Interview with Frank Hohenadel

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 first part of the in-depth interview, we talk to Frank Hohenadel about the lessons of the Corona crisis and the changing role of HR in implementing strategies. In the second part of our interview, Frank Hohenadel reports on what matters most for the success of change processes in companies.

MU: When did you realise that the Corona crisis was becoming a particular challenge for the HR department, and how has the perception of this function in the company changed as a result?

Hohenadel: At an early stage after the outbreak of the pandemic, I noticed how the focus shifted towards HR and that the perception of HR in the company changed positively. Among other things, this was due to the fact that we sent the entire team to the home office in a very short time, i.e. within a few days, and reorganised global communication within the company. The primary goal was to remain able to work despite the home office and subsequent short-time work, and to keep everything in order from a legal point of view. In this respect, I can say that my colleagues on the board at the time perceived HR work differently as a result of the crisis.

MU: Can you give a concrete example?

Hohenadel: With trust-based working time in place, we very quickly developed a practicable model on the issue of short-time work, how we wanted to implement this for our company. And we answered the exchange within the organisation and the question of how we deal with the crisis well. That definitely impressed the colleagues and that's how you gain credibility as HR in the company. And this has not been lost in the further course of the pandemic. This has led to HR's work, which is often done in the background, being looked at with new eyes. Now I was lucky that the topic of change and communication was my responsibility anyway. This allowed me to make full use of the power that an HR department can have in a company if it is not only responsible for the classic HR functions. Because the topic of short-time work, to stay with the example mentioned, is also about a transformation of the work organisation in the shortest possible time. And it is not readily apparent to colleagues why a company on a growth course suddenly had to consider short-time work and implement it where it was necessary and possible.

HR managers all too often focus only on the classic HR topics without keeping an eye on the company and its business models as a whole. - Frank Hohenadel

MU: Because you just spoke of HR's newfound credibility - why was this lacking before from the point of view of the other board colleagues? Or were they just not well enough informed about HR's performance so far?  

Hohenadel: This was not a specific problem within our company, but is, in my estimation, rather a general problem of HR. It consists above all in an attitude that I often encounter among HR managers and which I absolutely do not share. All too often, HR managers focus only on the classic HR topics without keeping an eye on the company and its business models as a whole. There are many reasons for this, not least of which is that in the past the HR department was cut to size in the way it is today in many cases. It was reduced to transactional topics such as personnel management, payroll or recruiting, which is why HR managers then started to act only from this limited role instead of from the business context. This attitude and the resulting behaviour can also explain the limited perception of HR by many board members.

MU: What can HR do to move on from this role?

Hohenadel: HR must not only define itself through the classic topics, but should also become active in the topics of transformation and change. I think it is a very important development path for HR to take a leading role in these areas. But to be able to do that, HR has to come more through the strategic issues of a company. When the board decides on a strategy, HR has to be the link to those who are to execute it with life. The great advantage of the HR department is to be in close contact with the employees. They want to know what and how they need to change to make the new strategy work. At best, HR can play the role of enabler and turn the strategy into a successful transformation process for the company.

MU: Have you experienced this in the course of your work with a company you have advised?

Hohenadel: A well-known robotics manufacturer has completely transformed its organisation from product-centric to customer-centric. In this transformation process, HR had the task of enabling managers and employees to grow into the new roles. In my opinion, the best way to do that is to let people experience early on how the new situation feels to them. We solved this with a game based on "Activity" and simulated the new roles, positions and tasks. Teams then competed with and against each other across the organisation in a playful way and were thus professionally and emotionally picked up and enthused for the new cooperation.

MU: What have you learned from this for the role of HR?

Hohenadel: In the best case, HR can be the enabler for transformation processes to bring a new strategy or serious changes into the company. In my view, HR managers should focus more on this in their actions. Of course, this also includes "core" HR topics such as the question of what kind of leadership I need to implement the transformation and what concrete measures are needed for this. If HR not only asks these questions, but also answers them, the employees in the company will realise that HR offers real added value.

Read in the second part:

Frank Hohenadel has a clear answer to the question of why transformation processes fail in companies and whether this is more often due to the board or to HR. And he also knows which framework conditions favour a change process, why lip service is so dangerous and why the Corona crisis ultimately represents an opportunity for companies that they should not let pass by.