Bodo Janssen: that's how personnel development 4.0 works

April 15, 2019

"Happy cows give more milk: that's manipulation."

Bodo Janssen's management task at the Upstalsboom hotel chain is to strengthen people. He conquers Kilimanjaro with apprentices, lets a student run a hotel and offers employees ways to find themselves. This and much more he told at the panel discussion Personnel Development 4.0 on April 11, 2019 which was organized by the WU Institute for Personnel Management together with the WU Executive Academy.

Pic of Bodo Janssen
Bodo Janssen explains why he consciously takes a different path as a manager.

Bodo Janssen has had an eventful life. A model, sonny boy and entrepreneurial son, he was kidnapped and lived through days of terror. As a young successor to his late father, he focused on efficiency and strategic management - until his employees gave him a devastating assessment as CEO in a survey on employee satisfaction. Bodo Janssen then went to the monastery. In the workshops on "Spiritual Leadership" led by Father Anselm Grün, he recognized what is essential for him, namely: to strengthen people.

Portrait Bodo Janssen

Bodo Janssen

  • CEO Upstalsboom

Spirituality for us means that people can live in their lives what is really important to them as human beings. No more, no less. Then they are enthusiastic and with themselves. This has nothing to do with religiousness.

Value creation through appreciation

Together with Father Anselm Grün, he has been conducting workshops for his co-workers ever since. He climbs the Kilimanjaro with his trainees or crosses the Arctic Circle with them under extreme conditions. His guiding principle is "Value creation through appreciation". In the course of the event "Personnel Development 4.0 – Personnel Development as a Core Process in Companies", he answered questions by three interviewers.

The interviewers: Helga Pattart-Drexler, Head of Executive Education at the WU Executive Academy, Wolfgang Mayrhofer, Head of the Interdisciplinary Institute of Management and Organisational Behaviour, and Jürgen Weibler, Professor at the Fernuniversität in Hagen, gave impulses from science. Michael Müller-Camen, Head of the Institute of Human Resource Management at WU Vienna, who had brought Bodo Janssen to Vienna for the event, moderated this evening.

Wolfgang Mayrhofer: If you say that a company needs the whole person it gives me the chills. In my working life, I don't want to be completely taken over by an organization. I'd rather be a subject who decides for himself who has me completely - almost nobody.

We don't want the whole person. We invite people to get involved as a whole - if they want to. I'm thinking of a penguin trying to climb a tree. We often experience people who, because of their education and because it has always been so, take on tasks that do not correspond to their personality. They're trying to play a part. We help people go through the school of self-knowledge and ask questions: What is essential to me? What am I getting up for? What are my talents? This curriculum is not about the company at all. Only when people have become aware of themselves do we look for tasks in the company that they can perform according to their personality. Some completely reorient themselves within the company. This is a management task: to show people the mirror. The principle is to go from being supposed to do something to wanting to do it. It's always about the meaning. We notice more and more that meaningful tasks are part of our remuneration. In 2010, 75 percent of employees said they felt badly paid. We didn't change the salaries, but we changed the leadership. In 2015 it was only 45 percent. The proportion of meaningful tasks must have increased. Preventive medicine is also part of our remuneration. We are currently creating an organizational health care system for our employees that goes far beyond the public health insurance system.

Group picture at the event
left to right: Helga Pattart-Drexler, Bodo Janssen, Prof. Jürgen Weibler, Prof. Michael Müller-Camen, Prof. Wolfgang Mayrhofer

Wolfgang Mayrhofer: Another topic I stumbled across was corporate happiness at Upstalsboom. I always say in my lectures: Corporate Happiness is ugly. The human being should not be taken in by corporate.

I agree completely. However, we have always understood corporate happiness in the sense of positive psychology. We come from a system that thrives on standardization. We are born unique, but many of us die as copies. The human being and his or her personality are lost in this system. For me, "corporate" addresses the old world: we are objects, no longer subjects. In the old world of capitalist economy, man is always the means to the end for the company.

If I influence you to make the company more successful, according to the motto "Happy cows give more milk", then that is manipulation. If I influence you so much that it makes you successful as a human being, then that is leadership. The question is: Is the human being a means to an end for the company or is the company a means to an end for humans? We invite employees to become aware of themselves, their abilities, their values and their sense of purpose. When they do what is personally important to them, that is self-transcendence. In the hierarchy of the old system, you always had to be better than the other to get to the top. But the economic logic today is the network: it's not about the question, what do I gain from others being there? It's about the question: what do others gain from me being there? What benefits do I give my fellow men? When I create a great benefit, people come to me and I grow into a true leader.

Question from the audience: Mr. Janssen, you spoke of "from being supposed to do something to wanting to do it ". What happens if nobody wants to make the beds in your hotel anymore?

Of course, there are working processes that perhaps do not correspond to the longing of every human being. But if the employee feels that his or her work is contributing to something meaningful, or if he or she has options to do something meaningful for himself or herself beyond work - like the chambermaid who flies to Africa with 20 colleagues for three weeks to inaugurate schools that were built because of their commitment, then that is something different. It could be a children's hospice. People always regard something as meaningful when they carry a value within them that they can experience elsewhere. Then it is an indirect aspect. It has nothing to do with the work directly, but it is possible through the work in this company. It's about the personal meaning. To tell the maid that she burns calories while cleaning would be manipulation. This year, the entire company will be transferred to a charitable foundation. The entire profits generated by the employees flow into the projects for which they have decided. Every handshake they do is done in the awareness that they are not only earning money for their existence, but that they are working for something meaningful.

Our idea of meaning and purpose at Upstalsboom is: Economy is only the basis of our existence, but not the meaning of our actions.

Pic of Helga and Bodo
Helga Pattart-Drexler asked her questions to Bodo Janssen.

Helga Pattart-Drexler: What is personnel development for you and what does it look like at Upstalsboom?

For me, the task of personnel development is to enable people to contribute their skills and personalities to the company as subjects. We don't use the term "personnel" at all, I associate it with the old world. In our company, human development means that people get in touch with themselves again. A young person of about 20 has heard about 10,000 times what he cannot do. He'll believe it someday. The neuronal networks have developed, the self-esteem decreases, and he can be manipulated. He lacks the inner attitude. We want to support people in finding this inner attitude again. However, the brain does not like exertion and prefers to remain in its habits. To interrupt this, we need impact. Strong emotional impressions can redevelop neural networks to a certain extent. That is why we offer trips to Kilimanjaro and the Arctic. There the young people learn that they can do much more than they thought they could.

Helga Pattart-Drexler: You can't go to Kilimanjaro or the Arctic every week. How could this impact still be brought to companies?

Every year, our employees have several days off to get involved socially - to grow through encounters with other people. We had a cook who treated the trainees like the meat mallet treats the Wiener Schnitzel. This cook volunteered for an association that organizes a wonderful day for neglected children. We organized this day, children learned how to cook, and there was a chef’s hat painting competition. Then a little girl came to the grim cook and gave him a chef's hat. Suddenly the cook had tears in his eyes. Many tears. I came over and asked what was going on. The child had written on the chef’s hat: Thank you, that was the best day of my life. Two years later, the IHK president congratulated me that this chef's trainee had achieved the best result in the final examination for 20 years. We have to touch people to move them. The emotional touch changes the neural networks. This does not take place at the desk, but in many other places.

Helga Pattart-Drexler: In the application process: How do you know when someone suits you?

The worst decisions for applicants were the ones I made over the heads of my employees. We do not have a standardized corporate application process. 50 percent of our new hires are career changers. It's very much about whether someone fits in with us. We bring applicants into contact with the employees and then ask them whether it is a good fit. That's what we learn through cooperation. We opened a hotel last year, a pool of people applied to us for various jobs. We had four applicants who wanted to be in charge. We entrusted them all for a week with the management of the hotel and other hotels to find out how the work was going. Then they should decide who should be in charge. They chose an applicant who had applied as a receptionist. Or: three years ago the trainees selected a candidate as director. It is important that employees get along with managers.

Helga Pattart-Drexler: On average, HR managers and recruiters look at an application for 30 seconds. What do you say to that?

30 seconds? It's hard for me because we don't care about applications and references. We have many applicants who want to do a sabbatical with us or want to take a look at our company. We invite them to drop by. I don't look at applications. Much is also possible through recommendations in the hotels. But we also have hotels with classic job ads. We tell trainees not to send us their certificates. Because the certificates are only an expression of the ability to adapt. We had people in the company who would have fallen through the usual grid. After two or three months they became our trainees of the month because they had applied themselves in such a wonderful way.

Helga Pattart-Drexler: What HR tools do you use? How do you analyze strengths, how do you deal with feedback?

We had an executive who had worked in an agency for 15 years. He approached us and said he was dying to work here. What happened: He was used to these rigid structures, we opened the prison door and released him to join us in the jungle. But he hadn't learned how to deal with it. We'll give this person two, three months to see: How's he getting along? Some rally and find their way around. Many who fall back on the egocentric path and want to prove something to themselves drop out. The man in question fell flat on his face. When this happens, we take a step back and consider suitable tasks in a more rigid structure. He became data protection officer - but with the aim to adapt data protection to our culture. He has done something wonderful: He has given up his office and now goes to the employees in the hotels to pass on his knowledge. He gave a benefit, and suddenly he was in demand. He was such a strong role model for me that I also gave up my office last year. On Friday evenings I ask my staff who has room for me next week.

Helga Pattart-Drexler: Have you ever thought about failure?

Yes, at the very beginning of the process. I brought in high expectations back then. At the moment we have the payment issue. In some areas, employees have determined their own salaries and those of their superiors. We are currently extending this to the entire company and, with 800 employees, are talking about meaning and preventive medicine as part of the remuneration. We talk about the principle of performance and the principle of need: we talk about whether a single mother with two children should get two euros more per hour. I realize it's a complex subject. The development of our employees leads to a good dialogue. But where it all ends, I have no idea.

Audience question: How do you manage to prevent chaos from breaking out?

The chaos is here. We have already noticed that if the degree of freedom is too large, the satisfaction sinks again. We need a certain framework that depends on the development of the people. People with a highly developed personality can deal with more freedom than others. We have 50 hotels and resorts. They work from autocratic to fully holistic. We have a hotel without executives: the respective employee asks her team for advice and then makes the decision. This holistic company is run by a student who did a vacation job and wrote a bachelor's thesis with us. I asked her if she wanted to open a hotel as a vacation job. She has done so with great success. She introduced the holistic principle, which originates from the Benedictine monastery. Other areas are not yet ready. Or the subject of determining salary: There was a team that was already very far and determined its own salary, completely free, without restrictions. However, this is only possible if one does not make one's value as a person dependent on the paycheck. Another team broke up after the salary discussion, people had started to fight. Certain conditions have to be created for so much autonomy.

Audience question: I see Upstalsboom as an island in capitalism. Do you see companies that also want to go this way?

I see more and more people who want to experience something meaningful. The interest can often be found in the foundation up to the middle management. In the top positions I tend to experience a great deal of uncertainty. But there are exceptions: I work together with the owner of the Otto Group, who transfers this spirit into the organization. Then I experience the Easter fire strategy of individuals from the foundation who do something useful for companies and find fellows, such as with T-Systems and Deutsche Telekom. Lufthansa has developed a new management culture for 40,000 employees and works inter-hierarchically. We also experience a high demand for our courses. We open them for others as well, and we are fully booked until 2020.

Helga Pattart-Drexler: I believe that we as managers should show our weaknesses. What would be your weakness?

My weakness is the right measure. It embarrasses me sometimes. This leads to the fact that I overtax the organization and the employees have to pay for it. I think showing weakness is part of leadership. By showing weakness, I take a lot of pressure from the staff to be perfect. When I communicate my weaknesses as a manager, the employees also dare to admit mistakes. It's not about glaring. It's about shining. You gotta dig your way through a lot of dirt.

Jürgen Weibel: The basis for leadership at Upstaalsboom is dialogue. What are the consequences if things don't go well economically?

I would like to come back to the example of the student who runs the Seehotel. I failed with my leadership claim at the time. I had appointed a naval officer as hotel manager, I tried to lead him with chair circles. That didn't work. I had to learn that there are different personalities. The hotel got into financial difficulties, I had to close it to avert further damage to the community. Employees were laid off. Then the student came from Munich and I asked her if she could run the hotel. We've changed the system according to her personality. She introduced the holistic system, so she no longer runs the hotel herself. For five years it has been one of our most successful hotels. Another example: We closed an unsuccessful hotel for six months, but in consultation with the employees. The result is a new hotel brand: the hotel on the edge of the world. If it doesn't work economically, you have to take the consequences. But the employees are willing to take responsibility if they get a perspective. We think about how we can develop something together so that it will last in the future. Creating this perspective makes living through difficult times more bearable for many. But dialogue has nothing to do with harmony. If I strive for harmony out of fear of not being loved and recognized and thus swallow many things, then it doesn't work well. I'm gonna have to throw up all this stuff sometime. It is about encouraging people to express themselves against the desire to be recognized and loved. That only comes from a strong personality.

Pictures of the podium discussion:

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