Interview with Frank Hohenadel II

By Maximilian Junck Tobias Becker

Frank Hohenadel was Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) at SNP SE, a leading provider of software for managing complex digital transformation processes, until December 2020. Since the beginning of 2021, he has been an Associate Partner at CPC Unternehmensmanagement AG. In the continuation of our interview, we talk to Frank Hohenadel about and what matters most for the success of change processes.

In the first part of the interview, which you can read here, we asked Frank Hohenadel about the lessons of the Corona crisis and the changing role of HR in implementing strategies.

The challenge, not only for HR, is to close the gap between strategy and implementation. This can only be achieved by getting employees on board.

Interview

Mercuri Urval: From the first part of our interview we conclude that you are asking HR to close the gap that exists between the decision for a strategy at board level and its implementation at staff level?  

Hohenadel: Exactly. I have seen it too often with the topics of strategy and values that they end up as nice words on a poster on the wall. For me as an HR manager, it's awful to watch a bunch of bright minds spend days or weeks thinking a lot about what the company stands for and where it should go, and then it all ends up in a poster campaign. The challenge, not only for HR, is to close this gap between strategy and implementation. This can only be done by getting employees on board. Peter Drucker has a very appropriate quote for this: "Culture eats strategy for breakfast". Only when they get the thinking and acting into their heads can a strategy be successfully implemented.

Mercuri Urval: In our experience, many transformation processes in companies fail because employees do not feel they are being met or know what is required of them. It's like the chicken-and-egg problem: does the board need to tell HR what people and skills it needs to make its strategy work? Or does HR need to remind the board that the company can only change if employees are involved in the process?

Hohenadel: You need both. The HR department can do good and innovative work, but if the board is not on board, nothing will happen in the company. It is the board's job to recognise when and how strategy and subsequently culture need to change in order to continue to be successful. To do this, the CEO must first recognise that culture and strategy are mutually dependent and that, as the quote mentioned earlier says, culture determines whether a change in strategy succeeds. Conversely, it is of no use to the best CEO if they do not have an HR function that puts the horsepower on the road, i.e. brings the strategy into the company. In this respect, as in real life, the chicken and the egg are important and perhaps it is not so important who was there first.

Mercuri Urval: Do transformation processes fail more often because of the board or because of HR?

Hohenadel: My personal opinion is that there is often a lack of commitment from the board. I have seen too much lip service paid to transformation processes and too few people who are really serious about change. That's where it most often fails. It's also relatively easy to explain: change processes are damn uncomfortable for top leaders because they have to start with themselves. This means that you have to exemplify the changes you want to drive forward yourself. This requires a high degree of self-reflection in order to recognise one's own weaknesses or to be able to accept feedback from outside in order to work on oneself.

Leaders no longer prescribe tasks and solutions, but only a framework within which the teams fulfil their tasks independently. The letting go required for this is not always easy for leaders.

Mercuri Urval: What role does expectation management play and how important is it to have a comprehensible reason for the transformation?

Hohenadel: Both are important factors. Those who start too ambitiously and believe they can accelerate change with an aggressive approach incite employees to conscious or unconscious resistance. The more clearly everyone in the company is aware of the need for change, the more likely it is to get things moving. When the hut is literally on fire, everyone knows that something has to be done. It becomes more difficult when the reason for a change is not immediately obvious. Without a reason, employees hardly leave their comfort zone. In this respect, it is important to first answer the question why a company needs to change and why it cannot remain as it is. The clearer and more comprehensible the reason for the change are, the more willing the employees are to go along with it.

Mercuri Urval: Surely the Corona crisis is one such reason. What is the key to using this unique event to launch a successful change process as a company?

Hohenadel: The pandemic has shown like a burning glass how essential digitalisation is for a company and how well the respective company has already adapted its business models. For example, many companies are currently working on the design of new working environments beyond the classic office environment. HR is challenged here in many ways: on the one hand in the design and implementation of such topics, and on the other hand in the development of a framework in which changes can succeed. And I think: change can also be really fun!

Mercuri Urval: How should companies change for continuous change in terms of their organisation and leadership, and how can HR support them?

Hohenadel: When companies think about new organisational forms, and this is also a task of HR, then in future it will no longer be possible with "command and control". Instead, internal and external networks will be more important. Managers will have the task of facilitating contacts and cooperation, working with their employees at eye level and developing projects. They no longer prescribe tasks and solutions, but only a framework in which the teams fulfil their tasks independently. The letting go required for this is not always easy for managers to endure.

Mercuri Urval: What advice would you give a CEO or HR manager when they want to start a transformation process?

Hohenadel: My first advice is: Do it seriously or not at all. Only those who are convinced of the necessity of change and are willing to change themselves can also steer their company in a new direction. My second piece of advice is to work closely with the HR department to achieve this. And thirdly, change should be institutionalised. To do this, one has to think carefully about where to place the task of encouraging a company to change on an ongoing basis.

Mercuri Urval: Mr Hohenadel, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us.

Conclusion

The Corona crisis has changed the perception of HR departments in companies. Because the pandemic is also accelerating the digital transformation, Frank Hohenadel, Associate Partner at CPC Unternehmensmanagement AG, believes that HR departments will be called upon to play a stronger role in the implementation of strategies and change processes in companies in the future. However, these can only be successfully shaped if the executive board is fully behind the changes and exemplifies them.