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By Bronwyn Wainwright, Global Content and Brand Specialist, Top Employers Institute
By Bronwyn Wainwright, Global Content and Brand Specialist, Top Employers Institute

Leading with Head, Heart and Guts: Webinar Q&A

Q&A with Harm Otten, DHL Global Forwarding, Freight

Harm Otten, Executive VP of Human Resources shared an insightful presentation on the leadership methodology implemented at DHL Global Forwarding, Freight in our fifth For a Better World of Work webinar held in October. “Being a leader in these times is challenging, but following a prescribed path might provide good orientation and can serve as a “recipe” for success,” he suggests. “To us, leading with head, heart and guts means using intuition, showing genuine empathy and care, communicating openly, and sharing fears and vulnerabilities to really stand out not just as good leaders, but as great ones.”  

During the Q&A discussion with David Plink, CEO of Top Employers Institute, Harm discussed the practical application of their leadership pathway, particularly during the COVID-19 crisis.     

David: Have you implemented specific training to help your leaders align and focus on priorities?

Harm: Absolutely, we’ve got a full palette of training courses. One that runs through all our divisions – and we’ve got around 600,000 people, all with specific needs – is a training programme we call “Certified”. All our employees and leaders go through this. It starts with a “Welcome to DHL Global Forwarding, Freight” which is a couple of days of cultural training. And then, when they become leaders, they have further training and principles embedded into our culture.

David: One of your leadership principles is “trust” - and one of your business mantras is “Right First Time”. I completely understand the latter from a business perspective, but is this at odds with the trust you need in agile forms of working and in which mistakes are likely be made?

Harm: Well, we promise our customers excellent service and one of the tools we use for that is continuous improvement. Getting things “Right First Time” is an important principle, but making mistakes is of course part of the world. We have a global network of colleagues that can only function with mutual trust. You can do this if you make sure that everybody knows what the strategy is, which way we are going, what the products are that we deliver, how they play their part in the logistics chain and how they help each other function as a team. And then we know our colleagues can be trusted to be entrepreneurial, win new customers, deliver great service and go the extra mile.

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David: There are traditional models of leadership that have been around for a long time, and then the more modern style of trusting people and letting them do their own work that you described. How do you balance the two at DHL Global Forwarding, Freight?

Harm: The old notion of the all-knowing superhero manager doesn't really work in a world that's changing fast. On the one hand, what we do still expect from our leaders is that they know the product, the business of forwarding, and that they have the experience to help those who don’t. On the other hand, they can't be a leader who orchestrates everything. They must be more of a coach, guiding others in how to play their part in the product or the strategy. We will always have a lot of unexpected situations – disruptions to transport, earthquakes, pandemics and so on – and we need our people on location, coming up with new workarounds. We need people to be resilient to do this and so we have a resilience programme for our leaders. Even in adversity, logistics needs to go on.

David: Let’s look at the trust in another way: the trust you place in your leaders to manage people remotely around the world. You're in over 100 countries but now, with offices completely empty and so many working from home, is there anything that DHL Global Forwarding has put in place to support leaders to manage this situation?

Harm: Our leadership training over recent years had already helped to prepare leaders to be more compassionate with people. We have trained people for situations that are unusual or strange and we had to improve VPN and secure connections for our business software. It's all about training, trust, and technology – and the resilience of our teams that has stood out as a result.

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David: Mental wellbeing is a big issue of course and we see that some people, from so many businesses, have had more difficulty working from home than others. Is that something that leaders in your company are focused on, and do they have the tools they need in those situations?

Harm: That has been a challenge. I think all our leaders around the world saw that if you switch from an office to a home environment then you need to stay in touch with people and bring empathy. We had many, many situations that have been really challenging for our people – it’s very difficult if you are trying to work when sharing your home with 10 other people, or your wi-fi is not so good.

After several months, leaders have had to work extra hard to stay connected to their teams. Collaboration tools and IT and the way they are used have played a really important role in helping leaders. We implemented daily roll calls – you need to be in touch with people every day. And we invested as well to make sure contacts had video functionality. This has paid off. People have the feeling that as a company we really take care of them – that they belong.

David: Can you see all your hard work produce good outcomes? Has it been translated into measurable results for wellbeing and engagement?

Harm: We have our annual employee online survey. The results from that are being produced now and the participation rates are high. We see high engagement in our staff, particularly given the difficult situation the world was in. And I think the swiftness in which we were able to shift people to working from home in a matter of days triggered a different and positive way of thinking – everything becomes possible in a crisis.  

I think those who have had the hardest time have been our frontline leaders who had the largest span of control for the daily business, with maybe 8, 10 or 12 people from their team suddenly not there, working from home with their own disruptions. But with everyone working for us understanding our strategy, our colleagues have all been able to play a big part for our business.

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