Find out more about the Wavelength USA programme and how it can impact you as a leader and your business.
We spoke to Senior Vice President HR and CHRO at E.ON, Christian Gleimann, about how the Wavelength USA trip expanded his horizons and why, ultimately, everything always boils down to culture.
Christian is based out of Germany and has been with E.ON, a multinational electric utility company, for around 20 years. He looks after the company’s HR function, as well as the top 100 leaders in the 69,400 person business, headquartered in Essen. When asked about his leadership style, he’s someone who passionately believes in the autonomy of people. He believes in independence, collaboration and freedom and that “this creates the best results” . As he says,
“people feel incredibly motivated when they have the freedom to decide for themselves.”
He admits his expectations were high. E.ON has had other leaders join the programme in the US and China over the years, who had delivered positive feedback, so he had thoughts as to what to expect. For him, it was an opportunity to go with “two heads.” The personal, unique, once-in-a-lifetime learning experience for himself, but also as an HR leader for the business. The one who might make the ultimate recommendation and decision as to whether this is an essential part of the toolbox of senior leadership development – or not. So, the killer question comes early in our conversation. Does Christian think that E.ON should continue sending leaders on the trip? Thankfully it’s a resounding yes.
Christian did robust research before taking off: he spoke to the team at Wavelength, consulted his colleagues and read what previous participants had to say.
“So my expectations were really high now in terms of getting first-hand experience inside these cutting-edge companies and also being able to talk to the leaders of other companies at the same time, to discuss and reflect what we saw. So yes, expectations were rather high and you could say the bottom-line is, I was looking to get inspiration!”
Inspiration is an aspirational and elusive outcome, and keen to learn more about whether he achieved this, we dug deeper.
As someone in a people and capability-based role, what did he make of the innovation and tech-focused field-trips and content?
It turns out that for Christian, this Silicon Valley immersion was a huge factor in his inspiration – and also led to one of his key epiphanies on the trip: that it’s the cultural, behavioural and leadership aspects of the business that define it.
In particular his experience at SouthWest Airlines HQ was memorable in its impression it left on him, and the wider group. He says,
“the minute you enter a building you grasp elements of the culture …so the way the building is designed, the way it feels, the way people dress and look, it’s already a cultural experience isn’t it?”
He talks about how the cohort joined an induction session for new joiners. A truly unique experience, where joiners walk an office-wide red carpet and the whole business claps and cheers them. Sounds surreal, I say. He laughs. It was.
But, as he says,
“It is a really unique and very intense experience because people were put in the shoes of the new joiner and could experience how it helps them to become a part of this team. And so this very strong feeling of belonging that is created by something like this was impressive. It was definitely a memorable experience.” He was so impressed that he even posted a video on LinkedIn (have a peek).
With a bias towards talent, people and culture, Christian was heartened that other leaders on the trip, from different industries and backgrounds, also respected the value of human potential. For him, this was “a positive surprise.” He himself is convinced that attracting the best talent, providing a great working environment and looking after people is the key to a business’s success and to see this play out further in the conversations and in the company visits was a “remarkable thing.” Even on the thorny topic of AI – and other emerging technologies – the human factor generated the most conversation in the group: how it will impact culture, how leaders can secure the top talent to future-proof the business, and continue to be successful in the face of emerging technologies. Topics like attrition rates, tenures (the average tenure in Silicon Valley is 2.5 years) and retention pose significant challenges to all businesses and were also top of mind for the cohort.
Christian also found the cross-pollination of ideas particularly enlightening and enriching. To hear from a finance leader, the CEO of a global healthcare business and one of the world’s biggest retailers expanded his view of how to attract and retain world-class talent.
We asked Christian what he thinks leaders are underestimating at their own peril, and for him, it comes right back to the people. As he says,
“you cannot really underestimate the relevance of cultural leadership and ways of working and in a world where we generally face a significant shortage of talent and where this shortage means people can increasingly choose their employers and not the other way around.”
For him, this trip reinforced that
“leaders really need to pay a high importance to what kind of workplace and culture they provide to existing and future employees. In a world where people can decide whether they join us or Google or whatever other company, we need to be able to demonstrate why your place of work is a great place to work and what makes you different and what makes you unique.”
It’s a compelling manifesto and one that guides his thinking as a business leader: beyond a vision statement and pictures and words on a website. The trip expanded his thinking on HOW this plays out in behaviours and culture (like the SouthWest Airlines onboarding process).
We asked Christian where he derived the most value on this trip. “The condensed opportunity” is, without hesitation, where it’s at.
“To get access to amazing businesses and their leaders, in a matter of a few days, to engage in in-depth conversations with them and, on top of it , to be able to reflect what you have experienced with a group of leaders, that is what makes this programme so special. You can have elements of what I just described there…of course. But to have it compressed is what makes it.”
For Christian the experience is a gift that keeps giving. He’s still reflecting, connecting and ruminating now. So what’s he doing differently? A lot, it turns out.
He’s sat down with his team to make the onboarding experience at E.ON more emotional and relevant. He’s worked with his team to re-imagine E.ON’s internal communications inspired by Four Seasons and he’s working on a new behaviours and culture programme for the business.
And with his CHRO hat on?
“We will continue to give one or two leaders access to the trip, every year. I think it’s a good investment and anyone who gets to go is lucky, because it’s such a great programme.”