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In most companies, older managers are coming head to head with young digital natives. It is not always an easy situation. How can HR departments support managers during the digital transformation? We talked to Andreas Grieger, Head of HR at Weidmüller, a specialist in electrical connection technology based in Detmold, Germany.

By Anke Henrich

Andreas Grieger © WeidmüllerMr. Grieger, is the managers' chair likelier to become an ejector seat than before?

No, on the contrary, we are actually becoming more flexible. These days, younger employees have the opportunity to take on responsibility earlier. Here at Weidmüller, if it becomes apparent that the strengths of a manager lie more in a specialist field than in solving human problems in the team or with the Works Council, we enable the manager to return to their position purely as an expert without losing face. In this case, we ask ourselves: What strengths does this colleague bring to the table and where else can we use them at Weidmüller? To be honest, the size of our company helps us here. We want to move away from the idea that taking a step back is an embarrassment. From the company’s point of view, it was worth trying that person in a management role.

Nowadays, managers struggle to convince or motivate staff with management instruments like long-term target agreements, power through hierarchy or bonuses on a whim. Weidmüller has been around for over 160 years. How up-to-date is your personnel management?

We began working on the topic of digitalization long before it became a buzzword, so we know that we have to keep changing all the time. Good HR departments started this process ten or twenty years ago, working on leadership issues. In Germany today, both younger and older staff are rejecting management by titles, hierarchies or impressive business cards.

Recognizing that that specialist excellence alone is no longer enough for a position as a manager is a crucial factor which our management staff must heed. It needs to be accompanied by the ability to "manage at eye level" - to trust, to delegate and to accept criticism.

Which innovations in particular do the management staff at Weidmüller need to get used to?

We are changing our feedback culture, for example.

Is that not just the latest trend?

It is a must. As projects become ever faster, the system of annual appraisals in Germany leaves far too large a gap between conversations. We want to introduce constant meetings at eye level, during which the managers are able to receive clear feedback from their staff. The role of our managers today is to take the initiative and ask their staff: Do you have enough opportunities to work successfully and complete your tasks? How can I support you better?

That could be quite a challenge for some old-school managers.

We support our managers with options like moderated meetings and individual coaching. We see ourselves as supporters and drivers, and I really enjoy seeing colleagues actively ask us about new options.

Let us hypothesize that a manager consistently receives negative feedback, staff start to jump ship and training measures do not seem to have any effect: What happens then?

If all the options really have been exhausted, as a last resort, we have to be prepared to loose people.

Your company has subsidiaries and sales companies all over the world. How do you plan to establish the "new" management culture there?

Our international companies tend to be smaller, with around 20 to 30 staff. They have grown over the years with a very familial culture and a non-hierarchical structure. We mainly push technology-related issues from Germany, with training used to communicate knowledge on digitalization.

Regardless of nationality, what do you think is particularly difficult for HR departments today from an organizational or human point of view when dealing with some managers?

When managers define themselves through hierarchies and power games.

What do you do then?

I look for allies at all levels, like our development teams, I also launch pilot projects for new ideas, in this case, in the HR department, and carefully examine suggestions for improvement. If it turns out that my idea was wrong, I am able to admit it openly. It was worth a try.

Everyone is talking about a new "error culture", but a technical specialist like Weidmüller needs to continue to deliver perfect products. How tolerant to errors is digitalization making the managers at Weidmüller?

This is a big issue for us, too. What I want to see is not more errors, but more courage to try new things. With their high standards for perfect solutions, German engineers in particular find this approach difficult. The trick is to be quick in spotting where something will not work. Celebrating errors, as some people do, is too simplistic and the wrong approach.

Does good management depend on age?

There are young people who think they know everything better because they are fresh out of university, and older people who think the same because they have been here a long time. Both mindsets are arrogant and cannot be successful.

What advice would you give to heads of HR who are tasked with modernizing the management style in a traditional company?



In my view, three things should be given priority. The first is to see things in the long term - thinking and planning over several years. Secondly, every executive and managing director needs to understand that this transformation is crucial to keeping the company attractive and successful. Thirdly, teams with mixed age groups have proven very useful. Instead of opening up new fronts in a company - pitting young digital natives against experienced older staff - we address the different skills directly. Transparency pays off hugely here! We are managing the transformation by mixing the generations.

In some companies, innovative HR experts do not enjoy the backing of the management. What advice would you give them?

Look for supporters and allies on all levels. And be a good diplomat, although this is probably a core skill for a head of HR anyway.

Do heads of HR need to change, too?

Certainly. I also take advantage of coaching sessions and will soon be taking part in a two-day workshop. Development and production are not the only areas in which agile thinking and working is necessary, HR also needs to be able to react more quickly and become more efficient. There are no exceptions.

Further information

VDMAimpulse 05-2018: "Digital leadership: When the boss needs to learn new skills"   |   Weidmüller