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Career Story: Ferdinand Klauser - The power of ideas

June 18, 2019

Why it is better to be the disruptor than to leave it to others

Can you, please, share with us your career development until now? What stages in your life have had the greatest impact on you and why?

I’ve always been fascinated by the power of ideas. Having an idea and bringing it to life for other people to experience has always been my dream. That’s why I studied screenwriting and photography. I thought I would become a creative professional; maybe a director or photographer. During my studies at the film school in Germany I regularly participated together with a friend in pitch competitions. These were funded by companies who wanted to get access to fresh and relatively cheap creative talent to produce commercial films. We won so many projects that we decided to start our own video production company, still as students.

Our competitive edge was looking at the bigger picture, rather than just focusing on the single video at hand. The whole brand experience and how that very video would further build the brand story. Consequently, our clients started to ask us to serve them beyond video productions and we rapidly grew into a full-service communications agency with two offices in Berlin and Vienna. I was hooked. Creating a meaningful emotional experience by identifying a powerful brand story and driving it through to implementation was what I wanted to do.

During the initial stages of building our agency start-up, I quickly understood that the creative competence I had acquired wasn’t going to be enough to create the business impact I was striving for. So, I enrolled at the WU Executive Academy. First, the certificate program for advertising and sales and then subsequently the PMBA program with marketing and sales specialization. 

The year 2013 marked a big change for me. I graduated from the WU MBA program, we successfully sold our start-up to a large network agency, and I joined KISKA in Salzburg. KISKA is a leading global creative consultancy. We help organizations achieve impact through brand and design. We co-create desirable products and experiences that shape the heartbeat of brands. To boost the performance of established brands and launch new growth engines, we connect strategy and execution at every level. I started as Account Manager. Developing new business and managing existing global accounts, with a strong focus on international transportation and lifestyle brands. In 2016, I relocated to Shanghai to build up KISKA’s China studio from scratch and lead the team as General Manager. In the same year, I was honoured to receive the invitation to be a Partner at KISKA.

From Shanghai, I am working with KISKA's global teams on strategic brand and design initiatives for established companies and startups to deliver against business goals.

What was your biggest professional/personal success?

Building KISKA’s presence in China from the ground up and seeing the impact we create for our clients on a global scale is truly energizing. It wasn’t without risk though. It meant investing in a market with a high degree of uncertainty. It also meant relocating my family from Salzburg to Shanghai.

Personally, I am very excited about the shift in the automotive industry towards new powertrains. Motion and emotion are deeply rooted in KISKA’s DNA. We have always created powerful physical and emotional experiences. What only a few know: KISKA has been a pioneer in electric-powered vehicles. The KTM Freeride E was the first serial production electric motorcycle. We will continue to serve KTM as well as other global brands determined to make their mark in the electric mobility space.

What was your biggest challenge? What was your biggest professional mistake (from which you learned a lot)?

It is becoming increasingly obvious that today’s complex business problems require a diverse set of perspectives and skills to be solved. Multi-disciplinary and cross-functional teams, not isolated silos, are mission critical to business success. However, we also know from research that diverse teams actually perform worse than homogeneous teams if there is no intentional process in place to help the team manage diversity. A diverse team first needs to understand their differences, and work out how each team member can contribute to the mission.

In the past, I made the mistake of believing that team diversity alone will be enough to achieve greater results. Today, I know that we first must become world champions in collaboration before we can become world champions in our industry. We are therefore very intentional about the teams we assemble, the competences required, and the way we work together on every single project. This has unlocked the full potential of multi-disciplinary teams that yield results that are truly greater than the sum of its parts. 

Which 3 most important experiences in your life have led you to where you are right now?

  1. Growing up with my siblings, and learning that the best games are the ones you invent yourself.

  2. Co-founding, scaling, and selling a start-up. With all the breath-taking highs and painful lows.

  3. Experiencing China and learning that everything is possible here – but that nothing is easy. 

When you think of the most talented high potential in your company, what 3 pieces of advice would you give her to live a successful and fulfilling life?

  • Dare to create impact: For me, both the greatest business value and personal fulfilment comes from the impact we create for our clients. Together we can dare to challenge the status quo, create meaningful experiences and shape brands. To succeed, we must decide with speed and courage, practice full accountability and collaborate as a team.

  • Stay radically curious: We can only excel if we bring diverse perspectives openly together. Naturally, this leads to disagreements. Look relentlessly for the best idea. Not the best idea that you can come up with yourself. Never stop learning and always ask, “What am I missing?” Be ready to shift your opinion based on new information.

  • Understand the human factor: It’s almost too obvious but nevertheless often missed: You can’t convince somebody else with the arguments that motivate yourself. It is important to understand the motivations, needs and doubts that drive the other person. The key then is to address the individual’s needs while staying authentic.

     

Using just 5 words, how would your team describe you as a leader?

Optimistic, speedy, challenger, rough edges.

What has changed in your career because of your MBA degree? How did the program support you in reaching your career goals? What concrete career opportunities have opened up for you?

The MBA program was quite a transformational experience. The first thing that comes to my mind is understanding the power of collaboration. During group assignments we were faced with challenges that no individual, no matter how smart or hard working, could have solved alone. So, it’s important to understand which individual assets each group member has and to think about how each one can contribute. This was a very powerful experience for me.

Clearly, my MBA degree was an important career accelerator as well. It opened the opportunity to join KISKA and move up into the leadership team within a rather short time. 

On a personal level, the MBA experience was especially valuable because I could work with and learn from an incredibly diverse and international peer group. This diversity and global perspective were something I didn’t want to miss after graduation. That’s why KISKA was a perfect match with team members from more that 35 nationalities.

As far as the workload is concerned, how did you manage an MBA next to a demanding job and your family life?

I won’t lie, it wasn’t easy at all. When I started my MBA journey, I was hustling to build my own start-up, getting in business and managing projects. My daughter Alma had just turned two. In addition to the challenging MBA course work, I had also joined an international research project. Led by my thesis supervisor Prof. Dr. Andreas Strebinger at York University in Toronto, we explored ethnical diversity in luxury car advertising. The project involved a team spread across three continents doing field research in China, Japan, Canada and Austria, and we spent countless weekends collaborating via online meetings.

It is obvious that this kind of workload can’t be managed without trade-offs. You must prioritize consequently, and you should prepare your support network of family and friends for a challenging two years. I could not have done it without the incredible support from my wife. 

What do you consider a “great luxury”?

Our KISKA headquarters is located in Salzburg, right at the foot of Mount Untersberg. During the winter season, our team can take advantage of the flexible working hours and go skiing during lunch break. In summer, you can go for a run a or bike ride amid the breath-taking mountain panorama. I consider that a great luxury and enjoy it every time I’m traveling to our HQ.

What was the last book/movie you really enjoyed?

At KISKA we are constantly living in the future, because we are planning and designing for products that will be launched three and more years from now. Watching the “Back to the Future” trilogy again during family movie nights was great fun. Especially seeing how my daughter enjoyed the blockbusters of my childhood and which futuristic predictions came true.

If you could change places with anyone for a day, who would it be?

My daughter Alma. She is now ten and communicates in German, English and Chinese. I’d love to have a sponge-like brain like hers for a day!

Wordrap

I can laugh about:

Myself. It's important to not take yourself too seriously.

Shortcomings I am most likely willing to overlook:

Anything that has the potential for learning and growth.

My funniest/most exciting travel experience was:

On my first trip to China, almost six years ago, a Chinese business partner wanted to shock me. He ordered the strangest dish in the restaurant, which wasn't even on the menu: boiled sea cucumber. It's spikey and slimey bit I ate it without hesitation. The Chinese in the room were baffled and decided I was now half-Chinese. Many weird dishes would eventually follow.

I could not live withoout this app on my cell phone:

WeChat. Everything in China happens on WeChat - from communicating with your friends and business contacts, to booking flight ticktets and paying the street vendor selling flowers.

You can always find this in my fridge:

Austrian Cheese. It is not exactly compliant with Chinese customs regulations, but whenever I'm back in Austria, I fill my suitcase with all kinds of Austrian goodies. Cheese is the absolute favourite in my family.

I would spend my last money on:

Anything, because you can always pay with WeChat after you run out of cash.

10 years ago, I thought:

That launching my startup with decisiveness and speed during the aftermath of the financial crisis was my best option to navigate the uncertainty of the time. That it would allow me to capture opportunities that less flexible, larger companies couldn't pursue.

Today, I know:

That, although I'm now part of a large organization, I must sustain the same level of decisiveness and speed as 10 years ago. Complexity and complacency are the silent killers of organizations. The only thing that's certain is change. Therefore, we either disrupt ourselves or leave it to others.

Read more interesting career stories of our students and graduates here.

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