How to kill a great organisation?:

Let young leaders take the helm and trust in their qualities in dealing with diversity and challenges.

Die deutsche Version und die vollständige Podcastfolge finden sie hier.

Diversity and the right way to deal with the resulting heterogeneity help companies move forward.

In this episode of our podcast series „How to kill a great organisation“ Elisabeth Leyser spoke with Nicole Pöll, IT expert and People & Culture Lead in a large, international insurance company. This podcast is very much about diversity, cross-generational working and the associated challenges as a leader.

Pöll derives her motivation to take on a lot of responsibility in a new environment from her willingness to take risks and „the opportunity to step out of one’s comfort zone and do something that would otherwise not quite be in the classic career path“.

Diversity is a resource and a challenge – how to deal with it?

Pöll sees the issue of diversity in her team as multi-layered. People from 40 different nations are employed in her team and there is a „very mixed age structure“. This means that different perspectives and needs come together, which on the one hand brings a lot of positives, but also means challenges.

As a manager, Pöll sees herself on the one hand as a person of trust, but also wants to steer strategically. The personal relationship with her staff is important to her, and she consciously takes time for this:

„I need this personal relationship with the staff. It’s so important, and I realise every day that you have to invest a lot of time to make it work. Especially in the times of the pandemic and the home office, this was a big challenge, especially the „onboarding“ of new staff members, integrating them into the team.

Her conclusion: „Maybe it’s also important to find new ways of integrating new people into a team.“ 

In addition to the personal relationship and the one-on-one meetings, feedback from the staff is particularly important to Pöll: „I also want to have the other person’s perception of me, because only then can I grow and improve.

Attracting and retaining valuable employees with „soft“ factors

Especially in IT, Pöll sees a „war for talent“ at the moment, good employees are in demand and keeping them is not always easy: „I have to try to create value for the employee with a good culture, with good training opportunities or personal development opportunities so that he or she wants to stay in the company.

As a recommendation for managers who are challenged by the pronounced diversity in their organisation, Pöll mentions two things: openness and time. For her, openness means approaching issues without blinkers. In terms of time, she says: „…sometimes less is more. Sometimes it is good to let off the gas a little, take a breath and think about „What is really important for me now? This is perhaps an important and relieving hint, especially for young, ambitious leaders…  

The full-length interview:

Elisabeth Leyser: Welcome to another episode of our MetaShift Transformation Podcast. How to Kill a Great Company is the title and we look at what really determines the long-term success of companies. We hear from leaders, academics and experts about what they think is most important for a company to develop sustainably and stay alive. And what we are also very interested in is how they personally arrived at their views. Nicole Pöll is our guest today. She is currently doing her MBA and is the People and Culture Lead in a company of a large international insurance group. Welcome, Nicole. Would you like to introduce yourself briefly?

Nicole Pöll: Yes, very much. Just as you mentioned. I am currently the interim leader of the People and Culture Team. I work in a large IT company in a global insurance company. That means we are very international and diversity is a topic that accompanies me every day. My origins are actually in computer science. I studied computer science, then I started to take over the project management of software development projects, then I worked in management consulting for a while and then I took another leap. At the same time, I’m doing my MBA because I want to bring business even more into it, with a focus on agile organisations, because I’m convinced that the topic is becoming more and more important and relevant.

Elisabeth Leyser: Did you literally jump into your position and dare to do it at very short notice? Taking on a lot of responsibility in an environment that was still very new at the time. What was that like for you?

Nicole Pöll: Very unexpected, it really came from one day to the next. I think what. What makes me tick is that I simply have a certain willingness to take risks and I thought to myself, „Okay, we’ll try this now“. Without really realising what the role was going to be all about. Because you can never really know that in advance. And I think that if you have this willingness to take risks and I think, okay, I dare, I know that, I’ll do it now and see where it takes me. Then you really have the opportunity to step out of your comfort zone a bit and do something that would otherwise not be part of the classic career path. And I call these steps risk-taking or courage. I also recommend that to everyone, because it’s fun. I think it would be very boring if we always knew what was coming. And that’s exactly how I felt at the time. I discussed it briefly in private and got some feedback and then there was actually no reason to say no.

Elisabeth Leyser: As far as I know, it’s not such a small group. It’s one in a company, a relatively large department. And you have a very diverse group of people you work with. I would like to know what makes this organisation special or what distinguishes it and where the special requirements are for you.

Nicole Pöll: Well, of course I can speak for the file of the organisation I am in now, but of course I also always have a look into the past, because it is simply things that I have observed again and again. What makes the current organisation special is that we employ people in Vienna who come from more than 40 nations. That means we have. It really is a very colourful mixture. And what’s more, apart from the cultural background, there is also a very diverse age structure. This means that we have staff members who have just graduated from technical college or university, and people who will retire very soon. And that’s where a lot of different points of view come together, and that brings a lot to the table. So this heterogeneity, this diversity, really helps us as a company, but it also brings a lot of challenges to the table. So I like to bring up the topic of age because I notice that the different generations, when they work together, have completely different perspectives, communicate differently and have different needs. And I think that the pandemic, this sudden we all go to the home office and we are there five days a week, has also intensified this a bit in many situations.

Elisabeth Leyser: These were certainly very new for many people who have been in the work process for a long time. If we all look at very new situations, but once again very special challenges that you encountered there. How did it go for you there? Especially in the early days, in the first few weeks, where you, as a 30-something leader, went into a team of people, some of whom were almost twice your age. What was there? Maybe a moment when you thought to yourself, maybe I have to do something differently now? It doesn’t work quite the way I imagined. I can’t do it like that.

Nicole Pöll: Yes, there are always moments like that, because you simply go in with your own imprint, with your own values. But the moment you become a leader, you get this second role. I am no longer someone who only works on content and exchanges ideas with colleagues, but I am someone who wants to be a person of trust and who also wants to steer in a certain direction strategically. And that’s why I need this personal relationship with the staff. And that is so important, and I realise every day that you have to invest a lot of time in order for that to really work well. I think that in order to be a leader, I have to regularly communicate with my staff individually, that is, I have to have channels of communication. And there are employees, probably the younger ones, who say okay, chat, everything’s cool, suits me. And then there is the generation that says they also want to have direct exchange. And that’s where the home office time certainly didn’t help us, because this exchange, this dealing with digital media was forced. And compared to the time before the pandemic, home office was already established in IT. But it was more like 1 or 2 days a week and not all the time. And that’s when I realised that a lot of relationship work is necessary and even more when you’re only in the home office. I have many colleagues whom I only know via the screen and I notice that the more exchange you have with them and the more time you take, which is not easy, the better this cooperation becomes. So I see that from time to time, but to keep at it, to maintain it, that has to come from me as a manager. And that takes a lot of effort.

Elisabeth Leyser: What you describe is actually something that is quite essential. We often call it job one and job two as a leader. Job one is the factual and professional, which is actually taken for granted. And job two is, on the one hand, to develop yourself further and, at the same time, to do this relationship work, as you call it. And at the same time you have recognised that in such a diverse organisation, where diversity is also seen as a quality, the different realities represent a challenge and also naturally turn into very different needs. How did this show up in particular? What was important for people in different ways, or particularly important for some and less so for others?

Nicole Pöll: Well, what I have noticed, for example, is that this hurdle is even greater for people who are new to the company. If I compare the time before the pandemic, I had a classic onboarding on site and everyone was there and you got to know everyone and suddenly someone joins, gets his equipment and is in the home office. So that was or continues to be a huge challenge and I think that especially this on boarding is that. Yes, that’s where I start as – I’m no longer a candidate, I become an employee. And that is the first real impression of the company. And this is where I, as a person, also start to build up a relationship with this company. That means, I think, that it is very important for companies to invest a lot of time and to pick up someone very well despite this digital connection. And that’s just difficult, because in the past I would have said: Well, sit down with me and watch how I do it and what meetings we have, etc. And now with Zoom or team calls, it’s just become more difficult. So I think that especially newcomers, I would say, are at a certain risk of not feeling so well integrated because it’s just become more complex now. It takes a lot more effort to integrate someone into a team now. And I think we’ll stay after all, because this home office, it’s not something temporary, it also comes with a lot of advantages. So I also enjoy it very much to some extent and it is simply important to find a good balance and perhaps also to find new ways of integrating people into a team.

Elisabeth Leyser: You said that special arrangements have to be made, things that used to be done in passing, perhaps under inverted commas. In good companies, this was usually done very consciously, but now we have to look at it again, look at it even more, namely that the different relationships can also develop in a situation where there are actually no common chance encounters and spaces. I can well imagine that. What was particularly important for you, namely on a personal level? What did you have to learn for yourself and develop as a person?

Nicole Pöll: That was certainly time management for me. So far I was very used to working on content and coordinating a lot. But the moment you become a manager, you need, let’s say, these classic one-on-one conversations with employees. Feedback, that is. Where does someone stand? Where does he need support? And I had to learn to integrate that into my daily work. At the moment, I have a fixed one-to-one meeting with my staff every three weeks, where we forgive each other according to a certain pattern. I don’t want it to be one-sided feedback, but I also want to have the employee’s perception of me, because only then can I grow and improve. And I see that this brings a lot, because sometimes you don’t have so many topics because you’ve seen each other a few days in a row anyway and talked a lot. But I have noticed that it takes away a hurdle for the staff to come up with, let’s say, more critical topics. When I organise this meeting and say that this is our framework to talk about something like this. So that is very gratefully accepted and that is also a tip that I can give to everyone. You have to find that time, so you don’t have time, you make time. Unfortunately, that’s true. And as a manager, I also have to manage myself to the point where I say: OK, I can’t get through certain content-related topics this week because I’m talking to my staff, so I have to schedule it differently. So that was a big learning for me and also something that can be difficult from week to week.

Elisabeth Leyser: Yes, that probably also means that you have to delegate content-related issues that you used to have completely under your own control. And that is certainly a completely different way of working. You say you recommend taking the time in any case, because it also goes elsewhere. And I think that this value, this value that you ascribe to these staff meetings or the meetings with the staff, is something like a shaping of the corporate culture. The fact that you now have an additional level of communication and also more personal topics such as feedback certainly changes a lot. And we at MetaShift are always of the opinion that non-material aspects, such as corporate culture and the way a company is managed, are very important in making it successful in the long term. What do you mean when you take this to a more general level? How do you assess these aspects in a company?

Nicole Pöll: Well, I absolutely agree. I think that factors like pay and certain benefits are very important. But if I want to keep employees in the long term, I have to do more than just pay them well. I think that if someone is frustrated, overworked in their job and can’t get along with their colleagues, it’s no use offering them an incredible salary. Because then they will eventually get frustrated and leave the company. So I think that the culture, and by that I mean the entire culture of a company, how open the managers are, how approachable they are, how people deal with each other, is very important. But above all, it’s the cooperation within the close-knit team, the teams. I spend 40 or more hours a week with these people. And if there is not a good atmosphere or you don’t have this psychological security. You will feel uncomfortable. I think if someone wakes up every day in the morning and thinks: Why do I have to go there again? And actually I don’t like anyone there and it doesn’t fit. Then you resign yourself mentally. So I think that’s really enormously important. And that yes, benefits are also very important. But if I feel good, if I like going there, then that’s really worth its weight in gold. And especially in IT we have this war for talent. So. it’s. I’m not saying that employee loyalty is decreasing, but the willingness of employees to change is enormously high. And that’s why I have to try to create a value for the employee with a good culture, with good opportunities for further training or personal development, so that he or she says, „I want to stay in this company.

Elisabeth Leyser: You say that a culture, a good culture, is actually critical for success in an environment where workers are in such high demand as in IT, because it creates value for the employee and therefore reduces the risk that someone will leave the company. That’s a good summary.

Nicole Pöll: Exactly. Yes, so I think only pay is not enough, but also the culture and one’s own development opportunities are what you can use to control employee retention.

Elisabeth Leyser: Yes, now I would like to address you again as an actually very young manager who thinks about a lot and approaches the challenges very actively. And if you were to give listeners of your age, especially now I think, one or more tips and recommendations, what should they pay particular attention to when they, as younger people, enter an existing organisation and are then of course confronted with employees of different ages and very great diversity, as is the case with you? What seems particularly important to you?

Nicole Pöll: I think there are two things: openness and time. By openness I mean that I don’t go in with such a blinkered view and think that’s how it has to be, because that’s how I’ve already done it, but I have to be a bit more open when it comes to my fellow human beings. So I think more towards the people – finding out how they like to work together, what motivates these people, what is important to them. That’s what I mean by openness and I think that’s very helpful. And the second thing is time. I think we live in such a high-performance society. So everything always has to be done immediately and emails are sent even on weekends and holidays and I think sometimes it’s this „less is more“ than I think. Sometimes it’s good to let off the gas a bit, take a breath and think about it: What is also really important for my own health now? Because if I don’t have a good balance as a leader, then I come into the office totally stressed, maybe I’m not in a good mood and then a certain negativity arises. So I think it’s important as a leader to be a role model. Is it also very important to look after yourself?

Elisabeth Leyser: That is actually what you are saying: As a leader, I should look at others, really try to understand what is important to other people and be open to them so that I can perceive it. And on the other hand, I should also look at myself, so that I am well balanced. That sounds very, very convincing to me and, in any case, like a good basis for successful teamwork in a company. And I would like to thank you for the interview and I am glad that we had such an exciting exchange.

Nicole Pöll: Thank you. Likewise.

Elisabeth Leyser: I thank you as listeners for listening. And if you enjoyed the episode, we would of course be delighted if you gave it a good rating, recommended it, maybe even subscribed to it on a podcast app. We can then continue to find many exciting discussion partners who will help us to continue to illuminate and deepen the topic of change, transformation and transformation from different angles. I look forward to the next episode.