Leadership Lessons from Stefan Korn
Catching up with Stefan Korn is always an enjoyable experience. Even the most basic meetings become an exercise in leadership development when you are watching a leader effectively lead. The Creative HQ team is lucky enough to have these experiences on a regular basis – Stefan is, after all, our Chief Executive. He is also someone who has a huge impact on the innovation ecosystem – being on the board of Callaghan Innovation and involved in many startups himself.
At its core, Creative HQ is about helping people and this statement could be equally applied to Stefan’s leadership style. He believes in helping people reach their greatness – “bringing out in people the brilliance that is already there is what motivates me the most, seeing people do things they never thought they could do.” A good leader should be comfortable staying behind the scenes when they need to – being a good leader, in Stefan’s world, is often subtle and doesn’t mean being the loudest person in the room.
Leadership as facilitation is a theme that runs throughout our conversation. Being able to see a person’s strengths and encourage their “self-efficacy” through guided mastery is an essential part of Stefan’s role. “Knowing when to give someone a gentle nudge, support or a challenge is the art of leadership – being able to help others gain the confidence to do what they really want to do. I love the concept of creative leadership – which doesn’t mean leaders being more creative – but helping others develop the confidence to be who they want to be, to purposefully design their own realities and to be in charge of how their lives unfold”.
For Stefan, following Kendrick Lamar’s advice, part of being a leader, is the ability to listen and be humble. An early experience of this was during Stefan’s internship at Hewlett Packard. “Part of the Hewlett Packard culture was that every morning you’d have tea and coffee together, so all staff would be near the cafeteria. At the time, Hewlett Packard had around ten regional offices and one central office for the whole of Germany – there were thousands of people working at HP, and the manager of our local office got nominated to take over the entire company in Germany. So we’re having coffee, and this guy says “well you’ve probably heard that I’ve been asked to take on the MD job for Germany. What advice would you give me for my new role?”. “I thought this was such a great and subtle practice of effective leadership.”
Stefan’s faith in the people that make up Creative HQ has seen the team grow in leaps and bounds over the past four years. Since Stefan took over as CEO in September 2013, the Creative HQ team has added around 20 staff members, had over 200 companies through our programmes and have achieved record income from innovation services. “The first couple of years were really about making the organisation highly functional and something everyone can feel proud of, Now we are looking at growth and expansion.” Leading a company through these sorts of shifts isn’t simple, but Stefan believes in creating a culture where people can thrive and build. “Leaders are in a position where they need to take responsibility when things don’t go according to plan and being genuine in these circumstances substantially improves company culture. In my book, company culture is 100% a direct reflection of the person leading the organisation. Every leader sets the culture of their organisation – some do it consciously and with purpose.”
Creative HQ practices a high performance, ‘no-blame’ culture. Sometimes things don’t work out, and there’s a lot we can learn from those mistakes. It’s important to Stefan that the team knows it is okay for people to escalate when they need to and knowing that their leader has their back. In highly functional leadership there is no room for egos – “blamestorming” which often becomes the subject of meetings when things go wrong is a total waste of time. Acceptance, calmness, resolve and a pragmatic approach to doing what makes the most sense in any given situation is the way to deal with issues and problems which occur inevitably in any organisation and team. “I like situational leadership – it’s not always one person making the calls, but whoever is in the best position to do so.” It’s with this practice that everyone in our team can step into leadership roles. Working at Creative HQ is an inspiring and rewarding experience. A major part of this is the fact that our leader has mastered the art of knowing when we “need gentle encouragement, a big challenge or extra support when things are hard.”
Stefan embraces the motto “great leaders create other great leaders,” and it is his quiet faith in everyone at Creative HQ that allows them to unleash their inner leader.