In the future, digital ethics and responsibility will be as natural to companies as ecological sustainability, climate protection and fair working conditions.

Ulrich Leitermann

Ulrich Leitermann
Chairman of the SIGNAL IDUNA Group Management Board

We spoke with Mr. Leitermann about #FutureGoodGovernance.
The interview was conducted before the outbreak of the Corona Pandemic.

*Photo: SIGNAL IDUNA/Andreas Oertzen


 

A ship needs a captain. There is a lot of talk about new leadership concepts, about participation and freedom. How much leadership will a company need in the future and how much agility will it tolerate? How do you envisage corporate management in the future?

To manage a company successfully in the future, both are needed: clear leadership but also freedom of action. The authoritarian-hierarchical management systems of the past have had their day. Today, the speed of change is so great that organizations must act quickly, agilely and flexibly. Protracted hierarchical coordination is too rigid and too slow for that. Instead, solutions must be found at the working level and implemented immediately. In concrete terms, this means that in the future, employees will increasingly work together in agile, cross-functional teams. At the same time, they will be given significantly more freedom to make independent decisions and find solutions while at the same time setting clear objectives. Nevertheless, companies will continue to need leadership in order to be successful in the future. In the end, the company must develop a clear strategy under the leadership of the board of directors or management, who also set the broad outlines and make the key directional decisions.


 

The world’s Greetas have also turned their attention to companies and their fields of action. What challenges do you expect in terms of social responsibility and thus sustainability in the company?

First of all, I think it is good and worthy of support when young people get politically involved and focus on such an important issue as climate protection. Even though it will certainly not be possible to implement every idealistic suggestion made by the young demonstrators, it is clear – also from the reaction of politicians – that climate protection will play a much greater role in the future, including in business decisions, than it does today. At the same time, the social responsibility and sustainability of companies will continue to grow in importance – in all fields. One important field is the trend towards CDR – Corporate Digital Responsibility. This is about companies adopting clear rules for responsible digitization – from the fair and transparent handling of customer data to rules for the ethical use of artificial intelligence. In the future, digital ethics and responsibility will be as natural to companies as ecological sustainability, climate protection and fair working conditions. But the issue of sustainability also includes generational equity in social systems such as pension insurance. Here, politicians must also live up to their responsibility.


 

Trust is good, control is better. Today, it is still primarily about numbers and compliance. However, artificial intelligence is also changing perspectives and thinking. How can you imagine a future system for monitoring the board of directors? Will there still be a supervisory board watching over the management or will the ‘monitoring’ be replaced by a technically highly equipped external service provider?

I don’t believe that algorithms or artificial intelligence can ever replace a human board of directors. The task of a supervisory board is too complex and too “human” for that. After all, in addition to hard facts and figures, “soft” factors such as integrity, morals and ethics play at least as important a role in the assessment of a management board. It may be that technical systems will support the supervisory board in its work in the future. In the end, however, it will always be people who decide the fate of a company and its employees – and that is a good thing.


 

Companies are subject to a constant process of change. What challenges do you expect for your company in the next 10 years? How will they change your company? What will change in terms of employment and employee qualifications?

The insurance industry is undergoing radical change. Digitalisation has significantly increased the speed of change. At the same time, the wishes and requirements of customers are changing. This begins with communication and service: Today’s customers expect seamless, cross-channel service, ideally providing a solution in real time. At the same time, products must become more individual: Today, a customer does not want to take out just any policy, but rather a solution for his specific problem. As SIGNAL IDUNA, we adapted to these changes early on. As early as 2014, we modernized our processes and IT with a future-oriented program and reorganized our field sales force. In 2018, we launched the transformation program VISION2023 with the goal of becoming more agile and digital. Some of our employees already work according to agile working methods and in cross-functional teams. In addition to service excellence, an important goal is to focus on target groups. In the future, we will concentrate even more strongly than before on our target groups in the trades, retail and the public sector, where we will systematically exploit the opportunities offered by digitization. To this end, we are also changing our corporate culture. These are major changes for our employees. Many have to learn new things and break up previous routines, for which we provide a broad range of training opportunities. The majority of employees support the change, and they do so with great enthusiasm. Because they also see the chance for their work to become more self-determined and fulfilling. We are currently experiencing a positive mood of departure.


 

There is much debate about centrality vs. decentralisation, agility and core competence in organisations. Will there still be companies in today’s sense of the term in 20 years’ time? What changes in terms of corporate organization and financing do you expect or would you like to see?

Even though we will continue to see major changes in the organization of companies and of work, I am sure that in two decades’ time there will still be companies in the sense in which we know them today. Over the centuries, the craft trades have always adapted to the times. These companies will also be successful in the future because they are close to their customers and extremely flexible. I am also optimistic about the future of shareholding companies, which can be a very democratic means of company participation. As a mutual insurance company, SIGNAL IDUNA, like other insurance companies, is a special form. We were founded more than a hundred and eighteen years ago by craftsmen and still belong to our clients as members. I am sure that we will continue to fulfil this task in the future. It will be more important than ever for companies and employees to prepare themselves for the fact that change will be the norm – while at the same time change cycles will become shorter.


 

Corporate leaders today are being asked by various parties about the purpose of the company or the specific mission of the company. How do you meet this demand? What positive or critical lessons have you learned from this? What advice do you give a CEO of a different industry on how best to approach this topic?

Companies today need a corporate purpose that goes beyond mere profit maximisation. Employees want a goal that gives their work an overriding meaning. Customers – in our case also members – can identify much more easily with a company and its products if they know and share the company’s goals. At SIGNAL IDUNA, our vision is “Creating more quality of life together! Studies have shown that customers primarily want quality of life from an insurance company. This can be quality of life in the form of security and peace of mind, because the products provide protection against the dangers of life. Or it can be in the form of time, because, for example, when it comes to service, you don’t have to wait in long queues, but problems are solved immediately. “Creating more quality of life together” is our promise to our customers, by which we measure ourselves.


 

#FutureGoodGovernance is currently still comparable to a crystal ball in many areas. Which future aspects of good governance are particularly important to you? What would you wish for if you had three wishes? Where do you see the politicians’ demands? And what responsibilities will companies and their managers have in the future?

It is becoming more and more apparent that the mantra of stakeholder value, which an entire generation of managers has been chasing after, is a fallacy in the one-sidedness of the past. It is not for nothing that more and more large international corporations are distancing themselves from this concept. Good entrepreneurship has always been more than mere profit maximization: a company is always responsible to its employees, customers and society. Take a look at the old merchant virtues – even in the Middle Ages, the respectability of the merchant and virtuous character traits had a high value. Rhenish capitalism and the social market economy later developed from the same approaches. So if you think about the future of good governance and new ethical challenges for companies through topics such as artificial intelligence and robotics, it is worth taking a look back: If we reflect on the principles of good and responsible corporate governance, we will also find solutions for the challenges of tomorrow. To act morally and ethically responsible as a manager is anything but old-fashioned, but almost avant-garde today. In a nutshell: I would like to see more decency. To reflect on what one simply does not do, even if it is not prohibited. In terms of politics, this means: I would like to see more decency in dealing with political opponents and in political debate. Not everything that is politically useful is decent. Otherwise politics threatens to lose its function as a role model – in some cases it already has.

Thank you very much for the interview!