“We have the unique opportunity to rethink the economy in a new, future-oriented and sustainable way”

Digital TransformationInterviewsLeadership

Philipp Depiereux has been driving the digital change in economy and society for over 10 years as founder and managing director of the digital consultation and startup forge etventure – with new ways of thinking and new methods. Since 2017 etventure is an independent subsidiary of Ernst & Young. In 2018 he also founded the non-profit format ChangeRider, a video and podcast format about pioneering spirit instead of panic, courage instead of fear, success stories instead of negative examples of change in business and society. Here, people from politics, business, research and society talk about how they are shaping change, driving forward the digital transformation and showing the country and its people a future worth living.

Hi Philipp, your guideline for driving digital change is “Changing the game”. This is probably more appropriate than ever these days. How has your view on how organizations must work changed in the last few months?

Corona has ruthlessly exposed the deficits of digitalization in the German – and of course international – economy. But Covid-19 also effectively opposes the preservationism that I have long criticized, which has slowed down numerous innovations and transformation projects for years. Be it out of fear of the new or simply out of convenience, because that’s the way it’s always been done and the companies on the whole – at least until the end of 2019 – were economically very, very well off.

But numerous companies had to leave their comfort zone in recent months. Traditional processes suddenly stopped working and this opened the door to making positive use of the opportunities offered by digitalization. Business trips were reduced, virtual meetings and more flexible working models were introduced. These are just three examples that will certainly remain. I expect a profound change in the entire business world.

On the other hand, there are still a number of companies that are not succeeding in making the investments in digital transformation that have been necessary for a long time: For example, reaching existing and new customers through digital channels, thinking in new digital business models and, above all, generating relevant digital revenues. They also often lack courage when it comes to one of the most important issues: to massively push ahead with changes in the organizational and management structure as well as the further training of employees.

All in all, however, I am convinced that the Corona pandemic will be an accelerator for digitization and innovation in a positive sense, despite all its negative effects. But we have to do something about it! We must not try to rescue the messages of the past into the future. We have to develop new messages and we must be ready for really courageous changes. We are at a turning point and now have the unique opportunity to realign the economy in a new, future-oriented and sustainable way.

You say that the classic hierarchical thinking must be abolished. What is the alternative?

Every company that wants to be successful in a connected world must be able to inspire and motivate people – both customers and its own employees – to do its job. This is achieved through convictions and values that a company lives by. The central element of corporate transformation is therefore the corporate culture.

A good example of this new culture is how virtual meetings and conferences have become the new normal: people meet at eye level, have a very intensive exchange – and are even prepared to tolerate children rushing through the pictre. I have experienced this in public virtual panel discussions and it has also happened more often in my home office. Beautiful new normality! In addition, digitalization and automation are increasingly causing work areas to shift. Soft skills like empathy, entrepreneurial thinking, creativity, courage and communication are becoming increasingly important. These can only develop poorly in a hierarchical corporate culture – we must create the space for them to develop a new culture based on appreciation and respect.

This will create new opportunities and freedom. At etventure, for example, we don’t simply set the company goals. Instead, we work together as a team to develop the respective OKRs to ensure that all employees can contribute in the best possible way. This kind of corporate culture also requires a rethinking: We maintain a distinct feedback and error culture. And our seven core values support us in our work together. Employees should have the feeling that ‘What I do here and what I do in the morning makes sense. I know the goal we are heading for and can actively and creatively shape the result.’

With the rethinking of organizations we also need a rethinking of leadership. What does that mean? What does leadership look like in the coming years?

It is a widespread tradition that technical experts are promoted until they are in a management position and have no time for the technical tasks. This poses some challenges, as technical expertise does not automatically mean leadership qualities.

Especially with regard to the complexity and the constantly changing task profiles, the demands on managers have once again increased enormously. Social skills are essential in order to make the best possible use of employees’ collective knowledge. The future manager must be able to encourage and involve his or her employees, to inspire confidence in them and to empower them for digital change. In addition, a conducive working environment is required in which skills can be applied in the best possible self-effective way. Companies that neglect this will lose many employees, especially young ones, to employers who are value-driven.

For us, the change in management was also a big step. Two years ago, we created the Leadership Board. It consists of eight employees from all divisions of the company. Together with the etventure management, decisions for the company are made here. Communication plays a major role. Only if we recognize the needs of our employees and integrate them into the decision-making processes in a comprehensible way, we can fulfill our leadership responsibility.

Together with the Leadership Board, the etventure core values mentioned above were also brought to life: Hands-on-mentality, creativity, methodical work, courage, energy, highest ambitions as well as a respectful interaction with each other. Even if the managers are not involved in all processes and projects, the core values help our teams in their cooperation. As a core element of our corporate culture, they are a valuable compass – especially in times like these. For me, future leadership means cooperation, communication at eye level and – very important – trust.

What role do technologies and tools play? And which tools are must-haves?

We use an internal communication tool to stay in touch and exchange information, even when we’re working remotely. For knowledge management, we also launched the internal platform “etview” several years ago. This is a kind of intranet that, in addition to a staffing function, offers the opportunity to exchange internal knowledge, for example about projects and presentations. I am very proud of our “Core Value App”, which was programmed boldly and hands-on by one of our teams within a very short time, so that we can give each other feedback as a team. For the creation and monitoring of our OKRs we use Workpath.

Processes, structures, leadership and tools are not everything. Communication must also change. What have you learned from the current crisis?

At the beginning of the crisis I thought it would be enough to give our employees the most important updates once a week. But thanks to the feedback from the team, it very quickly became clear that this was not enough. A lot of questions were put to us. For example, about hygiene rules, how to deal with and communicate with customers, how to proceed in projects – and also about our own challenges with Remote Work. So we decided to adapt our communication and informed our employees about the next steps and changes almost daily by means of videos.

This had an interesting side effect. Through the video format I was not only able to deliver information, but as a founder I could also transport my own thoughts and feelings. In a crisis it is not only about conveying the pure facts – it is also about continuing to give courage, hope and to set a good example. During the crisis, I have learned to speak more freely about my worries and fears with employees and to disclose the issues we are currently working on and the problems we are trying to solve. The important thing was simply that we were able to enter into an even stronger authentic dialog.

What advice can you give to companies that want to learn from past mistakes and address the issues of agility and resilience?

A good basis of trust is essential and this goes hand in hand with transparent management and good communication. CEOs often tell me in conversations that they want a company that is as agile, stable and resilient as possible. Of course, change is easier to manage with happy employees active supporters. Many entrepreneurs seem to neglect the central role of corporate culture. Every change must be supported and exemplified by the CEO. This begins with trust. The Corona crisis has shown how many companies were initially concerned when they had to send their employees to the home office. The response after a few months was in most cases very positive. I would advise corporate leaders: Set a good example, work actively on transparent corporate communications and don’t be afraid to try out new things.


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