Can you also lead employees digitally?

June 1, 2021 | Digitalization, Leadership and Organizational Development
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Leaders in digital times need to provide clarity and consistency about what needs to be preserved and what needs targeted change. We discuss how this so-called ambidextrous leadership can work with Florian Hochenrieder, Partner at Staufen AG.

Effective leadership – why is it so important, especially now?

Leadership has become an overused term in recent years. It is often misinterpreted as, “Ok, let’s work on developing the team.” But precisely in these times – digital age and Corona crisis – effective leadership is particularly in demand. What does that mean? Effective leadership means creating clarity: Where is the journey going? Where do we currently stand? What current challenges are we facing? And then promoting consistency among everyone involved. Among employees, other managers, but of course also among partners, suppliers or customers.

More than ever, in particularly challenging times, it is about consistently completing activities and tasks. And not just for the company but in the interest of an interconnected value chain. How does everyone work together in the best possible way to achieve good results?

In addition to clarity and consistency, effective leadership is about boldness. In other words, consciously daring to do things together with others, in order to sometimes go the necessary extra mile.

Does the “digital age” require a different kind of leadership?

The answer is clear: yes and no. In digital times, leadership always means leading with both hands. Ambidexterity, i.e. ambidextrous leadership, is an often used buzzword. This states that change and leadership succeed when you act “ambidextrously.” “One hand” creates clarity about what needs to be preserved, e.g., because it works or because patterns have proven themselves in analog as well as in digital and crisis-ridden times. The “second hand” answers the question of what needs to be specifically changed now and where perhaps even disruption is called for.

How does effective leadership work in concrete terms?

Effective leadership can be designed in terms of seven design parameters. These parameters are also reflected in the Staufen Leadership Framework. With them, it is possible to effectively and efficiently align leadership and leadership culture as a whole.

  1. Framework
    Effective leadership means creating the right framework, setting up the right conditions so that the leader, their team and also the processes, structures and systems of an organization can develop such that excellent value creation is possible in the end.
  2. Tasks
    Competencies and responsibilities are to be defined clearly and transparently within the circle of those involved. In this context, it is important for leaders to be aware of their own leadership responsibilities. This involves, for example, realizing that for a leader it is less a matter of completing administration tasks or excessively holding meetings, but much more about focusing on developing an adequate strategy as well as on necessary and measurable results.
  3. Leadership roles
    What does it actually mean to be a leader? Leadership always means being a role model and performer (top performer). Means being a change agent who drives change and a networker who makes smart connections. Another role is that of the stakeholder manager, who brings together the right people, the right parties and ultimately the right levers, who effectively focuses forces to work towards target images.
  4. Leadership tools
    The goal is to actually use and deploy traditional management tools such as reports, meetings, deployment plans, and checklists effectively and efficiently instead of just as an end in themselves. The focus in leadership needs to be sharpened to enable excellence with a few right tools.
  5. Competencies
    Empowering and developing others is another core leadership responsibility. This includes systematically promoting one’s own abilities and the key competencies that one perceives in others and/or would like to develop. Personnel development, training and coaching, for example, play a key role as success factors for sustainable leadership impact.
  6. Behavior
    Competencies are strengthened through regular application and gradually transformed into effective habits. Leaders can promote this by setting an example as well as with targeted coaching and mentoring for employees and, if necessary, other stakeholders. It comes down to making proper behaviors and routines part of the active culture and habitus.
  7. Corporate culture
    Culture and culture development have always played an essential role in enabling excellence and taking excellent companies to the next level. A performance culture that enables value creation and appreciation is essential for all stakeholders to continuously grow and deliver outstanding and, above all, sustainable results.

The role of people in digital times

People are not necessarily highly digitally oriented in and of themselves; nevertheless, people always remain the most important success factor, regardless of the entrepreneurial context. Each individual is also a “leader” themselves in the sense of acting as a change agent for their environment. It is essential to always put people at the center in order to make continuous improvement possible even in difficult and digital times.

Therefore, in addition to the thesis that “leadership is the power to change,” the thesis that “we cannot not lead” also applies. Every person either becomes a shaper of their own reality themselves and shapes things quite consciously. Or they are guided and influenced by external circumstances, which can become dangerous. In addition to the danger of procrastination and demotivation, there is also the risk of mediocrity and falling behind the competition in the long run. Especially during crises and very volatile, dynamic and digital times, it is essential to remain in the driver’s seat.

The new challenge: “remote” leadership

Leadership in digital times is often referred to as “remote leadership,” i.e., leading from a distance in a broader sense. Just as in on-site leadership, it is important to ensure the motivation and inspiration of the people involved in addition to focusing on performance and results. This presents a challenge for leaders.

Here are some personal leadership impulses from Florian Hochenrieder:

  • Define a common noble cause of your team.
    The team defines together what it stands for. At management level, the mission statement is once again focused taking this into account and operationalized accordingly.
  • See what is there.
    Leaders provide clarity and transparency regarding the current situation to themselves and the team. They strive to identify what can and cannot be changed. The power of change is then focused on using the right levers.
  • Recognize what works.
    The leader sets clear priorities and guides the team to the goal. Here, in addition to leadership, the topic of “serving the team” is addressed. Guiding question: What are the few but relevant levers for success?
  • Dare to do what matters.
    Courage and boldness count in digital times. It is important to dare to do new things even from remote leadership. This can include new tools or new leadership approaches, such as virtual delegation of responsibility to the team.
  • Enable the team.
    The leader gives the team room to learn and train, as well as to try things out. In digital times, it is more important than ever to specifically empower employees because new skills are needed now.
  • Practice continuous change with your team.
    Leaders develop themselves and the team in an ambidextrous manner. Together, they regularly discuss what worked well or not so well over the past few weeks, and then adjust consistently and wisely. 

Mutual trust is strengthened when these six points are also communicated openly and honestly within the team, as well as on a short-cycle basis (e.g., in daily or weekly sprint meetings). In doing so, meaning, respect and appreciation can be experienced.

In difficult times, can a good leader admit that he or she finds the leadership task difficult in the current situation?

Every leader should answer “yes” to this question. It is absolutely okay to admit to ourselves and to other stakeholders that we are facing challenges. It is honest and even builds confidence and motivation to admit that the leadership task may be harder than in the past.

In management coaching and mentoring, the topic of “developing fearlessness” is increasingly being addressed for this purpose. Fearlessness does not mean eliminating or letting go of anxiety or fear, but it means consciously facing your own fears and things that may be harder than before – and admitting that to yourself and others.

Authentic admission, honesty towards oneself, the team as well as partners, customers and suppliers, helps others to open up and admit: “Hey, you are right, things are more difficult now. It is stressful. It is chaotic.” By admitting it together, you approach the right mindset and the right mode to find solutions. Therefore, it is clear that leaders should focus on transparency. You should even openly discuss fears, worries and concerns with the team and, if necessary, with stakeholders in order to identify problems and then solve and master them in a goal-oriented manner.


Dr. Thilo Greshake, Partner Automotive, STAUFEN.AG

With a doctorate in mechanical engineering and more than 15 years of international consulting experience in lean development, engineering excellence and quality management, Dr. Thilo Greshake has been responsible for the Automotive division at Staufen AG since 2017.


Florian Hochenrieder, Partner at Staufen AG

studied economics and organizational psychology in the German Armed Forces and subsequently served as an officer for 12 years. After management positions in the industrial sector, including at a leading digital group, he moved into consulting and specializes in effective transformation and leadership.

“I very strongly believe that leadership always means the power to change, and that’s why it’s exactly what we need in digital times.”

Florian Hochenrieder came to this realization thanks to his first three mentors, his father, his uncle and his grandfather, among others, who themselves were leaders in different contexts and taught him what constitutes effective leadership and what does not from a variety of perspectives.

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