Fabian Kienbaum just came out of a meeting with his father. Since the beginning of 2018, when he became his father’s official successor, he is the sole CEO of Kienbaum Consultants International GmbH. But the 34-year old wouldn’t want to pass up the advice of Jochen Kienbaum, who has over four decades of experience in the business that is still being run by the Kienbaum family and its managing partners. He meets with his father — who is staying on as Managing Partner — on a regular basis, and they discuss important decisions. His bottom line after three months as the top boss? Fabian Kienbaum laughs. “I’m satisfied. We’re on the right track, the topics we defined together are being implemented. I am especially thankful for the confidence and trust that everyone has placed in me. It actually doesn’t feel like such a big change because my father and I were a tandem last year. And with our management team, we have more of a ‘first among equals’ model, so I don’t feel like the sole boss – it’s a team approach.”
Fabian Kienbaum represents the third generation at the helm of the Kienbaum personnel and management consultancy. In 1945, Gerhard Kienbaum founded the company in Gummersbach, near Cologne, to help war-damaged businesses with reconstruction. In 1977 his son Jochen came to the family business, which was growing strong, and in 1986 he became head of the company. Today’s Kienbaum Consultants International, with its focus on people, currently has 600 employees in 18 countries.
At the outset, however, it wasn’t clear that Fabian Kienbaum would take over the management of the company. Sure, he was always interested in consulting, and he received extensive insight into the business when he accompanied his father on international business trips, but his father never pressured him. “Ever since childhood, my five sisters and I were able to do what we wanted – I believe that is also part of the recipe for success. My father didn’t expect me to follow him, I felt more pulled than pushed.” After completing a bachelor’s in business management, Fabian Kienbaum studied international management at ESCP Europe and received a German business management diploma, a Diplômé de Grande École, and a Master of Science. After around three years working in an American management consultancy in London, it was time for a new career step – and it became clear to him that bringing his talents and energy to his father’s business could be much better and more productive. Naturally, Jochen Kienbaum was very happy about his son’s wish to join the family business.
After many intensive discussions with the whole family in spring of 2013, the orientation phase began: At the outset it was set up to be five years long and consist of several stages. In 2014 Fabian Kienbaum took over responsibility for digital business, company investments and the management of the Berlin office – just as his father did with founding Kienbaum Berlin. One part of the success formula was that the son would thereby have a field of activity in which he could work and prove himself. “I was able to provide new ideas. In the process, I was able to benefit from being new to the company and working in an area which was previously vacant. This increased the probability of my success, and as ‘the boss’s son’ I didn’t get on anyone’s toes. Furthermore, I came into a phase of active change in which everyone was part of a close-knit team. So I didn’t have to compete against the others, right from the start I could focus on applying my talent and energy in the best way possible”.
“It’s better to over-communicate than under-communicate”
Having a new CEO is one thing, but at Kienbaum, this was about much more: the succession into the next generation with the management team and finding a new structure, i.e. answering the question as to how this traditional consultancy can position itself in a sustainable way. One of the biggest challenges was becoming familiar with and understanding the different perspectives. Top management worked on this for a year and a half, and once again, Fabian Kienbaum emphasises how important team-thinking is, and that the best interests of the company are everyone’s top priority. What does he consider to be the biggest success factor in the new structure? “Trust is the most important thing,” answers Fabian Kienbaum without hesitating, “and we had that completely. Communication is also essential – in every direction, with all stakeholders, whether within the management team, with employees or with the public. It’s important to be very transparent and open regarding why specific decisions are made and what we stand for, and this needs to take place via all channels of communication. It’s better to over-communicate than under-communicate. Along with long-term forward planning, this creates trust, orientation and security.” Succession processes often have a very individual shape in family-based companies. It was very important to Kienbaum Senior that he and his son take the last steps as equals, that’s why the two men managed the company as co-leaders in 2017. At the start of this year, management of the company was transferred to his son. Nevertheless, the level-headed father remains a sparring partner for the impulsive son, sometimes slowing him down – when he gets impatient, sometimes Fabian Kienbaum can’t help laughing at himself: “In principle, we’re of the same mind, but we tend to discuss how radical our decisions come across: How vigorously and quickly should we implement our decisions? It’s good that my father, with his many years of experience in the company, sometimes keeps me from clashing too hard with the others. On the other hand, what he likes about me is that I can move things forward.”
The success of the cooperation of the father-son team is also demonstrated by a variety of awards. In November 2017 business magazine “Capital” named Fabian Kienbaum one of the “Young Elite – Top 40 under 40” in the “Business” category. At the same time, the Federal Association of German Managements Consultants (BDU) made Jochen Kienbaum an honorary president for his commitment to the consulting industry. In an April 2018 ranking of the best consultants by brand eins, Kienbaum Consultants was ranked #1 in Human Resources and Coaching and #2 in both Change Management and Transformation & Organisation.
Both father and son feel encouraged by these accolades, but the company still has a long way to go in its transformation process. The traditional consultancy is positioning itself internally for the future with the slogan “NewKienbaum”. “Having a successor from the family is a positive signal, it shows a certain commitment to continuity. But neither tradition nor history can spare us from change,” emphasises Fabian Kienbaum. “We need to energetically move forward, and we need to become more agile and digital.” Digitalisation and New Work appear to be the keywords he was waiting for. His voice is enthusiastic when he talks about the change processes. As a consultancy, Kienbaum would like to set a good example for its clients and use its own experience to advise them about digital transformation, because “we can’t preach Digitalisation and New Work without committing ourselves fully to those ideals.” Moving the Gummersbach headquarters to the Airport Business Park in Cologne was a step in this direction. Inspiration from Microsoft’s new German headquarters in Munich can be seen in the new offices: open building structures and modern working areas for a variety of work requirements characterise “the spaceship”, as it’s often called. It is very important to Fabian Kienbaum that New Work isn’t only reflected in the architecture, in opportunities to work in a home office or in the application of digital technologies, but that it’s especially understood to be a cultural subject: “The most important requirement for it is the establishment of a new culture of trust in a company in which New Work can flourish. That is probably the biggest challenge companies have to master in terms of moving towards a new working world. Without New Culture, there’s no New Work!” The biggest demands in this area are upon management: as the top manager, Fabian Kienbaum doesn’t exclude himself – that’s why the E in his title deliberately stands for something other than “executive”. The Chief Empowerment Officer would like to empower his employees, he wants to communicate with them on an equal level, bring them together into suitable projects, topics, and teams. He wants to give them inspiration and purpose and unleash their enthusiasm. “We want to set the course away from an object-oriented culture towards a subject-culture which allows for individuality, diversity and the development of employee potential. For us, good leadership is ‘servant leadership’ – above all, leaders are mentors and coaches for the team members, who should also take on responsibility. In the extreme form, this means: leaders will make themselves superfluous.” But surely not everyone is happy with this? Fabian Kienbaum laughs. “Of course this clashes fundamentally with the human ego and its desire to feel important and needed. But this way energy is released and one can once again dedicate oneself to different topics. I consider not creating any dependencies to be a way of acting sustainably in the long-term. The roles themselves change in this process and one develops agility in action, which replaces the hierarchies. This idea is what counts in the end.”
In addition to the organisational changes, Kienbaum Consultants’ business model is also under scrutiny. The growing digital competition is putting long-established consultancies under pressure – Fabian Kienbaum sees this as an opportunity to find answers and make progress. He’s focusing on collaborative efforts and investing in tech startups which are relevant to HR, like Firstbird, 4 Scotty, Jobtender 24, Capitalheads and Edition F. Through such intelligent partnering, Kienbaum is part of the movement which represents the future of consulting – a key to success in the new work environment. Fabian Kienbaum isn’t worried about consulting’s future: “Consulting will always be around, but megatrends which challenge the business model – the democratisation of knowledge, and alumni who change sides, to name just two examples – change the way consulting is done. The project typologies change, the business model gets adjusted. There will be more projects in deliberately mixed teams of permanent employees and freelancers, and sourcing will change. Increasing automation will make the borders between people and technologies smoother. In a world whose complexity is ever-increasing, advice is in demand more than ever, because companies have to question themselves constantly. That’s why consulting won’t lose relevance – it will simply become more challenging.”
Through all the necessary changes on the way to becoming NewKienbaum, the traditional consultancy nevertheless remains true to its old values, the most important being its human touch. It seems almost anachronistic when Fabian Kienbaum says, full of conviction: “Humanity is our guiding star. We want to become Europe’s most humane consulting house.” Perhaps it is precisely these combinations of tradition and innovation, humanistic values and digital culture, which set Kienbaum Consultants apart from the competition and ensure the company’s long-term success. Because in the end, it’s the people who shape the future and make the ultimate difference in companies – on this issue, Kienbaum Junior and Senior are both in agreement.