Deutsche Telekom extends its digital leadership


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 2 2017)

In order to provide systematic leadership of employees in the digital age, the skills and methods managers need today are not the same as those they needed in the analogue world. Telekom has launched a new worldwide development programme that promotes successful leadership in the digital era. With ‘levelUP!’, as the programme is called, the concept of ‘Ambidextrous Digital Leadership’ is filled with concrete content. Dr. Elke Frank is the head of the HR Development Department at Deutsche Telekom and ranks among the 40 leading minds in HR in Germany. We spoke to her about this special development initiative.  

Dr Frank, what in your view are the great challenges that small and large industrial companies must currently face in terms of the digital transformation?

In my view, there are three main challenges: speed, flexibility and the capability to take a critical view on a regular basis of one’s own actions and those of the company. Today, we are confronted with constantly shifting parameters; that is one consequence of technological progress. The consequence is acting under conditions of uncertainty. We constantly have to ask ourselves: is the path on which we embarked on still the right one? What factors must I change? 

How do the management skills that are needed in the digital age differ from those that are firmly anchored in the analogue world?

Many things have changed. A main consideration today involves the personal skills of good managers. It is becoming more important to understand and integrate different points of view, and to do so at very early stages of a project. Managers must regularly confront new or uncertain situations and have the courage to make decisions.

Collaboration, meaning impartial and objective cooperation across departmental boundaries, has gained enormously in significance. In addition, it is now almost normal for teams not to work in the same place or country, or at the same time. This requires a moderating, coaching leadership style. And, last but not least, the importance of communication has risen very decisively. Decisions and strategies must be repeatedly discussed and explained across all of the available channels. All in all, communication in companies has grown more iterative, shorter and timely. In my view, feedback is also a part of communication. For younger people in particular, personal and quick feedback and constant interaction is important. This generation is simply accustomed to this as a result of their involvement with social media. 

With levelUP!, your company has launched a new training programme for successful leadership in the digital era. What are the details behind the programme?

In very traditional terms, to speak of a ‘continuing education programme’ always sounds a bit like a pure face-to-face qualification, but levelUP! is much more. The focus of our programme is to permit our executives to lead in ambidextrous corporate structures. In our industry, we have to make the existing core business more efficient all the time while simultaneously driving innovations. Here, we speak of ‘ambidextrous’ leadership, or of the fact that ‘digital leaders are the masters of the AND’. This calls for different leadership styles, and that is precisely what we intend to convey this year. To achieve this, the programme offers digital training modules on a digital platform that is very reminiscent of the Netflix platform, along with internationally based virtual groups of learners working to solve tasks together. There are no fixed timetables. The participants are in charge of organising themselves and their group, and therefore of their success within the programme. 

What content or areas of emphasis do you rely on here?

Overall, levelUP! consists of these blocks: ‘Educate, Inspire & Transfer’. Educate is organised exclusively on a digital basis, and participants must complete all of the modules. With Inspire and Transfer, we offer a broad set of talks, videos, attendance meetings, texts, charts and training sessions. Participants have ample resources here: what do I need to help shape the challenges of the digital transformation, and what helps me and my collaboration with my team? The selection is left to the participants themselves.  

What cooperation partners have been brought on board for this purpose?

We conducted a pitch and decided upon ‘Duke Corporate Education’, the executive education provider at Duke University in North Carolina. What decided the matter for us was to shape the programme with a top school. Because Duke has a large network of professors, it can cover a broad range of topics. The university was also very open and willing to work together to create something new.

How many managers will be able to enjoy this course, and what departments do they come from? 

The first run of the program is designed for around 700 participants and is available worldwide. The colleagues have been enrolled in levelUP! since the beginning of the year. They come from all of the regional companies and departments of Telekom. The procedure was simple: all management staff were welcome to apply for one of the 700 slots. Demand was high. The quota for participants had been filled in just half a day’s time. Naturally, we were delighted.

At the end of the year, we will analyse what went well and what needs to improve before we continue rolling out 2018.

How important is a regular update of this size in terms of your company’s competitiveness?

I am firmly convinced that good management also continues to have a positive effect on the fortunes of companies, because we can only meet the challenges of digitisation with employees who are well-managed and feel comfortable doing what they are doing. The digital transformation places a steady stream of fresh demands on all levels of hierarchy in companies; we are all called upon to engage in life-long learning. A person must actively take the time to learn – and plan this into his or her schedule on a regular basis. Individual responsibility plays a major role here.

What can and should a person do by all means to perfectly tailor prevailing management methods to the coming digital age in order to not miss the boat when it comes to the market of tomorrow?

It is important to be open to changes and keep one’s finger on the pulse of the time. Interaction with others is helpful here; people certainly need to pay very close attention to creating and maintaining networks. At Telekom, we have an in-house social network in which employees and executives can interact on all topics. For me, it is very important to be active there. I would like to know what issues are of concern to employees, and the things they like or view in a critical light. If there are networks like this in your own organisation, use them. And another tip: take continuing education devoted to a topic that has nothing to do with your core business. I recently completed a course in coding, and it was a super experience.

To what extent will you realise measures comparable to levelUP! in future to strengthen your management on the path towards digitality?

Even today, levelUP! is not a stand-alone offer, but rather part of a genuine ecosystem. In succession and skills management, we are breaking new ground, introducing digital learning for everyone throughout the Group and redesigning the recruiting and performance processes. This is an all-round package to help ensure that the right people with the right skills are in the right place in the digital age.  Digital leadership is a mega-topic. 

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Dr Elke Frank has been Senior Vice President of Human Resources Development at Deutsche Telekom since November 2015. One of her areas of focus is digitisation in the world of work. At Telekom, she is driving the topic of ‘digital learning’, among others. In her book, ‘Out of Office’, the attorney with a doctoral degree describes how the importance of flexible work is increasing through digitisation. 

Picture credits © Deutsche Telekom

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