In this interview, Darja Gutnick and Anthony Reo sat down with Christoph Bornschein, CEO of TLGG Group; a digital agency advising brands and corporations on digital change and connected communication.
Christoph is an extraordinary entrepreneur, especially due to his unique approach to leadership. He has an idiosyncratic style to building teams and helping other businesses grow in a modern world where digital businesses are becoming much more common.
Christoph sheds light on how leadership doesn’t necessarily involve a single person making decisions, but rather relies on surrounding yourself with people who supplement your weaknesses and power your business.
- Generalists or Specialists – which is more important for growing your business?
- How the ongoing pandemic has affected serendipity and flow at work, and what to do about it.
- The importance of maintaining authenticity while scaling
- Focus on building your strengths or fixing your weaknesses?
- The upsides and downside of Co-Founding
The interview is full of unique insights, so let’s jump right in!
From Law student to CEO
Darja: Tell us a little bit about your own personal journey – how did you actually go from studying law to the CEO of a digital consultancy?
Christoph: So, I had the opportunity early on in a new market to build my first company together with a lot of co-founders when I was 18 or so—that was CRM in the energy world, in 2000—even before I did my A-Levels.
Studying Law was kind of going back onto the conservative heritage of my parents because they wouldn’t have accepted a career without studies. So, dropping out of Law school kind of was going full circle back into being an entrepreneur. I basically failed to pursue the conservative life model.
Darja: I think that’s a very good thing for so many. Specifically, the German corporates that you helped to find their future, but also for many entrepreneurs and founders that may wonder, “Is this thing for me, really? I didn’t study business, how do I do this?” It’s really great to have a role model.
Christoph: It’s actually an amazing anecdote to tell. The board we didn’t talk about, was the supervisory board of Deutsche Bank’s retail business I’ve been a part of.
I was taking decisions over managers that had to have a university degree that I myself did not have. Being part of a supervisor board at Deutsche Bank, there’s no prerequisite for having completed university studies. But being on the executive board there IS a prerequisite, and that’s having a Masters degree.
Darja: That is so cool. Did you ever get questions about this?
Christoph: No, not really. At some point, if you just move up the hierarchy of people that you’re working with, the higher you get, the less this really plays a role.
Darja: I’m trying to imagine right now, how you are like, working with these super conservative boards. I mean, Deutsche Bank is obviously a traditional bank. What were the funniest moments you remember from that time?
Christoph: There have been plenty of moments when I was just the odd one out—wearing flip flops on hot days for board meetings, it creates interesting looks, even with the security staff that you have to pass when going to the board room. All kinds of things happened that you can imagine; it’s two worlds colliding.
Darja: I was about to say that I can’t imagine you wearing a suit in those environments.
Christoph: I generally don’t.
The Nerd with a Utopian Vision
Anthony: I think it was a bio on a conference that you were speaking at: they described you as “a nerd with a utopian vision.” and I also noticed the word “nerdish” comes up in your Medium bio. I would love for you to tell us where that comes from.
Christoph: So, yeah. I still take big pride in being part of the nerd culture, but it really goes back to when we started in 2000 really doing coding and developing tech. That was kind of where we really felt the kind of definition of being a nerd, which from Wikipedia says “a nerd is a person that is overly intellectual, obsessive, introverted and lacking social skills.”
For the overly intellectual point, we were digging into tech at that point. There was a degree of isolation as well because no one was really interacting with us as we were so weird. This kind of changed, since nerd culture now is mainstream culture too. This is where the “nerd” comes from in “slightly nerdish”.
As for the utopian vision: I don’t know, that’s not what I’d say about myself but at some point, I started thinking about how technology and what we’re doing is shaping our society; of our economy. You have to take responsibility for that; for European competitiveness, for an economy that has values; for tech that is exporting or importing values, and that is kind of where we focus—or I focus on advising policymakers. Maybe it’s this work that can be called a “utopian vision”.
On being a Generalist
Darja: I find it really interesting that you were actually succeeding in environments where you traditionally need a specific specialization and background, but the reason that you don’t have it almost contributes to your success.
We see many times with our community — leaders that are stepping up, junior managers that are just taking responsibility, with a lot of insecurity. They think “Am I allowed to do this? Is it my place to say this?”
How do you actually achieve that level of groundedness and have the willingness to just go with it, and not hide behind “Oh I don’t have this degree and that degree”, but just exert impact where you see an opportunity to do so?
Christoph: I think upbringing plays a massive role in that, at least in my case. I was raised in total disbelief for structural authorities. My family was always about the argument, and winning the argument, so the power of words and structural arguments are always more powerful than structural authority. I actually never questioned that.
So, for me, if you’re powerful because of the structure, you’re not automatically the one I need to respect; it’s all about your argument. That really helps, just being in those situations without feeling uncomfortable at any point in time—even wearing flip flops.
Darja: When we first chatted, you mentioned that you’re actually not good at anything in particular. What did you mean by this?
Christoph: I truly believe that there is a generalist approach to the world and a more specialist approach. I wouldn’t call myself a serial entrepreneur, but a “serial generalist”.
So, every time, we as a company, I as a person, approach an industry it’s with a total generalist perspective because I feel that the first 80% of understanding how it works is the interesting part or the part that interests me most, and the last 20%, I’ve got great respect for that, but no concentration.
Being incapable to concentrate on the last 20% of mastery, always drove me into the next thing, and that really helped for all the “next things”, to start combining knowledge and see a pattern between all the things that we did. There is a correlation between whatever happens in the automotive industry and what you now see in the pharmaceutical industry. So, you can kind of cross-pollinate and transfer learnings.
So, I’m not really good at anything when it comes down to the last 20% of mastery, but I’ve got great excitement about the first 80%.
Darja: Some people, being devil’s advocate, would argue that you do need persistence, and you do need to have this will to go through the inclination to just switch and do something else.
Christoph: I would completely agree – someone needs that, but it’s just not me in most of the cases.
Focus and learning as a Generalist
Christoph: I basically have a watchlist of things that I’ll focus on for the full year. I write it down, and then just start digging into that and take it from whatever starts attracting me.
This year, for example, I was really eager to understand the integrated energy world, energy generation, and smart grids. I wanted to immerse myself in what happens when mobility becomes something that sits on electrical energy, impact investing, sustainable financing was on my list.
I just basically posted that on LinkedIn and asked people to get in contact to get me started learning.
Anthony: So it sounds like you pick a general topic area, right? And then you start with reaching out to folks? Is that your learning process, or where does it go from there?
Christoph: Then there is a buffer for serendipitous topics to pop up, which happens all the time. I try to come up with a frame of things to immerse into over the course of a year, and then I leave room for whatever may happen because serendipity is something I massively believe in and rely on.
Serendipity and flow in remote work
Anthony: This year has been full of some pretty large scale—I don’t know if we can call it serendipity, but definitely change and volatility in all aspects of work-life, but also personal life.
How have the last 6 months been for you on a personal level and leadership level?
Christoph: On a leadership level, and how it kind of changed my work life; I generally dislike what happened. I get how new work works, and I did that prior to Corona, but I don’t need to be on video conference calls for the whole day. For me, traveling and meeting people, having the energy that people in rooms give you is something that I miss; I coped, but I don’t like it from a style perspective.
On a personal level, a lot of interesting things have happened, quite obviously, and that drove some of the hypotheses that I was interested in, even prior to Corona. For example, that whole notion of co-living/co-working in the countryside helps people leave the cities and concentrate and focus around their work.
So, the short answer is I don’t like it, but there are upsides to it as well.
Anthony: For TLGG, how have you seen leadership and the company in your perspective change? I know you’re a big proponent of Flow, it was your philosophy of leadership. So, how has your philosophy changed, or have new things come into the picture over the last 6 months?
Christoph: Yes, you’re right that I’m highly interested and focused on being in flow, but that has combined with a total favor for management by “walking around”; walking through the office, drinking coffee with people, smoking cigarettes in front of the office, randomly creating serendipity around interactions with my people at the office was really something that I enjoyed doing and that I was really efficient at.
What I had to learn, and something I do not like, is the formalizing of leadership or communication, but it was something that needed to happen in Corona because of the lack of those serendipitous moments. The weekly board video that we did, making everything explicit in conversations, being way more formal in leading the company; that is what we needed to implement, but it was totally going against my flow.
I had to be way more aware than I used to be about the expectations on leadership, and on visibility. And visibility, on normal days, isn’t something that you have to create proactively; it happens just by walking around.
Darja: I can SO relate to this, I’ve had this experience that we sometimes feel guilty when we have the serendipitous conversations and I clear a lot of topics up and go into these “rabbit holes” that people call them. But sometimes they’re not rabbit holes, but very interesting and important conversations, and you just can’t plan for them.
I totally can relate to your affinity or bias towards just “let it happen” and let the team and organization move organically; let people talk when they feel they need to talk things out, instead of trying to foresee and pre-plan everything.
I’d really love to hear the adjustments you’ve made over the last couple of months because I don’t really actually have so many good formats yet where we can enable these spontaneous conversations, but at the same time, people don’t need to hang in Zoom basically 24/7 and wait until it happens.
Christoph: I try to do that. I just open up (Microsoft) Teams when we smoke cigarettes to have whoever jump in if they want to talk.
Darja: Does that work?
Christoph: It actually does. I just stopped it because my schedule was so full of planned meetings that I didn’t find the time anymore.
Christoph: Now that time’s become more hybrid, I go to the office two days a week. It now becomes something that I feel is more interesting to me.
So, in general to your question, we did all the things you would typically do, from the handbook. We applied pulse checks to measure team health, we did really closed-loop circles on how to act against the feedback received from those pulse checks and we went pretty visible on weekly videos and calls. So, from kind of a handbook perspective, the things that we did all worked out and really showed great results.
But then there is kind of the individual perspectives, at least mine in that case, and that is, no matter how successful we are, applying all of that, it is just not the best way of working for myself.
Darja: What makes it challenging for you? You mentioned that it kind of distracts your flow. But maybe, in combination with that also, help us understand a bit more what your definition of flow is.
Christoph: I think my flow is massively driven by social interaction.
It’s really the feeling—how the organization feels; how healthy things are; whether the people are satisfied or not. It’s a lot of the implicit learnings you receive by interacting with an organization.
This is driving my flow; having really intuitive access to what the organization needs right now, without necessarily creating a moment where people have to ask me to play my role in that. This is demanding visibility from people, being in a room with people, and this is really gone now. You have to create visibility of your team; you have to create an understanding of how they feel, and how things are going.
This is really hindering—and it’s not really time-efficient as well. Not being time-efficient kills my flow; that’s the easiest way of talking about flow, I’m just completely impatient.
Strengths or Weaknesses, which should you focus on?
Anthony: The way you described it previously was related to strengths and weaknesses. Would you say efficiency is a strength or a weakness of yours and that’s why it’s a frustration?
Christoph: It really depends on the perspective.
So, efficiency, you ask because of my impatience, I think. A lot of people like that, because I’m pretty low-touch when interacting with projects and people. A lot of people see this as a weakness because I’m basically too impatient to teach people about things.
So, switching from low-touch leadership into more of a high-touch / micromanagement style of leadership; I simply can’t do that. So, there are always people around me that can take over for the more high-touch moments that are occasionally needed in leadership, translators, if you will.
Darja: I think this idea of complementarity and looking for people to fill your gaps, a lot of founders and a lot of managers actually have and know that, but I think what’s typically difficult is, to be honest with yourself about what your strengths are. So, how do you actually get to know your strengths?
Christoph: I think the hard part isn’t knowing about your strengths, the hard part is being completely open about your weaknesses.
I have always been a massive believer in only focusing on strengthening your strong points. So, overcoming weaknesses, for me, never really made sense because, again, I’m pretty impatient; it isn’t efficient. So, in building organizations, my focus always was, how do I build a playing field that allows me to focus on my strengths and only work on that.
I totally see the counter-argument, but I never focused much on weaknesses; I just named them and let them be the way that they are because that helped others to fill the gaps.
Do it alone or get co-founders?
Darja: So then last question—how do you balance the need for co-founders, knowing you can’t do it all for yourself, with the disadvantages that it brings, like that you need to find consensus-driven decision making patterns. What’s your take on this?
Christoph: There is almost a kind of naive answer to that: Find the right co-founders.
For my part, I would’ve never been capable of accomplishing what we’ve accomplished without co-founders. A single-person founded company, with me as the founder is just not successful. I actually never asked myself the question of what the downside of co-founders is; I can only see upsides. They reflect yourself, they fill the void of your weaknesses. So there are literally, from my perspective, no downsides of a founder team.
Darja: I would agree with this; I do think a lot of people struggle with it, but I think it’s a very nice kind of roundup to our conversation because I do agree that nothing else compliments you as much as great relationships and great partnerships. I do believe in growth, and I think it’s actually really, really helpful to have mirrors around you that are maybe more honest than your customers are, sometimes.
Christoph: There’s just one thing, and I feel that it’s the most important; don’t trust structural and formal authority, unless you are in an argument with them and they actually win. So, really, for me, the key to business, in general, is that formal and structural authority should be overcome.
Darja: I think that’s the most perfect closure to our conversation. I think it has a lot of weight in today’s time and context. Thank you so much, Christoph, for sharing this and also all your insights and anecdotes. It’s been a pleasure having you!
Anthony: Thanks so much, Christoph!
Christoph: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
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