umlaut office three people


Purpose rather than money!

In the War for Talent, CPO Lars Karsten maintains a strong focus on corporate values. Why sustainability and diversity are now the key issues.

So Lars, how many times have you been into the office since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic?

I haven't actually been into the office that many times because I've been focusing on meeting up with people – predominantly via digital means, mostly for half-hour appointments. All things considered, I've actually met up with more people virtually than I did in person before the pandemic. And when I did travel, it was usually for workshops – in particular on the subject of leadership. These workshops are normally attended by around twelve managers from many different areas of the company. I believe that our team leaders have the strongest influence on our employees.

What did you learn about your employees during the lockdowns?

They tend to take on more responsibility – in some cases too much. In the labs, our employees sat in video conferences from morning until night, whilst at the same time we were losing business because aircrafts had to stay on the ground. So they were working even more hours on the assumption that they would have to make up for this. Working from home didn't suit everyone. Schools also found that some pupils couldn't study effectively at home. Programmes, devices, time zones and network coverage – these were some of the technical hurdles that needed to be overcome first of all. They make teamwork more difficult; creativity and identification with the corporate culture fall by the wayside. Yet there were also some positive points – a job with umlaut is easy to balance with family life. The mobile office brings new opportunities, especially for mothers and fathers. I really hope that this will become an alternative to part-time working. We have also become more animal-friendly than ever before. During the pandemic, many of our employees fulfilled their dream of getting a dog – I went along on countless virtual dog walks.

Walks for everyone! Does umlaut actually still need to have offices?

Even before the lockdown, I didn't really need one, as I spent half of the year on business trips. Like many of our employees, I can work at the airport, from home or, like our colleague Caroline Weber, in a camper van at the world's best surfing spots. We still regularly come across areas where we have to follow the regulations. Information security remains an important topic. People who test automotive equipment generally need to be in a fixed location – although here in Böblingen (Germany) we are already working with a virtual testing farm. And teams that are designing aircrafts for us need high-performance computers. They need to be installed in a secure environment with special doorways and protected networks.

For some projects you need to be close to the customer. What happens if the customer relocates?

If possible, we go with them. When the Airbus Electronics Department moved from Hamburg to Toulouse, 90 percent of the employees who were working on their projects moved to France. We would never force anyone to relocate and we have created a flexible and transparent work culture. Yet when the work has to be done close to the customer or project, we make no secret of the fact that willingness to travel is a requirement.

Worldwide, umlaut has 4,200 employees from more than 80 countries, based in more than 50 different locations. How do you ensure that networked working is successful?

With flat hierarchies and making full use of the network. This results in people taking on responsibility. I like to call it ownership – really taking hold of an issue and seeing it through to the end. We have a very good culture of learning from mistakes. All mistakes are good if we quickly learn from them and use them to optimise the system, so that they don't happen again. This allows a creative environment to thrive. In our work in the aviation sector, we stick closely to the processes. Training courses help us to do this. But we want our employees to take responsibility for things and move them forward. It is one of the most hotly debated topics in the aforementioned leadership workshops: How much guidance should I give my employees so that they don't make the mistakes in the first place? And how much should I leave them to learn from their own mistakes? Do I let my childdren touch the hob or do I warn them about the consequences?

... does the network know the answer?

Yes! And smartphones are key. Almost everyone is given one and can use it to call anyone in our network organisation. It's an important element of our culture. There are no team assistants and there is no organisation chart to set out the areas of responsibility – I believe that this also contributes to successful networking. In addition to this, we also offer numerous formats to bring people together. In Hamburg, for example, we have the "irregular table" where employees present their projects or their hobbies. We have the umlaut convention – an internal trade fair with more than 40 stands to showcase many of our different skills and customer projects. The real magic doesn't happen at the stand but rather in front of the stand where people talk to one another and swap ideas: How can we bring 5G into aircraft production? For which customers do we want to measure connectivity or make use of our expertise in testing from the automotive sector? Something very new is our Green Lunch, a collective digital lunch with lots of contributions and ideas on how we can make ourselves and our customers more sustainable.

But do these events create shared values and a collective attitude?

They provide the ideal breeding ground for doing so. We believe that this intercultural mix and the networking that goes on are incredibly valuable. This is why we send many of our employees to India for a month or two, for example, so that they can work hand-in-hand with the team that they otherwise only know from the computer screen. Every one of us that has been to America has come back as an ambassador. When I talk to Americans, my direct manner often gets in the way and they sometimes find it confusing. But when there is a German colleague there, who has been living in America for six months, they can help by putting things into context. And it works the other way round too. Together we can break down these stereotypes. When I ask about deadlines, I need to be very careful how I do it. In the Indian culture, it is very difficult to say "No". So I should never ask questions that require a simple yes or no answer. The French have a different way of approaching hierarchies. We need to take this into account and try to find the right type of language and the right tone. My German colleagues tend to ask counter-questions: What exactly do you mean by complete? Or what do you mean by Friday evening?

Does Friday evening mean that Saturday evening would be okay too?

This is something that every member of staff has to decide for themselves. If, as a manager, I write emails at the weekend, then it will be with the disclaimer that I had to spend some time on Friday looking after my children, and I’m happy to wait until Monday for an answer. I don't want to drag people away from their weekends. And if this should happen, however, then I am grateful for any feedback: "I felt really under pressure to give you an answer." I would like to create a culture in which people feel able to talk about these things.

Portrait Lars Karsten

Lars Karsten, Chief People's Officer

You are a member of the management board at umlaut. And Chief People’s Officer. How do the both things fit together?

Employees are our most valuable resource. I make efforts to see that they are heard. I don't get my orders from the management board but rather from the people that are driving umlaut forwards. The title Chief People Officer is in widespread use – yet I felt that there was an apostrophe missing. I am their Chief People’s Officer. We also have senior managers with traditional titles such as CEO or Managing Director – these have legal significance. Beyond this, we like to take a creative approach to these things. The various areas of activity are too individual for standardised titles. Because we work in a way that is strongly focused on the customer, our recruitment process sometimes needs to be tailor-made for the role in question. The Americans, for example, like to work with Senior Directors – so we are happy to take on this title for them!

As CPO, how can you belong to everyone?

I can't. That's why leadership is such an important topic for me. I have to reach out to all our managers and try to increase their awareness of the key topics in the area of professional development. We won't achieve anything if they fail to internalise our values and goals so as to translate them very precisely into actions. Our managers listen. Every one of our employees has a one-to-one relationship with a line manager. Someone who is there for them, who advocates for further training and promotion, and who will decide whether they get a bonus. And we have coaching and mentoring programmes to encourage individual development. It goes without saying that, when it comes to dealing with customers, we also have clearly defined procedures and project management.

What values have you established and where could you do better?

We are good at motivating and encouraging our employees, inspiring them to be brave and bold, promoting both empathy and entrepreneurship. When I look at the world today, it is clear to me that we need to be continuously learning. We have so much disruption ahead of us, with digitalisation, 5G, CO2, the climate crisis... I am absolutely convinced that more than half of our people will be doing something different five years from now. Training courses are an important building block to prepare our employees for sustainability projects, for the automation of classical engineering projects.

On the photo of your management board, there are no women to be seen. As CPO, what is your attitude towards diversity?

With people from 81 nations, we are very diverse in multicultural terms. Yet the 25 percent of women at umlaut are just a fig leaf. Because if we look more closely, we can see that far too few of them are employed in engineering or in management roles. The company has its roots in the male-dominated worlds of universities and engineering. It's a matter of great personal importance to me that we make more progress in this area. Yet, in the same way as I am not a fan of the organisation chart, I am also not a great believer in quotas if they only function in technical terms. The drive for change has to come from within us all. We are heading in the right direction!

What is the extra “plus factor” that talented individuals will only find at umlaut?

Today, we can no longer attract new employees with our flat hierarchy. That's boring. The new "plus factor" has to be that we offer a job with purpose. A real vision that we can change things. At umlaut, new recruits can use their technology skills and clever engineering to help make the world a better place – defining new standards with customers in the automotive sector, in aviation, in telecommunications, energy and healthcare. More and more applicants now consider this to be a criterion for success – money and titles now play a secondary role. The diverse range of opportunities that we offer at umlaut are the reason why people want to work with us.


Lars Karsten

Chief Communication & People's Officer