In a joint discussion about corporate culture, we talked to Lars Henner Santelmann, Chairman of the Management Board of Volkswagen Financial Services AG, and Christiane Hesse, the company's board member responsible for Human Resources and Organization.
Corporate communications: Ms. Hesse, Mr. Santelmann, you're both experienced managers within the Volkswagen Group and have now been working for Volkswagen Financial Services for a long time. How did you perceive the cultural atmosphere of the company when you first started here and in which ways has it changed since then?
Santelmann: I found the company to be very friendly and highly structured. But the flip side of the coin was that discussions about different opinions, let alone conflicts, were rarely carried out in a really open atmosphere. What's more, any advantage from having highly structured procedures was sometimes at the expense of speed.
Hesse: When I started working here, I got the impression that the relationship between the board and the management was overshadowed by quite a lot of mistrust. Many people were very reluctant to express their personal opinions and always argued with considerable caution. That was something I wasn't used to.
Corporate communications: Ultimately, isn't the whole debate about culture closely related to the diesel issue?
Hesse: It has certainly gained a new significance as a result. The view many people used to have about the entire culture aspect was in keeping with the saying "If you've nothing else to do, you can busy yourself with culture". Diesel has given the subject a new edge, a new relevance and sensitivity. To this extent, I think the culture issue has taken on a different significance within the entire Volkswagen AG, across all our divisions and brands.
Santelmann: The essential prerequisite for our business success is trust: in our work together with the brands, with the dealers and, of course, with the customers. The last few years have shown what happens when this trust is gone: the very foundation on which our business is built crumbles away as well. I hope and trust that everyone has understood this simple fact. The task now is to use the situation as it stands to make positive changes.
Corporate communications: How can trust be regained?
Hesse: That's a long process. We can't simply demand that the public trust us. We can earn their trust in the first instance by acting in a trustworthy and believable fashion. For me, credibility means keeping the promises we make in our advertising and fulfilling the commitments we make to our customers. On top of that, we must always behave with integrity, with decency and in an ethically irreproachable manner. What that means in any individual case, however, isn't always easy to specify.
Santelmann: What I'd like to suggest is that every employee should once in a while try to view their own behavior from the perspective of somebody else. What would this somebody say if he or she saw how I was behaving? When situations are unclear, such a switch of perspective can help inform and correct one's own viewpoint, which is often, by nature, much too one-sided.
The sparks should be allowed to fly a little.
Corporate communications: Culture can't be prescribed, nor can it be imposed from above. What do you expect from an individual employee?
Hesse: First of all, I expect the managers to try more things out. If we want to change things, we must accept that things sometimes go wrong. But we must have the courage to do things differently. That's why I'd like to see our employees being responsive to proposals without fending them off before they've been tried out in practice.
Santelmann: The management can imbue our team with the entrepreneurial spirit more effectively than it has done up to now. And my appeal to every individual employee is to be curious about change, because changes can indeed be positive, for all of us.
Hesse: And one shouldn't feel obliged to constantly ask permission for this or that. There's a nice quote from Paulo Coelho: "Don't ask permission. If it doesn't work, you can apologize later."
Corporate communications: We're recording one record year after the other, and there are probably one or two people who think any culture change within the company is unnecessary. They might say: "What's all the fuss, everything's going fine." What would you say in response?
Santelmann: There's a wise and simple saying: "If you do nothing today, you'll be living tomorrow like you did yesterday." And I think that's a foolish way to live.
Hesse: One can't surround oneself with yes-sayers, with sycophants who always agree. A proper argument, a fruitful dispute, can never come about from that. The sparks should be allowed to fly a little – that has to be part of any culture of openness and discussion that aims to find the best way to move forward.
Santelmann: That's why we also need people with dissimilar personalities in any good team. Take the management board, for example. We're all completely different. A good team lives from the fact that no two people are alike. That applies to internationality, diversity, and a lot of other things as well. It's the same in football: if you only have strikers in your team, it's pretty short-sighted, and if you only have defenders, it's just as short-sighted.
Changes can indeed be positive, for all of us.
Corporate communications: Let's turn to you both personally. Ms. Hesse, you're a qualified grammar school teacher, you've worked in adult education, and you've even run a student bar. What have you learned from these experiences that can help you further.
Hesse: After I had decided not to become a tenured teacher, I didn't know at first where my path would lead me. My income came from the student bar. My career has given me the foundation to be flexible and prepared to change. I've always had the confidence that I can keep my head above water in life and fight my way out of trouble. That, of course, helps me in my willingness to experiment.
Corporate communications: And when someone has pursued a career almost completely within the Volkswagen Group from its trainee program right up to Chairman of the Board of VW FS AG, how is such a person molded by that corporation, Mr. Santelmann?
Santelmann: Thanks to Volkswagen I've been able to experience internationality. I was born and bred in the countryside around Peine in Lower Saxony. Later, I suddenly found myself spending two years in Italy and five years in Spain for the company. Those were events in my life that I had never originally envisaged. I also learned that one should always look for a field of work where one can simply assume responsibility, enjoy doing so, take matters in hand, and not have to ask too many questions. That's a good thing about a large corporation – there are always such fields and island areas where one can move ideas and topics forward. The third aspect, an icing on the cake, is the sheer breadth of possibilities. I originally started out by doing classic finance work. I then spent a long time in sales and marketing and now I'm with Volkswagen Financial Services. That's another advantage of a group with the dimensions of Volkswagen AG: you can try out and get to know many different kinds of things without having to leave the company.
Corporate Communications: Ms. Hesse, Mr. Santelmann, thank you very much for the interview.