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Prof. Wolfgang Jenewein looks friendly into the camera

Anyone can become a leader

Interview with Prof. Wolfgang Jenewein, University of St. Gallen

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Prof. Wolfgang Jenewein is Professor of Business Administration at the University of St. Gallen and Director of the university's Institute for Mobility (IMO-HSG). He advises major companies such as MAN and in the field of sports has worked with the German national football team, among others. To achieve a successful transformation, he recommends two virtues in particular: humility and curiosity.

What changes and global trends are especially relevant for companies today?

Prof. Wolfgang Jenewein Pressure on companies comes on one side from the government, which sets ever stricter ecological and ethical standards. At the same time, customers are becoming more demanding and paying much more attention to sustainability, ethical aspects and quality. However, competition also plays a key role. Today, the digital revolution and artificial intelligence enable new players to rapidly bring innovative products to market. Established companies such as MAN can no longer be so sure of their leading role in the future, and it is also impossible to predict where the new competition will come from. It could be from Silicon Valley or Chinese start-ups that nobody has on the radar yet.

How should companies react to this situation?

Prof. Wolfgang Jenewein First and foremost, they should not wait until the pressure is too great. Otherwise, they will be forced into action and will lose the initiative. Ideally, the desire for change must come from within and the organisation must actively want to evolve. The default needs to change to “We want” instead of “We must”. Nevertheless, I do understand that people are reluctant to simply toss proven successful models overboard. That’s just profoundly human.

In view of all these changes, is it fundamentally more difficult for established companies?

Prof. Wolfgang Jenewein Anyone who has been as successful for as long as MAN tends to ignore weaknesses and no longer learns from them. The opposite of that is humility! That’s a virtue that I can’t recommend strongly enough. None of us is perfect and those who are humble can allow themselves to doubt. Doubt in turn leads to curiosity, which then leads to new discoveries and developments - and then in an ideal world back to humility because they have come full circle and learned their lessons.

Humility is not traditionally a virtue associated with managers. How should executives look to develop themselves in the face of all these changes?

Prof. Wolfgang Jenewein They need to develop from managers into leaders. It goes without saying that management is important and also still necessary - after all, plans, structure and optimisation create order and predictability. However, that’s not enough in a volatile environment. For that, the executives of the future need new skills: they must provide inspiration and meaning, motivate colleagues, strengthen teams and, to some extent, take on a coaching role. Instead of looking rationally at facts and figures, leaders must pay more heed to feelings. Instead of problems, they see potential. They are forever asking themselves the question: Where are our strengths? How can we grow the entire system?

How do you help managers on the road to becoming leaders?

Prof. Wolfgang Jenewein The deciding factor is the individual's reflection on their own behaviour. One effective method is to think about the end of your career and to ask yourself questions like: What sort of farewell speech would they make for me? Would it be embarrassing or honest and emotional? Only true leaders will receive an emotional farewell speech. One of the tasks participants in our workshops undertake is to write themselves a farewell speech, which really makes many of them think.

Where is MAN in the transformation process right now?

Prof. Wolfgang Jenewein The company has undergone many change processes in the last few years. It’s a difficult situation for staff. Nevertheless, I feel that they want to go along with the changes. The key thing is that the transformation is sustainable and incorporates the whole organisation. That means that evaluation and reward systems must also take the new leadership philosophy into account in the future.

What is your message to staff at MAN or other companies that are in the midst of a transformation process?

Prof. Wolfgang Jenewein Stay curious, even if it is sometimes difficult! Curiosity is the best of human virtues because it is the one that helps us to grow. That also means that we should not judge and should remain open minded. It makes dealing with change so much easier, because we can then see it as not necessarily a risk, but an opportunity for learning. After all, people generally want to continuously evolve throughout their lives - and it is often only the fear of the transition that holds them back. However, one thing that I believe to be absolutely key is that leadership is not a question of hierarchy. Good management means having a positive influence on others. Every single employee has the opportunity to do so, and when you look at it like that, the newest intern has the potential to become a leader.

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Text   Christian Buck
Photos   laif/Florian Generotzky

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