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Leaders who light the path

Unleashing the potential
of leaders and their teams

Annette Liebau is the global head of Leadership Academy at Allianz, one of the world’s largest insurance companies. The company has created and launched a program to upskill 18,600 leaders across the globe from the smallest of teams to the C-suite.

In this interview Annette Liebau allows us a peek into what the program does, why it’s important and how leadership at Allianz has evolved to live up to the requirements of a modern work culture that spans the globe.

Michael Gerharz: 18,600 people is a huge number and it’s a diverse set of people ranging in their responsibilities from the smallest of teams to company-wide decision-making, also spanning a vast range of cultural backgrounds across the globe. What’s the overarching theme that you try to cultivate culturally in your company through the Leadership Academy.

Annette Liebau: Well, I think the main drive really comes from the outside, which is that the environment has significantly changed. Since Allianz was founded close to 130 years ago, the world has really evolved. And in particular, I would say in the last 10 years, we’ve seen complete shifts in the demands on employees and also on leaders. We realized that the way our leaders were promoted, identified, and developed was no longer fit for purpose. We really need to instill a growth mindset. For example, we need to ensure that leaders have the right skillset and the right mindset to lead their teams. That’s completely independent of where they are, how many people they lead, and what responsibilities they have. They all have to have the same background understanding and ideally the same mindset.

We need to ensure that leaders have the right skillset and the right mindset to lead their teams.

And what does that mindset look like?

Let me go back maybe one step and talk about the drivers that we are finding from the outside.

First of all, the digitization has and will significantly change the way we operate as a business, the skills that we need to bring on board, but also the skills that our leaders need to have.

Secondly, for the first time we have five generations working in the workforce at Allianz and our leaders need to work with five very different sets of expectations – from someone who’s just left school to someone who’s on the verge of retiring.

And lastly, what we call the new will of the world, which means much more expectations on the purpose of the company. Leaders in the past have not really been equipped to do that, not sufficiently anyway. We’ve seen this in various data points.

So the drive was really clear. We needed to upskill our leaders towards that common goal of having a mindset and sufficient skills to really be able to do that.

We’re a very big, expert based culture and I think that’s what makes Allianz very strong. The best actuary was promoted to be the team leader. The best finance guy was made the CFO to lead teams to really drive a business. But they weren’t always identified because of their very strong leadership skills. So to balance that out, we created #lead, which is the program that all 18,600 people leaders are currently going through and that is really to instill this new skillset and instill also the mindset that you just asked about.

Allianz is a very diverse company. It’s grown through acquisitions, so we have a set of local cultures. We have a set of different cultures from the businesses. And that’s something we are fully respectful of. We don’t want everybody to act in the same way, but we believe strongly that there has to be a commonality amongst all leaders.

We don't want everybody to act in the same way, but we believe strongly that there has to be a commonality amongst all leaders.

Let me pick up on one thing that you mentioned: the will of the world and the belief in the purpose of the company, because I feel that that’s something that’s a huge shift in how companies are run today.

I mean, when we think back at the time of our grandparents, leadership was largely – let’s call it – command and control. Basically the leader told their team what to do and the team was expected to follow along.

That changed for our parents and in their time it was rather carrot and stick. Leaders used incentives either by force or by candy to incentivize people, to sort of push or pull them towards the direction they wanted them to go in.

But it really feels like times have changed. And you’ve mentioned that you’ve also got data backing that up, so that’s not just a feeling. That’s not what teams work best at. It’s shifted to what I’m calling the lighting the path approach that people and leaders make their teams see the direction and light the paths towards the direction so that they choose to follow that direction.

In what way are leaders in Allianz – when they get out of that Leadership Academy – lighting the path for their teams and incorporating that change of mindset that we are witnessing.

Obviously we’re not intending to fix our leaders. We’re rather trying to inspire them and to make them aware of the roles and responsibility they carry as well as the changing expectations to them as leaders: What’s expected from them from the business strategy but also bottom up from their teams. They want leaders who inspire them. They want leaders who respect them, who empower them, who make them thrive. And most of the feedback we’re getting from the data you just mentioned is that leaders are getting there, but we’re not fully there yet.

We have some great examples of leaders who are excelling at it, but we also have those leaders who maybe need a little bit more help. We’re on the way. We’re not going to change the world through a training program rather, I think instilling and helping them understand their role in it. Giving them little tools and tips. Also a way to network with peers to identify and help them solve their day to day issues. But also how can they bring the preface across? How can they empower their teams more than the command and control style you just described?

We use psychometric tools, like for example the leadership styles, which is a very simple way to understand that there are different styles to lead. One of them being the very directive style. There’s a coaching style. There’s a pace setting style and all of them have their validity. None of them is wrong, but it depends on the type of person you’re leading and it depends on the context. We want to help our leaders realize that there are different types of leadership styles that apply to different roles and different people and help them experiment with those and see what the reaction is of the team.

It’s not rocket science, but it’s a very helpful and powerful tool.

If I get that right, you are sort of the role model for what you envision leadership to become. By not forcing that approach on leaders, so not by fixing them as you put it, but by inspiring them and showing them a path forward, making it obvious how that kind of leadership helps teams perform in a way that’s more in line to how society develops as a whole, as a culture.

Another example I can give is the topic of strengths-based leadership. We are asking every leader to take the strengths finder, a diagnostic which identifies the top five strengths of each individual, and reflect on that. What do they bring and how do they work with that?

This is the first step of self-awareness, which quite often is an eyeopening moment. But every strength also has a shadow. So for example, one of my top five strengths is positivity. I have a very, very strong positivity in me. And the shadow of that is that I can sometimes come across as a little bit naive.

There’s a talent in each and everyone one on the team that leaders can unleash.

We’re trying to help leaders reflect using a strength based approach. That there’s a talent in each and every one of them that they can unleash as leaders, but also that the same applies to their teams, obviously: What are the strengths that you have in the team? What are the talents that you have? If they’re too homogeneous, sometimes that can create a little bit of a group think linking back to diversity. We then work with those leaders to help them work with a strengths-based approach on what’s the best role, what can each and every individual do?

We know engagement figures go up when people use their strengths and vice versa.

It seems that empathy plays a major role in your approach, both towards yourself – being aware of the person who I am and how I feel – and also empathy towards others. I can imagine that the past year was difficult and weird for many of us and it has made building connections and relationships much harder for many of us. How has that affected this approach of using empathy to become a leader that is more aware of himself, but also about the needs of their team?

That’s a path I think we’re on at the moment. One of the core principles when we defined what we wanted to achieve with #lead initiative but also with the Leadership Academy is that leaders need to have the IQ – that’s the technical know how – but they also need to develop their EQ. One large part of that is having empathy, helping them and their teams feel psychologically safe and developing a stronger sense for what is it that I need to bring? What does my team expect of me in particular?

I think what you’re referring to is the pandemic.

Where I work and the personal life has really morphed into one, right? I could have my husband walking behind me. We’ve had examples of people who we didn’t feel comfortable turning on their camera, not because they were camera shy, but because they sometimes share a room, a tiny house with a large family, and they just don’t feel comfortable to open up and share that very humble life with their peers and their colleagues.

It’s such a challenge for leaders who had no idea how to navigate that. I remember one program we ran last year, which is a program on virtual leadership where one of the key moments was when leaders across the world with completely different backgrounds exchanged in small groups on techniques that they used to make their teams more comfortable, opening up, sharing, turning on their camera, for example … and the pride they took when they realized that they were able to create a psychologically safer environment. But that’s not the classical role of a leader that our parents grandparents, or even we knew when we entered the workforce.

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Yeah. Feeling seen and heard is important for everyone. And it’s just as important for the people on our team. They’re not just there to provide the results. We are in the responsibility of enabling and forming the environment in a way that they can deliver the results and be the best version of themselves.

You’ve mentioned in a conversation we’ve had before that mental health is really important and near and dear to your heart. How do you enable – or open up – your leadership team to have that on their radar and to really be conscious about the mental health of their teams, crafting that safe space

I think no silver bullets here, unfortunately. The topic of mental health has finally found its way into companies and leadership. With the pandemic in particular and with the press being open and sharing more around mental health and the toll the pandemic is taking, not just physically on people, but especially mentally, we’ve seen a strong demand for therapy.

We are running campaigns on mental health, to raise awareness on what is available to our employees and what is available to our leaders. We have strong networks and external partners we work with, but we’re also trying to help leaders understand what they can do to help their employees. They will not replace external coaches or therapists, but they can help shape an environment where employees feel safe to share as much as they want when they have mental health issues.

I think there’s many techniques. Let me just share a couple of examples. A very simple technique I’m using with my team at the moment is the “two words”. Brene Brown recommended this technique that in our morning call everybody on the team has two words about how they are feeling on that day. Again, it’s up to each individual to find those two words. It can be as personal, as intimate as you want it to be. Before Christmas I realized I was exhausted so my final two words were exhaustion and final push before we were all going on the break.

One of the things I’m trying to instill as a leader is that you have to start opening up about that as well. And then your team will follow.

As a leader you have to start opening up.

If you show vulnerability and if you show that you are not perfect and have mental health issues, too, the team sees that everybody has. It’s about being open and transparent – again, as much as you feel comfortable.

I had a very serious illness. I suffered from breast cancer three years ago and I’ve very openly shared this with my team. I wore a turban which kind of made evident that it wasn’t a fashion thing. And I openly shared my story in an interview on our intranet. One of the reactions I got was a letter written by someone I’d never met; a handwritten letter to show compassion and empathy and offer me help.

This person has now become a dear friend. You know, I’m not one of the most senior leaders in the organization, but I think I can influence with sharing my story. I’m going into leadership teams at the moment to talk about mental health, to help leaders understand how important their role is in creating that safe environment and helping their teams.

I’m really trying to drive this topic as much as possible and make other leaders comfortable to address it. There are a lot of techniques out there. This is the one I chose and find very useful, but I would say it’s about starting to show vulnerability yourself.

I think that that’s another big shift shift in leadership. Traditionally, the leader was expected to be the strong person that isn’t allowed to show weaknesses. But nowadays we see more and more examples where the opposite might be just as true, if not more valuable for the team. We as a leader lead by example, not just in being the one who goes first but also the one who is open to sharing the situations where we ourselves struggle and may have difficulties and our teams may get strength out of that.

By seeing the leader as a human being who’s just as vulnerable as myself as a team member. How is it possible to find this open space when we have so little opportunity to meet in person. I mean, it’s one thing to be close to each other and having the possibility to probably even have a hug with someone, but that’s just not possible when we are both only two squares on a screen.

How do you find the nearness to open up in that remote world?

Various things. Again, no silver bullets. It’s building up relationships and that takes time. So you don’t have that level of intimacy, obviously, when you meet someone for the first time. But I would say as a leader, again, we can be the ones to start and build up that intimacy by starting to share something personal about ourselves and taking the time to meet with others because every single conversation we’re having at the moment has its purpose, its agenda, a fixed time slot and two little boxes on the screen.

The screen is in a way between you and me. It’ss a barrier we have to overcome. I don’t think we will ever be fully able to overcome it because every single interaction, every single piece of communication we’re having is so intentional and we’re missing that.

For example, I onboarded a new team member last week. I took her for a walk and this was before she started, just because I thought we need to see one another.

And then one of the things we found out and we laughed about is that she’s extremely tall while I’m average I would say. It’s just one of the things you would not know. I would have worked with her for the next six months over the screen without knowing her. I would not have known, I would not have known that she needs to put books under her table because our table is too low to be able to have the screen fit.

I think whenever we can meet in person, wherever it’s safe, go for a walk. The difference is huge. Now, if that’s not possible, interact frequently, also with non-intentional chats. We try and have daily coffee chats with the whole team for 15 minutes, just to check in how everybody’s doing. What’s coming up? Just giving space for those non-intentional conversations and also having fun. For example, we try and play games every now. We try and laugh and have fun and have some light-hearted ways as well to celebrate success or to just be with one another…

… and create shared experiences. Things that are common to us and that define us. It gives a feeling of belonging and bonds that are stronger than just having that common business goal. It’s the details that make it individual and specific to your team. It’s not any team, it’s your team. Does that play a role?

It does. I mean, business plays a role, right? In the end, right, we have a job. We need money to survive, to live, to feed our families, to go on holiday. But also we’re spending so much time at work that we want to spend it – or at least I am wanting to spend it – in an environment where I feel belonging, where I feel I can make a difference.

That’s important to me. Everybody will have a slightly different spin on that. Some will go to work because it’s just so inspiring for them. It’s something they’ve always wanted to do. So it’s more of a calling. For others, it’s more of a career. For others, it’s just a job. And this all lies on a spectrum.

We're spending so much time at work that we want to spend it in an environment where we feel we can make a difference.

The irony is that by having that experience, we might just be better able to do our business and our jobs. Circling that back to where you started at – the will of the world – it’s what we experience in other aspects of life that just being more human or being allowed to be more human allows us to also be better at doing our business and doing our job because we have a stronger sense for why we are doing that. And we have more ambition to actually be part of a whole and not just doing what someone else told us to do or commanded us to do.

Yes, and I think also when we see people on the team who may not be performing, who may have for one reason or the other not been able to deliver on time, creating that safe environment allows us to have a conversation around the why. Why that’s happening and not giving someone a bad performance rating and saying, you haven’t delivered. Instead being able to have transparent open communication around what’s going on and identifying the underlying issues in almost a coaching style that are affecting this person. We can help them up to a certain level, of course, but we can try and make that conversation a more valuable one. And then again, create more engagement.

We probably can all see how that works when we are working with our direct team. But it gets much more difficult when we’re thinking of C suite executives who have probably the same goal of creating a safe environment but who aren’t in direct reach of the people they are trying to reach. What’s different for them? And how does the Leadership Academy support them with tools and approaches to make that happen – even if we don’t have direct relationships or direct contact to the people we are interacting with?

That’s a very good question and we’re on the way there as well. As an organization, Allianz is very big – 155,000 people. A lot of those senior leaders have to lead indirectly and I think their role is also changing. We’re seeing more and more requests for our senior leadership to appear not just by writing a letter every quarter, but also by being present for all employees.

Something that I’ve seen and that I’m very pleased to see is that we have our CEO have a session on a regular basis called “ask me anything” where he would be hosting a talk, just like this. Everybody can join and he immediately responds to questions. It’s very interactive.

We’re also working on creating a series to showcase our senior leaders and have them talk about relevant topics that matter from a global perspective. Most recently, we ran a series on what we call their new work model, which is the new way of working. It touches on the topic of customer digital, but it also talks about building resilience.

And just like you’re having with me, we’re having conversations with those senior leaders which are really intended to make the leaders more approachable, have them have direct interaction with potentially 155,000 people.

I think this is just trying to get them closer using digital means like a camera and the chat function. In the past, this wasn’t possible because we did not use that digital function this much. But now everybody’s in the same boat, right? Everybody’s using technology to communicate. And I can have an interaction with the CEO in a way and that wasn’t possible in the past. This is one of the ways I would say that the barrier of hierarchy is breaking down a little bit.

I can have an interaction with the CEO in a way that wasn't possible in the past.

That’s certainly something that’s not going to go away when the pandemic is going away. It’s been a huge push in those areas and it’s enabled great things like the ones you just mentioned in getting closer to people that we wouldn’t normally be able to reach.

Let me close with a final question: What would be a leader that lighted the path for you and in what way was that?

It’s probably not one, it’s probably many, but it’s probably my first boss ever.

I was an intern in New York in the late nineties and it was a lady called Carol who was the head of HR at the time with Pricewaterhouse. And she trusted me.

I was an intern. I was German. I had no idea about American culture. I came in through the back door and I was looking for an internship in New York because my first one fell through and I was recommended. I had one talk with her and she said: “I like what you bring. I trust you. You will do the job.”

I was an intern there for almost a year. And even though I was just an intern – I was barely 20 – she trusted me. She empowered me. She gave me really exciting topics to work on. Remember this was late nineties, so this was still a very different environment and we’ve stayed close ever since.

We still catch up on a regular basis. I go to see her whenever I can travel. I think she showed me what a great leader can do. Unleashing someone who’s a raw talent. I wouldn’t call myself a talent, but someone who is still, you know, very young, very junior, help them grow, and really identify what they’re good at working with their strengths.

So, she already displayed for me back then, a lot of those skills we’re trying to instill with our people.

That’s a beautiful story. Unleashing instead of enforcing the potential that was inside of you and that you were able to showcase. Thanks a lot for letting us into your experiences and showing us how Allianz is handling this difficult situation and how it is developing leadership towards a more human approach that’s in line with what you call the will of the world. It’s been a pleasure.

Thank you!

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