Entrepreneurial Thinking is Needed in HR

  • Interview with Ralf Heller

By Maximilian Junck Ralf Heller

Interview Partner

Ralf Heller is Senior Vice President HR for LPKF Laser & Electronics AG in Garbsen, Lower Saxony. With previous positions at Daimler, Siemens and ZF, he has more than 30 years of experience in an international HR context.

This makes it all the more exciting to capture his thoughts on the changing environment in HR, what matters in HR development and how HR can be involved in strategic planning in companies at an early stage. Here are his thoughts:

Always run your business as if it were your own.

Mercuri Urval: The manufacturing industry, to which LPKF Laser & Electronics belongs as a provider of laser solutions, was hit hard by Corona. How did LPKF react?

Heller: At the beginning of the crisis, it was important to make quick decisions on a day-to-day basis. For this purpose, we set up a task force consisting of the Executive Board and the heads of the various functions in the company, which were initially coordinated on a daily basis. In cooperation with the works council and the IT department, we quickly managed to get as many employees as possible into the home office. A survey in the company showed that the employees were more willing to do this than the managers. But we also found that performance does not decrease in the home office, but rather increases. On the other hand, integrating new employees into the company in the context of onboarding has become much more difficult.

Mercuri Urval: How did you manage the HR function from the home office and what was your experience?

With the applications, it has been shown that we can have many more interviews on the day if we connect with the candidates online instead of meeting them in person. For pre-selection, this is quite suitable.

Heller: Basically, I faced the same challenge as the other managers in the company and had to lead my team at a distance. We turned the usual face-to-face meeting in the morning into a daily virtual morning call. This turned out to be very important for the exchange and team spirit. With the applications, it has turned out that we can conduct many more interviews per day if we connect with the candidates online instead of meeting them in person. This means that personal impressions are lost, but for pre-selection, it is quite suitable. As far as staff support is concerned, during the pandemic, we benefited from having introduced electronic personnel files in good time. Working time accounting and holiday applications can be done much faster today thanks to the Employee Self Service approach. But I also see room for more efficiency in other areas.

Mercuri Urval: Can you explain this with an example?

Heller: I am thinking of performance appraisals and appraisal interviews. For younger employees, the classic appraisal interview has had its day. An electronically sent score, which is determined based on clear criteria, is enough for them. A discussion is only necessary or advisable in case of low ratings because employees want to know the reasons behind them. If the performance is good, these discussions can be dispensed with in future and thus save a lot of time.

Mercuri Urval: How has the importance of HR changed at LPKF Laser & Electronics since the outbreak of the pandemic?

Heller: The importance of HR was already very high before the pandemic. Two years ago, we asked our managers in a satisfaction survey how satisfied they were with the HR work in the company. They gave us a good report on the processes and reliability. This was all the more remarkable because we had just gone through a phase in which we had to reduce staff. But the managers noticed that we deal with people in a fair and appreciative way.

Because administrative work has been reduced through streamlining and digitalisation, HR has more time to participate as a contact in the strategic development of individual areas.

During the pandemic, we did not have to dismiss anyone and were even able to attract employees from other/large companies back to our region. The importance of HR depends on performance, of course. Managers pay attention to whether we find and hire the right people at the right time and in acceptable conditions. And we try to improve performance with a reduced budget. We have succeeded well with a shared service approach for our three German locations.

Mercuri Urval: During the crisis, at least that is our impression, the perception of HR has increased throughout the economy. Is this why HR is increasingly integrated into the strategy?

Heller: In SME businesses, definitely. Because the streamlining and digitalisation of processes has reduced the administrative work, we have more time to participate as a contact partner in the strategic development of individual areas. HR has always been involved in the strategic orientation of the supervisory board and executive board. Our role has changed, however, so that we are not only involved but actively involved. We have the goal of increasing our turnover to 360 million euros per year. But we can only do that if we know what kind of staff we need and how to get them. Possible strategies are acquisitions, organic growth or awarding of search mandates to external consultancies. If we build up new companies, we may also need additional locations. All this must be clarified before we can get down to work.

Mercuri Urval: You not only share HR topics on your LinkedIn channel but also a lot of business-relevant information. You don't find that very often. What is the idea behind it?

More entrepreneurial thinking is needed in the HR function.

Heller: Maybe that's because I had worked at Daimler and ZF for a long time before. I also have experience in the private equity sector, where I did HR work for a company in which I had a stake with my own capital. That gives you a different perspective on the company. I try to pass that on. My maxim is: always run your business as if it were your own company. So don't make decisions as an employee but as an entrepreneur. More entrepreneurial thinking is needed in the HR function and all areas.

This is more important than following any fashion trends because basically, managers want the same thing as eight years ago: The right people and personnel development. This is where HR has to pull the lever and get the managers to formulate their needs concretely and become active themselves. To put it somewhat exaggeratedly, I always say: If I as the head of HR do my job well, then I make myself redundant. This means that HR development is a leadership task that every manager must be able to do. HR should judge managers primarily on how well they fulfil this task. If you lead your department well, you are a good professional. Whoever develops their employees well is a good manager.

Up to now, it has often been the case that professional qualifications decide who becomes a manager. Yet everyone has long been aware that companies that invest in personnel development are particularly successful. Employees leave a company not because they no longer enjoy their work, but because they have problems with their boss. In exit interviews, I usually hear that the employee was not promoted enough or that there was a lack of communication and appreciation on the part of the supervisor. No manager likes to hear this feedback when we confront them with it. That is why we need to invest more in these skills in order to find and promote junior staff in the company.

Mercuri Urval: This sounds familiar to us because in feedback discussions we have with managers, they sometimes have to swallow unpleasant things. But most of them are grateful for honest feedback and can often assess themselves quite well. Mr Heller, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us.


The Corona pandemic has increased the importance of HR because it depends more than ever on managers to promote and retain talented employees in the company. Empowering managers to take HR development into their own hands to some extent is essential, especially for SMEs, according to Ralf Heller, Senior Vice President HR Group at LPKF Laser & Electronics. His entrepreneurial thinking has helped him turn HR from a listener to an active partner in strategic decisions in his company. A role that HR should increasingly take on in the future.