Sebastian Brandis

Executive Director,
Stiftung Menschen für Menschen—
Karlheinz Böhms Äthiopienhilfe
(Humans for Humans Foundation) 

What were your early years like?
I was born in Berlin, the first of four children. My father became a professor, and I grew up in a very academic and cultural way. We lived in a number of places, including New York and various cities in Germany. Our extended family is spread across the world, as many had to leave during World War II because of their Jewish origin. I studied physics, mathematics, and philosophy. I [earned] my master’s degree at Cambridge, and my Ph.D. in Hamburg.

When and where do you find yourself happiest now?
I try to spend as much time with my family as possible. I have four children, two sons and two daughters, between the ages of 16 and 21. Our older two children have moved out because they’re in school, and the other two still live at home with me and my wife. We all love traveling and playing music. My wife plays the cello and I play the piano.

What drew you to Humans for Humans?
I’ve always been engaged in work that had a social impact, even when I was at large corporations, and moving into the nonprofit side had been on my mind for a while. When I was 49, I thought: Now it’s time. Either I jump now or never.

“Menschen für Menschen” is well known for successfully building integrated rural development programs in Ethiopia. We go into a region identified by the local government, do a feasibility study, and then implement a long-term program with a high level of involvement of the local community to help the poorest of the poor by focusing on five pillars — sustainable land management; water, sanitation, and hygiene; education; health; and women development. In every region, we always work on the five pillars at the same time to build near-term solutions and long-term sustainable communities. We try to develop a region holistically. On average, we stay in the region for 15 years, and then we return five years later to evaluate the progress.

What do you usually find after those five years?
It’s remarkable. All the regions where we’ve worked have continued to sustainably develop and progress. During our organization’s 37-year history, we’ve built more than 400 schools. We’ve added more than 2,000 drinking points. We’ve immunized nearly 200,000 children.

I think our success is rooted in the fact that we listen to the real need, require participation, and work as truly integrated teams. All that is possible only because 95 percent of our people are Ethiopians. Yes, we are European funded and we are German originated. But we have only 25 people working in Germany. We have 700 Ethiopians working with us on the ground. And what needs to be done on the ground is decided by Ethiopians, on an eye-to-eye level with the local community.

Our biggest challenge now is that we’re embarking on a transformation process because the world around us has changed. Development needs are changing on the African continent, as is the way the donation market works. For one, transparency and impact have become more and more important, [and they are enabled] by new technologies. Therefore, we also need to think about data and sustainable measurements. So, in my role, I can apply a lot of my business background.

What initially drew you to a consulting career?
I was kind of a black sheep, breaking out of the academic environment and going into business. But after I finished my Ph.D., I realized I didn’t want to spend my career in research that might not make an impact for 20 years or more. Instead, I wanted to apply my skills quickly and drive change. So, after my scholarship program, I accepted several interviews with leading companies. In the end, I was most drawn to the people at Strategy& (then Booz & Company) because they were all smart and enthusiastic about their work, but they also had children and spoke about their personal lives outside the office. That balance was always important for me.

What are some lasting lessons you took from your time at Strategy&?
I learned how to build a business, and the importance of communication. I also learned a tremendous amount about people management across borders and among different cultures. As a consultant, I worked in a variety of places, including Austria and Sweden as well as in Germany. And wherever we operated, while we were very business-oriented, we also had a clear sense of what being a human is really about. I learned that our work was about much more than numbers and making money (even though I have a strong interest in numbers).

Why did you decide to leave Strategy& and join the BT Group (then British Telecom)?
When the opportunity arose to take greater responsibility of a business, I couldn’t pass it up. My role at BT gave me the chance to build a brand and structures in a completely new market. Liberalization of the telco market in Europe was a “cowboy” time, and I had a great time being part of it. I stayed at BT for 12 years.

Then another opportunity arose that I couldn’t turn down: A friend recruited me to join his midsized data center company, e-shelter, where I had the freedom to make real changes and have an impact. The organization grew significantly before it was ultimately sold, which gave me the time and resources to think about what to do next. After about a year, I joined Humans to Humans. And since then, I’ve traveled to Ethiopia three times. It’s such a beautiful, fertile country, and the people are so nice. I’ve fallen in love with the country and our work there.

Who or what has inspired you?
There isn’t really a single person. As a child, I met a lot of Jewish ancestors who had to flee during the war and then they came back to visit. They had incredibly inspiring personalities, and I aspired to be like them — with a very strong will to live and…looking at things in a broad, humanistic way. I’ve always admired people who are balanced; they have a big amount of knowledge and impact, and aren’t compromising on their ideals.

How do you inspire others as a leader?
If I do, I think it is through enthusiasm and generating ideas to believe in. In change management, especially, I like to share my vision of a success story — never give up on finding ideas to overcome a challenge. As people have an emotional attachment to what they do, I also think it is important to demonstrate personal appreciation of the people who have worked so hard for so long. It’s important for people to feel heard and appreciated. And change is also an important part of growth — for individuals and organizations.

How would the people closest to you describe you?
I think they’d say I’m energetic, and that I can get easily excited about ideas and new projects. I’m also a people person who likes to listen and take time with people, while focusing on speed and efficiency. I like to get things done.

Looking back, what do you consider your greatest accomplishment so far?
I’ve never thought about this question before, but maybe I can share one example outside business: I once organized an opera. When our first three children were pretty young, we rented a house in Italy, I hired a small cast of singers and players, as well as a cook, and we spent two weeks rehearsing and then performing. My brother is a professional director, so he did all the directing. It was really like heaven. And I don’t think that would have happened if I hadn’t organized it. I think back on it with great memories.

What’s next for you?
Professionally, I’m excited about my work to transform Humans for Humans into something more sustainable than the current model. We’re looking at new ways of generating money as well as new dimensions of development needs to serve, with the goal of creating long-lasting development partnerships. In five years, I’d like other organizations to look to us as innovators. And on the personal side, there are many project ideas in my head still, but most importantly I’d like to continue fostering my friendships, and just spend as much time with my children and my family as possible. That’s the most important thing, after all.

This interview was conducted and edited by Jen Swetzoff, founder of CLOSEUP, a creative content studio in Brooklyn. She was formerly the deputy managing editor at strategy+business magazine.

Follow us