For Strategy& Alumnus Markus Hilkenbach, the new decade began with a new position as CEO of the Wuppertal municipal utilities. In this position, he is currently guiding his company through the global coronavirus crisis, paving the way toward a new normality, and developing strategies for the future of mobility. After instructive years in consulting, Markus returned to industry in 2010, where he has since held several C-level management positions in municipal utility companies. Looking back at his successful career, Markus candidly shared with us his experiences in the consulting industry, the differences to working in industry, his challenges as a crisis manager, and his visions for the future.
Before your time as a consultant, you worked in the energy industry. What drew you to change to consulting back then?
I started out at a large company with very complex structures at the time. I wanted to learn about new topics, other industries, and the market beyond corporate structures. Consulting is characterized by working in dynamic teams to develop many strategies a short time. That’s what appealed to me.
Looking back at your years at Strategy&*, what did you learn during your time as a consultant that you can still benefit from today?
After the energy company and a couple of years with Kienbaum, I didn’t come to Strategy& as a very young beginner. But at first, I felt like I was back in training, not primarily in terms of functional skills but rather in terms of work intensity, client expectations, and presentation techniques. In any case, what I learned in my time as a consultant was analytical thinking. In other words, I learned not only to process and understand complex issues, but also to prepare and structure them in a comprehensible form. The inner logic that becomes part of you as a consultant can be very useful throughout your life, both privately and professionally. To this day, I still appreciate the practice of sharing one’s work results with others in order to make the outcome better. I learned and internalized this back at Strategy& and I still actively live it today.
Talking about collaboration: When we compare teaming in consulting and industry, which is better?
To work in a high-quality consulting environment is incontrovertibly a privilege—and to work in international agile teams with motivated professionals and challenging new projects is fantastic. It may be the best job you can have! Nevertheless, the structures can sometimes be very competitive, people — as always in life — do not necessarily get along with each other, and there is often high attrition pressure. This “one-way development” is a little different in my industry especially. Of course, we try out agile working methods, too. But we are still very much working in islands and with strong hierarchies. We also must recognize that we have people here and in many other places who cannot or do not want to go faster and faster and higher and higher every day. For certain tasks, this is a good thing. But it also has the consequence that everyone has to be brought along. I cannot take care of only 10 agile “high-flyers.” We must introduce everyone to a new working world together.
About 10 years ago you changed from consulting to management positions in the public sector. What was the reason for your decision to return to industry?
I had never aimed to stay in consulting until retirement, even though in terms of content for me it is the most beautiful profession there is. I was 34 years old when I was offered a CEO position by a municipal utility company. There was a lot of potential in it to develop myself further. It appealed to me to bring my own projects and topics to the streets and to help shape many things in my new position and take on responsibility. That was the main driver for the change. In addition, I had personal considerations about how I wanted to combine family and children with my professional life.
When you took your position as CEO of Wuppertal’s municipal utilities at the beginning of this year, you could not have imagined the situation we are all in today with the coronavirus situation. How do you deal with the challenges and consequences of the pandemic? And what challenges do you as the CEO have to address immediately?
I definitely imagined my first three months differently. In addition to the normal onboarding and the mandatory 100-day program, I already had an appointment with Minister [Peter] Altmaier in the fourth week to discuss the coal phase-out law. And then came COVID-19. I started right away with topics of high traction and high tension.
One of the most important issues for us right from the start of the crisis was to organize a regular overview of all financial facts and liquidity situations among the whole group. Next was to ensure the staffing of the control rooms. We had to ask ourselves how we would deal with a COVID-19 case in one of the teams. So, we also discussed quarantine measures on site, from mobile homes to camp beds. Of course, like many other companies, we first had to get the necessary IT infrastructure in place to ensure that 1,000 of our more than 3,200 colleagues were fit to work from home. The term short-time work was probably also used for the first time in the history of the municipal utilities and implemented in public transport. This was accompanied by topics such as securing liquidity, crisis-related controlling, and organizing digital supervisory board meetings.
So you, like many other companies, reduced working hours and sent employees to work from home where possible. At the same time, many of the jobs in your company are system-relevant. How do you keep your employees motivated and, most importantly in times of COVID-19, safe?
We do our best within the management board to communicate a lot and to make ourselves visible, especially to those employees who have no opportunity to work from home. A large number of our people are needed on site — those working on grid, electricity, gas, water, district heating, power plants, and of course public transport. I myself am in the office every day — and one of the reasons is to send a psychological signal. Independent of crisis squad meetings or other more or less important challenges, the employees see that there is always a car in the parking lot and the CEO is present and committed.
Then there is the issue of occupational safety. We do everything we can, not only to keep up, but also to act ahead of official regulations to guarantee our employees the best possible protection.
For example, what I am currently focusing on is the topic of the “new normal.” What are we going to do when we return to normality? What are we going to do when 1,000 people get out of their home offices again: Will we pretend that nothing has happened, or should we use the momentum to initiate change? And what is the right dose? The last weeks have shown what is already possible in the field of remote working. We are in the middle of the year-end closing and in the middle of a major sales offensive, which works despite the home office situation. So, I am asking myself what this does to management, to teams in dealing with each other, to working methods, to leadership, to internal digitization, to internal workflows, etc.
Let’s now take a look at public transport, a sector that is very much affected by the pandemic. How will the crisis change the supply and demand for public transport?
The exciting topic of mobility was one of the reasons I transferred here. In mid-February, we were still thinking about the expansion of public transport, flexible mobility, and sharing concepts. Now we have a completely contrary development with the mask-wearing obligation and distance regulations. In both scenarios, the issue of long-term financing is very important to public transport. If people work more from home in the future, the previous subscription models will simply no longer be worthwhile for our customers. Hence, we are currently testing alternatives, such as on-demand systems. But we also must keep an eye on reality and costs and realize that it is not so easy to implement distance regulations in school traffic, for example.
Considering the nationwide self-isolation, what do you do in your free time these days?
During the day I am in the office, and beyond that I use the time to talk on the phone with people I haven’t talked to in a long time — for example with former Strategy& colleagues — and of course for my family.
Finally, do you have any advice you would like to share with us, for example something you’ve always wanted to say?
Let’s all just stop taking ourselves so seriously. That might [apply to me] as well. Just because I work hard doesn’t mean I’m more important than others.
*Independently operating as Booz Allen Hamilton (later Booz & Company) at that time