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«We have to be prepared to revise our views»

In conversation with Gerhard Fatzer

At first glance, artists and managers don't have anything in common. However, at second glance, some similarities become clear, as Gerhard Fatzer, a pioneer of organisational development and best-selling author, explains. A conversation about inspiration in business, Elon Musk, and the end of solo leaders.

Ana Campos spoke with Gerhard Fatzer

In your book “Organisation und Inspiration”, you say that managers often lack inspiration. What is your understanding of inspiration?
Inner perceptions and ideas that come to you intuitively. The higher you climb up the career ladder, the more they tend to be withheld or kept private.

The main reason is often a lack of courage. We always start to filter straight away: what is feasible? This becomes particularly evident when you do strategic exercises: there are loads of ideas to begin with. But when it's time to draw up the action plan, then you're left with very few. Something inside us tells us to stop. Within an organisation, this effect is multiplied across every level.

So, how can an organisation succeed in keeping hold of its inspiration?
It is important to encourage staff to be honest. The fact is that managers only receive the full story – in other words both positive and negative information – in very rare cases. As a result, the CEO at the end of the chain only has a small fraction of the information, making him or her incapable of action. Naturally, you should not sanction negative information.
I always drive one thing home whenever I speak to managers – they need to foster a “spirit of inquiry”, as the famous organisational researcher Edgar Schein calls it. This means being curious and open, in every respect. It means not only thinking about the best options but the difficult ones, too – and how you would like to deal with them.

Claus Otto Scharmer describes leadership as “leading in front of the blank canvas”. So the leader is an artist, right?
Scharmer adopted this image from Joseph Beuys: the artist standing in front of an empty canvas, waiting for inspiration. The image doesn't really fit with the clichés for managers. It contradicts the basic assumption that the manager has everything under control and can respond quickly at any time without having all of the information. In the case of an artist, it is always about waiting for the ideal moment – we call this the "window of opportunity" in business. In order to seize this opportunity, you need to be open to it. This is what connects artists and managers. Particularly in stressful situations, we have a tendency to simply repeat something that has already been successful for us in the past. In this case, it would be important to first perceive and feel what is going on – and create space for inspiration. It is only then that you take action.

Particularly in stressful situations, we have a tendency to simply repeat something that has already been successful for us in the past.

You're an advocate for CEOs being replaced by management systems consisting of several people. Why?
It is impossible for one person alone to cover all of the skills required to lead a company. A good example is Elon Musk. Although he has some incredibly visionary ideas, he is not particularly interested in the technical details. For instance, he is leading the development of innovative batteries but no-one knows how you would put them out if they were to set alight. So, in my book, I put forward a case for appointing several leaders to manage a company – the make-up of the team can differ depending on how developed the organisation is. Under this model, the visionary leader – in other words, a role that fits most people's definition of a CEO – is just one of many. And, by the way, this rule applies in general to all teams: a good team is a group of people who bring together all the skills needed to reach a certain goal. If one of these skills is lacking, you either have to develop it – or bring in someone who possesses it.

At the same, the co-CEO model, for example, seems doomed to fail, albeit with a few exceptions. Why is that?
Recent examples like SAP give people reason to say that the co-model does not work. However, there are plenty of successful examples, such as Microsoft. They have always had Bill Gates leading in conjunction with Steve Ballmer, and that has worked very well. Or Apple: Steve Jobs on his own would have failed. He needed Steve Wozniak. In general, the co-CEO model seems to work better in start-up organisations. In contrast, it tends to be more difficult in mature organisations like SwissRe and Swisscom. That's because it is mainly all about power at these companies. In principle, co-leadership is based on a very trusting relationship and appreciation. You have to be able to place your blind trust in one another.

In this regard, Edgar Schein also says that a manager should make their relationship with their employees "personal" and "judgement-free" if they wish to be successful. What does he mean by that?
Of course, a manager is not a therapist for their employees, and they aren't family either. However, you have to succeed in fostering an atmosphere where there is trust and reliability. This is the only way to ensure employees are honest. And, as we have already discussed, this is essential.

How can we maintain "professional proximity", particular now in the era of working from home, social distancing and mandatory masks?
As a business, you have to think about how you will approach this new distance and how you can balance it out. Working from home and all the channels of communication that this involves have a wide variety of implications. For instance, research has shown that attention levels drop after two hours at the latest during video conferences. What's more, working home is stressful for lots of people because they are left on their own to cope and may have their families around them. This was particularly clear when Swisscom introduced virtual offices – the move caused a great deal of stress among employees. So, making the current contingency situation the norm cannot be the solution.

What inspires you personally?
Travel is one of my biggest sources of inspiration. Immersing yourself into foreign surroundings and seeing how you deal with them. I also find nature very inspiring. And friendships, of course. Music: making music in a group and creating something new is something I really love. Wine, photography, cycling.

For instance, research has shown that attention levels drop after two hours at the latest during video conferences.

During your "research and development journey", as you call it, you have met some of the most influential minds of our time – like Edgar Schein, Chris Argyris and Carl Rogers to name but a few. How do you manage to stay curious when meeting new people?
I try to follow the same principle that I recommend to others: to stay curious and open. For instance, I regularly speak to colleagues, students and managers from all over the world. Busying myself exclusively with expensive wines and sitting around tasting them – as is relatively prevalent among some people my age – is not for me. People like Edgar Schein in particular are huge role models to me. Even at the age of 92, he is still incredibly curious and says: nothing is certain, we always have to be open. And we have to be prepared to revise views that we were once so passionate about.

So, to conclude: is there anything that you'd like to ask me?
I'd like to know exactly what you do at Trivadis?

We help our clients to get more out of their data. For instance, we worked with a hospice that is home to children who are on 24/7 ventilation to develop a solution that links the medical equipment to the care documentation, and then evaluates the resulting data. This provides the carers with sufficient warning if a child is starting to have problems.
Oh, that's great, very good.

About Gerhard Fatzer

Gerhard Fatzer (* 1951) is a Swiss psychologist and pioneer in organisational development in German-speaking countries. He has been head of the Trias Institute for Coaching, Supervision and Organisational Development in Grüningen, Switzerland, since 1991. Fatzer has advised CEOs and management boards of globally active companies, including Henning Kagermann, the former CEO of SAP in conjunction with Dietmar Hoppe. He has also advised the CTO at Dornier Flugzeugwerke, senior teams at SWR 3 and Daimler, and the top management teams in technical collaboration projects across the world (GTZ). He publishes series of books, journals and successful titles, and is a key-note speaker at conferences and in the media.


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