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Andreas Clausen – Exploring Coral Reefs

It was a stereotypical Hamburg summer experience – we touched down at “Helmut Schmidt” Airport through thick clouds with plane windows covered in raindrop lines. But as soon as we met Andreas Clausen at the “Speicherstadt” district, the weather changed. The rain stopped and the wind started. So we did what people in Hamburg do and sought shelter in a little tea house, drinking black tea and conducting a three hour interview on a broad range of topics. Clausen is the Vice President R&D at Beiersdorf and what he calls a “mindfulness ambassador”. We talked about the topic of mindfulness in general, sustainability as a motor of innovation, overcoming hierarchies by implementing something he describes as “coral reefs” and of course his love for Hamburg.

innomanniacs: We are currently located in the warehouse district “Speicherstadt” which is the heart of Hamburg history. Why do you have this strong relation to Hamburg? 

Andreas Clausen: I was not born Hamburg, but I come from the surrounding area. Therefore, since my childhood Hamburg was an important reference point for me. I went to university in Hamburg and during this time my connection with the city intensified. I have worked in research and development at Beiersdorf in Hamburg for over 20 years. Beiersdorf is located in the center of Hamburg in a neighborhood called Eimsbüttel. Therefore, I have a lot of private and work related relationships here. I have met my wife in Hamburg and my daughter was born here. Hence, I would say that Hamburg is my city. 

You once told me that there are two things that you are passionate about: innovation and people…

Being involved in innovation, I have learned about myself that I enjoy creating and shaping things, thinking about the future and making it happen. Obviously, innovation is a topic that I eventually got stuck with and it is not without reason that I passionately work in the R & D department. Exploring and designing new products will always be my guiding light, no matter what I will do. 

People are important to me, because I have realized that it can be extremely fulfilling to help people grow and succeed when you are in a leadership position or working in a team. To find a common ground and the ability to involve other people are very important to me. It is essential especially in innovation to support other people to get a chance to pursue ideas and topics they believe in, to allow open-mindedness and to value one’s opinion. Being a leader and executive for over 15 years, it was vital for me to recognize that success does not solely depend on me. It is much more dependent on my team and on concentrating my efforts on the growth and advancement of my team.

Andreas Clausen, Speicherstadt, Hamburg

When I did my research for this interview, the first articles that I came across mentioned you as the representative for the topic of mindfulness at Beiersdorf. What does mindfulness mean to you and how have you decided that there is a need to address this topic? 

Mindfulness means a lot to me, because I have noticed a few years ago that my mental and physical capacities or resources are not endless. At that time, I was in a phase, in which I had a new job with high ambition, a new born daughter, and the stress of building a house for my family. I had a lot going on in my life and my body gave me signals that I should not continue like this. However, I did not listen to the signals but completely ignored them. Things changed for me when Ralph Gusko, one of our executive board members, started to address and promote mindfulness in the organization. He invited executives to take part in a 10 week mindfulness training. I immediately decided to volunteer for this training, which was probably a subconscious decision. At that point in time, I was already searching for a solution because I realized that I was close to reaching my limits. When you consider the life in today´s VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) world, many people most likely feel the same as I did at that time.

Could you talk about some elements of mindfulness?

Meditation is a key element in mindfulness, but there are also other components that are not related to meditation, such as how to communicate with others and how to organize your work and oneself. Mindfulness practice helps you to be focused on the here and now, and react none-judgmental. Mindfulness has had a very positive impact on me. I participated in a study that measured cortisol levels as a stress indicator in the body. Within 10 weeks I was able to significantly reduce my cortisol levels through a daily meditation routine. As a scientist, this result sparked my interest in meditation because to me it was ‘only a mental exercise’ but it clearly had a positive effect on my health.

“We have the vision of integrating mindfulness into our company and leadership culture.”

Meditation is a purely cognitive process, this was so fascinating for me that I said to myself that I will continue to meditate on a daily basis. I could have done this at home, but also other colleagues were very inspired and willing to continue. At the moment, we are five colleagues calling ourselves “mindfulness ambassadors”. We have the vision of integrating mindfulness into our company and leadership culture. I firmly believe that nowadays everybody searches for an answer that helps in dealing with the complexity and speed of our time. After having completed the qualification for becoming mindfulness coaches, we have now started to offer training sessions to teams at Beiersdorf.

How has mindfulness impacted your leadership style? 

I would say that mindfulness has had a huge impact. I think that mindful people have a general awareness for such topics. Hence, I guess that I always had the predisposition for it. I did not have a scintillation and hence converted myself to mindfulness. It was always in my personality, but it has sharpened my consciousness. I treat myself now in a considerably more conscious and observing manner and I am in much better contact with myself. I find that nowadays many people lose contact with themselves. Many people in executive positions are so caught up in their job that they do not even feel themselves or what they currently need anymore. They are stuck in long-learned management mechanisms and behaviors. 

And what are your mechanisms now?

Actually, for me mindfulness is that I observe much more closely what I do, how I react and what it does to me. It also means that I try to separate my learned reaction pattern from the situation in which it takes place and that I then consciously decide how I want to react to something or someone. This enables me to really be in the here and now when I have a conversation with someone – which is essentially the core of mindfulness. We have recently introduced a smartphone box in our offices at our headquarters, in which people can put their smartphones during meetings. Actually, this is more of a symbol or friendly reminder, because people can also turn off their smartphones. However, it shows you how crucial it is that you are in the here and now when you are in a meeting or in a conversation. This has a lot to do with how I work with people, what attention I give them, and that I try to understand what they need. 

So it is much more than meditation…

Mindfulness goes beyond meditation, for me it is like training a muscle on your senses, to be in the here and now and how you react. The key in meditation is to focus on your breath and to let go all wandering thoughts without judging them. I try to live mindfulness in my daily life and whenever I have stress, which everybody has at some point, I notice it and deliberately conceive it. At our headquarters we have introduced rooms of silence for meditation. I use them regularly, in order to calm down, concentrate on myself, and to subsequently feel reinvigorated. This has significantly changed the way I operate in my daily life.

Was it easy to create sensitivity for mindfulness that goes beyond your own department? 

It is like in any behavioral change… there are people who are open for such topics and there are many of them. As a said before, it is a matter of our lifetime that more and more people are searching for a solution to cope with their lives. Younger generations, especially Gen Z, are automatically more mindful in their lives, as they focus on a work-life balance that is different to the one of my generation, which in turn is very performance-oriented. I would say that our company is representative to any other organization. There are people who have an affinity for mindfulness right away and there will always be people who say: hug your tree on your own, I do not need stuff like this. However, this is completely ok, because everybody, who gets interested in mindfulness, is a gain for our organization and I think that we already have a quite mindful company culture to begin with. 

Since mindfulness has been implemented for longer time period, have there already been measurable results?

Yes, you can see it flare up in some situations. Yet, I believe that it is very hard to measure, because emotional intelligence is mostly about empathy and this is strongly connected to how people treat each other. I think that the biggest challenge for executives is to foster emotional intelligence. It requires other skills as learned in management schools. That is why we call our mindfulness initiative „grass-rooted, and hence, we try to reach all leadership levels for a change in the management culture, which subsequently transforms the culture of the entire organization. I just notice that it is very difficult for executives to embrace mindfulness. Many of them tell me that they would like to use and need something like mindfulness. Then we offer them our six weeks training. 

How’s the response? 

Many executives with good intentions end up not coming to our trainings, because their priorities have changed. Many want to take part, but they are not able to develop the necessary consistency and discipline – after all this does require an additional effort to start. Therefore, I think that mindfulness is a topic which needs top executives as ambassadors in an organization.

Before our interview, you recommended a book to me that mentions neural plasticity. Does this also come into play in your role as a mindfulness ambassador? 

I do not believe that neural plasticity works on an obligatory basis. Neural plasticity is an attitude and an internal process and you cannot impose this on people. I think that there needs to be a proposition for it which can be accepted over time, because there is no way around neural plasticity. That is why we have adopted the credo of patience. We notice that we could do more, but we are unable to do this as part-time mindfulness ambassadors on top of our normal jobs. Nevertheless, this is ok for us, because we give the people an initial impulse. They can also get themselves involved with mindfulness outside of the organization or they can go to the health management team in our organization, which has various preventive offers and some of which also include mindfulness elements. When we spark mindfulness off it is amazing, but I am not a big fan of forcing people to do something, because this approach does not really work in any organization. 

Do you know how other companies handle the topic?

In the end, Google is one of the companies which started to talk loud about it with the “Search inside yourself” program. They established a professional program that was non-compulsory for their employees. I also know Peter Bostelmann from SAP as one of the first full time mindfulness evangelists in a company and know that he also offers trainings. What matters is that executives have the courage to openly promote mindfulness and to say: I am a fan of mindfulness, I encourage it and I meditate myself. The executives have to be a little bit like role models and this is the better way to bring mindfulness forward in an organization.

“You can try to set an example for culture and foster it, but the bottom line is that all employees together carry the culture.”

I think that there is a lot to do in organizations, because I find that we still lead in a very industrial age and output-oriented manner. In my opinion, you need to establish a balance between output orientation and the possibility to exist as a human being and follow a purpose, because this brings increasingly more quality, creativity, and togetherness into our work. You cannot impose the whole thing on people, because it is a cultural topic. You can try to set an example for culture and foster it, but the bottom line is that all employees together carry the culture. 

What do you think is the problem with traditional organizational forms in current times? 

I think that our way of thinking and organizing teams is strongly influenced by the 200 or 250 years of industrialization. At the end of the day, we have become something close to machines, which are mostly about input/output factors and efficiency. To this day, this terminology is still broadly used in management. The entire machine-like organizational form with hierarchies and fixed processes has worked well over last 250 years, taking into consideration what the world needed at the time. 

What is the direction, in which corporations have to develop in the future? 

I think that organizations have to think of themselves as coral reefs. Different corals grow at varying speeds and are influenced by other corals. No one understands how the entire coral reef works, due to the complexity and change. There will be a lot of innovation and creativity, which are the results of the dependencies between the corals. I call this organizational form an ecosystem and I find that this is how companies have to think and organize themselves in the future. This change leads to extreme challenges for executives, as they have to accept that they will not have full control and knowledge anymore and they will also not know everything that is going on in the ecosystem. This forces the executives to redefine their role, which is the biggest barrier for the development of a coral reef like organization. That might mean, executives get afraid of scrutinizing their job, because the transformation naturally leads to the question whether their job will still exist in its original form or not. On the other hand, an ecosystem also implicates that the people, who work in the small coral centers of the coral reef, need to be able to manage themselves on their own, which is at least the same change needed in behavior and organization. 

So, self-management is a crucial element for this new organizational form? 

In my opinion, to learn more self-management is one of the most essential topics that you can impart to your employees. As an executive, you can be ready to cede responsibility and accept to not know everything and to not make every decision anymore. Still, your employees have to be prepared for self-management and the consequences. Here, mindfulness plays again a vital role, because two things are important here: how we empathically work together and to reflect regularly where you stand yourself. Mindfulness is an important foundation for self-management, because you have to look inside yourself.

I could imagine that this is very challenging in a large and traditional company like Beiersdorf…

Certainly. I believe that there are very complex coherences that need to be overturned. It will be exciting to see how Beiersdorf, a company that exists for over 135 years, can bring forth such change, because we are still like many other companies – for the most part – organized in a traditional structure. We make decisions hierarchal and we have many distinct positions with clear responsibilities. In my opinion, we will have to move closer to organizational forms of small or “New work” companies like Spotify, where they have a very flexible organizational system. Spotify assembles teams for a certain time period, after which the teams separate again. The focus is on the needed competencies and is not about old responsibility thinking that still exist. We experiment with this approach for key projects in R & D. We bring together cross-functional teams, which also consist of colleagues from other departments.

What is the reaction of experienced executives, when hierarchies are terminated? 

You will often hear one sentence: “Isn’t this my topic and why is it now part of the other team, don’t I have to decide this?“ It is territorial signals like these, that make it very interesting for me to think about how we can accompany this matter over time and how things will change in an organizational context. I believe that change is necessary – making final decisions solely based on hierarchy levels is not the right approach, in my opinion. Often, executives are not necessarily the most suited decision makers for a particular situation nowadays.

Executives could do this in the past, as change of topics was slower than the learning. In that case, planning made sense and people with a lot of experience were the best to take decisions. Nowadays, change happens so fast that we cannot keep up with learning. Therefore, planning makes less sense in today’s world and I have to rely more on experience in my teams, the coral reef. Hence, I as an executive have to redefine my role, to accompany this change. I have to focus more on the support of learning and contribute my personal strengths. However, I should only get involved, when I can really make a contribution and this turns today’s entire hierarchy pyramid structure upside down. 

What are the daily decision-making mechanisms, when there is no final decision maker and when that decision is passed on to the coral reef? How does the coral reef organize itself? 

That is the whole trick, nowadays you provide the executives with the responsibility for the organization but this will not happen in the future anymore. I can give you one example from my personal experience, because I experiment with this approach trying to find ways to change this in my team. I suggested to my team that I could give them total control over the travel budget and that it would no longer be my responsibility. The travel budget is always a much discussed topic and one of my colleagues responded that this is an excellent idea. Then, I explained that this would also mean to supervise the budgets of all the other colleagues and not only the own one. I went on to say that the colleague could not come to me when problems would arise and that problems have to be solved alone, because the colleagues would be in charge and not me. After that, the colleague contemplated for about ten seconds and said that it is probably not a good idea after all.

“Empowered people have to look after themselves and they have to take over the duties that were performed by the executives in the past.”

This is a good example for the topic of self-management, which involves that you take over power and, as a consequence, responsibility. People often underestimate this part of the empowering coral reef approach. Naturally, people still want to operate in their known and learned area of accountability and they still want to consult their executive, when things get difficult or when something has to be solved. Empowered people have to look after themselves and they have to take over the duties that were performed by the executives in the past. This is the big transformation that is part of moving towards the coral reef in self-organized teams. 

But how do you get people to accept additional responsibility? 

First, you have to make clear that this change entails taking over more responsibility. You need to enter into a dialogue with your people and point to the topic of the self-management and what it means to manage yourself and the team. Like I said, mindfulness is a vital component of self-management and you use this to initiate a thought process of whether you are willing to go down that road or not. Accepting more responsibility is a prerequisite for the coral reef and when somebody is not ready for this, then you cannot force them to do it. The bottom line is that empowerment is more of a delegation today, because I can always take back the tasks that I have given you before.

“Here, I start with mindfulness to cultivate self-management and agree on little steps we can do as a team to evolve.”

When you walk this way and you want to have self-responsible teams that organize themselves stronger, but you give them everything they need and you are not too involved anymore in decision taking, then they have to be prepared to organize and find themselves with all the associated consequences. They have to define new rules on how they want to arrive at decisions without their boss. Here, you have plenty of subject matter to deal with and, hence, I have realistic expectations. Together with my team I pick out the topics for which we can make the first little advancements which help us to test out the way towards more self-management. Here, I start with mindfulness to cultivate self-management and agree on little steps we can do as a team to evolve. 

How do you accomplish, in a large corporation such as Beiersdorf, that small teams have the feeling of having responsibility and being able to bring forth the organization? 

That is a good question. I believe that this comes back to what we have just discussed. As an executive, it is not enough to only convey this feeling, because you have to show that you act in a different manner. The people have to feel that you work differently, make decisions differently and that they can work differently with their executive. You have to allow more and more freedom through distance and less control, because free space is the freedom to do something, which at the first moment may not even contribute to your work. For instance, we have like many other companies 10% time for our R&D employees that they can use to contemplate about any innovative topic they like.

“I firmly believe that employees need to have the possibility for personal development.”

Many colleagues ask me: “Don’t you want to know about what we do in this time?” Every time I deliberately tell them that I do not intend to control what they are doing in this time, because an innovation can emerge from very different thoughts and disciplines. Maybe, I go to the museum and I see a piece of art that inspires me to think about a product for Beiersdorf. You cannot plan something like this and this is exactly the point. Otherwise innovation would be a planning process. I firmly believe that employees need to have the possibility for personal development. When you have started working at a new company, then you will enter the job with a certain euphoria, after all you have chosen the job for a reason. Yet, what often happens with time is that there will be more and more boundaries, rules, and behaviors that the new employee has to consciously or unconsciously obey and limits on how to be and think. 

So more freedom could be the key? 

I find that nowadays an organization should give its employees sufficient freedom for things that are not directly related to the job but follow a purpose the company supports. Yet, this ‘free-time’ also has a value for the organization, because employees are happy, motivated and they see a sense in their work. This approach diverges from the industrial thought of maximum efficiency like Adam Smith has developed it to specialize and fulfill tasks that are in immediate connection to the job for which you were hired.

“you need to learn letting go and to have the courage to accept the employee as an entire human being, from which you cannot cut out your favorite parts and which does not only exist for specialization”

In fact, I let my team select a topic for personal development and support them with it. Which comes back to the topic of self-management. This might be the opportunity to read a book on a totally different topic during working hours, because you have the feeling that this book could help you at a later time in your job. As a result, you need to learn letting go and to have the courage to accept the employee as an entire human being, from which you cannot cut out your favorite parts and which does not only exist for specialization.

That also means, there is much more openness for the individual traits and strengths of the people in such an organization. Individualism is a very significant topic for people of upcoming generations. How does individualism make itself noticeable in the product development of Beiersdorf? 

Essentially, we are a consumer-oriented company. Therefore, we always take into consideration what the individual wants. Yet, we also try to find the largest commonalities, because in the end we are the biggest skincare brand in the world with millions of products sold globally and have to use synergies. For me, the crucial change of the future will be that you will only care about the individual needs of people. When you want a cosmetic product, for instance a skin care product for your face or for your body, then I will help you with finding and making the exact product you need.

“In the future, there will not be a mass market product that is a million times on the shelf and for which consumers decide whether it fits them or not.”

Data is the new currency. The possibility to collect data about yourself and to organize it is something that becomes very relevant for us, because we can use this as a basis for products design. Such trends and changes will come step by step and they will enormously transform our industry over the next decades. In the future, there will not be a mass market product that is a million times on the shelf and for which consumers decide whether it fits them or not. The future will be different in the way that I will provide you with a product that was developed based on your needs and this will completely change the entire business model of the industry. 

How big of a role does sustainability play in the current development of innovations at Beiersdorf? 

Alongside personalization, sustainability is one of the key topics in our industry for the future, because companies have to intensively consider this beyond their focus on profit and revenue. Nowadays, organizations have to give a social and/or environmental commitment or any other valid reasons that will justify their right to exist. At Beiersdorf, sustainability is part of our culture and guides our actions. However, our sustainability efforts have definitely intensified in recent years. In my opinion, this is absolutely the right approach because sustainability is one of the most important transformations in companies and societies besides digitalization and this topic requires that we think about future generations. When it comes to sustainability, it is our generation which has a huge responsibility, because we see the first consequences of climate change and the excessive plastic waste and we might be the last generation having the means to effectively turn the tide in tackling these issues. 

I guess reducing and avoiding micro-plastic is one of your biggest tasks at the moment…

The way of dealing with microplastic and other plastic topics, like reducing plastic packaging materials and contributing to the principles of a circular economy, is a crucial matter for us and there are many other issues that come into play here. Surrounding this, there are legitimate expectations of how we as a company have to act and that we have to take responsibility. In some regards, like reducing CO2 emissions, sourcing sustainable palm oil or avoiding microplastics in our products, we are already quite far progressed, in other areas we have to increase our efforts. All our present and future actions and products have to be holistically examined with regards to sustainability and there will be enormous changes over the next years and decades. At the moment, it is rather the small companies that position themselves very strongly with sustainable products, and this is how they want to differentiate themselves from us big companies who serve a very diverse consumer base around the globe. 

They also put the pressure on the big companies like that… 

I firmly believe that the entire industry should have the aspiration to bring sustainable products on the market that function in harmony with the environment, nature, and resources. We are dedicated to this approach, but it is a journey that will take several years and will somehow never be complete; there will always be new ideas and technologies to optimize products. Today, we are obviously not where we want to be, but we are gaining speed and will have more and more elements to introduce to the market and this journey has to resume. Sustainability is a key subject matter and there is no way around it. 

SOME TAKEAWAYS

  • Mindfulness goes beyond meditation and has a positive effect on your health, the way you communicate, and the way you organize your work.
  • New organizations in the future have to work like coral reefs. Complex interdependent systems which grow at different speeds. To achieve this, responsibility has to be shared among a larger number of individuals.
  • R&D employees at Beiersdorf have a certain amount of free time in which they are encouraged to do whatever they want and most importantly they don’t have to report about these activities. This facilitates true innovation.
  • Beiersdorf already does a lot to tackle the problem of micro-plastics and also intensifies its sustainability efforts holistically.
Marvin Kleinemeier
Marvin Kleinemeier

Is the Chief Editor of innomaniacs.de and Head of Digital Content at ILI CONSULTING AG. As a journalist and photographer he also publishes in print and online magazines in Germany and Europe. He is a member of the German "Bund freier Fotografen und Filmer" and one of Fujifilm's brand ambassadors.