What makes a good manager?

Listening, communicating, taking action – in the crisis, there’s great demand for management qualities. This is no time for hierarchies, says Ines Krummacker, Chief Human Resources Officer DMK

Managers have to be strong for their employees right now. What kind of challenges are they facing?

They are having to draw on their leadership qualities in order to keep their teams together even from afar. They have to work out whether everyone has the right tools to be able to work effectively – whether the tools are in place for people to be able to work together, or if some issues should become a higher or lower priority. Communication is the most important thing, to work out the mood in the team and to respond appropriately. That’s not easy. It’s much easier to sense conflict, undercurrents or sensitivities in person, when you’re around or having a direct conversation.

Does anything become more obvious when you’re having to communicate from a distance?

It shows which managers are really cut out for new ways of working. Many managers lead agile teams who work almost independently on projects. Employees need support and the knowledge that they can contribute their ideas and communicate as equals. A good manager gives their team the stage – there’s no longer any room for the kinds of hierarchies where people are scared of their boss. Nowadays, the opposite is true: employees who are afraid to contribute – and occasionally make mistakes! – are only working by the book. At DMK, people can make mistakes and share their knowledge and ideas – those are the values we live and breathe.

You can often see from a distance whether or not a change process is working out. How is agile working going, and are remote working and collaboration tools working out?

They’re going very well, even if some are still struggling with them. Most people are realizing that new ways of working are possible. That’s partly because before the pandemic, we introduced the MOVE project, optimizing all our working processes in order to create much more efficient ways of doing things. That includes working remotely and also a culture of feedback. We realize that employees need communication, need to be valued and need structure. That means I need to take an interest in them and listen, particularly in tough times. Our colleagues are not only separated from each other in spatial terms, they are also experiencing uncertainty in their personal lives. How can I help them? That’s the question to ask – managers who are putting additional pressure on people will find their teams perform worse in the end.

“A good manager gives their team the stage”

What would have happened if we hadn’t introduced possibilities such as remote working before the pandemic?

Clearly, our administrative teams would not have been able to work and that would not only have constrained or stopped our operational capabilities, it would also have led to short-time working, and insecure jobs.

You’ve worked for DMK for 34 years and you’ve also experienced a different kind of leadership culture. Why was change needed?

At the start of my career, managers – like in many other companies – symbolized better, cleverer people who had a higher status. Employees were clearly subordinate to managers. As a young adult at the company – at the time it was Botterbloom Milch + Eiscrem eG – I would also make canapes for my boss’ birthday party at home, or run out and buy a present for his niece. Crazy, isn’t it, how times have changed? That was normal back then. You wouldn’t catch younger workers doing that these days, they’d think it was very strange. These days, junior employees are aware right from the start whether a company’s executives respect them and let them get involved.

Managers have to be trusting ...

And that’s why even at interview stage, we look at whether potential managers suit our company culture. We make very clear demands of our leadership and when we analyze managers’ potential, we learn a lot about their personalities – even before they come on board.

How do you find out about their personalities?

We don’t go into the details so much as gain a broad overview by asking what’s important to that person, what they are concerned about, and what has shaped their lives. We ask them about the challenges they’ve faced in their lives, and what they want to pass on to their children. We look at their resume and ask questions we think are suitable. We can tell from their answers what kind of framework of values the person has.

Can employees also judge their managers?

Yes, absolutely! We have tried to assess how far our leadership culture is being lived in everyday life in several employee opinion surveys over the past two years. The “ChangeTracker” is anonymous but it can be broken down by teams. The instrument shows which tools and measures managers are using and whether they are achieving the desired results. It also shows where things may be difficult so that managers can address particular issues. And there’s a new measure to help us evaluate executives’ managerial skills and competencies: the Human Capital Index. If this is low, the manager clearly has to develop new measures and work more on their leadership, ideally together with their team.

Who do you see as a good manager?

Someone who knows their own weaknesses and isn’t afraid to name them. No one is perfect and when people accept that, they can show their team that they aren’t infallible. That helps employees lose their own fear of failure. I think mistakes are part of the process of improving. That helps managers to be less distant and be someone that people are able to identify with. A manager should be technically competent, of course, but it’s no good if they have never learned how to deal with difficulties and obstacles.

Ines Krummacker, 50, Chief Human Resources Officer, has worked for DMK for 34 years. After completing her training at the company, she has held all human resources posts before becoming a member of DMK’s management board in 2015 for the personnel sector.