Stefan Rauth is Senior Vice President Global HR at the Zumtobel Group in Dornbirn, Austria. We talked to him about the role of HR since the outbreak of the pandemic, what is important for leaders in times of crisis and how HR can be involved in strategic planning at an early stage.
The Corona crisis was a kind of real-life assessment for leaders."
What effect has the Covid 19 pandemic had on the role of HR in your company?
The important role that we as HR have already played in the company before the crisis was further strengthened during the pandemic. Our work made a significant contribution to helping the Zumtobel Group navigate safely through the crisis. For example, we were able to observe and learn even better than before how managers and employees deal with extraordinary situations. From this, we were able to derive potential for our future cooperation. We are currently using these valuable insights, as one example, to develop our global approach to the topic of flexible work.
What do you think makes a good leader in times of crisis?
In terms of flexibility, we have learned a lot during the crisis. This also applies to HR, because we have adapted our recruiting process. The first interviews now always take place online, which is much more attractive from a candidate's point of view."
True to the motto "Clarity, not Certainty", good leaders set a clear direction even in times of high uncertainty. They say where things should go, but at the same time, they are flexible enough to be able to adapt. The Corona crisis was therefore like a kind of real-life assessment for leaders. One simply has to realise that the current speed of change is as high as it has ever been in the past but will be even faster in the future.
How has the flexibility you just mentioned affected the Zumtobel Group's operating business?
Despite a challenging market environment, the Zumtobel Group has demonstrated its strength and stability in recent months. Thanks to consistent crisis management and the rapid implementation of hygiene and safety measures at our sites worldwide, we were able to maintain all core functions throughout and successfully serve our customer orders. In the HR area, it was also important to demonstrate flexibility and respond to changing conditions. For example, in order to remain an attractive employer in the future, we examined our onboarding process and adapted our recruiting process. The first interviews now always take place online, which is much more attractive from a candidate's point of view. This makes us faster and more efficient and will continue to do so in the future.
Has the Zumtobel Group, which has experience with major changes due to the switch from classic lighting technology to LED technology, been better prepared for the Corona crisis than other companies?
It can definitely be an advantage for organisations to have to adapt again and again. If the organisation has not changed in the past ten years, then it will have difficulty implementing changes quickly. If, on the other hand, an organisation experiences too many changes, fatigue sets in. Therefore, it is important to master this balancing act. This also includes clear communication that informs in an unagitated manner: "We, as the Zumtobel Group, are coming through the crisis in good shape". Such clear messages have proven their worth, especially in times of crisis.
Of course, especially in exceptional situations, you have to remember to set up a team call and give orientation to the staff. Conceding difficulties and showing the way is what good leaders do."
It is an exciting question how to get a company out of change and back into performance. How do you maintain the necessary stability in volatile times in order to be able to continue or return to full performance?
The most important thing is communication. You have to address problems directly, explain the framework conditions and describe the situation as it is. Then it's a matter of describing what can be done and what the way forward looks like. There must be clarity about the direction in which things should go. And then you have to see how you can get there step by step. In times of crisis, however, there is no such thing as certainty. It is, therefore, better to address a problem and admit that you do not have an immediate solution than to keep quiet about it. That leads to even more uncertainty. If everyone knows that you see the problem and are working on it, there is at least clarity. Furthermore, one should emphasise positives and learning effects. If the sales staff can no longer go to the customer, then the ratio between submitted offers and accepted offers deteriorates. On the other hand, each individual sales employee can send out many more offers online than he or she could attend customer appointments. This makes it possible to keep sales at a relatively good level. In other words, every crisis also brings opportunities.
In our experience, communication as a management tool is often neglected when things get hectic. Yet this should be on every leader's radar, shouldn't it?
Especially in exceptional situations, employees need orientation. Good leaders, therefore, distinguish themselves above all by responding to the changed needs of their staff and demonstrating empathy and communication skills. Once the crisis has been averted, it is even more important to switch to the mode of the new normality and to know that all employees are on board and to create opportunities to help shape the new requirements.
Communication is also an important tool for HR. Has the positioning of HR changed since the outbreak of the Corona crisis?
As HR, we were challenged significantly during this crisis. With the changeover to a home office and the resulting hybrid working world, we were confronted with completely new questions. For example, how do we retain talent in the future and how do we ensure successful teamwork despite different work locations? Or how onboarding works in lockdown. We certainly haven't implemented everything perfectly, but we have learned a lot that will make us better in the future.
HR has long been struggling to get out of the administrative role and into the strategic role. How have you done this and what would you recommend to other HR leaders?
My impression is that some HR leaders complain that they are not taken seriously and would like to have a seat at the big table. But hardly anyone asks why that is. It is not so much a structural problem, but a mental one. HR is important because it makes a significant contribution to the bottom line. But making this contribution visible and fighting for a seat at the big table is uncomfortable. HR needs to move on its own from being a passive problem manager to being an active problem solver. Instead of waiting to be asked to sit at the strategy table, you have to understand where senior management needs that strategic support. If I know the goals and problems and help to achieve or solve them, then I get the seat at the table by myself. But for that, HR has to deliver permanently, which goes beyond the sum of the payroll. You don't get praise or a seat at the strategy table for pure administration. But if the board sees that HR makes an active contribution to the development of the company, then I'm there.
What hurdle do HR leaders need to jump to improve HR business partnering?
Above all, it's about personality. If you want to shape things and contribute, you have to jump on stage and expose yourself. But that also means that it becomes apparent when the desired results are not forthcoming. Those who limit themselves to the administrative side of the HR task avoid this risk. They do not stand out either positively or negatively. But they also don't move anything.
How much has the visibility of talent, including in HR, suffered from the Corona crisis?
The Corona crisis was a real-time assessment for us in this respect as well. Despite crisis management, however, it is important not to lose sight of important future issues and developments. In order to further strengthen our position as an employer - both for our existing employees and for new colleagues - we are currently evaluating our entire employee journey as part of our employer branding strategy. In doing so, we want to identify potential for improvement in order to continue to position ourselves attractively in the competitive applicant market.
Mr Rauth, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us.
The Corona pandemic is an opportunity for the HR organisation to demonstrate its own performance in the company and thus raise its profile. According to Stefan Rauth, Senior Vice President of HR at the Zumtobel Group, communication by leaders helps to move more quickly from crisis mode back into performance. Going from passive problem manager to active problem solver - this is the way for HR executives to get a permanent seat at the company's strategy table.