Grow the Network – How Leadership 2020 drives cultural change

As part of our Leadership 2020 initiative the „Grow the Network“ tour came after stops in Heilbronn, Portland and Beijing to a fitting end in Bangkok. Impressions of a success story that will change Daimler permanently.

Oh no, not all that stuff about change and transformation again. Please don’t reopen that box full of trendy buzzwords spouted by the world changers. Can’t we put a lid or a padlock on it? We build cars, achieve record month after record month, that’s the job we want to do. And we’re obviously doing it pretty well, aren’t we?

Starting a cultural revolution

This isn’t about boring you with some marketing campaign that is somehow supposed to thrust Daimler into the sphere of industrial and digital change. No, Leadership 2020 moves in a different universe altogether: It’s not a process that started two years ago and will have blown over us all within another two years.

What happens here changes perspectives, people and ultimately our company, too. This being the case, let’s just be bold and state that, rather than initiating a cultural change, we are, and now I’m taking a really big swing, starting a cultural revolution!

When I talk about the change in our communications at conferences and explain, among other things, that I think the best brand ambassadors are to be found within Daimler itself, I am also touching on what was a truly special experience for me: Last year’s Leadership 2020 Summit, in particular its closing event.

Shortly before our CEO Dieter Zetsche delivered his closing address, a few microphones were passed around the crowd. Some 650 colleagues from all over the world got an opportunity to give their feedback. And then it happened. My key experience. The moment that is easily the best way to describe why I went to Daimler. A colleague took the mic and, in a faltering voice overcome by emotion, said:

I’ve been at Daimler for 40 years, and I never thought I’d experience anything like this.

Boom! That hit home like the most motivating and inspiring kick in the behind I’ve ever experienced. This colleague was truly touched. By the energy, the diversity, and the motivation of our colleagues. And I just thought to myself, if we can touch him in this way, then we can win over the entire workforce.

Change requires continuity

So here I sit once again. One year on. It must be 35 degrees here in Taipei. The air conditioning is battling against the relentlessly oppressive heat. And somehow I have the feeling that this contest between the cooling machine and the ambient air is a metaphor for our development. When you pull the plug, our office heats up so much in just a few minutes that you just want to climb into the freezer compartment of the nearest refrigerator.

Exactly the same thing happens when you want to break away from habitual processes! Those who have been conditioned over many years cannot simply cast aside old habits within a few months. Change requires continuity. Persistence. And lots and lots of stamina.

The members of the Leadership 2020 team who organized their „Grow the Network“ tour on three continents in recent months have again shown exactly this kind of stamina. Heilbronn, Portland, Beijing and Bangkok were on the list of tour dates. And I had the honor of attending the last of these.

And what does all this give us?

Many of you may ask yourselves if this is nothing more than a few hundred people going on a trip at the company’s expense so that, somewhere in the world, they can get some colorful sneakers and just have a bit of fun.

Not really. Or, to put it better, on the contrary! We are experiencing the company structure of the future right here and now. And that has a lot to do with the way we collaborate. What tools can we use, and how do we want to give each other feedback in future? How can we grow based on the day-to-day work on our tasks, and what does this ultimately mean for personal development also?

A ball game as a self-awareness trip

The fact that this also poses problems, especially as far as teamwork is concerned, was brought home to me clearly in a strikingly simple example. Our group of 12 colleagues from India, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and Germany was supposed to transport 100 balls from basket A to basket B. In this game, everybody in the team had to touch each ball once, the ball had to have „airtime“ (in example be thrown if possible), and passing the ball to an immediate neighbor wasn’t allowed.

Last but not least, the first person had to touch the ball one last time and then place it in basket B. It sounds complicated. And it is. That’s what we thought. We had 2 minutes for planning then 5 two-minute „innings“ to do the 100 balls.

Now I had a bit of experience with this type of cooperative game, so I made this very clear to the team. The motto was: briefly deliberate, define the methodology, try it out, optimize it and, if it doesn’t work, quickly move on to plan B. In this case, practice makes perfect.Now, given the time pressure, some of the team members thought my way was anything but social and, moreover, pretty dictatorial. But I just wanted the team to have an opportunity to try it out as quickly as possible.

We did then get it right, and we tried out many different variants. Resulting in us achieving 97 balls in our last „innings“. After 2 minutes. And the record? That was about 90 seconds for all 100 balls.

Our group, originated from five different countries and a prime example of diversity, nevertheless put something pretty decent together. Encouraging and motivating each other, and all pulling in the same direction… that releases energy. But definitely also in a way that these can be misunderstood. And I have now very obviously recognized precisely this. This helps me not only to better understand myself, but also to realize that I may tackle things differently in future in order to be successful together with the team.

„I feel empowered“

Those who follow the Daimler Instagram channel can relive the story of these two days on the profile under „Leadership“ and also listen to a colleague from Taiwan who said exactly this. „I feel empowered!“ In essence this means that she is now ready and able to pass on these experiences within her organization.

And that’s precisely what it’s all about. Change does not mean that we forsake our roots. Transformation in no way means that we are being turned into a company that no longer represents our values and standards. Daimler has something that you cannot buy, and it answers to a name that many find outdated: „Tradition„.

Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire!

as the wonderful Gustav Mahler once said. And it is precisely this what makes Leadership 2020!

Take with! All!

There’s one final thing I really need to get off my chest. And I don’t mean this critically at all. On the contrary. It’s about venturing the next step and getting people in the hallowed halls to feel the Leadership 2020 wind of change, too. Somebody or other may ask themselves why units and managers who are a bit „estranged from the product“ frequently take part here. Those who perhaps cannot even imagine what daily work on the production line is like and, for our colleagues on the ground, therefore lose a bit of contact with our core products.

If we convey the impression that this is about pleasure trips with a bit of team-building thrown it, this wonderful initiative will not resonate around the entire company. And this is precisely why we must develop methods here to prevent exactly this.

Then, yes then, we will have completed the leap from cultural change to cultural revolution!

You can find more information about Leadership 2020.


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Sascha Pallenberg took on the newly created position Head of Digital Content at Daimler’s Communications unit last February. An experienced online editor, he focuses on creating content at the interface between the automotive sector and the IT industry for Daimler online media.

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