Dirk Dobiéy

Passions and art cannot be standardized

Interview with manager Thomas Sattelberger

Thomas Sattelberger is a German manager who has worked at companies such as Daimler-Benz, Lufthansa, and Continental. Most recently, from 2007 through 2012, he was a board member at Deutsche Telekom. As a young man, the business economist was part of the APO movement and is still being perceived as nonconformist, and maybe due to this notion, as particularly innovative. In any case, he is very actively involved in a variety of important initiatives that deal with future aspects of work and vocational training. And he’s a rather fascinating person to talk to – not only for Age of Artists.

At the beginning of our conversation, Sattelberger talks about his involvement in the topic of scientific and technical training, where it is particularly important to him to show that it is all about technical work and creativity. “Head, Heart and Hand” are supposed to merge into a whole – a point we mutually agree on. “It’s about that which has been lost in business. Not in the sense of instruction, but rather in terms of curious people who want to discover and shape an idea”, says the experienced practitioner. Sattelberger also claims that “the notion of design and aesthetic competence is totally underdeveloped in our country. We are a country of engineers and economists who calculate the world, and creativity plays a subordinate role.” In this context, Sattelberger is working on the design of rooms for experimentation: “On the one hand you need a willingness to allow such experimental facilities and on the other hand people must be willing to act in these facilities to prototypically learn what the design of future work environments could be like. This goal cannot be reached by letting experts come up with a design at the drawing board, but rather by letting people gain experience with other forms of hierarchy, collaboration, network structures, power, power distribution, and so on.”

This is a major challenge when you want to achieve what is actually required, namely a state where “I am in charge of the medium and not vice versa. Where I can translate the data generated by the medium into judgments and my judgment is not defined by an algorithm. Where we build work cultures in which these forms of sovereignty and self-control are appreciated.” Sattelberger’s notion of such a work culture is a democratic one, with “democracy being based on a change in power, both institutionally and in terms of the structure of a given enterprise. A corporate constitution is required that may be protected by law and allows, for example, democratic elections of the leadership team, defines that employees participate in strategic or product-related decisions or guarantees the right to work from home by law, such as in the Netherlands. There is always an institutional aspect to these topics. While it is possible to enable more participation without changing the macro system in which a business is embedded, from a certain perspective it is clear that this is a system-intrinsic approach. An approach that can be reversed, while others apply sustainable changes to the system itself. The growth of companies that organize themselves as cooperatives is a very exciting aspect. Or startups that actually base themselves on a democratic constitution along with rights and obligations. This type adds value to the current business landscape, even if it does not constitute a basis for all companies.”

At the same time Sattelberger thinks that there are several success factors for the continuous persistence of organizations: “An early perception system is required that allows organizations to survive different political, social, and technological changes. A second characteristic is the availability of sufficient liquid funds, so you can support organic growth. This means low debt levels and a high level of economy. A third characteristic can be described as leaders who establish identities and the transfer of meaning and identity into a new generation of leaders. This pertains to the notion of transparency. The institution and the idea of ​​the institution are in the center, not the actor. A fourth characteristic is a high level of innovation at the edges of the organization. This constitutes an innovative power that works in two directions: an innovation may trigger the development of an independent cell, or it forces its way from the outside into the organization. Generally speaking, one can say that decentralized organizations are healthier than monolithic ones. Today’s popular “One Company” ideology has nothing to do with innovation. This is the ideology of companies that are dying off. I am not particularly fond of synergy management as the notion of synergies is often used in a sense of centralization, uniformity, monotony in the “One Company” context.

Management styles are subject to massive changes, too, says the experienced manager: “It’s about being tolerant when it comes to various styles, appearances, profiles, and characteristics of people. It is about tolerance in the truest sense, an only moderate level of normalization, and about enduring and appreciating ambiguity. Situations are often no longer predictable, cannot be explained, and you have to be able to act anyway. You have to take your steps even if it is unclear on what you will step. You have to be able to deal with emptiness and ambiguity. You have to tap into the world through your own ideas and imaginations. This includes a good measure of self-reflection. People who act like this will arrive at one or the other idée fixe and not give up on them. They may well carry such an idea along over the course of a decade or even longer. This includes letting go of vanity and putting one’s ego on a backburner for the sake of this one idea.”

Much of what Sattelberger talked about coincides with our findings in the context of artistic attitude and practice to a large extent. That’s why he sees Age of Artists in a rather positive light: “Passions and art cannot be standardized. The same is true for the carriers of art and passion. Generally speaking, your network has an extreme range of tolerance and includes the possibility of allowing many people to make themselves heard, and to see value in that. Others can learn from this diversity and variety. Secondly, you address ways of how human beings express themselves that have become submerged. Thus, people who are part of organizations, can rediscover themselves.”

The complete interview with Thomas Sattelberger in German language


Text by Dirk Dobiéy.
The interview was conducted by Dirk Dobiéy on 19/04/2015.
Image source: Thomas Sattelberger.

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