In the ‘old’ Western European world, internal business leaders were typically viewed as the top of the organizational hierarchy pyramid — the ones who ‘knew it all’ and made the decisions accordingly.
Today’s business wisdom turns the prevailing structure upside down, with customers sitting at the top of the pyramid; for true organizational success, this is where all business decisions should stem from.
For episode # 56 of my podcast the World Class Leaders Show, I was honored to host a good friend from Germany, Hans-Martin Hellebrand. Hans-Martin is the co-CEO of Badenova, a regional utility company committed to driving energy transition in Southwest Germany. Before joining Badenova, Hans-Martin was managing director of the digital energy retailer eprimo. From 2015 – 2017, he founded and led an innovation center in Silicon Valley, as well as scaling a tech start-up as COO/CFO.
Hans-Martin has studied at internal institutions such as Stanford and Kellogg-Northwestern, and he was awarded “IT Executive 2016” by CIO Magazine.
Lessons From Silicon Valley
During his varied professional journey, Hans-Martin’s American experience in Silicon Valley exposed several key learnings which he has put to good use in his leadership approach.
- Demystifying modern leadership and agile thinking
- A hands-on, opportunity-seeking mentality leads to continual innovation
- Humble servant leadership is foundational to successful business management
- Customers should be at the top of the leadership pyramid — all business questions should be viewed from the outside-in to establish value.
- Empowerment and accountability for employees will accelerate growth.
- Keep the business unit focused on their target customers as closely as possible for intimate knowledge and understanding of their pains and gains.
- Carefully define & establish clear products and services for targeting customer categories e.g. end-consumers versus large infrastructure and service providers
- Create innovation structures such as incubators to accelerate specialized talent focus on design thinking, prototyping, and fast iteration of product development
- Ensure the innovation unit and the business unit are working closely and transparently together on a virtuous cycle of design and customer validation.
Managing a Business as Co-CEO
One of the more interesting aspects of Hellebrand’s role at Badenova is the structure of Co-CEOs. Hans-Martin shared his experience and his perception of the critical benefits of this unusual approach.
The primary benefits of the team approach to shared company responsibility include the accelerated ability to iterate the business on strategy and company future, with faster innovation and better decision-making. The Co-CEO structure offers greater support from a shared workload and has provided a more dynamic way to manage the organization.
Chief among the risks, however, is the requirement for alignment and message clarity, both internal and external to the company. The Co-CEOs must engage in continual discussion, determining and clarifying who is in the driver’s seat for which topic or situation; where is it joint ownership, and what is the messaging?
Supporting Change through Vulnerability & Transparency
Mobilizing an organization toward a vision for the future requires managing change-engendered emotions such as fear, uncertainty, and frustration. It’s important that all levels of a company undergoing transition understand that fear is an inevitable part of the process. Human beings need to be guided and supported through change – there is a natural pace and rhythm that cannot be rushed or ignored.
A leader who can express their own concerns and vulnerabilities and who listens and communicates clearly and often provides avenues for open discussion across the entire organization. Having the challenges ‘on the table’ leads to acceptance and a broad-based understanding that “If it’s not us, then it’s nobody else.”
“The only mistake we are not allowed to make is just staying where we are and doing nothing. That is a mistake, the rest is Learning for success.”
What People Don’t Know About CEOs
It’s a common misperception that CEOs know immediately and intimately everything that is going on inside the organization. Rather, the opposite is usually the case; often the board of directors is sufficiently distant from the day-to-day operations that this awareness is non-existent.
Individuals should be encouraged that when they see something which is not going the right way, to go to the CEO or the board members, and inform them. Often, they will say, “Thank you very much. I didn’t know that! Now, I’ll take care of it, or the issue will be highlighted for further study.”
CEOs are often viewed as having made it to the ‘top of the ladder’, and therefore they have learned everything there is to know already and do not need further personal development. There’s nothing further from the truth. CEOs may be leaders in their roles, but the greatest CEOs are the ones who don’t get complacent. They keep working on themselves and improving, regardless of their title or background.
To close the interview, Hans-Martin shared with us his answers to my top questions:
Q: Is there one single lesson from your career that you’d like to share?
A: My learning on my career path is that you are always in the driver’s seat of your life. Don’t complain where you are and don’t complain about the circumstances around you: you are the one who needs to make the best out of it, to accept it, embrace it, change it, and react to it. Be active and be in charge of yourself because that is the essence of all development — on a personal level, on a business level, and on a team and organizational level.
I think the worst thing that you can do is to be a victim, saying, “Oh, this is happening to me.” Sometimes, things will be happening to you. However, you are the one making the best out of it. You are in the driver’s seat of your life.
Q: On the other end, is there something you might have done differently in your career?
A: I must admit, I always follow my curiosity and my gut, and I wasn’t driven by a career plan. I always aimed for learning and growth experiences. So I’d have to say that I’ve had a fascinating life so far, and nothing that I regret or would do differently.
Q: Is there any book, in particular, that had a strong impact on your life?
A: My main source of learning is interpersonal exchange. However, I do read quite a lot, and I would highly recommend “Reinventing Organizations” by Frederick Laloux.
If you’d like to know more about Hans-Martin’s work, he can be contacted via LinkedIn, at https://www.linkedin.com/in/hmhellebrand. For more information about Badenova, go to the website at https://www.badenova.de/.
For more information on my work and access to other valuable resources, please visit the website, at https://www.andreapetrone.com/.
Listen to the podcast related to this article: https://www.andreapetrone.com/hans-martin-hellebrand-ceo-of-badenova-on-turning-leadership-upside-down-podcast/