As the co-founder of newly formed leadership.sprouts, Rolf joined Factory Berlin’s latest Fireside Chat to talk about productivity, intrinsic motivation, and why we need new approaches to leadership to truly unleash the potential of our organisations.
A few days after his Fireside Chat, Emily McDonnell, founder of The Staycation Collection and mentee in the Stealth Mode programme, shared a (virtual) coffee with Rolf to dig a bit deeper into the topics of leadership, entrepreneurship and motivation.
The move from leading an international travel company that helps people compare the cost of accommodation, to setting up an open-source network focused on creating better organisations through good leadership seems like an odd one on the surface, but after our call, it all makes perfect sense.
Rolf Schrömgens is a big believer in creating tools to ensure experiential learning and the creation of sustainable leadership models, something – he tells me – he created sort of by accident at Trivago. “Over 15 years, you see a lot of employees come and go, but what was really interesting was that many of those who had moved on told me that they were, in hindsight, incredibly grateful for the Trivago company culture. The main elements they missed in their new organisations were freedom, flexibility and the ability to create their own value.”
“Thanks to a lack of external pressure from VCs, we were able to experiment with structures and tools to create a strong culture and set of values. Once my Trivago chapter had come to a close, a former colleague – Anna – approached me and asked: why don’t we try and democratise these learnings and share them?”
Over the course of our call, Rolf shared some of his key principles and learning.
“We need to remember that experience - becoming stuck working a certain way - can have its drawbacks, too.”
Don’t let others tell you what you must and mustn’t do.
When asked “what advice would you give to others on how to be a good leader and set up strong company structures?”, Rolf laughed and replied simply by saying don’t let others tell you what to do. The key to good leadership is trying and failing on your own. People are individuals, as are companies, so it doesn’t make sense for others to be prescriptive with advice.
“In general, we tell young entrepreneurs way too often that this is not the way business works and you should do it a different way, assuming that our way is better. But because of this, we remove a lot of innovation potential. We need to remember that experience – becoming stuck working a certain way – can have its drawbacks, too.”
Exploration is key, it’s something that will lead to different solutions that, once landed upon, will seem very obvious and straightforward.
Start with your values. Back them up with substance.
One of the worst things leaders can do is talk the talk but not walk the walk, simply giving the impression that they have created a company that is value-led.
“Your team is your most valuable asset, and the way you attract the right talent is by being open and honest about your company’s value-set. This means when you hire, there is already a filtering process that happens, people who are motivated by that value-set will apply, and those who aren’t won’t. But, if your organisation doesn’t really have that value-set embedded in the organisation, your employees will – pretty quickly – figure this out and either leave or start underperforming while giving the impression that they’re creating value.”
Create a win-win set up for the company and the team by ensuring the right values are both communicated and embedded in the company culture.
Time and space are essential.
Wellbeing, creativity and true reflection are only possible when you give yourself time and space from work.
“Go in the woods and walk, lie in the sun, meditate, whatever works for you: the most important thing is to get distance from your day-to-day stresses, if not, you get caught up in them. Space creates a learning opportunity, allowing you to not repeat your repeat mistakes. Reflection time also allows you to be more productive: reflect on your day – what were you happy about and what were you not happy about? This is much more important than working for an extra 10 minutes.”
Don’t think you know everything, you don’t.
The reason leadership.sprouts isn’t a consultancy, telling other companies what they should and shouldn’t do to create better organisations? Rolf isn’t an expert.
“All I can do is share my experience of what has worked and what hasn’t worked for me within Trivago. That’s a very specific set of circumstances. I am not the world’s best leader, so I shouldn’t act like I am. The real way we can create better organisations is to learn from each other.”
So often we learn new ways of working from different sectors, and it’s the same with leadership. We need to remember that the world is changing day in, day out, and we can’t just sit back and assume that because we’re a good leader today, we’ll be a good leader next year. Creating a future-proof company culture means we have to continually learn and put those learnings into practice.
“I am not the world’s best leader, so I shouldn’t act like I am. The real way we can create better organisations is to learn from each other.”
Micro-management isn’t an attractive trait.
“I was a really controlling bastard for a long time, frequently overreaching, thinking I was the only person who could solve something. I remember once telling the dev team what lines of code to write and how long it should take them to do so. This was value-destroying in a lot of ways, people were no longer able to see my good intentions and I just started killing motivation and trust. I’m not proud that I acted that way.”
The best leaders, Rolf tells me, are those who create a strong structure in which the company’s values are embedded and accessible, and, once they’re there, trust your employees to do the job you hired them for.
Security is an essential feeling for a successful company.
“Everyone has the right to be motivated by what they’re motivated by, whether that be the industry, learning opportunities, social impact, or a set of values. But, of course, it’s difficult for a company to constantly work to balance and nurture all of these motivations. All they can – and should – do is define the key values and outline what they can deliver.”
“However, a feeling of security is an essential motivator. We need to show employees that they are appreciated, and that they are an integral and trusted part of the organisation. This is when they’ll perform best.”