A McKinsey Company
A McKinsey Company
A McKinsey Company
Practitioners Dialogues
On Purpose and People in Times of COVID-19
Philippine Risch
Partner
talked to Frauke von Polier
Practitioners Dialogues
On Purpose and People in Times of COVID-19

This is the story of purpose with people engagement in times of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Frauke von Polier and Philippine Risch share their views on the challenges to personal and organizational purpose, and the need for organizations to engage and empower their people during this current (COVID-19) phase of remote working: “Both of us,” as Philippine puts it, “come from a strong belief in employee empowerment and giving employees their ‘brains, pride, confidence and self-authorization back’, hence progress and speed will follow.”

Both are leaders who are passionate about linking individual and organizational purpose to empower, unlock and energize people in transformation. They met when both were keynote speakers at McKinsey’s Agile Forum in Amsterdam and, through sharing their insights on how organizations might think about people and purpose in times of digitization, the two became friends.

Frauke is a business practitioner, formerly of Zalando (an online fashion retailer), where she brought about a wholesale digital and agile transformation, an exemplary case study; she is COO People at SAP (an international software company), and Senior Advisor at McKinsey.

Philippine is a recent Partner at McKinsey and Leader at Aberkyn; she was until 2018 the Chief Distribution Officer at ING (a Dutch bank) in charge of a radical agile transformation which also became a frontrunning example of agility at scale, taking agile ways of working to empower people beyond the usual suspects of CX Development and IT also to Marketing, Sales and Services.

Philippine Risch:

Let’s start with what we think is happening now and, aside from the tragic parts of this COVID crisis, think about what might be the possible positive elements of this crisis that we might retain.

Frauke von Polier:

I think that we're getting some really valuable perspectives right now on what works and what’s important. This time of reflection has to be seen as a positive thing – it gives us a chance to become better – envisage a more aware and more reflective society. My hope is that this leads us all to think about how we treat nature, and each other, and also how we can help those who don't have a voice. Overall, I think awareness leads to action and that's what will make the world better. What becomes clearer in current times, is that we all have the responsibility to make the world better in our different spheres of influence.

PR:

Absolutely. So, we become more aware of what is truly important as we have time to pause and reflect; and then we can turn to conscious action. And I agree with you that it is purpose which makes action meaningful, it provides the “why” that engages individuals in an organization. This counts for both employees and for clients and is why I believe it is purpose that provides stability and sustainability to profit. And we must distinguish organizational purpose and individual purpose.

FvP:

Actually for me, purpose is personal. My husband and I have a shared purpose, which is private. It’s something we regularly discuss and check in with each other about – our North Star, so to speak. Essentially, it relates back to the idea of doing the best you can in your sphere of influence, and for me, that extends to my family as much as it does to my work – trying to make things better.

PR:

How, then does this personal idea of purpose take shape at work? How about the human touch? How does trying to make things better define your sense of your current role in SAP?

FvP:

At SAP, my role is Chief Operating Officer People. That means I’m responsible for everything around people and their experience – and the data and technology we use to ensure that people are at the center of what we do. So, making SAP better means making sure that we digitize all of our internal processes and that we make unbiased, data-driven people decisions. My task is to ensure we digitize our processes and automate them to make them intuitive for users, while at the same time having a human touch where it matters most. Success for me would be, if SAP with its cloud transformation becomes a pure cloud, pure digital player in terms of product, process, people and culture, helping ourselves and customers do the same while maintaining this human touch. I would love it if people would say I was influential – that the impact of my work really helped to create a digital culture for people and that it inspired our customers to do the same.

PR:

How about values and your personal sense of purpose; for me, this originates from our youth and comes across as quite stable over time. I often see a strong connection between purpose and values. My personal purpose centres on doing justice to the talent of each and every individual. What values did you take from the place you come from?

FvP:

I consider myself to be German with an international outlook. My friends and colleagues are all international, so I find it easy to connect with people from different cultures, backgrounds, and industries. However, I also think it's super important to know where you come from – in my case a small town in Germany. And one of Germany's greatest strengths is the fact that there isn’t just one or two main cities or hubs where people gravitate towards. There are lots of different cities with populations between less than 500,000 to a million people, with lots of villages around them, so in a sense, a lot of places have strong foundations and communities.

There’s a really solid work ethic stemming from these sorts of places too – many people have an entrepreneurial or founder mindset, as well as practical skills; which is maybe why German engineering is so highly regarded internationally. All of this, I think this is very much in my roots: I understand the value of hard work and entrepreneurship.

PR:

How might you apply this “founder mindset” to your biggest challenges at work, especially since you now work in such a large company nearly fifty years old (founded 1972)?

FvP:

That's a good question. Well, as I mentioned before, there’s a growing gap in terms of digitization where many companies are concerned. Zalando was a digitally native company, and this meant that a lot of the work practices associated with technology – such as Enterprise Agility – were embedded in our company culture. However, now I’m working for a longer established company that's transitioning into the Cloud, it’s the process of change that is much more apparent. For example, asking people to give up their offices in favor of collaborative working spaces takes more effort. Ultimately, while there are lots of legacy biases, there are very human concerns. It’s all part of helping companies to move faster, so that no-one gets left behind. There’s a fine balance to get right. Making little things better in a big company, creates a bigger impact in the right direction.

PR:

Bridging these gaps between worlds seems a common theme for both of us. You, taking a leap from the scale-up to the incumbent, me taking the leap from business executive to consultant. What made you successful in Zalando and me at ING might not automatically make for success in the new setup. And what made our organizations successful before will probably differ from what they need in the future. Many of these imperatives to change have been made even more urgent in the COVID-19 pandemic; how do you see that?

FvP:

Yes, I agree. In COVID some people have thrived professionally, while others have lost their jobs. We’ve all been impacted in different ways. But whatever the outcome – personal or professional – this pause has given us all an opportunity to reflect. That’s not to say these things wouldn’t have changed or occurred over time, but we’ve had an accelerated exposure to so much over the last few months. Now we must take action to change things for the better.

PR:

How have you managed to engage with colleagues: both your team and the wider organization? How are you making that work right now?

FvP:

Well, the approach my team uses – which we used long before the pandemic, but has really thrived during the lockdown – is what we call our ‘Continuous Listening Strategy’
Essentially, it’s three steps: Listen, Understand, Act. It’s something we use across SAP’s whole community of more than 100,000 employees, as well as with all our interviewees (about 1 million candidates a year).

It’s exactly as it sounds from a process perspective. When COVID started we began by asking questions to our teams: What were their needs in terms of remote work? What would they need to thrive professionally in a remote setting? That in itself was quite straightforward. Once we’d listened, we understood, and we took action.

PR:

Listening is indeed the key to learn and improve before you scale. Given how so many of us have now been working from home throughout the pandemic, do you think personal connections might also have improved since we are no longer “all dressed up” in front of the camera and are providing each other a sneak peek into our families and homes? Do you think the lines between personal and professional have blurred?

FvP:

I think spending a lot more time at home – juggling the demands of work, family life, homeschooling, and being under the same roof 24/7 – has magnified a lot of things: the good, the bad, and the ugly!

As an organization, what we always try and do is analyze and then make very focused follow ups, before taking definitive action. We have a proprietary experience management tool to help us do that – and it works very well. For example, an issue we identified, a few months into the Covid pandemic, was that people were stressed about juggling many things at once – particularly the number of meetings they were having back-to-back. So, we took action in changing our meeting culture.

PR:

There needs to be a willingness to adapt and frequently change your ways. But there’s never a perfect model or moment to do so – particularly in times like these it might be more about making flexibility into a habit, and not about perfection. So despite this constant agility required, when teams are operating remotely how do you ensure productivity remains stable or high?

FvP:

I think the success of a remote setup largely depends on how comfortable the company was with working in this way pre-COVID. As a global company, I have team members that I work with virtually all the time as they’re based in another office in another part of the world! Obviously, some jobs are better suited to remote than others – such as software development – but with the right tools, processes, and attitude in place, most office-based jobs can continue in the same way as before.

This is where tech-driven processes like Agility can work well – setting long term aspirations, incremental steps, discussing progress often, doing things fast, and then iterating/fine-tuning them. Again, it’s as much a mindset shift as it is a structure. But it gives people room to experiment, fail fast, and change how things work. And it works everywhere from HR to marketing – not just in tech.

PR:

We’ve seen that happening indeed. Organizations that had agile practices in place before COVID started, are much more able to adapt and cope with the challenges currently offered. If it worked for them before, it will be working for them even better now. But when it comes to giving people the skills needed to thrive, how to approach this? How are you remotely reskilling or “right-skilling” your people for a more agile, post-COVID world?

FvP:

I have to be really honest. People always want me to say things like ‘resilience’ or something, but I find that almost too philosophical. To accelerate, we need new talent – technically-skilled people who know how to code, who are digital architects, and can help our businesses transform digitally.

To operate we indeed need to right-skill the existing population. I’m a big fan of the ‘3-3-3’ principle – the idea that you should always have 3 people that you follow (mentors), 3 people that grow alongside you (peers that have your back), and 3 people that follow you and that you invest in (mentees or junior employees). I think that principle holds true in private as well as in a business context – and definitely when it comes to personal or organizational transformation. Ultimately, it offers balance and ensures we give and receive the wisdom needed to further successful growth.

PR:

Finally let’s turn to your biggest personal challenge now. What are you working with?

FvP:

Well, right now, wherever you look, it seems as though the world is hurting. It’s not just COVID – though that’s a big part of it. It’s situations in and around it – such as Black Lives Matter, the economy, climate change. COVID has at least given us time to reflect on what works and what doesn’t. That’s different for everyone. I'm very purpose-driven and so I must ask myself how I can be part of the solution to make the world a better place.

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