Lockdown Economy Germany in a Business Consulting Agency with Ellen Johannsen. Follow-up
The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Tapasya Das
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, the founder and chief executive of Leadership Campus GmbH, a business consulting agency based in Kiel, Northern Germany. In her follow-up interview with Lockdown Economy, Ellen describes how the pandemic continues to negatively affect her business. Customers seem reluctant to spend money on personal development and leadership training. The continuous uncertainty of the situation makes it difficult for Ellen and other small business leaders to strategize long-term. Ellen and her team are tackling these challenges by making hybrid offerings to their clients, both on and offline. By staying in close contact with their clients, and professionalizing their social media presence, the Leadership Campus team gained insights into their clients’ needs and tailoring their offering accordingly. Likewise, Ellen is investing in developing her team’s skills, for example, coaching and mediating in an online environment.
Today our guest is Ellen Johannesen. Ellen is the founder and chief executive of Leadership Campus. How are you today?
Ellen: Hi Karen, thank you for having me. How am I today! So it’s a fresh start of the week, it’s a Monday and we had a really nice weekend. So I’m a little bit refreshed.
That’s really good to hear. Ellen, this is your second interview with Lockdown Economy. The last time you spoke with Rosie about the challenges you faced in retaining your customers especially in the wake of the first and the second lockdown in Germany. You mentioned that as a response to that, you engage in a lot of internal training to foster business growth and enable your transition to this online working environment. How has the pandemic affected your business since we last spoke?
Ellen: Yes, it badly affected our business because in Germany, the customers, seem to take care of their liquid money. So people are not keen on spending money for personal development or personal growth. In general, it is not a german topic where people are really keen on working on themselves. But there is interest and I think in my experience, my customers are starting to think of what will happen after the lockdown. They are also thinking about how business, in general, will develop after the lockdown. People are starting to search for strategies on how to cope with this situation, including the virus. It won’t go away that soon and I think the experience of these two lockdowns shows us that there might be a third one as well. We will probably have to live with COVID-19.
Yes, that is indeed true. Also now I think, in Germany, they are starting to ease some of the measures. Some hairdressers are reopening, for example. So that might correspond with what you said. People are starting to look at what is coming after the Lockdown.
Ellen: A while ago, I saw an interview with Wella. Wella is an international hairstyle group. They produce hairsprays and lifestyle things for hair. It’s so interesting that their CEO asked my friend, who also happens to be a consultant, to help him. They want to be able to create an atmosphere that would be free of talks of COVID-19 so that their customers feel well during their first haircuts after the Lockdown. They have a COVID free space and that is really interesting. This made me rethink a lot of things and I realized that maybe we can do business without talking about COVID, the negative effects of COVID, the lockdown and the economy, and so on. Maybe people are a bit tired of it.
I could very well imagine that people are starting to get tired of the Pandemic and of all the measures that come with it. So what are you doing to put your customers at ease? I am talking about small and medium-sized businesses in particular. They are indeed suffering a lot due to the Pandemic. So what are you doing about your customers?
Ellen: So what we did is transformed our leadership training from presence training to online training. We will start with it after Easter, the week after our Easter break to be very precise. So this is really interesting because people are tired of online training. So maybe we have kind of a backflip and we strategize to offer a non-personal online/remote/distant learning program. People want to go back to normal training but we can offer that both at this very moment. So what we did was, bring some flexibility into our program, into our training, and into our presentations of our products.
That is great to hear. So you are pursuing some sort of hybrid strategy at the moment to be able to cope with anything that comes next?
Ellen: So I would say that there were some of the biggest effects of this second lockdown. We started in November with the information that it would last for four weeks. Now we are in February. Everyone knew that it would be longer than that. But also I think the government had to find a way to cope with this peak of feelings. People said, “If they are going to tell us that we have to lockdown for more than three months, we would have gone mad. So they said four weeks and they kept on adding more weeks to that. And now it has been three months!”. I find it really interesting that there is no revolution. People are suffering, companies are dying, small and solo entrepreneurs have no chance but there is no outrage. It seems like people are suffering but in a still way. We all know that if you don’t talk about your feelings, about what’s going on or what your fears are and which problems you are facing, if you hide them, it will come back to you. I fear that there will be a negative consequence of this behavior. That will be a bit delayed. So now people want to start up again and they want to have their businesses back. They want to go back to normal and they don’t want to have a new normal. They want to go back to where they know they are safe. So it’s a kind of neglect and also a kind of restart. I think the real effect is this deep fear of uncertainty of what comes next. People postpone that.
So if I understand correctly, there are a lot of factors coming together that need to be flexible in moving forward. We are not moving to the new normal but to the old normal that we are comfortable with. You said people feel like that in general. Is that something you picked up on, in your communications with your customers and your colleagues?
Ellen: So, I have a few customers left and it’s really interesting to see how the decision-making process is changing in this period of time. There is one customer and they have a big investment ahead. They want to grow and scale their business. They want to invest a vast amount of money. So what I see is, they are now turning inside the company. They are turning around not to face the problems in realizing this big investment project, but instead, they are turning around inside the company in order to prepare themselves for anything that may come. This is what they are doing right now. They should go out and talk to the bank, they should go out and realize their investment, they should go and do some team building inside the company. But what they do is, talk about feelings, and the relationships in the leadership board. They discuss forming the right group to face the coming problems, at the leadership and corporate level. So it’s a way in which they deal with anxiety, fear, and frustration. There is a ground layer of uncertainty. That is not overall, but it’s sort of “under-all”.
So I understand what you mean. There is a certain degree of anxiety and some underlying aspects to business operations and life in general. Businesses or people tend to turn inwards than outwards in dealing with that anxiety and uncertainty.
Ellen: People don’t feel that they are walking on the stable ground anymore. It’s like they are walking on some wobbly ground. It’s shaking them all and they have to find a way to find their flexibility in strategizing in this very moment. It seems that long-term decision-making isn’t the way to do it at this moment. Any day or any week can be unstable. It can be because of political decisions or any other thing that might come from the outside as well.
So it is not necessarily about strategizing in the long term but rather short term plans that can help deal with the uncertainty that businesses are facing.
Ellen: And then strategizing becomes ad hoc decision making. It’s more reaction than action. It opens people up to whatever that comes because people actually are waiting to find out what is coming. So they anticipate that there is something that is coming. It’s like creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that the future will be uncertain. But it never has been in any other way. The future has always been uncertain. What is different today, is the way we need to deal with this uncertainty. It is because of the impact of the decisions at the political level. So when you look around and do some stakeholder analysis, you see this political landscape. It indeed is a stakeholder of the business companies and this is not reliable anymore. That has a deep impact on whether we are feeling certain or not.
So you have already mentioned one of your responses to this uncertainty. It’s understandable if you require more reliability in your way of conducting business. That might happen through fostering more flexible business strategies or offering hybrid services to your customers. So what else are you doing at the moment to make the most of the situation as it is right now?
Ellen: We really stick together as a team and we are in contact with our customers. We try to really help them so that they find reliability in their inner strength. No matter what situation comes, people will always be a constant part of it. So maybe you have to strategize from the inside out and not from the outside in. Maybe you have to strategize with both. This process of strategizing forces you to know about yourself. So you have to know about your strength and you have to know what is important to you. So find your “why”. I think this is the moment to know about your “why” and if you don’t know it, you must find it out. Everyone has strength and certainty in themselves and so you must utilize this time and find it out now. People are just not aware of it.
You are taking this as an opportunity of coming together as a team and regrouping. It is also a great time to think and know why we are here in the first place. Going back to your first interviews as well, do you continue with the training for the team to develop your skills further for this new hybrid environment?
Ellen: What we do is some technical training. We have to be technically on top to use all these online modes of things. We have to know how to moderate or how to facilitate an online session or perhaps a call with forty people. We also try to find a way to offer our LEGO Serious Play Workshops in a remote way. This needs a lot of preparation because we cannot do what we usually can do, remotely. We need to have some moderation skills, we need to do some preparations with the customers, we also need to do some prep training with the customers so that they are able to use Zoom or Breakout rooms. It’s still the way it was. Not everybody knows it, even though we use it since one year. Also, we are not on the very top of the game. We are not artists in this field, I would say. Our strength is in meeting people in person or in one-on-one interactions. This is where we are good at. We hope that we can combine this.
Yes, that sounds really good. Do you reflect on how you adapt your offerings to the customer by asking them what they might want? You mentioned in your last interview that you get together with your customers quite frequently to get to know their needs.
Ellen: So we do two things. We continue talking to them and we continue listening to them. What we also did is professionalizing our social media marketing. So we also try to analyze the traffic on our website, the response to the posts on Linkedin, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. So we gained a lot of skills in that and that also gave us a lot of insights. Because we read a lot and so we find out the keywords that we have to deliver to be found.
Okay, that is very interesting. So you are doing some research into how to really grab the customer’s attention online as well.
Ellen: It’s so interesting to see the split in the generations. The way the younger generation of entrepreneurs deal with the situation and do real business seems to be much easier. So with a lot of money, and with a lot of investment, you always have the old guys. It doesn’t even matter to them.
What exactly doesn’t matter to them? The size of the investment or what do you mean exactly?
Ellen: I mean the size of the investment and also the effects of social media. They don’t care.
So the younger generation is more focused on that online social media presence?
Ellen: Yes and it seems to be very fast. But in fact, creating content is really time-consuming. Creating relevant content is much more time-consuming. It’s like writing a short letter. You need much more time to write a short letter than you need to write a long letter. It’s because every word counts. So you have to place a reliable statement in the first seconds of a video so that people stay and look. I do not understand why their attention span is that short.
Probably a recent development in that sense is that you got to know that you need that attention-triggering moment right at the beginning of your post.
Ellen: I really ask myself all the time, where should that element go? So if you have to place the facts, the statement, and the real core message in the first five seconds, how will you bring a personal development process to be understood in this short amount of time?
I see your point and it’s a good bridge to my final question to you today. Similar to your last interview, what are the three things that you need help with, at the moment?
Ellen: I have thought about this a lot. It’s interesting. The last time I said, I need customers, some financial help and a third one. But now, I would say, I would love it if people would look at themselves and be honest with themselves. So that they can accept that life is going on. There will be a time with COVID and after COVID. But there will always be business and so there will always be decision-making. So sometimes it’s good to prepare yourself before you make decisions.
That is true and it is indeed a very optimistic and positive note to end on. Thank you very much Ellen for that. Do you have any last words for our viewers?
Ellen: There is always a good cup of coffee in our office. So everyone is invited to grab a cup of coffee with their name on it.
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 ist 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.