Fighting Bureaucratic Monsters with Agility and Magenta Dedication

A conversation with Birgit Bohle, CHRO of Deutsche Telekom

Birgit Bohle moved from Deutsche Bahn to the Management Board at Deutsche Telekom in January 2019. During an interview with Detecon Partner Marc Wagner, the chief HR officer and labor director talks about current topics that drive her as a personnel officer: corporate culture, agility and new skilling. But also about pride in one’s work, comfort zones, and shoelaces.

Detecon: Ms. Bohle, you have been a member of the Deutsche Telekom Management Board for eight months.  What have been the highlights for you?

Birgit Bohle: My start was a major highlight for me. I was welcomed with open arms no matter where I went. The culture of welcoming people at Deutsche Telekom made it easy for me to settle in quickly. The decision about the position had barely been officially announced in August when I received a handwritten letter and magenta shoelaces sent to my home from a colleague whom I hadn’t even yet met. And even today, I sense the magenta dedication in so many networks and initiatives. This is very valuable for the work of a HR person and for the whole company.

That sounds like the famous Telekom #Werkstolz.

Absolutely. I believe that culture is transported by employees serving as brand and value ambassadors – both externally and internally. We are on the right track, but I also believe that a lot of potential still lies dormant within us.

At an event for Telecom executives, you said that the topic of Customer First was crucial to the company's success. But what about Employee First? Are these two concepts at all compatible with each other?

The purpose of our operations as a company is to offer to our customers a great product, outstanding performance, excellent service. This must always be our focus. Nevertheless, I am firmly convinced that our employees make the difference. Whether in the service center, in the shop, or with our technicians. These are the people who are in direct contact with our customers. And when they are motivated and committed to their work, it is reflected directly in the company’s results. Besides great products and technologies, satisfied and committed employees are always a prerequisite for satisfied customers. But yes, the customer is at the center of everything we do.

Many companies tend to focus their savings programs on customer service, i.e., where actually the money is earned. Don’t we need to rethink this and maybe even turn the pyramid upside-down?

I believe that our processes are far too complicated. Our recent Living Culture survey is further evidence of this. Instead of spending time on internal processes, we must invest in the people on the outside who deal with our customers. For example, it is important to shift more responsibility to the sites where there is direct contact with customers. The employees at these locations know best what makes their customers tick. T-Mobile US showed us that giving responsibility for a catchment area to the local teams pays dividends in customer service. We are also going to adopt this model in Germany.

Birgit Bohle Deutsche Telekom
Birgit Bohle, Deutsche Telekom

What contribution does HR (and so Birgit Bohle as well) make to this transformation?

First of all, we have declared war on the bureaucratic monsters and are determined to simplify our processes. Achieving this goal, however, means we must also rigorously work on digitalizing and automating the HR division. One small example is our travel expenses app that enables employees to settle their accounts much faster. When we spend less time on administrative processes, we have more time for our customers. Another important topic is the investment in training and advanced training of our employees. Specialist training is the task of the business divisions; our task as personnel managers is to provide innovative platforms and tools.

As this transformation progresses, the topic of learning comes increasingly to the fore. The willingness and ability to learn, a learning environment, all  have a role to play here. What do you want to offer to your employees in this respect?

I see these three aspects, and I always say this: The employee is his/her own CEO when it comes to his/her development. It's a question of attitude. As an employee, I not only invest in my future at Deutsche Telekom, but also in my personal development, possibly outside the company as well. But the willingness to learn is often related to the ability to learn. We need to offer to our employees services that will help them to leave their comfort zone and to break down barriers. And that can be a rocky road at times. I remember, for example, what I went through when I learned how to do the crawl. I swallowed incredible amounts of water at the beginning. But it’s worth gritting your teeth and plowing through this difficult starting phase. And not to say before you even start, I can’t do the crawl or I’m not a data scientist, but to accept that learning is a journey. We must take to heart the sentiment that “we are a bunch of know-it-alls, but we need to be a bunch of learn-it-alls.”

... especially in times when the half-life of knowledge is about three years.

Right. That’s why lifelong learning is so important.

What do you want to do to foster the ability to learn?

It is important to me that employees enjoy learning. So we create incentives based on new, innovative formats that are fun to use. There is no reason why training sessions must always be held in a conference room in a hotel. Flexible learning formats and times are much more important. Digital training programs as supplementary elements are a help for us.

Moreover, skill management is an essential component of our strategic personnel planning. We need new skills if we are to have any hope of mastering current and future challenges, and now is the time to develop them. Put succinctly, people who now have jobs that are declining in importance or that will no longer be needed in the future must be offered opportunities to participate in advanced training in their jobs or to acquire the qualifications for completely new tasks. We have, for instance, just completed an analysis indicating that we need to retrain 500 colleagues in the IT department and turn them into software engineers. To this end, we have founded a Software Academy that combines digital learning with traditional classroom training. When our new learning platform youlearn was launched in Austria, people learned more on the first day than during the entire previous year. We must practice customer centricity as being applicable to our employees as well and offer simple, integrated learning models. The many different learning portals we have today are genuine “love killers.” By the time you find your way around, you’ve completely lost any desire to learn.

What do you expect from managers when it comes to learning?

I expect managers to serve as coaches for their employees. A coach listens, motivates, seeks personal dialogue, acts as a companion, and takes the time to work together with the employee to identify his or her interests and abilities – and simultaneously to determine his or her potential for learning. Managers should also allow their employees time to develop. For me, being a coach also means giving feedback on a regular basis, not only during the year-end meeting, but above all situationally and specifically. Learning then becomes a daily experience.

In 2019, Deutsche Telekom has called on its managers to pursue a goal of “Leading Agile.” What does agility mean for you?

Agility is more than just a set of new tools and methods. It is above all a mindset, which makes it a major driver of change in corporate culture. Agility is gaining so rapidly in importance because it puts the customer at the center, and the employee has end-to-end responsibility for a product. At Telekom, we deploy scrum masters and agile coaches in all the corporate units and regularly train new ones.

If you look ahead three years into the future, what would you like to see used as the yardstick for your success?

Four topics. First, new skilling, i.e. the successful development of sustainable skills among our employees. Second, the achievement of our goals for the recruitment of experts and young talent. Third, the transformation into an agile company. And of course, that magenta blood keeps our hearts beating.

Thank you very much for this frank conversation, and good luck to you in the magenta world now and in the future.

Birgit Bohle...

... held various management positions at Deutsche Bahn AG between 2007 and the end of 2018. From August 2015 to October 2018, she was chairwoman of the Management Board at DB Fernverkehr AG. During this time, the company acquired more than 15 million new passengers and significantly increased its earnings. From 2010 to 2015, she was managing director of DB Vertrieb GmbH. Under her leadership, ticket sales via Internet and mobile devices were massively expanded, and the DB Navigator became one of the most frequently downloaded apps in Germany.


Das Interview führte Marc Wagner

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