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Leadership expert Alexandra Kröger on the ideal recruitment process, good and bad coaching, and communication in times of crisis.

The word crisis has been on everyone’s lips for a long time. Now it is here, in the consumer goods industry. The wave of insolvencies is rolling and it is unsettling even those not directly affected by it. What advice do you give entrepreneurs and managers in dealing with employees facing uncertainty?

There is a story that comes to my mind where a stroller meets a woodcutter in the forest, who is laboriously trying to cut down a tree with his blunt axe. The stroller asks the woodcutter why he does not sharpen his tool. To which the worker replies that he has no time for it, as he still needs to cut down the tree. It may be an empty phrase, but crisis ‘are always good times for opportunities and change: setting new priorities, doing things better, shifting focus from shareholders to customers.

That might be the perspective of shareholders and top management. But you will not manage to reassure employees fearing for their jobs. On the contrary.

 I am not so sure about it. Employees understand much more than management often tends to think. In the many years I have been accompanying transitions and change processes with my team, we mostly had to deal with employees very much being aware of the changes needed for the business to survive. In our experience, employees are not so much afraid of the change itself, but of the journey. Of the uncertain process. Here you must provide close communication support. This means that you must create space to express concerns and use communicative formats with content that takes employees by the hand along the way. In other words, we should not only talk about a glorious future, but also about the actual difficulty and the clearly outlined path to get out of it together.

“Employees understand much more than management often tends to think.”

What is the role of HR leaders in these uncertain times?

It is about proactively supporting to ensure that staff is well informed, safe and productive and thus able to respond appropriately to changing conditions. This is where I would sometimes like to see HR play a more active role. Of course, this requires higher involvement by management or the board.

Companies are reacting to declining turnover with cost-cutting programmes. In your opinion, what impact does this have on areas such as training and human resource development?

In my observation, it is more about cutting the overall headcount, rather than cutting overall human resource development measures.

What is the priority of leadership coaching in times like these? Quite a high one, I guess?

You are right! Executive coaching programmes can help leaders learn to better deal with the challenges and uncertainties of crisis situations. This is mainly about mentoring with honest feedback. But it is also about the outside view, about bringing in an external perspective. Like dealing with a gap in experience or helping during a decision-making process and ultimately dealing with pressure and loneliness. In the end, we all know that no one really speaks up to the boss.

What can a good coach do? What do you discuss with your coachees?

Of course, it depends a lot on the experience of the executive consultant: how many crises has he or she been through together with clients? Experience from other sectors also helps. My priority with clients is on setting the right focus: what needs to be done in the first place and what focal points and priorities need to be set. This is often difficult, even for experienced managers, because it is not about what they are particularly good at, but about what they have not practised for years.

Regardless of the current situation, how do you see the market for coaching developing? One has the impression that today everyone who is reorienting professionally, is engaging into a coaching programme

That is true! Especially older job-seeking academics or women who have had a child break are increasingly being offered coaching courses, subsidised by the employment offices or as part of an outplacement package. We have also been asked several times to offer such training.

You are not convinced of it, are you?

No. The whole thing is not effective! These 8–12-week trainings are neither good for developing people so that they a) have the knowledge that enables them to really help managers, nor b) that they are didactically capable of passing on this knowledge. Very basic things are often lacking, such as the ability to read a balance sheet or the understanding of common KPIs. In my company, I like to work with consultants who have a sound education in professional and organisational psychology, so that they are not only a sparring partner for the management, but also have sufficient intervention tools to initiate sustainable changes.

Some also consider a coaching training a kind of self-help therapy.

In fact, I do consider these trainings as a valuable help for self-help source. However, one should not suggest to those many new coaches, a market that simply does not exist for them.

“Hiring the right people and not doing the hiring right is certainly more resource-efficient.”

What makes a good coach?

A good executive coach has a profound knowledge of management and should know general micro- as well as macro-economic contexts. In addition, he or she should have a profound psychological knowledge in order to confidently use tools from different schools of thought, rather than applying learned tools whose origins are unknown to him or her.

Before thinking about human resource development, shouldn’t one first optimise recruitment processes?

That is my favourite question! Yes, absolutely! This is where you can save a lot of money as a company. Hiring the right people and not doing the hiring right is certainly more resource-efficient.

What is your experience in this respect?

Often, it is the stakeholder analysis that is neglected in particular in recruiting.

What do you mean by that?

What are the requirements placed on a candidate by all other parties involved, with whom he or she will have to deal in the company? These needs are seldom only of a content-related nature, but above all they are essential behavioural needs. These typical behavioural characteristics can be collected in a simple way and thus the fit to the company as well as to the position can be checked in advance. You should always use this holistic approach for highly paid positions. Because the costs of  diagnostics are disproportionate to the costs of a wrong appointment.

What role do diagnostic tools play?

I still learned to take a behavioural pattern history by asking questions, but fortunately science has developed considerably in this area over the last 10-15 years. There are now top-class methods that clearly stand out from the old classics such as the MBTI or the DISC model and have a quality that makes it easy for us to draw valid and reliable conclusions.

“It is particularly important for the team, the management and the shareholders that after the famous first 100 days, the onboarding is completed and the first mini-successes together become visible.”

Can tests replace experience and gut feeling?

This is not an easy question to answer. After all, gut feelings are nothing more than mini-sequences of stored experiences in the unconsciousness. Let me put it this way: as long as the person making the judgement has a “clean” perception and is able to recognise projections on his or her part and is aware of his or her own drivers, then the inclusion of “gut feeling” is a good thing. Personally, I prefer the combination of tools and personal impression.

You also support companies with the onboarding of new managers. How much demand is there for this service?

In the past, this was especially common in the English-speaking world, but it is also becoming more and more popular in Germany and the DACH region. The driver is the fast ROI in terms of new appointments.

Why is this so important?

The more the new job holder can focus on the essentials, the gathering of information, and get his or her entry organised with the addition of stakeholder analysis, team analysis and analysis of the current situation, the faster he or she can get started. It is particularly important for the team, the management and the shareholders that after the famous first 100 days, the onboarding is completed and the first mini-successes together become visible.

What are typical challenges that arise during onboarding?

 Certainly, the many impressions and new situations one is confronted with in a new environment, is not always easy when having to focus and concentrate on the right and important things.

Can the success of onboarding support be measured?

 Absolutely and quite directly! The onboarding time is significantly reduced. Communication bottlenecks are professionally identified and communication bottlenecks identified and eliminated professionally at the beginning. This leads to significantly less friction and more transparency and clarity in all areas concerned.

Last question: What motivates you to work at this interface between people and companies?

I see the added value of my work primarily in optimising the interface of ‘human to human’. For me, it is about doing justice to economic objectives and, ideally, at the same time taking human needs and individual goals into account. I find it exciting every day to bring both into harmony and to give people new perspectives that fundamentally improve their lives as employees and employers. That is what drives me again and again.

Alexandra Kröger is the owner of Powerful Minds. She brings her expertise as an experienced coach and HR developer to SUITS.Diagnostics and supports our clients in the onboarding of candidates. All with the aim of ensuring the most perfect fit possible.