Lockdown Economy Germany in a Business Consulting Agency with Ellen Johannsen
The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Megha Shyamili Purushothaman
Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.
In this interview, we meet Ellen Johannsen, founder and chief executive of Leadership Campus GmbH based in Germany. Ellen spoke openly about the difficulties faced by her business advisory company, as her plans for growth and investment in 2020 were stalled by the Covid-19 pandemic. Ellen and her team were forced to suddenly restructure their business and move their operations online. This task has been a long, difficult process, as on top of daily operations her employees and herself have had to retrain for the online environment. Ellen was able to find help with this process by focusing on knowledge sharing both within and outside of her organisation. In order to stimulate her business, Ellen discussed how building the intensity of her communications with customers has helped her organisation form a strong client base that should ensure their success in the future.
Can you tell us a little bit more about Leadership Campus and what you do as a business, please?
Ellen: Yes. So we are a team of six people and we are specialized in business transformation of many other consultancy companies. We also do some leadership development so we have specialized in personal & leadership development and development of leadership teams at a corporate level. We work with directors, company owners and also the C-Level staff. We also do some kind of corporate succession processes and we have long-term support for our companies. All of us are trained mediators so we know a lot about conflict resolution and leadership team development. Our customers come from the small & medium size business in this area. This is where we- we ourselves are also a small company and this is our field of action.
So you say you’re a small company but how many employees do you have?
Ellen: I started in 2007 as a solo entrepreneur- it was me as I had the idea. So I worked for a long time on my own. In 2017 we grew so I brought in a business partner into the company and now we have 6 people so it’s me and five team members.
And what about the number of clients that you usually have? You say you have five members and yourself and how many clients do you tend to take on at a time?
Ellen: It really depends. It depends on the task we are working on. Normally, we tend to have clients for a long term support period and this works out almost every time when we have to do some company’s succession planning and they last for two to five years. We do not have a large number of clients but in the meantime, we always have some small tasks like task force- if there are some problems in companies where conflicts really explode then they come to us as we are all specialized in conflict resolution. So we work on these conflicts and these are short term engagements. That’s about- I cannot say the numbers as it changes a lot but as a solo entrepreneur, I could tell you that I can manage up to 10 clients in maybe quarter of a year but now it really grows.
Right, okay! So tell us, when the lockdown hit, obviously, you’re working with many different businesses across many different sectors and they all tend to be small, medium-sized businesses which, we know, were hit very hard when the pandemic started. So did you experience a falling away of clients and what did you do to try and stimulate your own business and that of your clients during this period?
Ellen: So it’s really kind of similar to the present, at this moment, it is kind of similar to the first lockdown but let me start there. First lockdown, 14th of March, I was on my way to Denmark to have a really nice holiday and our order books were filled. The year kicked off as best as it could but in two days, all of the orders were postponed to the fall of this year and the ones that weren’t postponed were cancelled. We had some big sales done in January and February so that we could make some big decisions for our own company but the whole order book was gone in two days’ time.
I think we are not the only ones who faced this situation but that was the way it was. Now we have the same situation; in November, we did a lot of stuff, we can talk about that in the next question, but it’s almost the same situation in the beginning of November. In November, we had two big clients who wanted to work with us in big Lego Serious Play workshops and also these engagements were cancelled immediately as soon as the lockdown was announced because in Northern Germany, we have strict rules to do social distancing and as we all know; those who do Lego Serious Play stuff, one of the basic elements is to lean in to work together, to come together and work on shared models and build shared models where several people build on one model at the same time; this wasn’t allowed anymore. So we faced the same situation and all the order books are empty now.
Yeah so obviously, the pandemic has a big impact on your business but what did you do to try to stimulate your business and pick up a few more clients to help you during this period?
Ellen: What we really did was, we restructured our own business. We went from face-to-face business to bring in some ideas of how we can transfer our business to online offerings or online portfolios. But what we also did was in the first lockdown was, we took the time and said “Okay, we are in the growing period”, so we took the decision to grow at the beginning of the year and then we sat down and laid back a little and discussed if we were still to go that way, and we did. We did a lot of internal training at first; we worked on our website and online presence, we relaunched the website, we invented it in a new way to communicate with our customers.
We really tried to invent and transfer some ideas to bring our business from offline to online. And that was really a hard time because we had to learn a lot of technical skills as- we have to learn as many of our colleagues learned to use tools like Zoom, like we now do, to facilitate online events, to realize how different it is to help people overcome these technical issues and thresholds but also open up space for some real fun stuff, some icebreakers and also that it’s not only talking, it is still doing things together although you are in different rooms.
I think that’s really important, something that we are hearing a lot of in these interviews at Lockdown Economy. People needing more real communication, without the interference of the technology in between. So that’s something that works for you, you are able to switch the structure of your business to more of an online model. But did you try anything during the pandemic that maybe didn’t work so well that you have been able to learn from?
Ellen: Yeah, there were a lot of things that didn’t work out because, in the first place, we had some false expectations; our expectations and the outcome of communicating online or via social media, building an online community, it takes time and it takes much more trust maybe because you don’t have this experience of being together in a room where you feel much more- when you read stuff or look at pictures or videos.
So this idea of “Okay, we now go online; now we start an Instagram channel or we do some video content”, it really takes time to produce and use the technology to find your messages because if you talk like we now do, you can chitchat and so you can go into pictures and you can use metaphors that help but if you produce video content, there are some rules and algorithms and we really had to learn that and that wasn’t easy. So what we did is, we shifted our networking activities to online networking so we joined some associations here in Northern Germany which were already there and where we already had membership but we intensified the interactions with these associations like the Digital Business Network in Northern Germany. We really brought ourselves and our portfolio into this network. We started a corporate blog that was also very hard because if you start a blog, you have to face the situation that you have to produce content regularly and frequently.
That’s also hard stuff because in a short period of time we realized that the time we had in a day filled with tasks before, were now very different because we had to do stuff we weren’t trained in. And so, not everything did work out in the way we expected or hoped it would. And what we then did has we also intensified our communications with the International Lego Serious Play Facilitator community to get some ideas how they would do things to open up projects like an open space huddle and so we really would- it still is a real learning journey for us. We’ll see what really works.
Sure, and I think it is a great message for anyone that is coming up again from some of the struggles that you mentioned trying to learn all of these new skills in a short space of time, that there are networking associations out there, people that can help you with this because we’re all going through the same struggle unfortunately in the present day. So tell us a bit more about how your business is going now.
Ellen: What really was an eye-opener was the change in the way of communication with our customers themselves. So the main thing was to gain some ideas in intensifying networks with your colleagues or maybe also the other people who offer consultancy (competitors). We spoke to them but we also intensified the communication with our current customers and we asked them what they needed, what policies they had to follow in their companies and how we could be part of their journey. That was really helpful to get to know their needs and to see that they had lots of struggle the same way that we did, so we also intensified the contact; we kept in contact with them. We have frequent meetings with them so we talk to them and that’s why, if you keep in contact, you can help each other and therefore really kept some business on a small level but I think it will lead to bigger tasks and engagements in the future.
Sure, yeah. So what’s your outlook for the next few months with the Leadership Campus?
Ellen: Oh, The outlook is really to survive! It is hard, we had some serious decline in sales. Although we still have contact with our customers, we still had a serious decline in sales. What we tried to do is that we went with the flow. What we did is we… so me, I am fifty-three years old, my team now is much younger than I am and so they communicate in another way and it’s a lot about collaboration, co-working and intensifying the cross-generation communication. This is what we do and we further extend and expand our online portfolios. We are now producing videos and online content so that our customers can buy our services and our knowledge in a safe way.
Great! And I really appreciate how open you have been in this interview about the challenges that you faced because I think that’s really going to help small business owners that are watching.
Understand if they are going through the same challenges, there are ways they can get out of that. But as always with any business, there are things that we need help with. So my final question to you, Ellen, is if you could name three things that you and the Leadership Campus need help with in this period, three isn’t many, I know, but could you name what they may be?
Ellen: Yeah, that was an interesting discussion inside the team, what could the three things be that really could help us.
But what we realized, all cross-generation, were sure that more experience and exchange of possibilities invented learning strategies. That’s the key. So we have to mix different strategies in learning hybrid offerings, hybrid workshops so that people really can exchange their knowledge and experience. That would also be key. And if we could intensify that, and we are really working hard on that, that will help.
It will also help to build community with the customers and we will intensify that strongly and also intensify the communication with our business partners and also with our (competitors/peers). Because we all face the same situation, I think if we join forces, we still are able or could really do some great things to help our clients and ourselves. I think there is a strong power in collaboration and in co-working and so I will intensify that and also some full order books would be nice!
We could put it out there and see if anyone listening and they may be able to help with that one!
Ellen: And I invite everyone to talk to us. We are here, and we go out into the world, and we try to be as open as we can be and I think if you join forces, the world will be a better place.
About the Guest
Ellen Johannsen is the founder and chief executive of Leadership Campus GmbH. She is a leadership change maker and an expert in the LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® method. Leadership Campus GmbH is a business consulting agency based in Kiel, Northern Germany. The company is specialized in strategy, business transformation, leadership and corporate succession, conflict resolution, decision making and leadership team development for small and medium-sized businesses. The Leadership Campus team are certified facilitators in the LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® method.