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“Leadership can be learned”

29. September 2020 / general

Developing your leadership skills is at least as important as growing your specialist knowledge, says Stefanie Weber, Head of Group Human Resources at Swiss Life, in an interview. However, line managers frequently fail to devote sufficient time to this topic. Weber believes that managers today perform a variety of roles – including serving as a coach and mentor. She says that managers who judge their employees’ performance based on the amount of time they spend at work – and not the value the create – are following out-of-date practices.

Claudia Kraaz: What makes a good manager? How has this changed in recent years and how is it likely to develop in the future?

Stefanie Weber: I believe that the classic leadership model “I am the boss and what I say goes” belongs to the past. Today’s managers perform a variety of roles simultaneously – including serving as a coach and mentor. They are also good at coordinating and create the necessary conditions to allow their employees to perform their work while giving them an appropriate amount of freedom. At the same time, a successful leader takes responsibility – making decisions, intervening and providing direction where necessary.

The role of managers is influenced to a large extent by the way we work together. I expect that in future, we will increasingly operate as networks of teams – even outside of project work. In specific terms, this means that for some topics, employees will work together with colleagues in different areas or functions while still being part of a fixed organizational structure. Managers will therefore need to be capable of leading their employees within and outside of fixed structures. A further requirement will be that in future, parts of teams will increasingly operate in different locations – being physically on site and in a mobile office. A good leader can deal with this set-up.


“Managers often neglect the development of their leadership skills”

What are the most common mistakes that bosses make when leading teams?

Managing people is certainly no longer a part-time task and the best specialists do not necessarily make the best managers. Bosses often act like managers. However, simply managing a team is no longer enough. Continuously developing your leadership skills is at least as important as growing your specialist knowledge. Despite this fact, managers often neglect the further development of these skills – especially if they are under time pressure. It is, nevertheless, essential for them to regularly refresh their knowhow in this area so that they can try out new methods and actively embrace their leadership role.


Studies have shown that bosses tend to rate their leadership skills more highly than their employees do. Why is this the case and what can be done to alter the situation?

I don’t think the question of who rates whom better or worse is all that important. The decisive factor is how I, as a manager, can obtain the most accurate picture possible of the work I perform in that capacity. In this context, it can be helpful for managers to consider self-reflection or to regularly conduct 360˚ feedback rounds. It is good if there is a relationship of trust within the team and between employees and their manager and if people can honestly express their opinions. The prerequisite for this is that managers must be really receptive to the feedback, openly request it and, if necessary, show their willingness to make changes.


Is leadership a skill than can be learned or not?

Leadership can definitely be learned. After all, there are clear leadership skills such as communication, strategic thinking or innovation that can be acquired and strengthened. Of course, the personality of the individual also influences their management style. While it is difficult or impossible to change one’s character traits, line managers can analyze their own personality. Reflective leaders know their strengths and weaknesses and can learn how to deal with them if they really want to.


“There is still a need for managers”

Nowadays, employees are encouraged to take responsibility and work independently. That being the case, are managers still needed? Or to phrase the question differently: What do you think of self-managing teams?

I consider it a valuable asset if employees can take responsibility and work in a self-determined way. However, not everyone finds this easy to do: Some individuals may need more support than others. For that reason, I am convinced that there is still a need for managers. What really matters in this context is having the right ingredients for good cooperation and having a team whose members complement each other. If these different elements are in place, a lot of things will work even without a boss.

I experienced this recently myself. We held our annual Group-wide management meeting virtually this year because of corona. This was a short-term and challenging project. And although it was a new experience for everyone involved, the event was a great success. The project team consisted of colleagues from different functions and divisions – but we had the right chemistry from the outset and all of the team members organized themselves and helped out where necessary. Everyone performed their role responsibly and contributed to the project as a whole. Although I was officially the Project Leader on paper, I was able to step back as a manager in this case.


Many more people will work in a home office in the future. What impact will that have on management? What is the difference between managing employees who are working in a home office and physically managing them on site?

Generally speaking, I am convinced that the combination of working on site and in a mobile office is ideal – both for employees and the company. And now even more so, managers who judge their employees’ performance based on the amount of time they spend at work – and not the value the create – are following out-of-date practices. Regardless of whether employees are in the office or working from home: Managers should lead their teams according to clear objectives – and what counts is the end result. Employees should be aware of the contribution they make to the realization of the company’s goals. It is important for employees to see the big picture so that they can act autonomously. To achieve this, you need to have certain guidelines and, at the same time, some room for maneuver.

I believe that the greatest challenge for managers is how to build team spirit and foster the corporate culture despite their teams being in different places. That requires internal agreements, e.g. stipulating that employees should have the camera switched on during video conferences to create a sense of proximity, or requesting that everyone is present on site on a specific day once a week. This is important because no matter how flexible you want to be: Direct, informal and person dialogue will remain an important element of a company’s corporate culture.


Stefanie Weber (48) joined Rentenanstalt as an intern in 1995 and has since remained loyal to the company, which is today called Swiss Life. She has held a wide variety of functions – including in sales, strategy and project management, as well in the CEO Office. Since 2014, Stefanie Weber has held leadership roles in the insurer’s Human Resources department and was appointed Head of Group Human Resources in March 2020. She originally trained as an insurance clerk and business economist.


© Claudia Kraaz

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