How to kill a great organisation?:

“Keeping the Status Quo!” 

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Culture is not a „status quo  

…it forms, whether you pay attention to it or not  

In this episode of our podcast series „How to kill a great organisation“ Elisabeth Leyser spoke with Manfred Stanek, CEO at Greiner Packaging, a leading European packaging manufacturer. Stanek studied economics and worked for many years in management consulting in the USA and Brazil before turning to industry. In this podcast he talks about shaping corporate culture, transformation pressures and the need to work on the right things.  

Culture must be actively shaped  

Stanek describes corporate culture as the way people in the company interact with each other, the way the company is managed and the way customers are treated. Culture is not static, it continues to develop: „Culture is also always in motion and culture also always develops with the many new employees who come.“ However, culture should not just happen, but should be actively accompanied and shaped. The role of the managers is very important in this: „there are many things that you simply have to try out together, discuss together, also allow mistakes, be transparent.“ Shaping the culture is also about finding the right measure and the appropriate tools, even though this is often a challenge.  

Transformational pressure makes my job intellectually very interesting  

Changing environmental conditions often lead to transformational pressure, but Stanek sees this as helpful because it makes the jobs in the company more intellectually interesting. Transformation pressure simply makes it exciting for the people in the company because active shaping is necessary and because there is also a certain dynamic as a result.  

Stanek emphasises how important it is for him and the company to work on the right things:

„it is important to regularly reflect, are we working on the right things? And not to be afraid to say, „Hey, I got lost once for six months. Let’s put that issue aside, we’ve just learned from it“.  

Agility sounds insanely sexy  

For Stanek, finding a balance between control and trust and making sure that it is maintained is an essential aspect of leadership. So is constant learning, actively engaging with new competencies that need to be gained. As an example, Stanek mentions dealing with agility, where it is important to understand what agility means in concrete terms and what competences are behind it:

„Hierarchy-free organisations and self-organising organisations, agility, that all sounds insanely sexy. But what does it mean on Monday at 9:00 when I’m sitting at my desk.“  

The full-length interview:

Elisabeth Leyser: Welcome to our transformation podcast „How to Kill a Great Company?“. In our podcast series, we look at the factors that determine the long-term performance of companies. And we talk to scientists, owners and today, among others, to a very experienced manager and try to better understand what they think is particularly important for sustainable corporate success. And we are always interested in how they themselves came to this point of view. Today I would like to welcome Mr Manfred Stanek. A warm welcome to you! Thank you very much! Hello, Mr. Stanek is CEO of Greiner Packaging and Greiner is a company that has existed for more than 100 years and is developing very well. First of all, I would like to ask you, Mr Stanek, to introduce yourself briefly.  

Manfred Stanek: Thank you, Mrs Leyer. I am very pleased to be here on the podcast. Well, my name is Manfred Stanek. I am over 50 years old. I was educated in Vienna at the University of Economics and Business Administration and then spent more than a decade in the field of professional services, more precisely in consulting. Management consulting first in Austria, then in the USA and then in Brazil, and then after a decade in this segment I switched to industry. First in mining and metals and then in recycling companies and finally in packaging-related companies and now in a packaging company. I have now been in the business for almost 25 years and have spent the majority of my professional career outside of Austria, lived and worked in the USA and Brazil for many years and have been the Chief Executive Officer of Greiner Packaging since 2016.  

Elisabeth Leyser: Okay, thank you. So you have a very broad experience, both in terms of geography and in terms of different companies or activities. And now you’ve been with Greiner since 2016 and Greiner has, as far as I know, had another big growth spurt during that time. And I would like to understand and have our listeners understand what you need to know from their point of view in order to understand why this company can be so successful and why it can also be so successful in the long term.  

Manfred Stanek: Well, I think there are of course several reasons.  Of course, my opinion is also subjectively coloured, but that’s okay, isn’t it?   

Elisabeth Leyser: Absolutely.  

Manfred Stanek: I think we are as a company, there is of course a lot hidden in there and most of it in the culture of the company. It isn’t? How employees interact with each other, how we manage our company, how we deal with our customers, how we view entrepreneurship and all these things shape the culture of the company. And I believe that we have succeeded in this over the past decades by shaping the culture in such a way that sustainable growth in both turnover and profitability has become possible. And we attach great importance to this culture and take great care to maintain it, but also to develop it further. You don’t? Because culture is never something that is a status quo, isn’t it? Culture is also always in motion and culture is always developing with the many new employees who come. Some staff members leave and some new staff members come, and that’s how culture is formed. And it forms, whether you want it to or not and whether you support it or not. And we have made it our task to always actively support this culture so that things happen in a way that we consider valuable. And that they don’t just happen somehow. We pay a lot of attention to that and I think that it is perhaps one of the reasons why we are successful in the long term.  

Elisabeth Leyser: I find that very interesting that you say that, because of course it also corresponds to my point of view. But what particularly impressed me was that you said that culture is formed in any case. That’s something like „you can’t not communicate“.  

Manfred Stanek: Exactly.  

Elisabeth Leyser: What is it, then, that particularly characterises culture for you and that you also pay attention to, as you just said?  

Manfred Stanek: Well, me. I think it has different aspects for many different employees and I can of course give them my aspect as CEO now. Because it is of course the case that companies, like many things in the world, are simply managed hierarchically and that as CEO I attach a lot of importance to setting goals. But not only quantitative goals, but also qualitative goals, for example, how we work with each other, which promote this culture and also attach importance to the fact that if we are perhaps at a dead end and don’t know how to proceed, we sit down together as managers and employees and discuss this together. Of course, this means that you are often not the quickest to react, but that on the other hand you have the alignment and the commitment of everyone to implement things in the way that we decide together in many areas. So long story short. We try to approach this issue of culture with great respect and sense. And I am also aware, as CEO, that this is not something that I can prescribe or that we as managers can prescribe. And that we now say: we want to do it this way and that’s how it is now. But that there are also many things that you simply have to try out together, discuss together, also allow for mistakes, and be transparent. But the important thing is to do it, because, as you said before, it won’t happen in any case. Culture happens. Now you can only choose whether to help shape it or not?  

Elisabeth Leyser: Exactly.  

Manfred Stanek: And we want to help shape it. But finding the right balance and the right instruments is of course a challenge.  

Elisabeth Leyser: I think to myself that in the last few years you have really had to deal with special challenges in your sector, I’ll just mention the keyword plastics. And you now say that your culture, for example, attaches importance to finding solutions together and that these solutions are then also jointly supported. How do you deal with it, for example, when the environmental conditions change for you in your organisation?  

Manfred Stanek: Yes, for the culture, I would almost say it is actually an advantage, because we get so much pressure from outside in the plastics industry that we don’t really have to discuss it. Do we have to transform ourselves or do we not have to transform ourselves because we have to transform our plastics industry or packaging industry? It’s actually obvious because of the pressure from society, from legislation. So this transformation pressure is actually, I would say, almost helpful. If we at least don’t have to discuss it, we have to change and we also have to work on our culture, because this transformation pressure actually also comes quite strongly from outside. That is one thing. The other is that it is of course also this transformation pressure that comes from outside that makes our activity intellectually very interesting. Because we work in an industry that is changing. But at the same time, we have the chance to participate in this change. And that brings a lot of responsibility, of course. But taking on this responsibility is also something that is meaningful for me personally and also for our employees. So in that respect, it’s actually helpful to be in that position. Other industries are perhaps doing insanely well at the moment or in general. Perhaps they don’t feel this pressure to transform. They might also have less innovation.   

Elisabeth Leyser: What you say seems very understandable to me. That means that the pressure to transform makes it exciting for you as a person, but obviously also for other people in your company, because active shaping is necessary and because it also creates a certain dynamic. And you have now mentioned the topic of innovation. It is a well-known phenomenon that innovation is triggered under pressure. Whether it is then qualitatively good is another matter, because if there were no cooperation, i.e. if one were to limit oneself in finding solutions, as I understand it, it is the case that in the area of innovation, too, they obviously approach things co-creatively and look for solutions together. Is that the case?  

Manfred Stanek: That is the case, yes. And this topic of innovation is of course very, very difficult to judge, because I assume that no matter which CEO you ask, „Is your company innovative?“: 90% will probably say „Yes!“, because you simply want to be, don’t you? Whether you actually are. That is always the question. You often don’t see that in the situation, but probably only afterwards. Respectively, in the situation you are most likely to get the feedback from the customers or from other stakeholders. So I have to be very cautious about the topic of innovation. Of course, what we try to do in innovation management is to use the right processes and the right structure. And process organisation to promote this topic. So we attach a lot of importance to that. Ah, and I think the market proves us right, at least in part, when I look at our sales growth. But once again, you have to be careful here, because the actual success stories. Of course, they only come in retrospect. In the future, so to speak.  

Elisabeth Leyser: How do you go about it? Exactly. What you are describing now is a future that has not yet been secured. Of course! That’s the case in many areas now, and in yours, of course, it’s even more specific. How do you deal in the company, but also as a person, with the fact that it is particularly difficult at the moment to anticipate the future or to have certainty about what the future will bring?  

Manfred Stanek: Yes. On the one hand, I think that we have to be sure, and I personally have to be sure, that we are working on the right things and doing these things right. Because if we are as sure as possible of that, then we also have the certainty that then the results of this work will also come. The positive results, no matter how they are measurable, whether they are qualitative or quantitative, whether they are financial or operational, don’t matter. So we attach a lot of importance to working on the right things and to working on things properly. Simply in the expectation that the results will come. So you just have to be sure, I think, because you never know if the results will really come. You never have 100% certainty. But you can at least give yourself the confidence that if you work on the right things and process these things correctly, that the chance that the results will come is higher than the risk that they won’t come. So that is perhaps an approach that I also personally add to it.  

Elisabeth Leyser: That means you make sure that the foundations and conditions are there so that success can and most likely will come about.  

Manfred Stanek: Exactly, then also reflect regularly, are we working on the right things? And are we also doing the right things and not being afraid to say, „Hey, I got lost for six months. Let’s put the issue aside and learn from it“.  

Elisabeth Leyser: So in the sense of realigning and introducing short learning loops.  

Manfred Stanek: Continuous reorientation. That is also something we take very seriously.  

Elisabeth Leyser: Okay, what I heard earlier and where I got stuck, with interest was, as you said, something like internal security. Would you agree with me when I say that it is a phase right now where it is particularly important that leaders can first of all gain inner security for themselves, but are also able to communicate that in order to give employees orientation and also a certain degree of security.  

Manfred Stanek: Absolutely, absolutely! Not? I have to be as sure as possible for myself that the things I do are the right things and only with this, with this self-confidence, can I pass on this message to the rest of the organisation. Always in the knowledge that you can of course be wrong, but that that is also okay and that you then have to adjust your actions again. 

Elisabeth Leyser: Yes, it sounds as if they simply have little, I’ll say little, fears for themselves about the development of the future. And that is certainly something that is positively transmitted to your people. And I have now understood that you are very conscious of how you deal with the culture in the company, that you also think very consciously: How do you want to enable innovation? What framework conditions do you create? How do you see these aspects – culture, leadership, innovation – in relation to each other and how do you see them, especially in terms of consistency? What interests me is: How do you ensure that the inside and the outside match, i.e. what you present to your customers and on the market, and what your employees experience when they work for you, the way you lead. So all these issues. How do you manage to make them really coincide? Sometimes congruent, as far as it goes, yes.   

Manfred Stanek: I’ll give you a concrete example.  

Elisabeth Leyser: Please.  

Manfred Stanek: At Greiner Packaging we have over 20 plants. And if you have such plants, you have two options in the internal system. You can run such plants as cost centres or as profit centres. We have decided to run these plants as profit centres because we think that it is simply the better approach for our company in our industry in our constellation. And I am also convinced that this is right. But that has consequences. These decisions have an impact on all areas of the company and on every day and every behaviour that I show in the company. If I run 20 factories today as profit centres, then I must also be able to let go and give them the opportunity to be entrepreneurial. These plants would be cost centres. Then I would have much more control and be much closer to them. I am not saying that this is wrong. For us it would not be the right approach. And to find the right balance between control and trust every day in communication, in cooperation, in order to allow the entrepreneurial, the entrepreneurial design. But at the same time, to prevent things from happening that are not desired, to always find this balance. That is also something we respect very much. We very much respect the difficulty of finding this balance, and we are working on always finding this balance, because that would be a point where you could very quickly destroy the culture. And then people would see that we are no longer valued as entrepreneurs and that everyone is just a follower of orders, which might be good for some industries and companies, but that doesn’t suit us. And that is something we attach great importance to. Now is a concrete example.  

Elisabeth Leyser: If I understood you correctly, you say it’s about finding the balance between control and trust and also making sure that this is maintained. If that doesn’t succeed, the culture that you actually want to have is endangered. Correct?  

 Manfred Stanek: Correct. That is.  

Elisabeth Leyser: I find that a very beautiful description of it. And above all I find it very nice to listen to you, how you consciously refer to it and how sensitively and also, how should I put it, how deliberately you deal with it. I very often experience that culture is used as a buzzword or maybe even as an excuse for some things. But I have the impression that it is a real concern of yours that this interaction between people in your organisation is experienced as a strengthening factor, as a strengthening quality. And I would really be interested if you could give our listeners inside a hint, a recommendation or even several, especially with this focus, which is obviously very important to you. What? What do you think? What should companies focus on now in this very dynamic situation, in the situation where things are changing on all corners and relatively few stones remain on top of each other? What? What do you think is particularly important there?  

Manfred Stanek: Well, I think that. Maybe two or three things that come to mind. So this constant learning is, I think, very important. And that’s not just a buzzword, but that you really get to grips with new competences that you have to gain in order to be able to lead in this environment. I would like to give you a concrete example, wouldn’t I?   

Manfred Stanek: For some years now, everyone has been talking about agility or everyone is agile. And I myself have had a hard time actually classifying it. We said, „What does agility mean? And in concrete terms. If I go into the office on Monday at 9:00 a.m., what do I do differently when I am agile as opposed to when I am not agile? And that’s where we in the leadership role have really also dealt with one, in this case with organisational development, in order to understand what agility means and what competences are behind it, to simply go behind the buzzwords? That’s what I mean by learning to deal with new developments and to really understand them and not just as buzzwords that are written somewhere. Hierarchy-free organisations and self-organising organisations, agility all sound insanely sexy, if you’ll allow me to use the word. But what does it mean on Monday at 9:00 when I’m sitting at my desk? So that learning and that learning, I think that’s something that’s very important. Another thing that comes to my mind is to find a balance between these topics of performance and transformation. Because in the last 14 months we have experienced, I don’t know, more than half a dozen crises, 8 to 10 crises like the summits in Ukraine. And of course we have to manage the performance of our companies. But at the same time, we also have to manage the transformation. We can’t just say: OK, we’re no longer managing the transformation, we’re just looking at our results, or vice versa. Yes, and learning instruments here as well, how it is possible to do both, that is also something that we as a company and I personally have dealt with very strongly.  

Elisabeth Leyser: That sounds very exciting again. Namely, to combine exactly these two things. Finally, let me ask you: How do you create this connection for yourself? Transformation on the one hand, staying in motion. You have very often emphasised the topic of learning. And on the other hand, to really generate the figures in everyday life that the company needs to be able to shape at all.  

Manfred Stanek: Yes. The question is how I personally manage this. To be aware of this movement, to be aware that you have to do both things and cannot sacrifice alone. That is already once. That is, I think, the first step.  

Elisabeth Leyser: Yes.  

Manfred Stanek: We try very hard in our company to organise our time management in such a way that these two aspects of transformation and performance are well balanced. If we do ten projects, we don’t do eight performance projects and transformation projects. So that one or the other doesn’t fall by the wayside. And last but not least. What is also very important for me is this external orientation, because as a manager I naturally bring many accents into the company, but the accents must also come from somewhere. I don’t think of it when I’m in the shower in the evening, so these accents have to come from somewhere. And this external orientation is very important to me, that I spend a lot of time, be it with customers or stakeholders or in interesting networks, to simply get accents that I bring into the company. And by the way, that’s not a very efficient approach, because I often spend a lot of time somewhere and I say spend ten hours in a network and of the ten hours, nine 3/4 hours are simply lost. But then there is a quarter of an hour that is so interesting and gives so much perspective that it justifies all that time. And that’s why this external orientation is very important to me. Even if it is not very efficient, it is still very effective for me personally to do.  

Elisabeth Leyser: Yes, thank you. It sounds as if you are a very interested and, I’ll use the casual word, curious person, and that’s why you lead an interesting life. You have now essentially said once again. It is important that you as a person reconcile both, namely performance and transformation. It is also really important to consciously make the time available for this, which means transformation. Normally, performance is the undisputed priority in companies. And transformation happens when it has to be and what they say, actively shaping both and also making time available for both. Thank you very much. I was very pleased with our conversation. I was able to take a lot away from it, I had the impression that they shared a lot, especially on the topics of the importance of culture, how they deal with these sometimes really contradictory demands and how they maintain a balance. And I think that was very much for our listeners. 

Manfred Stanek: Thank you also for the interview. It was a very interesting lecture.  

Elisabeth Leyser: Yes, and to you, dear listeners, thank you for being here. If you enjoyed this episode, we would be very happy if you gave us a good rating or subscribed to our podcast and recommended it to others. This helps us continue to bring exciting guests on board and we’ll stay tuned. We continue to explore topics around change, transformation and very dynamic developments in our world. Listen again.