"Cooperation counts!" Interview with Elina Zobel, Lead Organizational & Leadership Culture

March 10, 2021 - Being an individual within a company. Is this something a company wants? Or our personal identity is actually secondary to an organization’s success? In an interview with Elina Zobel, a personality development coach who is responsible for global culture and leadership issues at Daimler Mobility, we talk about the significance of corporate culture and how each one of us is helping to shape it.

Elina, how important is culture in a corporate context? How does it emerge and develop?

There is no organization that doesn’t have its own culture. And that means every company, whether it wants to or not, has its own culture. We can’t regard corporate culture as something that is separate and happens on the sidelines. Culture emerges when people get together, and it develops through the diversity of people and the frameworks within which they interact. It’s always there, because we’re there. Culture is something indirect, but it’s directly influenced by various factors including how we were raised, our beliefs, our behavior in certain situations, and also the rules of working in teams.

How can we see and experience corporate culture in our daily work?

That’s easy. As soon as there are interactions between people, no matter how big the group is and whether it’s a personal or virtual interaction, there are reciprocal effects that make the culture visible. It’s all about individuals’ own behavior and how they deal with one another. These effects make our culture and our values visible. For example, do we let each other finish speaking? Do we listen? Is there trust within the team? Culture is the way we work together and the framework for our cooperation. Ideally, it enables us to reach our shared goals.

People like to say that corporate culture is the key to success. What role does leadership play in this connection?

In my opinion leadership means setting a good example, being interested in people, being open to new things yourself, and inspiring and motivating others. Managers are models and they are key factors of change processes in companies. Through their role, attitude, and conduct, they have a definitive impact on the corporate culture. Imagine a manager who exemplifies the idea that knowledge is power — everyone should know by now that this isn’t true — and that this manager’s team of 300 employees adopt this belief as well. Worse yet, these employees propagate this belief in other areas. Silos are formed, the shutters are tightly closed, and each employee works only for himself or herself. Today no company can afford to have this scenario any more. In a world that is growing increasingly complex, our competitiveness depends on having people work within networks. Managers should think carefully about the beliefs and behavior patterns they have and propagate. In addition, they have to create an environment in which people can grow, because people who stand out within a company are the pillars on which corporate culture is based. In this fast-paced world, a corporate culture can continue to develop only if employees have the space they need to develop and thrive.

In our interview with Sophia we talked about the significance of transformation. In your opinion, what’s the connection between corporate culture and corporate transformation?

The corporate transformation that we are experiencing right now at Daimler Mobility is of course influenced by our corporate culture and vice versa. That’s because it determines whether new processes, structures, and strategies can be successfully introduced and implemented in organizations. We have to leave our comfort zones, and in many ways this is a very uncomfortable process. Transformation shakes up our beliefs and behavior patterns, and it opens up lots of things to close scrutiny. And that’s a good thing. Dialog and critical questioning of certain topics — how we put our values into practice, how we communicate, and how we work together — are crucial if we want to fine-tune the culture within our company. Accordingly, our culture is a factor in how successfully we implement a transformation, because it basically changes the way we work.

What effects can an unbalanced or negative corporate culture have?

That depends on what we mean by “unbalanced” or “negative.” Our corporate culture defines our range of behavior and the limits of what is possible — in other words, how I can and should act as an employee, and how I can continue my development. Feedback is a valuable method in this context. For example, if the corporate culture tends to block developments, it will sooner or later make employees feel frustrated or discouraged. From my perspective, a corporate culture should offer a framework for holistic development and thus create space that enables people to turn in top performance. Ideally, a positive corporate culture allows us to detect a lack of balance at an early stage and enables us to deal with it.

Elina, let’s pick up on your last sentence. What are we already doing specifically in order to shape our corporate culture?

First of all, we always strive to understand the current status of our corporate culture. Detailed employee surveys such as those that are part of the Great Place to Work program and the Daimler Employee Survey help us to find out the status quo. At the moment we’re getting used to carrying out “pulse checks” more regularly in order to get a sense of the current mood of our workforce. I think it’s even more important and helpful to have direct talks with colleagues from the different markets and regions. For these talks, we rely on a variety of dialog formats and methods. Recently we’ve had very good experiences with a “Fail&Learn” format in which employees and managers engaged in a dialog in order to jointly consider what we have learned from a given project and what we can do better in the future. This format shows how a company aims to deal with lessons learned. Another example is our new virtual “Ask me anything” sessions with our Board of Management members and specialists. Here employees can ask them open questions, get direct answers, and see the reactions to them in a video call. Sometimes an answer might be an honest and authentic “I don’t know.” That’s because even our Board of Management members have only a limited ability to look at the future and make forecasts. Through these measures we are calling for and promoting a speak-up culture, because only people who say something can be heard. Formats like these also enable our Board of Management members to have a direct connection with their employees and the issues they care about at the moment. In my experience, this has been a very valuable feedback channel.

Can a corporate culture be actively shaped by all of the employees?

Of course, absolutely. All of the employees are part of the corporate culture and help to shape it. You can’t avoid influencing a culture. As I mentioned before, the culture is shaped by the people who act within it. It’s important to know that the shaping of a culture is a continuous process. A culture doesn’t change overnight, it changes constantly. In order to actively change something, I can first reflect on something at the personal level. How do I behave as I do my work and interact with my colleagues? What values and rules do I consider important? What do I need in order to realize my potential? What would be a perfect workday for me? The answers to these questions initially show me what my ideal working conditions are. The next step is to muster up the courage to share my own conclusions with others and to listen actively when others are talking about their ideas. This sharing and listening in itself creates a new level of trust between people and has an impact on the corporate culture. We humans need these new empirical values in order to see what is possible. It’s important to experience these changes as positive. That’s the only way I as an individual can see the advantage of a change and adopt a new type of behavior. We need authenticity, respect, and self-reflection — if we have these three ingredients, we can already make a difference.

What changes have you observed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic? Is the increase in virtual work influencing our culture?

In my experience, there has been a strong influence. Everything we do is based on interpersonal communication. It might be hard to believe, but verbal communication accounts for only seven percent of our total communication. Our voices, tonality, and intonation account for another 38 percent. This means that the remaining 55 percent of our effectiveness is lost during virtual cooperation, because it is based on our body language. I’m referring here to the findings of Albert Mehrabian. This is why I urgently recommend that people always turn on the camera when they are communicating in a virtual space. That makes a significant difference in how, and whether, we understand one another.

Managing employees from a distance is a challenging task. In a virtual space, it’s very easy to withdraw, and that applies to both sides. At the moment I often see that people are afraid of a loss of control, insecurity, a loss of trust, and a decrease of motivation. For me it’s absolutely clear that it’s becoming increasingly important to practice leadership in meaningful ways and on the level of relationships and to do less “task-level management.” The really important aspects of leadership are personal interaction and interpersonal issues. All of us need to ask critical questions and shape possible solutions together. Taking a wait-and-see attitude paralyzes the organization, especially at a time of so many changes, when we need to act cooperatively, proactively, and across functions. I realize how difficult it is and how much effort it costs all of us to change our mindset. But that’s exactly what inspires me and motivates me — it all depends on us. We make the difference, and we can break down old structures, find different solutions for the challenges we face, rethink processes, and thus also shape our culture.

About Elina Zobel

Elina Zobel is a coach in the areas of personality development and corporate culture. At Daimler Mobility she is responsible for the area of organizational and management culture. In this function she is proactively driving the transformation to a learning organization and promoting an environment that is conducive to teamwork, co-creation, and personal growth.

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