When human resources executive Chris Buhl took the HR helm in North America for Kuehne + Nagel, a leading global logistics company with nearly 70,000 employees in more than 100 countries, he walked in with one big question: How open was the company to the large-scale changes he hoped to lead? When he met Lothar Harings, Kuehne + Nagel’s Chief Human Resources Officer, he got his answer.
“I remember thinking: This is the type of leader who knows what excellence looks like,” recalls Buhl. “This place was fertile ground for new ideas that would lead to transformation in this region and beyond.”
Three years into Buhl’s tenure, that transformation is visible. From training initiatives to fitness competitions, from benefits overhauls to cultural programs, from employee engagement to customer satisfaction, Kuehne + Nagel North America looks a lot different than it did the afternoon Buhl and Harings shared their visions.
How does that kind of change happen? What kind of corporate environment did Kuehne + Nagel create that empowers its leaders to successfully drive transformation?
We sat down with Harings and Buhl and more than a dozen stakeholders across Kuehne + Nagel to discover the mindset and tactics required to move the needle when it comes to organizational change. Focusing on one initiative, we found what amounts to a change-leadership roadmap, a way of thinking and doing that impact-hungry leaders anywhere can follow in pursuit of sustainable transformation.
Step 1: Build a Platform
Organizational change initiatives fail for many reasons, but one frequent contributor to failure is the simple absence of a shared concept of excellence. Recognizing this, Harings laid the groundwork for a unifying vision by championing the KN Behaviors, a simple, flexible platform that aligns the organization’s vast network around a shared set of comprehensible action areas.
Demonstrating Drive + Commitment. Fostering Collaboration + Teamwork. Developing Self + Others. “The KN Behaviors aren’t restrictive or confining. They’re inspirations,” says Harings. “They’re directional, a call to elevate our performance.”
Why does this matter? Because when Buhl began his quest to transform, a language already existed to support the legitimacy of his efforts, and a ubiquitous tool had made its way around the world, waiting to be brought to life.
Step 2: Pick a Partner
Change inevitably comes from the inside out, of course, but to effectively spark behavior change, sometimes the best move you can make is to enlist a surrogate who can say what you can’t, and deliver intelligence from the broader marketplace. To crack open a conversation around the kinds of continuous improvement the company required, Buhl called an outside consultancy he trusted, The Frontier Project, a consulting firm that focuses on driving behavior change via a variety of unique training and communications approaches. Katie Lackey, a partner at Frontier, answered Buhl’s call, lit up at the vision, and shared it with her colleagues. Three of the firm’s partners agreed to show up to support Buhl’s early efforts to host a conversation. As a demonstration of their commitment to the partnership, Frontier offered support to the first two meetings free of charge.
That alliance would eventually provide Buhl and his team everything they needed to execute their change strategy: a broad raft of resources, targeted expertise, and tactical support to augment in-house efforts.
Step 3: Choose a Priority
The eagerness that urges you to build a platform and pick a partner can easily become a problem, if it pushes you to try too much, too fast. Buhl acknowledged this “boil the ocean” pitfall early. After considering a half-dozen objectives the company needed to pursue, he narrowed it down to a single issue, one he felt the company was ready to support and the marketplace was likely to respond to: customer service.
Why this topic? “Because there’s a clear business outcome linked to improvement in this area,” says Buhl. His comment points to one of the determining factors in his choice of platform: Successful transformation narratives require the participation of the right blend of stakeholders. “Customer service spoke to the cultural work HR was interested in, and spoke to the growth efforts the business units were interested in,” says Buhl. “We all know that happy employees are more likely to create happy customers. And that good customer service increases retention and the bottom line. This could be — if we pulled it off — one of those elusive win-wins.”
Step 4: Start Small. Iterate Fast.
With partner, platform, and priority aligned, the question was “How?” How to move the needle on quality customer service? How to educate and activate each layer of a massive organization?
To get to the answer, Buhl commissioned his Learning & Development team to work with his consulting partners to develop a custom training program that would raise the baseline level of customer service across the entire North American region. Together, in partnership, they built a custom curriculum focused on customer service behaviors inside Kuehne + Nagel’s context. They created videos and animations to demonstrate mindset and skill adjustments. They published guidebooks and story-based resources to support ongoing change.
To ensure it would, in fact, work, Buhl’s team set up a series of pilots — test runs in target offices that would measure the fit and relevance of material to the business. The resulting adjustments, tweaks, and rewrites ensured the final training product had the best chance of sticking.
Step 5: Start the Fire.
Ask any business unit manager or HR representative who has been exposed to the customer service training and resources, and they’ll tell you a similar story: Teams are focusing better, working harder, and sharing stories — both good and bad — of efforts to deliver what customers need and want.
But “transformation isn’t an overnight phenomenon,” Harings says. “Since we began the work on the KN Behaviors, we aimed to start a fire, stoke the kindling, and invite others to add to the flame.” Soon after the customer service initiative gained traction in North America, Seafreight, the largest business unit of Kuehne + Nagel, began in earnest its own customer service initiative. Building on the work in North America, they’re now piloting their own transformation effort, tossing log after log onto a crackling flame.
Transformation efforts like the one described above are successful for one reason above others: The appetite of a key leader to take a risk.
For Buhl, and to any change agent wondering how to start, here’s the launchpad: “It’s not acceptable for any of us to fill a role in a company, whatever it is, without asking what could we be doing better. We’ll all look back on our lives and ask, ‘What did I do?’ To answer that question well, we’ve got to put something on the line.”