One of the world’s best, and often overlooked, crystal ball lies in the eyes of the consumers. This is what Dr. Wolfgang Baier, the Group CEO of Luxasia and a culture and thought leader, discovered. Anticipating change through the consumers in this age of digital transformation, Dr. Baier shows us the value of becoming an omnichannel where the online and the offline converge in business. Zoning in on the importance of developing leaders of today, he takes us through what he calls transformational leaders and the concept of sharpening the saw of others. Empowered by the Millennials, Dr. Baier breaks the misconceptions people have around this misunderstood generation and encourages us to look at the disruption they bring that is vital in transforming a company.
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Transformational Leadership: Leading The Millennials In This Age Of Digital Transformation with Dr. Wolfgang Baier
Dr. Wolfgang Baier is with us talking from Singapore. He’s a group CEO of Luxasia. The one-stop access for luxury brands in Asia Pacific’s largest retail and eCommerce network in both beauty and luxury. They have more than 2,500 Luxasians. That’s their term for their people, like our people were called Mustangs. It’s a great way to set your people apart as a team by giving them their own name. They’re in over 100 boutiques in fifteen markets and more than 250 online brand stores. Luxasia has been doing this successfully for 34 years and fully believe that there are people, their Luxasians as it were, are the key to their success. Many are in their 20s and 30s, over 65% and pursue excellence and collaborate in a diverse and inclusive environment that’s basically founded on respect.
The Luxasia culture is a prime driver and differentiator in the industry and is known worldwide. Dr. Baier has devoted himself to transforming companies, developing leaders and what he calls, strengthening the balance. He’s a culture and thought leader in the digital age that is empowered by Millennials. Doctor, you promote seeing the world through the customer’s eyes in order to anticipate where change is taking them and then position yourself to be in this sweet spot before the customer arrives. Could you explain how to do that? It sounds like you have one of the world’s best crystal balls.
When I started to look at digital as a transformative force years ago, it became very clear that many people look through the technology lens and say, “It’s digital. I need to get that technology and that technology and look into that.” For me, it was always through people’s eyes and basically get to the consumer. At the end of the day, it’s the consumer who decides what they’re going to look for, what they actually want to buy, what service they need and through which channel. That’s how omnichannel became very clear to me. How digital and conventional brick and mortar offline converges is to the consumer’s eyes. The consumer goes out and wants to shop for something and where they’re shopping, how are they shopping and when they’re shopping. It’s up to them and therefore, one needs to start to anticipate his trial and error to see how you can catch their demand.
What you’re trying to do is give them a tactile touching experience if that’s what they want or give them the convenience of online shopping, and ordering and getting an instant delivery if that’s what really floats their boat. Is that what you call O2?
Yeah. It is something that I came up with where I said, “If we put online and offline together, many people call it O-to-O,” but I think of them as acceleration, it’s O2 or accelerating exponentially the potential of working with the consumer. Not only do we give them an offline shop somewhere or online shop somewhere, but you can surround them with options to get your products and then basically analyze all this data you’re catching to make sure that the next time they are looking for a service or for a product, a convenient shopper.
You’re going to be in that place where they like to shop and it’s going to allow you to accelerate the closing of those sales with the O2. One of your goals I’ve seen is to develop what you’d call transformational leaders throughout your organization from top to bottom. Could you define that term and explain the need for that?
For me, when I looked into this world and it’s getting more volatile by the year. What you need to rely on us as a leader is your team. I’m a big believer in working with the team through the team so it’s not one CEO calling the shots. It’s a team that basically turns up, divides and conquers. When you then think about the fact that you rely on the team because there is so much going on around the world. There are so many topics to do to base a tech at the same time, you need leaders in those positions, not just managers.
The term that I need in companies because I always want companies that want to transform into the digital space and want to become omnichannel that want to expand radically or grow very fast, are transformational leaders. I think the transformation leader is someone who’s defined by the characteristic that is hungry and not giving up. They’re ready to look beyond the usual. They come every morning and say, “What can I do better?” They’re never satisfied with the way things are done.
They’re hungry for more and the last to experiment, the last to fail and get up very fast again. In the second part of the transformational leader is a collaborative leader. It’s basically about working in a team. It’s about long hierarchy and authenticity. It’s about trust and transparency. It’s someone who openly works in the environment with his colleagues and with his partners, shares mistakes and shares the successes. He has the good part of the company and status at hand. It’s those two characteristics that I’m looking for in our leaders to energize everyone. As we said about 2,500 Luxasians, we want everyone to step up and feel like a transformational leader so that you get the energy up. Once you get the energy up throughout the company, performance is a result of that. It’s very easy that you look because anyone with extra 10% multiplies.
There’s always 10% available if you can motivate it and get it out. You’re looking for somebody who wants to innovate and wants to take risks, but they’re bringing that whole team along with them while they’re doing that. One of the terms that I like to use quite a bit is making heroes. Trying to make heroes of the people you work with, with your clients and make heroes of your suppliers to set them up to be successful. You use a term called sharpen the saw of others. Could you explain what that means to you?
It’s very similar to what you say. Personally, the greatest kind of pleasure is if I see people that I worked with in my organizations grow or even outgrow myself. There’s no biggest satisfaction because ultimately I’m here to accelerate the journeys of those leaders in the time they work with me. I think that you do that by mentoring and by pushing them into the cold water and let them try to swim and before they drown, you’d pick them up. It’s been early but with a lot of responsibility. It’s about also helping them to see how everything converges around the consumer. How digital and brick and mortar comes together so that people can make very clear positions going forward. When you then see people take it up and running for themselves bringing home big successes and becoming heroes, there is no better feeling than that.
I like it when you actually build your trust by giving trust to your people and putting them out there in front of the clients, in front of the suppliers to make it happen. When you see them rise to that occasion, that to me sends chills down my spine. It’s like, “It’s really working.” When you are talking about the transformational leader, you were talking about one of their key characteristics is that they need to be inspiring their entire team. On the other hand, you also want them to be nurturing those people. As part of that, do you do some type of continuing education that’s external to the company? How do you work those types of things in?
I’m a big believer in learning on the job. It’s always the 80% to 90% learning on the job, getting into it and reaching out to your peers, to the people below you and to your mentors and leaders to get suited. I believe that there’s no better way to learn, and then makes you by belief. That’s when you face it. What we use a lot is tools like 360 feedback because we want to make sure that everyone gets feedback from all different sites. It stressed the point that this is not evaluative, but it’s developmental, which means everybody should really just put in what they think the person can do better and then it’s up to the people to share it or not.
I always flash my 360 feedback up for everyone to see so that people see, “I’ve got feedback. I should do more of that and less of that. I’ll put along the basic created environment but I believe in the combination from on-the-job learning, putting people out there and putting people into different positions. We also try to help a lot of people in different countries working on different projects. The feedback loop especially from the people that work for you. It is so important for people to open up and see the gaps in their leadership and that’s typically what I see that accelerates people to the next level.
I like the 360 feedback. They’re getting it from above, below and laterally. They see how they’re being seen by other people so then they can adjust. One of the things you talked about is putting people into a new job. I call that morphing the organization. You can slide a good person into a new job and if they respond well and they’re excelling, you leave them there. If all of a sudden they’re drowning, then you can slide them back to where they were successful and give them a little more training before you put them out there again.
It’s a trial and error. You’re absolutely right.
One of the things that I did is I’ve interviewed General David Petraeus. He was the former director of the CIA here in America and one of his big things was how’d you get the big ideas right. Similarly when I look at what you do, you emphasize the leader having a compelling vision. Could you explain this in the context of what you call your six fundamentals that are keys to transformational leadership?
Basically, when I think about it, the most important point for a leader to get out there to bring the team along is to have a very clear vision of what you and some people call a North Star. It is something that you know when you’re taking that company. Once you’re clear about, “I want to be this kind of company.” In all of the decision at the end of the day, follow that North Star. That’s important. If you don’t have that, if you’re way down on that view, it’s very hard to lead people. Also then have the ability to authenticate and I would say, sell their vision and get people behind it. I think the first one to establish is getting that North sign which is clear to myself, but also exciting for the core team then saying, “We see that. We want to go there.”
The second one is very clear and it’s important. It’s about the values. You have to set very clear boundaries because one of the biggest things to develop transformational leaders is empowerment, letting people go. When you let it go and you run a company, you want to make sure it’s not running to a completely wrong direction. Therefore you need those values in place that almost starts out like fences where you want to be transparent. You don’t want to be above the law. You want to be collaborative. You want to have a certain mindset in there. You want to respect that so that people know, “I have that North Star. I know where we want to go.” I have basically in my mind fences to help them and guide them, and then you can let them go.
There will still be failure but it will be along the lines of, “Where do you want to go?” What I’m always saying because in a transformation, you go over to this valley of tears. Everyone loves transformation until they realize it’s a lot of work. It’s this basic 24/7 coaching, learning, failing, pushing, going up and going from there. What really helps is when you are in this valley of tears, you need to basically see what to do to get everyone excited and to get everyone out of the valley of tears. You, as a leader need to say, “I know it’s tough. I’ve been there 100 times.” That empowerment, that trust and conviction is what people go through those tough days in the transformation and there are many.
That conviction is going to help pick them back up when they’re experimenting, failing and then figuring out what works as they’re transforming. One of the things that I wanted to visit with you on is the disruption of Millennials. The disruption that they bring to the party is pretty important for transforming a company. Could you explain that?
It’s massive when you see what is actually changing. I’m saying Millennials are already a huge change, but I’m seeing that generation set, after that, but it is even further. When I look at the very young guys that have come into our organization, they think even further that is much more transformative. The most valuable thing is to learn from those approaches. You see that they’re so much more collaborative and they’re so much less fixated on the ideas. They’re so much ready to move, experiment, and trial and error which is exactly what you need in a transformation. You can learn a lot from that spirit opposite their very digital set.
At the same time, I think that there also needs to be a learning from our generation to say, “I love all of that,” but there are certain times in life and in a transformation where you need to sit down and put in the hard work and stick with it. Sometimes the outlook is not clear and sometimes it’s tough and sometimes it may be easier to give up, but you say, “We’re going to transform the company.” You’re going to prove everyone wrong. Who said you can’t do it? You’re going to prove the industry wrong and equally develop some breakthrough and new. In that space, a lot of the conviction and I think grit that we can also give back to Millennials. If you put those together, it’s when magic happens.
As you say, they’re digital natives. It’s in their DNA to be collaborative and to work through this transformation. Could you define what you called digital transformation and explain it?
For me, digital transformation is about looking through the eyes of the new consumer. What happened before, you have very clear processes. People walk into the town, they looked around and look for some products and shop. Maybe compare between one or two shops, have a conversation, brought it home, tried it out and then kept it. Now, it’s completely different. People, even if they come to the shop, they compare and are informed already. What are the prices? What are the features? What’s the information? They typically read all the reviews so they come sometimes even more educated about the product. All the competitive products and some of our experts look at the shop. They had to make the decision based on influences. They make the decision based on their friends and not so much classic advertising anymore.
They then know to say, “How do I want to get it delivered? I may come to the shop but I don’t want to take it home. I want it delivered to them or I want it gift wrapped to a friend of mine.” I look at and buy once and I have a recurring set up for buying online or I shopped it online and I liked the product but I want to experience most of them that is why I come to shop. What digital means is actually adding that component to everything that you’re doing so that the consumer has the ability to use any option that is available to them. Wherever they look for product and service recommendations, we know what those people are saying and we can help them to say the right things.
At the end of the day, digital is also the backbone because you can’t have a traditional brick and mortar offline company run a digital business. We call it under the hood transformation. For the first two to three years, you need to do 80% under the hood transformation which means digitizing your payment gateways, digitizing your finance, digitizing your entire system and digitizing your supply chain. You are making sure everything is aligned because once you block into the digital consumer and into the accelerator and your backend is not stable, it’s going to explode. In the first years, digital transformation is a lot under the hood working. Only at the end, once you get out and you start polishing your car and it looks great for everyone, but you have to do both. If you don’t do the first, which is a lot of grinding work, it doesn’t work.
That’s for me what digital transformation is. We are making sure that that company is absolutely ready to play along in the new economy. What does it mean playing along the new community? You have the flexibility to survive, the flexibility to do other things. It’s not about saying, “I build out a digital company. That’s exactly how it’s going to be.” No, you want to create something that has the flexibility to follow the consumer trends and they end up with something completely different than you envisioned, but you know the North Star and where it’s going to take you.
I like what you’re saying about working under the hood of the car to get things digitized and then collect all that big data and then you use your people to take that data and create the value for the organization. I like the term that you use, digitize or die because that’s the way the world is going and you need to collect that information. One of the things that’s happening with Luxasians or all of your people is that you’re working with a lot of Millennials. When I talked to people about culture, there are some myths that you like to debunk about Millennials that I think are fantastic. Would you go through those three myths that most organizations think about Millennials and what you’ve found to be true if you engage them differently?
The most important that you’re pointing out is engaging Millennials. Very often people say, “You don’t need Millennials. They are here for a short-term. They look through new opportunities constantly. They’re not fully dedicated in support,” but it’s not true. We found this space here. When you work with Millennials and you give them the right flexibility within your company, you give them the ability in their workspace, the ability to work the hours they want, the ability to basically do the things they like, they are giving a lot back. It’s not that they’re transactional, but they start to identify themselves within the company. That’s the beauty of working with the new generations of leaders to say, “You need to be very smart and clear for yourself to say, ‘What’s the purpose of the company? How do I actually want the workplace to look like? By engaging them and asking for the feedback, you create the company of the future which by yourself you couldn’t create because you need the Millennials for that.
One of the things people say is that they’re addicted to technology, but what’s happened is they’ve grown up with that technology and they’re used to everything being tailored for the way they like to see it, use it and do it. When you’re talking about digital transformation, those are the perfect type of people that are going to take that data, take how that information is used and tailor it to those customers because they can think like them. I think you’re right, engaging them is going to create that loyalty because they’ll feel like they’re doing the right things. I interviewed General Dempsey. He was the eighteenth Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff here in America. He had a catchphrase that he uses with everyone to make it matter. You’ve found that the top three career priorities for Millennials are to make a difference alongside compensation and flexibility. Those are the three things you are talking about.
It seems that you’re pretty sold on Millennials being born for transformation but with a purpose. One of the last things I’d like to do and this has been fun visiting with you, the way you talk about Millennials should make people pause. People should think a little bit about the more positive nature and digital transformation. You’re definitely a champion in my eyes and I’d like to put you in what we call our Culture Code Champions Hall of Fame for giving back to people around you. What would you want to be known and remembered for when we put you in that Hall of Fame that you’ve been doing over the last years?
First of all, I would want to put my team over to the Hall of Fame because they deserve it to stand all my trials and error around leadership and mentoring. What we should be known for is the one team approach. That’s what I’m talking all day long. Millennials, non-Millenials with different cultures and religions, it’s about sitting together and saying, “There is this company and we call it a company, but there’s this joint purpose that we are together now for several years where we want to create something great.” That’s what I always talk about. If you want to do the normal thing, if you want to be average, those companies and organizations are not for you.
You better step out and do something different because we want to create something great. How do you do that? I’m 100% convinced about working as one team and always having each other’s back. Through the bad times and through the good times, there’s one team they are pulling together. It comes as a potential for me, having done so much sports and always playing team sports but I’m going to say, on the fields, you’re basically screaming at each other. There are some tough situations. We celebrate that we got there, but when you come off, you’re still friends because you know you want to win together. I think it’s that one team approach that for me stands above everything.
I love it and it’s also very inclusive. It takes all kinds of people, personalities and backgrounds to make the strongest team to transform and win the game. We want to win the game. Thank you. We’ll enshrine you for that. You’ve provided some golden nuggets that I think to the people reading that are wanting to put Culture Code Champions: 7 Steps to Scale & Succeed in Their Business to work. I want them to remember, we have to assign champions and create habits to create a culture. I think anyone reading this blog, Dr. Baier would know that you are just relentlessly pushing this every day with your team top to bottom. It’s really been a blast talking to you. Until the next episode, get out there and make heroes of everyone you come in contact with and remember to make your culture count.
- General Dempsey – previous episode
- Culture Code Champions: 7 Steps to Scale & Succeed in Their Business
About Dr. Wolfgang Baier
Dr. Wolfgang Baier has been the Group Chief Executive Officer of Luxasia Pte Ltd. since August 2016. He joined the Group as Group CEO and shareholder to transform the leading Asian beauty distributor into a Lifestyle Omnichannel Leader adding consumer centric ecommerce and new industry capabilities to the brick-and-mortar foundation. Dr. Baier was the Group Chief Executive Officer of Singapore Post Limited from October 2011 to June 2016. Dr. Baier served as the Chief Executive Officer International at Singapore Post Limited from February 2011 to October 2011. Dr. Baier successfully led the transformation of the Singapore Post Group into non-mail business such as logistics, retail and e-commerce and accelerated its global expansion. This resulted in a significant increase of the shareholder value of the public listed company. Before that Dr. Baier worked for more than 10 years with McKinsey & Company in Europe and Asia. He was a Partner at the Singapore office leading the Transportation and Logistics as well as Operations activities of McKinsey & Company in South East Asia. During his 10 years at McKinsey & Company he worked on many transformations across the globe. on the non-executive front, Dr. Baier served as a Non Independent Director at Singapore Post Limited from October 2011 to June 2016 and several of its affiliates in Asia, Europe and the US. He holds a Ph.D. in Law with distinction from the University of Vienna as well as two Masters Degrees: a Master Degree in Law from the University of Vienna (Austria) as well as a Master Degree in Business Economics from the Universities of Exeter (UK) and Graz (Austria).