General Manager Hitachi Solutions Europe (Germany)
After many years in consulting, Strategy& alumnus Rolf Adam held several positions in the IT industry. Today, as general manager for Germany at Hitachi Solutions Europe, he drives massive transformation processes and is enthusiastic about the Japanese approach to long-term business planning and personnel management. Rolf generously shared with us what he has learned about leadership in the course of his impressive career, his take on the differences between consulting and industry work, and the freedom his pilot’s license gives him.
What motivated you to become part of Strategy& and to stay there for such a long time?
I had a great time at Strategy&, even though undertaking projects alongside customers was not always easy. To be fair, this is part of the challenge all consultants face, and one which I truly enjoyed. One thing that characterizes the job at Strategy& is that it is not always about being “right” with respect to the next steps your customers should take. It is about using your expertise and the expertise of your colleagues to help your customers make progress in their respective industries and steer them in the right direction.
Additionally, the international setting at work certainly created an amazing working environment, and every single assignment abroad was a great learning experience. All in all, it was this mixture of exciting projects, great colleagues, and the opportunity to develop myself further that convinced me to remain part of Strategy& for all these years.
After several years of consulting you switched to the industry sector. You told us that the biggest challenge of your new job lay in human resources and staff management—an aspect which had not played an important role in your career before. How did you acquire your HR skills and experience?
At the start at least, I acquired most of my skills on the job. At Cisco, where I worked after my time in consulting, the teams I was responsible for were made up of consultants and sales executives. It was therefore important that I become better at assessing people and their strengths and weaknesses. I was fortunate to do a one-year leadership program at Cisco, where I learned a lot about leading people and teams.
What was the biggest challenge of managing teams?
Consultancies have very explicit hierarchies and career paths. The selection of staff in the recruiting process usually brings on board very young consultants who have above-average motivation to be successful, and an above-average work ethic. Managing people means telling people what to do and considering it done. In industry, managing people means something completely different. Those who regard people merely as a resource will not get far. People need leadership, and leadership requires close cooperation with people. A big challenge is striking the right balance between being a manager and being a colleague, especially when it comes to leading more senior employees or being confronted with people’s problems in everyday life.
Another big difference between consulting and industry is that in industry it is considered acceptable to question your superiors, whereas when I was in consulting the hierarchies were much more pronounced. Some people may think of consulting as a business where hierarchies are generally flat, but this was not the case at all. (However, a lot of things may have changed by now, because there has been a generational change since I worked in consulting.)
How did you establish a more open working culture in your new role? I imagine it must have been difficult to adapt to this new environment.
I decided not to have my own office room at the companies I worked for. In an open office plan workspace (back then desk-sharing or home offices opportunities weren’t as popular or widespread as they are now), I can freely talk to colleagues from across all hierarchy levels instead of sending them emails from my office, which makes it a lot easier to form an open and functioning working relationship with them.
In addition, I decided not to reward employees who were higher up the hierarchy with any special treatment or gadgets that could enable them to demonstrate their power to other colleagues. At Hitachi Solutions, for example, we take a very egalitarian approach and do not tolerate any behavior that goes against this policy. It is not our philosophy to focus exclusively on personal achievements, but rather to create something for the long-term good of all stakeholders, something that has the potential to even outlast our existence.
That is a very interesting and ambitious concept. How do you convey this philosophy to your colleagues?
As a company that has operated for 100 years, Hitachi favors a sustainable, long-term business strategy—an approach that is practiced in the everyday working life at the company. Success over the years is more important than the short-term flash in the pan. The tenets of “harmony, sincerity, and pioneering spirit” reflect our corporate culture, and we expect people who work for Hitachi Solutions to embrace them. When it comes to harmony, the idea is not to always engage in a harmonious, conflict-free working relationship with colleagues and business partners, but to build something together with customers and to always try to achieve the very best results for them. It is, of course, important to keep short-term and medium-term business goals in mind. However, the idea behind this long-term approach is that the most important factor in business is trust. It takes a long time to establish a trusting relationship with business partners and you must work hard to achieve it.
So when it comes to handling crises, for example, Hitachi aims to keep the interests of close business partners in mind and may, for instance, decide to keep financially troubled affiliated companies and try to solve the problem with them together instead of just selling them right away. The idea is, firstly, to build trust with business partners and show them that we stand by their side even in difficult times, and, secondly, to pursue a social and employee-friendly corporate policy. The aspects of sustainability and of pursuing a long-term strategy are reflected in every action and decision taken by our managers.
What advice would you give to current or former colleagues?
It may be good advice for some consultants not to take themselves too seriously. I remember some ambitious, quite self-centered senior consultants who exerted a lot of pressure on their staff members without achieving any tangible results. You can compare this situation to an engine which, run at full load, still does not perform as you intended. On the contrary, the constant stress will eventually lead to mechanical fatigue. In the same vein, I believe that exerting too much pressure on your team members can wear them down and get you nowhere. In my opinion, this is a problem that occurs all too often in the consultancy business. Senior consultants should therefore know when to reduce the workload or when to cancel less important meetings if it will help lower the stress level in their teams.
If there is one piece of additional advice I can give, then it is to take some time off, travel, and have new experiences. A turning point in my career certainly was a four-month break which I used to travel with my wife. This time helped me to take many things that consultants consider important less seriously and to focus on what is truly important in life. At work you always meet new and interesting people, but you hardly ever are able to really get to know them. These four months, however, gave me the opportunity to have profound discussions with a lot of people, which was absolutely great. And when, at the end of our trip - my wife and I were just waiting for our flight at Munich Airport - I overheard a discussion between two consultants about Lufthansa mileage programs, which seemed totally unimportant and absurd to me. But I quickly realized that at one stage, it could probably have been me discussing mileage programs in that lounge.
You have worked for many years in managerial roles for IT companies. What are, in your opinion, the biggest challenges for companies today compared to the early 2000s?
In view of the increasing importance of IT and digitization, it seems to me that change comes about faster today. It is more important today than ever before that companies embrace this technological change quickly, and at the same time do not lose track of their long-term goals—it is a difficult balancing act that entrepreneurs must perform.
To what extent can companies actively embrace this change and plan digitization?
Digitization is neither a miracle cure nor the great unknown. [Pursuing] digitization means being able to optimize business processes and interactions with third parties such as suppliers or customers. Companies that are convinced that digital technologies will give them an advantage will certainly be able to plan the entire process. And it is not the case that companies are not aware of the advantages that technologies offer them. They know that digitization makes processes more efficient or enables them to develop new business models. In my view, the classic planning cycles have not changed fundamentally. Companies still have to think about their long-term planning (five years) and then break it down into medium-term planning (three years) and the next fiscal year. One of the biggest challenges they are facing, however, is how they can involve their employees in this whole process. The insurance business is a very good example of this. The traditional administrative processes in the insurance industry are increasingly being replaced by digital processes. This means that some 20 percent of staff may become redundant in the future. The challenge therefore lies in the fact that companies may have to dismiss hundreds, if not thousands of people—depending on their size—and they would have to communicate these painful job cuts to their employees, to their shareholders, and to the media. It is challenges such as this that are difficult to overcome and that, in my view, still delay the digitization process in Germany. Other countries are quicker to react and adapt to such developments.
Let’s talk about your hobbies. We heard you decided to get a pilot’s license. What is the story behind that?
I became fascinated with flying when I was a teenager. For some time, I even entertained the idea of becoming a professional pilot. But I wear glasses, which made it impossible for me to ever work for a company such as Lufthansa. I remained interested in flying, though, and decided to train as a pilot in my free time. The whole process started when I got my first license in 2001, and it took me some 20 years to complete the full professional training. It was one of those things I wanted to be able to strike off my bucket list some day. I am also able to combine my flying skills with my business travels and I fly to many business meetings myself, which gives me a great deal of flexibility.