting employees. So I spent all my time preparing reports instead of solving real problems. Back then I decided that, when I became a manager, I would be the kind who extended trust, was in constant contact with others, and understood what was on my employees’ minds. The kind who was capable of assessing performance, but who first and foremost let people do their jobs.

Karl Gernandt: In an interview for one of my first jobs, I was asked several questions that I simply couldn’t answer. I was extremely frustrated. A few weeks later the interviewer—and the past CEO of Deutsche Bank—called me and said he wanted to work with me. Apparently I was the only interviewee who openly admitted they couldn’t answer the questions. As he explained, he had to be able to trust his people, and to depend on them one hundred percent. To me, this dependability, trust, and being able to realistically judge your own capabilities are important aspects of leadership.

Thomas Strothotte: I was once an assistant to a professor who gave me a tremendous amount of work to do – and kept piling it on. It was simply too much. The next time he tried it I simply declined to do even more, and he immediately accepted my position. He wanted to show me what it’s like to reach your limits and how to say no. In my leadership role today, I try to keep that experience of hitting a wall in the back of my mind, both for myself and for my counterpart.

What most shaped your own career?

Victoria Herzog: In my opinion, the starting point on the road to a leadership position is always technical competence. But on the other hand, you need to make others believe in your ideas and work. Without this ability, it doesn’t matter how good your work is; people will never consider you when it’s time to fill a managerial position. So you also have to be able to sell yourself. Back in 2012/2013, KLU already had the Career Center, where we learned about the elevator pitch concept. It was perfect. I had my core messages in just three sentences, and over the next four years I used them frequently. Even today the core concept of being precise in a few sentences helps me in all kind of meetings.

Thomas Strothotte: It’s definitely important to catch the right people’s attention—either with excellent work or constructive criticism. I received my first appointment as deputy rector because I put the academic senate under intense pressure to update and streamline certain processes—though I wasn’t thinking about my own career at all. Two years later, the rector invited me to become his deputy.

Karl Gernandt: For our generation, which started out 30 or 40 years ago, intelligence and hard work were especially important, while social intelligence just started being a priority. What we three have in common, and what remains a career-relevant factor today, is drive. If I don’t truly want to lead, if I don’t enjoy feeling the weight of responsibility, or the pressure to go the extra mile, it just won’t work. I think what characterizes all leaders is that they enjoy working, and that, from the outset, they’re not afraid to take on responsibility. After all, it’s lonely at the top, there are fewer and fewer people to talk to, and it can be ice-cold at the top of the pyramid. Intrinsic motivation is a must.

Where does the “drive to lead” come from? Do you need role models, say, from your own family?

Karl Gernandt: I think it has more to do with your individual character, and the experiences you have in your youth. In my view, anyone who was a successful athlete, an outstanding musician, or especially popular among their schoolmates is likely to enjoy leading in their career. Socialization and trust in yourself – it’s not just those who get the best grades, but also those who finish school and university with an unshaken sense of self-worth, who will later become well-balanced leaders.

Thomas Strothotte: I think all three of us most likely had role models – a family member, teacher, or someone else we especially admired.

Victoria Herzog: I don’t think the role model aspect is what counts. Someone has to help you believe in your own value. Without that belief, you can’t lead. You have to keep telling yourself that you know what you’re doing, because at some point, nobody else will do it for you.

Thomas Strothotte: For me, there were also a few people along the way who assured me I could make it. That was a tremendous source of strength.

Karl Gernandt: One aspect that we’ve all skillfully ignored is pure luck. That’s why it’s always so hard to say what it really takes to make a career for yourself and become a good leader. You have to be lucky enough for someone else to recognize your potential as a well-balanced person.

Mr. Strothotte, how does KLU support and prepare students for starting their careers?

Thomas Strothotte: Our students complete a systematic career development program that gives them the tools they need for the first phases of their careers. We teach our students to take control of their careers, to find the right roles, not to stumble into ones which they happen to run across. Once there, they are equipped through our leadership classes including role playing in small groups e.g. to discover hidden agendas, or how to deal with stress. In this regard, the people they work with are just as important. Therefore, we make sure to use good role models. After graduating, students can always come back to us, either for advice, or for executive education. But we’ve already given them everything they need to get started.

Victoria Herzog: That’s true, we were given the tools we needed, and that also gave me the confidence that I could actually use them in the field. There was a phase in which I could have used some support from here. It was when I was transitioning from being an expert in my field to leading for the first time. I was very fortunate because my company offered the option of working together with an in-house coach, which helped me get through the initial phase. KLU could also offer this type of support as part of its career services.

What’s at the heart of good leadership? Is it a particular mindset, or certain methods?

Victoria Herzog: For the most part it comes down to mindset. Emotional intelligence isn’t something you can learn.

Karl Gernandt: Your mindset is fundamental; it has to be values-based, genuine and intact. When I use my tools on the basis of my mindset, then my leadership is complex, fair and stable, that is, it really covers everything. I wouldn’t want to separate the two.

Thomas Strothotte: After all, neither one can work without the other.

Can a university convey a certain mindset?

Karl Gernandt: The university has to provide role models who actively practice the mindset, for instance, by speaking out on values like equality or plagiarism. I also think the KLU Building, thanks to its aesthetics, reflects and promotes a certain mindset: we’re down to earth and professional, but at the same time, we’re not afraid to show our own excellence. Hence the Golden Egg, not some bland gray box.

Victoria Herzog: I completed that program myself, and there were one or two aspects that I viewed differently. Confidence and trust in myself were things the KLU was definitely able to teach. On the other hand, emotional intelligence, being interested in others to empower them, needs some basis in childhood. If that basis isn’t there, even KLU will have a hard time making great leaders out of students.

Karl Gernandt: I think it’s all the more important that KLU addresses character-forming aspects, and talks about leadership and social behavior. My impression is that KLU is also a good candidate for doing so, because it’s still relatively small and its overall image is correspondingly modest. Besides, logistics isn’t really the right field for those who enjoy razzle-dazzle; it’s a better fit for those who want to manage “real stuff.”

How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your work as a leader?

Victoria Herzog: For me, it was the first time I had to lead a team through a crisis and make the right choices along the way. We’re healthier now than we were when it all started, especially thanks to choices that we made back in February. While others were still talking about whether or not the virus in China might eventually reach us, I was submitting a plan to my CEO detailing the steps that had to be taken over the next four weeks. The plan called for a massive change within sourcing overnight. I’d gone through the numbers, and I almost felt ill when I had to explain them. But I was right. And that showed me that I could trust my own decisions, even in crisis situations.

Thomas Strothotte: Decisions like preparing for the shift from classroom teaching to online teaching had to be made very quickly. Several times we made tough decisions that proved not only to be right but absolutely essential within days. The situation gave me an additional shot of courage to make the necessary decisions. It gave me more confidence, for crisis and non-crisis
Situations alike.

Karl Gernandt: I’m one of those people who welcome crises because they pose a new challenge, and because they often make you deliver better performance than usual. For me, the crisis didn’t just demand courage; it also gave me a sense of humility to see the “black swan” appear twice in just ten years: first the financial crash, and now the pandemic. It showed me that we needed to integrate our adaptability much more intensively into our day-to-day work. That we should have the humility to recognize that nothing lasts forever. That we should tell ourselves again and again: I have the analytical skills, the ability to make decisions, and the strength of my team, and that gives me the courage to soldier on. Courage is rewarded, when it follows humility. Otherwise you become inflexible, and simply go through the motions.

Did you lead differently during the crisis?

Karl Gernandt: Yes, in a much more person-oriented way. In the beginning, we were spending twelve hours a day in Zoom conferences. In the past, it was very rare for me to spend twelve solid hours just talking with people. But the crisis provided a space for my own need to exchange thoughts with others, and for their need to do the same. I also realized how much time we had previously used inefficiently, say, on planning for business trips. At K+N we started putting even more focus on the team in our day-to-day business. Hopefully it will stay that way.

Thomas Strothotte: I communicated more and in-house to transparently inform all members of staff concerning strategic and operational issues, as well as decisions made by the university administration. I think this intensified communication was important in terms of motivation and helping us all pool our resources, and was well-received. It’s a practice I intend to keep.

Victoria Herzog: The combination of personal and professional challenges confronted me with some new issues. Until then, I’d had a team that left all of their personal problems at the office door. But now people were worried. Suddenly their children were back home all day; no one knew what was going on. Some employees had partners who had been put on reduced working hours. And not only did they have all of these problems to deal with, they had to do it while working from home. This showed me once again the need to take employees’ personal emotional states more into account.

Let’s talk a bit about leadership and gender. How would you respond to the claim that women face tougher challenges than their male counterparts?

Victoria Herzog: I don’t think that’s true. I think if you deliver the same performance and communicate just as well, you’ll get just as far. Women are often damned good at their jobs, but have difficulties showing it. So I assume the challenge is less based on gender but more on personal standing, which is often based on the things you’ve been told in childhood. And honestly, even today you hear parents telling their daughters not to try something challenging because it’s too dangerous. Guess how those daughters will respond to challenges once they’re grown.

Karl Gernandt: Of course I’m a bit biased because I’m seen as an “old white male” and also represent fields of business that don’t stand for a healthy balance of female and male managers. As a father with three daughters, I’ve also been intensively involved in this discussion outside the office. I think there are still many areas where women have a harder time, and it pains me to see that. I ask myself: How can we change this? Back in my day, equality wasn’t even an issue. Today you can find at the university or in working life 40 nationalities in one room, in other words, people now have a completely different attitude towards culture and skin color, and there are virtually just as many women as men. That gives me hope that, with the help of more focused training on equality issues, this choice for women – family or career – will someday be a thing of the past.

Victoria Herzog: Let me tell you something that may surprise you. I work a 30-hour week, have a young daughter, and still manage it all. And a man could do the same. My point: equality starts with evaluating staff solely by what they deliver and not by the time they spend in the office. Today there are more and more men who choose to take parental leave. And I’ve seen firsthand how men were harshly criticized because they wanted to spend eight weeks with their newborn child.

Thomas Strothotte: By women, other men, or managers?

Victoria Herzog: I heard negative comments at all levels, and from both sexes. To me that’s a clear sign that it’s not about whether  I’m a woman or man; it’s about what life model I choose. But it is doable; I promise you.

In 2020 KLU is celebrating its 10-year anniversary. In your opinion, which challenges and trends will shape logistics, and leadership questions, in the next 10 years?

Karl Gernandt: In my view, the major trends in logistics involve digitalization, the necessary degree of flexibility, and leadership. Instead of the predictable processes we saw in the past, now we’re dealing with individualized processes. All of a sudden we have a pandemic on our hands, and have to find concrete solutions. This need for adaptability will massively shape our business over the next ten years. In other words, we have to be prepared to discard old practices and focus on how companies can be structured with this flexibility in mind. The third factor is leadership. This university has to be aware that leadership is what lends value to logistics. If there’s no one holding the reins and things are left to chance, efficiency gains simply won’t be produced.

Thomas Strothotte: But “efficiency” in the future won’t be the same as in the past. Cost functions will become more complex, with government policy precipitating changes in social behavior and thus also logistics. Local production and distribution will become more important, affecting transportation, logistics and supply chain management.

Victoria Herzog: I would add sustainability. The Fridays for Future generation are tomorrow’s customers, and they have very different needs from what’s currently offered. But we have to start making the right choices for tomorrow, today. Creating a sustainable supply chain from scratch takes time. Plus, decision-makers have to be convinced of the need to do so.

Thomas Strothotte: This September KLU will open a new research center for sustainable logistics and supply chains. We’ll also be appointing two new professors in this area, and are making plans for a new degree program. We want to be in the driver’s seat in this development.

How will KLU continue to evolve?

Thomas Strothotte: In our first 10 years, we focused on our impact in academia through rigorous, fundamental research. We’ve built up a very solid reputation in this regard. Indeed, in a number of areas, I am proud to say that our professors are becoming thought leaders on an international level. We will continue to go down this path. But we are now in a position to use this as a basis for affecting change in practice. The more advanced we have become in academic research, the wider the gap we see to what is happening in practice. We feel a calling to help close this gap by increasing our research-based outreach. For example, we are currently introducing the concept of “Professors of Practice,” faculty members whose primary task it will be to work closely with industry to help solve pressing problems through innovative solutions. We want to create more of a continuum between the education of our students and the fundamental research of our faculty. There’s a lot of relevant space there which is waiting to be filled to help shape logistics through leadership. Filling this space is an exciting challenge for the years to come!