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“You don’t learn crisis in business school”

Leadership will become one of the biggest bottlenecks, says Thomas Sattelberger. In a SUITS. Talk with Inga Empt and Jürgen Müller the former board member of Deutsche Telekom and current member of German parliament talks about how we should deal with the crisis.

You were personally affected by Covid-19. How are you doing today?

I had a very mild course of illness and am now very healthy and vital. I am a little bored because the political business is so inhibited for a simple member of the Bundestag. I’m already missing the battles of words and arguments in the committee.

How do you see the government dealing with the crisis?

The final outcome is drawn up at the end. Germany has not been prepared for such a pandemic. I experienced SARS as a member of the Lufthansa Executive Board and during my time at Telekom I experienced the swine flu. We didn’t draw lessons from that. I am extremely concerned about how the economy will face after Corona. This will outreach the disruptions caused by September 11 and SARS by far.

However, politicians are trying to soften the consequences as much as possible.

A completely different topic is now coming up with the question of company investments. I see with great concern that the Green Party and Social Democrats want to use the Lufthansa crisis as an instrument for the ecological turnaround. Politicians have no place as entrepreneurs!

You have gained corresponding experience with Telekom.

The State Secretaries on the Telekom Supervisory Board at that time were not on such a combat mission. I think that’s extremely dangerous. I also think it is problematic from a reputational point of view when state-supported companies pay out dividends and bonuses. In this case I would strongly advise company managements not to act in a legalistic way, but to listen to the people, who react very unpleasantly to such a thing. Adidas has felt the effects of this recently when they tried to misuse a law that was introduced to protect tenants. I wouldn’t prescribe this to the companies, but I think it’s a matter of common decency.

You spoke in an interview about your fear “that we will have to rebuild on an economy that is already partly in ruins.” Are we the new ‘Trümmerfrauen’?

Historical analogies are always a bit difficult, but we have a rebuilding to do. The main victims will be the solo self-employed and smaller companies. At the same time, Corona is facing a pre-existing recessionary development in medium-sized companies. There is an obvious chance that this rebuilding work will be used for a digital offensive. Up to now, medium-sized companies have been extremely hesitant in dealing with topics regarding digitalisation. In this respect, there is a chance, if appropriate incentives will be set.

How do you see the demands of the automotive industry for state support in this context?

I think nothing of it! I am a fan of setting general stimuli. And if the car industry is intelligent enough to use them wisely and become more innovative, then I would be happy.

At the moment, the state is spending money at full stretch. How long will we be able to afford it?

Fortunately, we have handled the debt brake pretty good in the past few years. Tax revenues were high and not everything was being spent. Our debts were lowered. In this respect we are in a much better position than other countries. Germany has a relatively good credit rating, and if we can perhaps manage an economic miracle 2.0 with the rebuilding, it´s possible to reduce the debt again.

The crisis has shown how little is actually being produced in Germany. This does not only apply to textiles, but also to medicines, which often come from China, for example. Do we still want to afford these dependencies in future?

I believe that we need a completely different kind of sovereignty in the area of medical technology, vaccine development, pharmaceutical industry, food industry and also in the area of IT than we have today. This world is becoming a world of blackmailers. China is now shamelessly using its economic power to put pressure on other nations. As Germany or Europe, I do not want to be dependent – neither on Trump nor on a Chinese president. What does that mean in concrete terms? It means making settlement attractive. Encourage spin-offs from universities and other scientific institutions.

To what extent do the demands on management change during the crisis? What skills does a good corona manager need?

Unfortunately, the last two generations of managers have never really experienced a crisis. You don’t learn that in a business school. Transformation is a leadership topic first. I assume that leadership will be one of the biggest bottlenecks. Take the “old” Trigema boss, he is crisis-proven! Others, on the other hand, are stuck in their routines, which they have learned, stuck in linear upward planning, which no longer works. This is what worries me the most: we are now learning the crisis in one of the worst crises – the biggest since World War II.

Does the country need new managers?

These 38 years old yuppies, who are supposed to run companies, are not up to the task.

What are the characteristics of a good crisis manager?

He has to cope with restructuring and building up at the same time. Maybe not act simultaneously, but think simultaneously. Unfortunately, most companies are now experiencing the old reflexes, which basically mean job cuts and cost reductions. We have to be able to adapt quickly when things start to pick up again. Secondly, we need to have reserves in the area of innovative ability. The companies will set the spiral of efficiency in motion. They must not forget that there is also a spiral of innovation.

Do you think that there are structural differences in the companies? Do mobile medium-sized companies perhaps find it easier to operate than listed stock corporations with all their constraints?

I would rather see it the other way round. We have an overaging of many medium-sized companies. They are often more conservative in their investment behavior. I do not mean the hidden champions, but my concern is for the many hundreds of thousands of small and medium-sized companies. The big ones will survive, or they will die. Let me say quite affectionately: even a Thyssen-Krupp has the right to die in dignity.

It sounds as if you wish for a return to old managerial virtues. Do we need more officers again?

People tend to be paralyzed and are waiting for clear announcements. Leadership in a crisis requires clear announcements and military implementation.

Are there personalities who do it well?

Is Elon Musk a great leader? No. But he is a great innovator. There are definite winners. But these are not personalities, but new business models. These are the Zooms, the Netflixes, the Microsofts and Googles. All you can say is: Germany, wake up damn fast now and catch up in the digital economy!

The Germans do sleep?

I’m amazed how speechless top managers in Germany are at the moment. Actually, business leaders – most of whom are men – should be making clear announcements now that life is getting more uncomfortable. And that they are doing everything they can to overcome this uncomfortable situation. We won’t be able to afford the Corona aid a second time. After this, there will be a bitter awakening. This needs to be addressed and people prepared.

Will the crisis lead to a new, more moderate behaviour on the part of management as well?

The German economy has always been and still is better than the misdemeanours of some who really are black sheep, such as Winterkorn. In every crisis the doomsday summoners on the one hand and the saviours for a better and new world on the other come. I can do little with either. For me it would really be enough if Germany came through this crisis in a socially acceptable way, and if we took the end of the Corona crisis as our starting point to renew ourselves a little. I also believe that this will probably be somewhat more sustainable, but we will not be a better society afterwards.

As a young man you have been on the barricades with Joschka Fischer, later you went into the top management of large corporations and today you sit in the Bundestag as a member of the FDP.

That’s right: I wasn’t a 21-year-old who just followed along. Back then, I helped Joschka Fischer in Stuttgart to set up the student organization and later the revolutionary youth of Germany. That is where I learned how to manage. I am still very glad about this early school. But I experienced there exactly what always happens to left-wing tendencies: they become sectarian and totalitarian. We last saw this with Labour in England, where a social democratic party has almost become an anti-semitic party. Of course I do want a better world as well. But the radical change in the mind never leads to a good solution socially.