Michael Mager worked for many years as a board member for the world-famous sanitary brand Grohe. In the company with approx. 6000 employees, he was responsible for the areas of Human Resources & Organisation. In March 2021, he took on the interim mandate for the management of the medium-sized Alape GmbH at short notice in order to fill an open vacancy there. In this interview, Michael Mager tells us how he managed this change and how he felt in the first few days.
I have rarely asked for permission, but often asked for forgiveness.“
Mercuri Urval: What has changed the most for you and other managers since employees started working primarily in home offices?
Mager: Since the pandemic, we are forced more than ever to trust our employees. It's the results someone achieves that matter, not the length of time worked. The culture of trust that we have been talking about for years now has to be lived. In this context, trust is an investment that also creates a bond across the physical divide. Leadership that does not invest or earn trust will not succeed.
Mercuri Urval: How difficult has this been for managers in your company?
Management and HR responsibilities are two different roles. That's why, as a managing director, you should focus on your tasks, even if your own decisions always end up affecting HR."
Mager: For some, that wasn't easy, leading their team across the distance all at once. In addition to the initial struggle with technology, the way we communicate with each other is also changing. In a conversation via screen, you only see a third of the person. A lot of the body language is lost there, for example. On the other hand, everyone reports that meetings are much more structured and shorter than before. Clarity and conciseness, which have always been expected of leaders, are now imperative.
Mercuri Urval: When we conducted the selection process for a management position together some time ago, one of your questions to the candidates was what project they had run into the wall in the past? What does that look like in your case? Is there a decision in the recent past that you would make differently today?
Mager: That's hard to answer because I make so many mistakes (laughs). I am basically a friend of flexible working models. In view of the pandemic, I should have advocated it earlier and even more strongly, then we would have been better prepared for this crisis. But that is more of a process error. Fortunately, I didn't really run anything into the wall, even though we sometimes came close.
Mercuri Urval: You recently swapped roles and moved from HR responsibility to a managing director position. How did you manage the role reversal?
Mager: As a career changer who didn't learn HR from scratch but came into the field rather untypically, I see HR primarily as a management task. That's why the change was relatively easy for me, and also because I had already been a managing director in another company before, so I had some experience. That's why I delegated HR issues this time to avoid role conflicts. Management and HR responsibilities are two different roles. Each should concentrate on his or her tasks, mixing roles is never helpful.
Only when I know how the business is running and what challenges need to be overcome can I answer the question of what contribution human capital can make as a support function.”
Mercuri Urval: From your perspective as a CEO who also has a lot of HR experience, how has the Corona pandemic changed expectations of HR professionals?
Mager: So my personal expectation of HR managers is that they don't see themselves as pure administrators. That's why we call it human capital and not human resources. If you take two similarly positioned companies, for example, it is the qualification and commitment of the employees that make the difference.
Human capital is the largest singular cost factor in most companies. And a factor that should be used in such a way that it makes the highest possible contribution to success. It is therefore wrong to see employees primarily from a cost perspective, as a resource to be administered, but we must see them as success factors that make the difference. To put it bluntly, the crisis is not being overcome by the machines, but by the employees. Therefore, it is the wrong reflex to save personnel costs in a crisis. Managing major crises with fewer people? If you sum it up like that, you see the mistake immediately. I have learned that crises can be overcome if everyone pitches in.
Mercuri Urval: How did you manage to go from being an HR administrator to a management contact?
Mager: I expect "HR people" to be managers who understand the business. You don't have to become an expert in every field, but you have to be able to empathise with the tasks and problems of the specialist functions. They all deal with employees. How are they going to find the right people if you don't know what the job is? That's why staff meetings should be about business first and staff second. Only when I know how the business is running and what challenges have to be mastered, can I answer the question of what contribution human capital can make as a support function. This requires a change of perspective: thinking less about processes and more about business.
Mercuri Urval: And how has your attitude affected your collaboration with management?
Mager: As a rule, the HR department is only contacted when there are problems. Be it that employees are absent or do not perform as expected. In order to get out of the purely reactive attitude, HR departments often take refuge in their "policies", with which they occasionally then annoy the whole organisation.
If, on the other hand, you know something about business, you get involved in projects because they almost always end up affecting staff.
I don't like to hear the complaints of some HR people when they say that management needs to involve HR more. HR gets exactly the attention its representatives deserve. And that is through personality, performance and a contribution to the success of the company. If I can't make that clear, I won't be heard.
My motto in life, which I have done well with, is: I have rarely asked for permission, but often asked for forgiveness. If I had always waited first, many things would not have been moved. It is better to make a decision and correct it quickly than to wait until the situation changes. Above all, it is better to be active than to wait until someone gets the idea to ask you. I have not been criticised for initiative, and if I criticise, it is for passivity.
Mercuri Urval: We have investigated the question of how expensive wrong personnel decisions are for companies. They quickly cost three or four times the annual salary of the position. How do you protect yourself against bad decisions?
Mager: I am not surprised by the result of your investigation.
We work with people and there is always a residual uncertainty. This is very striking in professional football, where clubs buy top players who suddenly end up on the substitutes' bench. Have these players forgotten how to play football? No, but in that case they don't fit into the new team.
It's no different in companies. Someone can be handpicked but not fit into the environment. And someone you had reservations about hiring turns out to be the ideal solution. Of course, we therefore use all common methods and try to use as many of them as possible to minimise the risks. But every method has its limits. We have to be aware of this, especially because the higher the position, the more expensive wrong decisions become. The consequences usually only become visible with a temporary transfer and then become really expensive if previously good employees feel compelled to change companies in this context.
Mercuri Urval: Our last question is a very personal one. With what feeling did you take on the task as interim manager at Alape and with what feeling did you hand it over to your successor?
Mager: At first I was overwhelmed by the challenges because the infrastructure and economic situation were really unfavourable. Accordingly, the scepticism among the staff that met me at the beginning was also great. But in many small steps we managed to improve the competitive situation. Our prices remained stable despite supply bottlenecks, delivery times were greatly improved and overall more was produced and sold. We have achieved the turnaround and convinced both owners and staff. Next year we will invest heavily and expand the range with many innovations. We have laid the foundation for this as a team this year. I am therefore handing over my task with a very good feeling.
Mercuri Urval: Mr Mager, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us.
The Corona pandemic presents managers with entirely new organisational and communication challenges. For the heads of HR departments, it offers the opportunity to reposition themselves within the company. However, according to Michael Mager, acting managing director of Alape GmbH, this requires a change in thinking that should focus more on business than on pure personnel management. Only those who act at eye level with the department heads are taken seriously as discussion partners and involved in projects at an early stage.