Corporate culture is work - Caroline Schlienkamp

We live in a world characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. The risks facing our customers are changing more and more quickly. In this scenario we can no longer count on a couple of specific individuals upstairs in the boardrooms to make the right decisions at the right time. Instead, it is up to each and every team member to act quickly and flexibly. That takes a healthy corporate culture – one that we need to work on regularly.

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We live in a VUCA world

Everyone's talking about cultural transformation. But why do we actually need to keep changing all the while? The answer is right in front of us: we find ourselves living in a VUCA world. VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Ideally, as an insurer, we should identify our customers' risks before they have even noticed them. Yet advanced technologies, social changes and political developments are changing the risks faced by our customers at an increasingly rapid pace. And the risks are growing significantly in complexity.

In this scenario we can no longer count on a couple of specific individuals upstairs in the boardrooms to make the right decisions at the right time. If we continue on with this outdated approach, we shall be neither quick nor good enough to meet both present and future challenges.

Self-organisation is what is needed

Instead, decisions need to be made where the knowledge is: in the individual teams. We are reliant on having good employees with quality, up-to-date training who act quickly and flexibly, rethink processes and create customer-centric, innovative solutions. The members of staff must organise themselves to a large extent and take the decisions needed for the best outcome independently and with a sense of responsibility.

And this is where corporate culture comes into play. It describes the way in which we interact with one another, how we take decisions, how we define leadership. Over time, it will adapt fluidly to circumstances. In a large, international corporate group it will of course manifest itself somewhat differently from country to country and across the various business units. What matters, though, is that we build the culture on a common framework and share the same fundamental values. At Talanx these are transparency, collaboration and engagement – based on mutual trust.

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Asking the right questions

The manager as role model has a pivotal part to play in corporate culture. Yet at the same time it is incumbent on every individual to take responsibility and ask themselves the right questions: how can we work together as a team such that our results are as excellent tomorrow as they are today? How can we assure the transfer of know-how? How can we put in place processes that are state-of-the-art and future-ready? How can we be innovative and creative even in the hybrid world of New Work?

To get to this point, we have to give the teams the space they need to answer these questions together and set binding rules for themselves. Swarm intelligence is a key catchphrase here. When wide-ranging know-how and individual talent in the team come up against the insights of other units – possibly even with different specialisations – as well as inputs from the customer side, the results are better than would have been possible with decisions taken by individual persons. In this context, the emphasis on performance and the focus on the customer must always remain front and centre.

What's also part of a healthy corporate culture is giving space to the need that everyone feels to be entirely true to themselves. Far too many members of staff feel a subtle pressure to wear a professional mask, to leave a part of themselves behind when they check in for work in the morning. If we are able to make the office a place where everyone participates wholeheartedly, we will all become more involved, we'll advocate for different perspectives, be more creative and the results of our work will improve. In this connection feedback is absolutely vital. It's all about creating a psychologically safe space in which team members can share open, honest and, when necessary, sometimes uncomfortable feedback.

Without culture there can be no transformation

Lastly, culture is also work. A corporate culture evolves and thrives. Cultural transformation can only succeed if we work on it regularly. It’s like a healthy relationship: you have to work on that too – and ideally embrace similar values. And if we also see a common point to our work and pursue the same goals, this gives rise to the healthy three-way combination of purpose, strategy and culture that is necessary for a company to enjoy sustained success. Embedding this "trinity" systemically throughout the organisation is a long and winding road, which can at times also be a rocky one. It is therefore all the more important to carry all members of staff along on this journey – and to persuade doubters that changes at the same time mean opportunities.

About the author

Caroline Schlienkamp is a member of the Board of Management of Talanx AG. In her capacity as Director of Labour Relations and Spokesperson of the Management Board of HDI AG, her scope of responsibility includes the Group's human resources. This text was first published in the German medium Versicherungsmonitor on 12 October 2022.