“What do you need to be able do your job better?” This was one of the questions Bodo Janssen, then the new managing director of a hotel chain, asked his employees. They wanted a new boss — which they got. Janssen’s revolution in corporate culture resulted in an inspiring documentary film.
The largest cafeteria at SAP headquarters in Walldorf, Germany, is full. Five hundred employees are focusing on their breathing in a seven-minute mindfulness exercise guided by Peter Bostelmann, director of Global Mindfulness practice at SAP, and Daniel Holz, managing director of SAP Deutschland.
It wasn’t only the mindfulness exercise that had drawn the crowd, though. They were also there to hear Janssen, owner and CEO of Upstalsboom. Janssen’s company runs hotels and vacation rentals in Germany’s North Sea and Baltic Sea resorts and employs 650 people. In recent years, it has become synonymous with cultural change in the workplace. More than once it has been named as one of Germany’s best employers.
Janssen himself is a popular speaker, instructor, and author who has given many interviews. He had come to SAP to present the award-winning documentary, Die Stille Revolution (The Silent Revolution), with Kristian Gründling, the documentary’s director. The movie tells the story of how Janssen turned Upstalsboom into a company with purpose that has people at its heart.
Upstalsboom’s Success Story Starts with a Huge Blow
When Janssen took over the hotel chain from his parents after its insolvency, he stuck to the classic rules of business.
“I expanded and created new structures. But our revenues stalled in 2010 and didn’t show any signs of improving. Employee satisfaction plummeted, resignations and staff absences rocketed, and nobody wanted to come and work for us,” he says. “We decided to conduct an employee survey to get to the root of the problem. One of the questions we asked was: ‘What do you need to be able do your job better?’”
“The response was devastating. Some employee had written: ‘We need a new boss!’ That really shocked me,” explains Janssen. “I felt numb to begin with, as if I were in a vacuum. I couldn’t just resign. Nor could I give the company back to my father because he died in a plane crash in 2007.”
He admits that he briefly considered ignoring the feedback and continuing along the same path.
But he didn’t. Janssen gave his employees an honest summary of the results and started radically rethinking his behavior and management style. “I wanted to find solutions to the problems that I had caused,” he says.
And so, Janssen began regularly visiting the Benedictine abbey in Germany where Father Anselm Grün, a Benedictine monk and best-selling author, lives. He spent over a year learning from Father Grün and the team there. He even took his management team from Upstalsboom to some of the abbey’s workshops. He looked into research from the fields of positive psychology and neurobiology. During this time, Janssen got to see himself and his management style from a more negative perspective.
“The way I behaved was just an act. I always wanted to look the part and have all the right status symbols. No one felt able to tell me that I was wrong,” he explains.
The Upstalsboom Way: Leaving the Comfort Zone
Janssen asked himself what was important to him in life: “I slowly started to realize that I saw employees and customers merely as a necessity for making the company successful. But actually, the opposite is true. As a businessman and manager, my job is to make sure that everyone — employees and customers — can lead a fulfilled life and continue developing.”
These insights led to the creation of the Upstalsboom Way: a corporate culture built on values shared by employees and managers alike, such as fairness, appreciation, reliability, openness, mindfulness, trust, responsibility, quality, and vitality.
Increasing the number of hotel bookings isn’t what drives Janssen anymore. Rather, his goal is to empower people: “My task is to foster their physical, emotional, and social well-being to help them reach their full potential and ensure they can engage in the things that matter to them. Because people take strength from knowing the purpose behind their actions, even if circumstances change. They set their own goals rather than expect someone else to set them.”
According to Janssen, this also means questioning why processes and attitudes are the way they are, and leaving your comfort zone. As such, there aren’t any uniforms at Upstalsboom. Instead, employees are free to choose what they wear to work. Every employee is responsible for their own work and makes their own decisions. They help out in other teams, too, if they need to; on some days, you can even find a hotel manager helping make up beds. Everyone learns from each other irrespective of hierarchies and roles.
The Future of Work: Humanity Takes Center Stage
Janssen believes that compassion is the key to good leadership: “In my eyes, the best leaders are the ones who show their weaknesses and admit their mistakes. Only if they do that will others feel like they can do the same. We have to fail to succeed.”
He also says that leaders are there to create strong people who work together in a peaceful community.
Janssen has also transformed part of the company into a charity, showing the world that he isn’t looking to maximize profits.
This strengthens trust and even Upstalsboom has been surprised by its own success. In 2018, the company is expected to grow 50 percent. Employee satisfaction has hit 80 percent, while the average sickness absence rate has decreased from eight to three percent, which is well below the industry average. The guest recommendation rate has reached 98 percent and the number of applicants is now in triple figures.
At the end of the documentary, one employee explains why she wanted to join the company: “I know exactly what my purpose is, and that is why I am here.”
Janssen finds it fascinating how SAP, as a global company, has managed to establish its own world-wide mindfulness and emotional intelligence network and create its own silent revolution through its popular Search Inside Yourself courses.
But one thing struck him at SAP: “Whenever I’m at Upstalsboom, I really try to connect with my employees. Even if that just means making eye contact with them in the corridor. I have found that quite difficult to do here at SAP. I was really pleased whenever someone looked me in the eye and smiled back at me as they walked past. After all, we all want to be well regarded.”
And the audience agreed with him. After the documentary, a survey app asked them what mattered most to them. Overwhelmingly, the result, presented on screen as a word cloud, was “appreciation.”