Martin Seiler: We're the Good Guys

Martin Seiler joined Deutsche Bahn (the Bahn; DB) on 1 January 2018 as Chief Officer for Human Resources and Legal Affairs to tackle a mammoth task: the transformation from a traditional German corporate group into a modern employer and mobility service provider. As if the challenges of digitalization on the agenda were not enough, he must also deal with a generation change on a grand scale. This year alone, about 22,000 new employees will be brought on board. How can this be accomplished? In a conversation with Marc Wagner, Martin Seiler offers a look behind the scenes.

Detecon: Mr. Seiler, you moved from Deutsche Telekom to Deutsche Bahn almost 2 years ago. What is different, where do you see parallels, and what has surprised you?

Martin Seiler: Both companies are in the midst of a comprehensive transformation process. Deutsche Bahn is on its way from a traditional transport and logistics company to an innovative, digital mobility corporation. And the excitement of breaking new ground is tremendous throughout the group. This is also reflected in our new umbrella strategy Starke Schiene [Powerful Rail].

If you ask us, a consulting firm, what would happen in Germany if we suddenly ceased to exist, the answer would probably be simple: nothing! If you ask Deutsche Bahn this question, the answer will be different. That is most likely both a bit of a curse and a blessing for the Bahn. On the one hand, society has charged you with a major responsibility; on the other, you are competing with many small providers that are growing rapidly from day to day. How do you assess this situation?

Working for a company that plays an essential and fundamental role for mobility in Germany – and does so very ecologically – is special as well as fascinating. Our new strategy addresses precisely this issue: active climate protection. We are talking about millions of people whom we transport safely, punctually, and reliably from A to B. It is about the economy, about freight transport, and, to no small degree, about Europe. We connect countries and build bridges between nations. This mandate fuels our drive to perform anew every single day; it is our “purpose,” the reason why we want to get out of bed in the morning. I am more than happy to contribute my hard work to the creation of the organizational and cultural framework required to realize this purpose.

The key question is whether we have the necessary capacity. There are essentially three major elements in this respect. First, we have the question of infrastructure, i.e., tracks, signal boxes, stations, etc. Second, we have the rolling stock, the trains themselves. We will be investing several billion euros in this area over the next few years. And third, of course, there is the need to bring qualified and motivated personnel on board. The immediate challenge for us here is that in the next ten to twelve years about half of the workforce in Germany will be leaving us as these colleagues retire. We have already begun recruiting on a major scale in preparation. This year alone, we will bring a good 22,000 new employees on board, and another 100,000 will join them in the coming years. And the job does not stop with finding, recruiting, qualifying, and integrating these new employees into the company. This handover to the next generation also involves a transformation from a traditional company with a lot of know-how and experience into a modern mobility service provider. This is our second major task: enhancing the capabilities of our current employees and preparing them for the new era, expanding their know-how, and making their knowledge available to the newcomers. The railroad workers who have been with us for 20, 30, or 40 years cannot be appreciated enough.

So it’s not about doing a better job with fewer people; it’s about mastering this all-encompassing metamorphosis and closing the huge skills gap that it will create.

Right. We must build a bridge between tradition and innovation. Transformation in general means finding new processes, new products, new forms of work, and finally landing in the digital age. A smoothly functioning transfer of knowledge and effective generation management are essential prerequisites. The fact that demographic circumstances will force us to replace a major proportion of our workforce is a challenge, yes, but it is also an opportunity. But the scattergun principle will not get us very far. The Bahn is simply too complex. We have employees from 500 different professions, and we ourselves train people in 50 professions. This is clear proof of our diversity and is as well evidence of the opportunities to pursue a career within the company, to continue personal development without having to leave the corporation.

There’s a wonderful buzzword making the rounds among consultants: ambidexterity. Whatever is already in place must become more efficient and better without simply throwing everything out the window. Yet at the same time, the new must be allowed to challenge the old. These two concepts cannot be implemented completely independently of each other; they must, in a manner of speaking, have a common denominator. How is that possible?

Ambidexterity hits the nail on the head. We are in exactly this situation. On the one hand, we have to deliver good quality and punctuality for our customers day after day, but at the same time, we must set our course for the future. That's why we ask ourselves difficult questions. What about tomorrow and the day after tomorrow? What must we consider when envisioning the mobility of the future? What qualifications will be required? In our future labs, we are examining the question of how the professions in our industry will change. What new forms of cooperation will there be? How do I create a more flexible organization? Conversely, this means that we have to do both. One side of the coin is that we must have concrete solutions for the here and now; the other side is that we need to occupy the fields of the future. We are in close contact with many partners, such as the labor unions or the Ministry of Transport, in the “Rail Alliance for the Future.”

This is a key topic of our work. Indeed, many discussions about new forms of work and flexible, agile working methods are often too narrow in their focus on office workplaces. But we also have to find answers for the tens of thousands of colleagues who work in the operating companies and on site. It is simply not possible for the engineer to take the locomotive to his or her house and work from a home office. But we must find new ways of working for these sectors as well. For example, how can I obtain greater influence on my duty roster? How can I find ways of working that are a better fit with my current life situation? We have already agreed on a number of innovative topics. For instance, our employees can choose between more pay or days off. We have models that enable people to contribute more to their retirement scheme. It is even possible to switch between full-time and part-time employment. We must find ways in all divisions of the company to maintain a balance of interests – those of the customers, of the employees, and of the company. And that is the great challenge. But if we can get it right, it will ultimately contribute to motivation and to our appeal as an employer. Employees want to have a say about the terms and conditions of their employment. This is also very important to me personally. We should talk not only about modern office space, but first and foremost about people, their needs, and showing them that they are appreciated.

The perfect transition to New Work. What does this term mean for you?

New Work is not just a buzzword for me; it specifically relates to how the requirements of our customers as well as of our products, processes, collaboration, and leadership are changing. New forms must be found for all these aspects, from communication and knowledge exchange to training, work models, occupational profiles, and working hours. We must anticipate and analyze today the working world of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. This is also one of the core tasks on which the Study Commission “Vocational Education and Training” of the Bundestag is focusing; in my role as an expert, I represent the business perspective in the Commission’s work and would like to make a contribution that will enable us to bridge the gap between theory and practice.

You have launched an initiative concerning precisely this topic with the title Menschen.Machen.Zukunft [People.Shape.Future]. What exactly is behind this, and what are the main guidelines of this initiative?

Our goals in initiating Menschen.Machen.Zukunft are to promote a group-wide understanding of modern working environments and to develop concrete steps that will prepare DB for the demands of tomorrow. We want to find answers to three basic questions. How will professions and activities change? How will we work together? How will working hours and locations change? In our search for answers, we are currently discussing New Work along the lines of a triad: meaningfulness, responsibility, and active participation. These three things must go hand in hand; they have overlaps and must be weighted equally. These three terms outline a clear framework for what is important to us in the ongoing development of our work and what the focus of our work in the HR department will be in the future. The starting point is more and more often the question of meaningfulness. My experience is that employees no longer stay with a company solely because it has a great name or reputation. It is becoming more and more important that what I do has meaning for me, that I am given responsibility, and that I have opportunities to influence how things are done. This is especially striking in recruiting. Many people come to the Bahn, for example, because they want to be part of a sustainable product and be involved in creating it. This will become even more significant as time goes by because the loyalty of employees to their employer is increasingly a function of meaningfulness.

I’d like to know more about this. What does having an impact mean, or what does the opportunity to play an influencing role mean for your employees?

Working time is a fundamental point of this issue. For example, we now have around 250 decentralized working time projects in which employees are directly involved in the creation of duty rosters. This can be quite banal: the draft of duty roster is laid on the table, and the team looks it over together and makes adjustments. But we also have tools that help people to trade shifts with one another, for example. Over 20,000 operational employees can have a hand in setting up their duty rosters, and this facilitates the reconciliation of their private lives with their work. We are also breaking new ground when it comes to work content – for example, through the use of VR goggles for qualification programs and knowledge transfer. Users can see what has to be done in the workshop and practice the steps virtually in a world that is astonishingly real. That sounds banal at first, but is very helpful in practice. We don’t have to take a train out of the system to train employees how to carry out repairs, so it isn’t missing on the tracks, either. We have also decided, for example, that by the end of this year all employees in Germany will be provided with either a smartphone or a tablet to give them access to the digital world. This helps with information and communication, but is also an aid to knowledge transfer. We are striking out on new, innovative pathways that are practical and that we can follow together with our employees to shape jointly our channels of cooperation.

When we talk about motivation and the desire for meaningfulness, I quickly come across a third facet that is one of the current HR topics, namely, responsibility. When we talk about agility, we almost immediately talk about the fact that managers must learn to hand over responsibility to their employees. Just as necessary, however, is that employees are willing and able to assume responsibility. This is almost a rhetorical question: Is this an issue for the Bahn? How do you approach it?

Absolutely. When we talk about agile forms or methods of work, we do not mean that everyone can decide what to do and what not to do as he or she will. For me, agility means working together meaningfully in order to achieve better results in the end. We encourage these new forms of cooperation and self-organization and try them out on agile islands. Our most extensive project at present is our IT subsidiary DB Systel. The entire company with its workforce of several thousand colleagues is striving to transform itself agilely. We are giving more responsibility to the teams, but of course this also demands empowerment. I can’t just flip a light switch to turn on this way of working; it’s an ongoing development process. We are in the process of moving closer together and giving more responsibility to the teams in many different divisions at the Bahn. It will be especially fascinating to see what questions arise from this. Traditional organizations are very strongly characterized by structures and hierarchies. Topics such as remuneration, visibility, and development are directly related to these elements. But if familiar structures change bit by bit, these are exactly the key questions we have to answer. They encompass as well co-determination issues and the question of how we can set up an appropriate collective framework. We are also discussing these points intensively with our social partner. There is a separate project specifically for this issue. In “Co-determination Plus” we look at what cooperation is needed beyond the legal framework for the introduction of agile working methods. So it is a broad spectrum indeed.

A few years ago, we did away with all forms of status symbols on our own cognition: the individual office, the allocated parking space, the hierarchical levels, etc. In an agile environment, this is accompanied by fear of the loss of reputation and the role within the company. How do you deal with the loss of power, which, in all honesty, is only felt to have occurred?

This is replaced by other elements, and these other elements must be an enrichment. Namely, that I have more leeway, can take on more responsibility, that I define myself through content and results. This is a huge cultural change, of course. As is traditional in the German business world, we have been developing and maintaining these types of structures for decades, and they are now being adapted to a new world. This entails a long process until responsibility is more broadly distributed and meaningful tasks take the place of previous structures and workflows. But I am convinced that ultimately people will have more fun and find greater fulfillment in their work while at the same time customers will enjoy better products.

What does all this mean for you as chief HR officer and for the HR organization? What is your part in this great transformation with regard to social aspects?

We see that the cycles of change are accelerating, and that generates uncertainty among employees. In response, we must create frameworks that provide security and can lay an important foundation for successful change. At DB, for example, we have unlimited protection from dismissal and a clear collective bargaining agreement stipulating that employees are entitled to qualification training when they are impacted by digitalization. This gives them a sense of security. We don’t just call out to the workforce: “This is where the great digitalization is taking place and everything is changing!” Instead, we look clearly at the unit, at each individual whenever possible, to see how what processes will change and what we can do for the individual to make the path a successful one. In our HR Future Lab “Future Prospects for Professions in the Railroad Industry,” for example, we look many years ahead, proactively develop future occupational profiles, and determine the appropriate requirement profiles and the necessary skills. Of course, the employer does not bear sole responsibility; the employees must be willing to change. It is a great challenge for me, but also a great pleasure, to be a part of this change process.

Once the great wave of agilization has ebbed, it might soon be followed by the great “how do we create a self-learning organization” wave, at which time the subject of skills building will have to be emphasized much more strongly in the company. What is your view on the subject of learning?

We don’t try to keep up with the latest fashions in management. I’m interested in what is meaningful. After all, we don’t intend to make the entire DB organization per se agile. Instead, every organizational unit must constantly question whether it is achieving its business purpose effectively and efficiently. If suitable methods and forms of organization help people to work together better, we have to ask ourselves this question regularly, and this is the basis for an organization that continues to develop continuously. As far as the professions are concerned, it is also clear that we will be faced with ever faster and greater changes, and we are preparing ourselves to meet this challenge head-on. In other words, we must ask ourselves, for example, whether a profession learned at the beginning of a professional career will still be viable at its end. That will probably no longer be the case; we will most likely learn a second or third profession. So what conditions do I have to create to ensure that obtaining additional qualifications can take place alongside ongoing operations? I have to start with smaller digital bites. And ultimately create a workforce that is ready to face constant change. Ideally, we will even see employees driving us forward at some point and pointing us in the direction of the next steps and products.

The joy of learning often gets lost through education and socialization. I see that again and again in my children. How do you succeed in motivating the workforce?

I believe that in many ways we are no longer even aware of the digital skills we have acquired in recent years. We at the Bahn are working very hard to generate a matching mindset among the workforce. This includes learning that I should never stop learning after a certain point in my life, but that learning will accompany me throughout my entire professional life. A very concrete example: as of September, practically all of our vocational trainees will take part in an innovation workshop. This feature has just been added this year. These trainees from all business divisions will spend three days together and learn methods such as design thinking. Right from the start, we are giving our trainees the opportunity to see that change is part of everyday life. And we are teaching them how to learn and how to develop. Qualifications for the here and now will simply no longer be sufficient for the long term. Today's trainees are the influencers of tomorrow, after all! However, we also know that we have several generations under one roof, which means that we have to communicate knowledge in many different ways.

You’ve often mentioned the fun factor, but in the end it’s also about achieving measurable results. If you now look three years into the future – what yardstick would you like to be used for measuring your success as a CHRO of Deutsche Bahn?

It is a very important point for me that we succeed in driving the major transformation topics forward. This primarily includes bringing a large number of new people on board and integrating them into our company, securing their loyalty, and developing them. This can easily be measured – for example, when we hire 22,000 new people this year. Employee satisfaction is also very important to me. We regularly conduct group-wide employee surveys to determine the level of this satisfaction. Another point revolves around the topic of culture, which is a matter of development and loyalty, but also of success. If we also succeed in leading the Starke Schiene project to success, then I will have made my contribution.

Finally, an elevator pitch: when you are conducting an interview today, what do you tell the potential employee to explain why he or she should come to the Bahn?

We’re the good guys. We can provide mass mobility that is ecologically friendly. We are very, very diversified and offer countless development opportunities. And – we are a great team.

Thank you, Mr. Seiler, for these insights. We wish Deutsche Bahn every success when implementing the forthcoming changes and hope you continue to enjoy your challenging task.

The interview was conducted by Marc Wagner.