Bonn After confirmation on Friday that he will stay on as CEO until 2022, Frank Appel talks to Jasmin Fischer about his guiding principles of management and his leadership style.
What have you learnt about leadership after nearly nine years at the head of Deutsche Post?
Frank Appel: I have seen confirmed what I had previously already believed, although it was not as clear to me: when you understand what makes people tick, then you can successfully run a business. And secondly: if you are open and honest when making difficult decisions, and we have had to make some in the last nine years, then you gain respect – even if those decisions hurt. You cannot beat about the bush and must do what you previously said you would – and change course when you see that it is not working. That is something you first really become aware of when in charge, when you are ultimately responsible.
You have a PhD in neurobiology. Is there anything you can draw from that field when running a large company?
Appel:Of course sometimes my knowledge about the processes in the human brain is helpful. But my parents had already given me an essential basic insight. My mother always said: “You must use your head, heart and gut and try hard – then you will be successful. And even if you then do not succeed, we will still love you.” That was a godsend – it made it easy for me because I never had to struggle for my parents’ love. I never had to do things to prove something to others. That was a good foundation. Others have to search in life for things they did not have or work hard to free themselves from the feeling of “not being loved.”
In the trio head, heart and gut, how important is gut feeling?
Appel: In the past I have made decisions about personnel, for example, primarily on objective, rational grounds –with my head. Today I know that you can also feel in your heart and gut when something is not right. When you make a wrong decision about a personnel issue, looking back you can usually see that your instinct gave you the right warning - only I used to ignore it. Today I rely more on my gut feeling in such matters than I did ten years ago. Using your instinct also means staying focussed and positive. How do I know that the things I am doing now are the important things? To decide that takes courage.
How do you handle stress?
Appel: I ask myself: have I done everything in my power to reach my goal? When I can answer that question with a yes, then I can also live with the consequences. I do not take stress home with me or have trouble sleeping. I can handle pressure well. Our executives also have to ask themselves what they can and want to achieve. Taking a job purely for reasons of prestige makes you unhappy. You have to do what comes easily because then you do it better than others and are successful. If I were only able to do my job by working 80 hours a week, I would be the wrong man. Then you would have to look for someone more talented. I am not a workaholic.
As the boss, have you found it harder to trust?
Appel: No. The changing global environment does not make me nervous precisely because I have trust in people – and they have almost never disappointed. It is all a question of your conception of man. I believe people intrinsically want what is right: to live in harmony with their surroundings, to make a contribution. I trust that when I give someone a job, they want to do it well and correctly.
Traditional leadership is still in essence typical male management. Was it a conscious decision not to become an alpha leader?
Appel: I have always made career decisions on the basis of whom I work for more than what I do. I came to Deutsche Post because I had, and still have, a lot of respect for Klaus Zumwinkel – for his style of leadership. He was an outstanding manager. For him it was not about being right, but doing the right thing. It was about striving for the right answer, not about being the boss. That made an impression on me and I wanted to do the same. When someone has a better argument than me, I also change my opinion. That sometimes irritates people, but I do not need to prove anything to myself. As chief executive officer, I often forget that I am the chief executive officer because for me it is about the issue.
You call it room to manoeuvre, I would call it power – how important is it to you?
Appel: There is nothing worse in my job, than having to relieve someone of their position. People are in leadership positions here because they are good. I have helped to find them. And then perhaps they do not master their job and I have to let them go. You would like to call that power, but that is not nice. That is terrible. Yes, one has that power, but one has to handle it in a measured and very careful way. For me the term responsibility comes to mind rather than power.
Do you conduct such exit interviews personally?
Are you truthful?
Appel: Truthful, yes, but you also have to protect people. They are capable otherwise they would not have been in their roles. You have to explain to them why they have not managed to harness their talents. This feedback is important because top managers can also have a second chance. It also applies to me. If our performance were not so good, I may not be able to stay in office. In this way we are forced to be successful – not to make shareholders rich but because we are responsible for the lives of so many people. That can have consequences and you have to be able to live with them.
When something needs to be negotiated at home, your wife does it. Can you explain why there are still so few women on the board of directors in large companies?
Appel: It simply takes time for people to develop as leaders. We are a bit too impatient. It is a foregone conclusion that even more women will be promoted in the coming years. But it is also true that men nearly always believe themselves able to take on a new job, regardless of whether they are right or not. Women are more hesitant and that has ramifications: men are promoted more quickly even if they then perhaps fail.
You often comment on topical issues. Does political office attract you?
Appel: No. I enjoy the fact that, unlike politicians, I can still be a private person – even in Bonn. As chief executive officer, however, I can still have a political view. I also see that as my responsibility.
Which guiding principle of leadership would you transfer to politics?
Appel: I am convinced that all people have three things in common. We are all looking for someone to spend our life with, someone we can hold on to. For me, that is my wife. The second is that people want to contribute something. The third is that we want to have hope that tomorrow will be better than today. These principles can also guide politics. Take the issue of basic income: if you give someone money and he has not worked for it, he cannot make a contribution. Even worse, you take away his hope that tomorrow will be better.
Do you tell politicians when in your view things are not working well?
Appel: Whenever there is a dialogue with politicians, I try to make clear that we must give people a vision. They want to know what will happen in the next five to ten years. When they are all alone with their concerns, they vote for politicians who promise easy solutions. We know the outcome: when we do not know where we will be in a few years, the reflex action is to vote for the party that promises everything will stay as it is, or to protest against TTIP and CETA. Yet globalisation has helped many people out of poverty because we have division of labour on a global level. We need more freedoms, because then there are more possibilities, not fewer. Of course there are people who have lost their jobs through globalisation and they need to be looked after. But the reason for their job loss is not globalisation but rather that we have not adequately prepared people how to deal with change.
(Original text: Jasmin Fischer. Translated by Kate Carey.)