Interview with Dr. Hays Steilberg

  • Interview with Dr. Hays Steilberg

By Maximilian Junck Tobias Becker Mr. Hays Steilberg

Interview Partner:

Dr. Hays Steilberg, Executive Vice President Corporate HR, has been working for the Bertelsmann Group in leading HR functions for over 20 years. Together with the long-time co-shaper of the Gütersloh-based media company, which is one of the largest in its industry, we look at current market events, lessons learned from the Corona crisis and modern talent management.

The pandemic has shown how important leadership culture is for a company.


Mercuri Urval: What surprised you most in the first year of the Covid 19 pandemic?

Dr. Hays Steilberg: Our company had been on a long winning streak thanks to a consistent strategic reorientation when the pandemic began. The initial unease that was felt due to the unpredictability of events gave way in September 2020 to the certainty of aiming for a record year. In a professionally run organisation, you think a lot of things are foreseeable and plannable, and yet you always end up with surprises. I don't think anyone could have foreseen how much consumer behaviour would change during the Corona crisis. For example, we were pleasantly surprised by the fact that people ordered an enormous number of books online.

Mercuri Urval: What lessons for HR and management do you take away from the crisis?

Leadership and culture need to be aligned to the rapid adaptation of business models, and business models in turn need to be improved in terms of consumer centricity.

Dr. Hays Steilberg: The Corona pandemic has shown how important leadership culture is for a company. And that control is not everything. As useful as good reporting or even good cash management are in a crisis, we still need more flexibility to be able to react faster to market changes. Corona has made it clear, as if under a burning glass, what is going well and what is going less well. To get more clarity on this, we are going to Harvard for a week next year with 40 managers to think outside the usual environment about how we will implement our strategy in the future. In addition, our board meets regularly with our Team 2030, which is 20 employees who are under 30 years old, to be able to get new input.

Mercuri Urval: What needs to change most, the organisation, the leadership or the corporate culture?

Dr. Hays Steilberg: Already after the onset of the crisis, the strategic question arose of how leadership works in a virtual world and how teams should function in the future. We have seen how important cross-functional collaboration is for a media group. Leadership and culture have to be aligned to the rapid adaptation of business models, especially when the business models focus on more and more consumer centricity. This is because the trend towards e-commerce, which was already clearly evident before the crisis, has picked up tremendous momentum.

Mercuri Urval: What does this mean for HR, recruiting and talent management

Dr. Hays Steilberg: HR needs to focus more on the critical skills, competencies and capabilities that we need for an ever more rapidly changing business world. This requires an appraisal of the current state and a comparison with what we have defined as the target. Where we have identified gaps, the next question is how to achieve this target in the shortest possible time.

There are ways to increase the length of time young employees stay with the company. But you have to ask this target group what is important to them. This should not happen at the exit interview.

Mercuri Urval: The target-performance comparison of competencies as well as the identification of talents is something we deal with on a daily basis. Is it deceptive to think that it has become more difficult to retain talent in the long term?

Dr. Hays Steilberg: We looked at turnover in positions that are critical to our future success, such as cloud architects, data scientists or digital product managers. These are actually filled predominantly by younger employees, i.e. from the early to mid-30s age group. The retention period is much shorter than for other profiles. Of course, it means an enormous effort to constantly recruit and integrate new talent from outside. In addition, you lose a lot of knowledge about the organisation with each departure. The trend is certainly reinforced by the rapid change of tasks within the functional areas. Marketing and Sales have changed considerably over the past ten years due to digitalisation.

Mercuri Urval: How do you prepare your organisation for the fact that talent is leaving more and more often, or how do you counter this trend?

Dr. Hays Steilberg: There are ways to increase the length of time young employees stay with the company. But you have to ask this target group what is important to them. This should not be done at the exit interview to find out why someone is leaving in the first place. It is more important to contact this group in the company. For many, the purpose of their job is important, and that they work on issues that are challenging. They want to learn something and grow in the company. And they want to interact with a larger group of like-minded people from other departments, functions or business units. Community building is becoming more and more important within the company.

Mercuri Urval: Which tasks does HR have to perform more of in order to be successful in attracting talent?

Dr. Hays Steilberg: HR is now much more of an ambassador for the company than it used to be. You have to go where the talents you are looking for meet, both virtually and physically. And you have to be able to explain as authentically as possible what Bertelsmann's purpose is and what it feels like to work for us. It is important to know and address the needs of the talents. This is a challenging task that is about securing the future of the company.

Mercuri Urval: Do you notice in the course of job interviews that younger employees define success differently and aspire less to the classic career paths? And if so, how do you react to this?

Dr. Hays Steilberg: That depends very much on the professional orientation. The classic MBA graduate still wants to become a CEO. That's a good thing because we need these people. In IT, marketing or sales, leading a large team, having a company car or a large office are no longer as attractive as they used to be. The importance of status and power symbols has declined; work content and values such as openness, mutual respect, flexibility and innovativeness are more important.

Mercuri Urval: How has the role of talent changed in the company?

Dr. Hays Steilberg: In the past, a vertical perspective prevailed in the definition of talent, people wanted to move up the hierarchy. Today, the perspective is much broader and the professional career is becoming more important. This includes aspects such as job enrichment and more flexibility to move into the second rank if necessary and to have more time for the family in order to start again later. Bore-out is worse than burn-out for younger employees. Managers need to be more attuned to this by challenging, nurturing and being accessible to talent. In the future, HR will have to pay even more attention to identifying and promoting those who can develop talent. After all, this is a decisive success characteristic of good managers.

Mercuri Urval: Herr Dr. Steilberg, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us.


The Corona pandemic has clearly shown many companies their strengths and weaknesses. In order to adapt to the post-Corona world, the ever faster pace of change and the new generation of employees, both HR managers and executives are faced with new tasks. For Dr. Hays Steilberg, Executive Vice President HR at Bertelsmann, the ability to identify talent and develop it in a targeted manner is of paramount importance. To achieve this, the needs of this target group must be taken into account and addressed in a targeted manner.