Barbara Liebermeister: “A Leader Is an Orchestrator of Talents”

Barbara Liebermeister is the founder and leader of the Institute for Leadership Culture in the Digital Age, Frankfurt.

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Barbara coined the term Alpha Intelligence® to summarize the skills of successful managers in the digital age and she is an experienced company manager, management consultant and management coach. She is an expert in strategic networking, communication, relationship management and workplace innovation. In addition to her work with IFIDZ, she is the author of a number of books on digital leadership, and a lecturer at the Bucerius Law School in Hamburg, Germany.

We spoke with Barbara about leading virtual teams, the leadership mindset, keeping up to date in the digital age, and last, but not least, about her passion for people and her favourite podcasts.

Ioana

Barbara, you are one very busy lady. You are an expert on digital leadership, an author, the founder of the Institute for Leadership in the Digital Age, and above all an evangelist for strong leadership in the digital world. I know that you started out your career in marketing. How did you get from there to the field of digital leadership?

Barbara

It’s not the first time I’ve been asked this question. Marketing is all about psychology. Because if you are working on products then you have to really understand your target group. At the same time leadership, particularly if you are looking to change the behavior of people, is also all about psychology. As a leader I have to think about what people will be triggered by. You act like a psychologist, too. The digital age needs leaders who can inspire people.

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Ioana

It’s always about people. A lot has changed in the last few years. The way we work, think and behave are all influenced by those changes. What kind of leadership does it take to be successful in the digital age?

Barbara

Above all you need to be a team leader. This means leading with lots of appreciation for your people, and always being on the lookout for the talents in those people. As a leader you must lead as a coach, and a little bit as a moderator. You must know where the people in your team really shine; what are their strengths, so that you can successfully combine their talents. That’s where you take on the role of moderator or coach. I wrote in my last book that these days a leader also has to be an influencer, able to inspire people too.

“As a leader, you cannot know everything; you absolutely have to count on your team.”

Barbara Liebermeister

Ioana

What do you think is the right mindset to succeed as a leader in the digital world? How does a manager become an influencer?

Barbara

If you are a team leader, you have multiple different talents in your team and your role is to orchestrate all those talents. First of all, each team member is an individual and you need to know their personal weaknesses and strengths. You must know which people would work well together so that the product/project will be a success. As a leader you are above all an orchestrator of talents. Key to which is the ability to focus on those talents, and not be distracted by weaknesses. That’s a point that cannot be overstated because it is completely different to traditional leadership approaches. In the past leaders were mostly senior people, people who had worked a long time in the company and were supposed to know everything. Accordingly most team members relied on asking the leader first before acting. In the digital age, as leaders, we have to look for the best talents because it’s a very challenging time; change happens at lightning speed, and we have such information overload. As a leader, you cannot know everything; you absolutely have to count on your team. A team works great when the people know that their leader appreciates them and their talents. Leaders have to meet their teams at eye level. It is very important to know what triggers each and every one of them, because then you have the best tools at hand to motivate them individually.

Ioana

A leader has to be an orchestrator of intelligence. So a leader doesn’t have to have all the answers, but instead needs to have the best questions, and rely on the team for the answers? 

Barbara

Yes. It’s very easy if this is your mindset, and you are not focused on status. In the past status was everything; you simply had to have two or three secretaries and the big office. Now, you have to sit with your team and work with them – very hard. You also have to celebrate success. In Germany we have the culture of perfection, but perfection is outdated in the digital age. You have to develop products which are maybe 80 percent perfect, and then you have to work with your whole team and with your target groups to develop them from there to 100 percent. The good news is that the right mindset about working closely with your team takes away a lot of stress from the leader.

Ioana

Let’s talk about leading virtual teams or hybrid teams.  How can a leader set up a team to work successfully together when the team rarely meets face-to-face?

Barbara

The key to success is a clear ‘kick-off’ at the beginning of each project, not only for organisational reasons, but for psychological reasons too. You have to start with a kick-off meeting, because a good kick-off meeting goes a long way towards avoiding conflicts in the future. In the kick-off we don’t just discuss the project, but also the talents and the roles within the team.



Ioana

Barbara, let’s imagine that I am a very traditional manager, and I would like to transform my leadership style. How do I go about doing that?

Barbara

First off you’re not going to change yourself in 24 hours. You have to go step by step. That’s very important because otherwise we can’t maintain motivation over the long term. The best approach is to divide the process up into little steps. You have to start with your mindset, with the mantra that: “My team is my most appreciated tool and I am a part of my team and together we will reach our goal”. This, above all, is the key message. Only together can you reach your goal in the digital age. Which in turn makes your team so important to you, because teamwork is everything.  

So you start with that mantra. Then you look at the talents and the strengths of each team member and reflect on whether everybody is in the right position for this task? Or whether any individual would have a greater chance of success in another role or position.  Underpinning everything is training your brain to focus first and foremost on the strengths and talents of each and every team member.

Ioana

In the very fast changing world, we are learning daily. How can a leader keep consistently up to date?

Barbara

With your team! Because you have specialists in your team. For example, if you are an older leader and social networks and social platforms are unfamiliar territory for you, then you can decide which of your team members is able to give the best overview about which platform is the best for yourself, or the project. Being able to rely on your team takes a lot of stress out of the equation.

Ioana

In many teams there are conflicts between the team members. As a leader, you have to take care of these conflicts because they can affect the success of your team. What can and should a leader do?

Barbara

The biggest reason for conflict is communication failure. The second biggest thing is the failure to define roles. We were talking about the kick-off meeting. You have to start with a kick-off meeting, because a good kick-off meeting avoids future conflicts. That’s where we discuss not only the project, but the talents and the roles in the team. Most conflicts start because of unclear communication about the roles of team members. The solution to each conflict is to always act at eye level, to communicate with the right mixture of appreciation, respect for other people, and to look deep into what triggers them.

Ioana

What triggers you, Barbara? Why do you do what you do?

Barbara

I think my job is my passion. I work a lot with athletes, and if you ask them “Why do you train from the morning to evening?” I think you’d get the same answer: “I’m passionate. I’m a passionate tennis player!” Well I’m interested in people, not in leadership, but in people. That’s the reason why I study neuroscience. I want to understand why we behave the way we do in specific situations. I work as a coach for mental strength because I’m convinced that the leader of today needs lots of mental strength.

Ioana

How do you keep yourself up to date besides your studies in neurosciences?

Barbara

A lot of things. For example, last week I visited my daughter in Barcelona, and she’s working for an American cloud services company. I spent the whole weekend with her and her friends. They all work in different companies and I exchange a lot with younger people coming from different industries. In my business I work with all kinds of people, businesspeople, university students and staff. I listen to podcasts, in English, about what American coaches do. I read a lot of magazines and books. It’s a combination of everything.

Ioana

Which is your favorite podcast?

Barbara

My favorite podcast is Coaching for Leaders from Dave Stachowiak because he is interviewing colleagues regularly: very impressive people. I get an insight into what American coaches do and how they work. I can compare the methods or reflect on it, because usually the Americans are a step ahead of us.

Ioana

What book are you reading now?

Barbara

A book called “Unf*ck yourself.” I bought it as a present for one of my coachees. He is a manager in a high position, and you know, we Germans, we are focused on our weaknesses and he’s very strong in this “discipline”. This book should help him to focus more on his strengths.

Ioana

Thank you, Barbara. Thank you so much for your time and for the insights into your work.