Anti-Heroes of Modern Management

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The executives bravely leading two of Germany’s biggest companies through crisis are no ordinary managers, argues the author.

  • Facts


    • John Cryan was named co-CEO of Deutsche Bank in July last year before becoming the sole chief executive in May of this year.
    • Matthias Müller took over as chief executive of the Volkswagen Group in September 2015, after the Dieselgate scandal forced the resignation of his predecessor.
    • Mr. Müller has experienced a series of PR blunders, including controversial statements on Dieselgate and on electric cars.
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Matthias Müller (left) and John Cryan. Source: Getty Images [M]

There are managers who refuse to rest on their laurels — ever ready to seek out the center of a new storm.

John Cryan at Deutsche Bank and Matthias Müller at Volkswagen stand out as examples of this noble trait. If Mr. Cryan had stayed at the Swiss bank UBS, he could have enjoyed the aura of the man who saved the bank after the financial crisis. And if Mr. Müller had remained as head of Porsche, he would be in a comfortable place today, delivering luxury German cars plenty of people would die for.

But both executives clearly like challenges. Mr. Müller is fighting a tough war on several fronts, with some of his key team players abandoning their posts. With his career move, Mr. Cryan doesn’t appear fond of a quiet life. After stepping down as UBS’s chief financial officer and working for a brief stint at a Singapore investment bank, he headed straight into the line of fire last year when he took over co-chief executive of Deutsche Bank. He is now alone at the helm.

When colleagues asked these executives to help out in stormy waters, they did not put their own CVs first, or the pleasures of the limelight.

Why did Mr. Müller choose to become crisis boss at Volkswagen, a carmaker that is tightly linked to the German social policies with numerous restrictions on executives’ room for maneuver?

John Cryan is a tough-as-nails restructuring guy, a master of the overview, a turnaround king. He’s also a sharp-eyed analyst, extremely well-connected and modest to boot. So why is he so keen on rescuing the once mighty Deutsche Bank now down on its knees?

What is going on with the management elite that for years has been attacked on all sides, by eco-warriors, moral preachers, prosecutors, regulators and more?

In taking on tough positions, managers like Matthias Müller and John Cryan are not looking to maximize their own profits. When asked to help out in stormy waters, they didn’t worry about any bruises to their images.

What drives them? Certainly not the characteristics that haters ascribe to top managers: a mixture of greed, arrogance of power, megalomania, cowardice, incompetence, and immaturity. These are not men driven by mega-egos, or the desire to plunder companies foolish enough to put them in charge.

The negative view of top managers motivates the ever-tightening net of rules and regulations that the state is throwing around companies. It also drives the increasing number of lawsuits aimed at executives, and not just at “bad boys” from fossil fuel lobby or high-finance tricksters. These days, it seems like being well-connected in business — having good relationships — has become a crime in and of itself.

Good relationships, it is easy to forget, are what happen when there is real trust between people in banking and the car industry. When they know they can rely on one another. What that means is: no tricks, no lies, and keep your promises. Deliver on time: deliver the product, but also the trust that goes with it.

Delivery, pure and simple, is the sober message from Mr. Cryan and Mr. Müller, the two stormy-weather managers. “We have to deliver,” is what the Deutsche Bank boss said. His assessment of his predecessors pulls no punches. Deutsche Bank staff and management had “damaged the bank’s reputation.” The bank is “too complex,” its internal processes too expensive.

Mr. Cryan has also said: “We can no longer afford to live in this luxury.” The bank had to slim down, he adds. “Wealth management, corporate clients, investment banking” are to be its future areas of future concentration.

Mr. Cryan is English through and through, but he speaks excellent German. To give emphasis at key moments, he sprinkles it, almost ironically, with British English. And somehow, the mixture gives new life to worn-out phrases in both languages: “set an example,” or “motivation and morale is management’s main job.”

Anyone who knew the bank in better days, can hear echoes of another Deutsche Bank executive: Alfred Herrhausen, its former chairman, murdered by left-wing terrorists in the late 1980s. Mr. Herrhausen was another who fought the inertia of colleagues: “Every morning when I come to management meetings, I feel like I’ve just been swallowed up by an airbag,” he once said.

John Cryan deserves enormous praise, and not just because he chose to take over as captain of a ship on the rocks. Beyond that, he is a living embodiment of what the bank always claimed to stand for: achievement through passion. He sets an example.

Setting an example is one of the most noble activities in the business world, a world crowded with customers looking for satisfaction and rivals looking to get on. Matthias Müller builds on solid foundations: he began as an apprentice toolmaker, before going on to study computer science, specializing in systems analysis.

Mr. Müller rose through the ranks at Audi, moving from computer science to leadership positions. He had a close relationship with Ferdinand Piëch, the charismatic figure who served as VW chairman and chief executive, dominating the company for more than 20 years. But Mr. Müller was never one just to look out for his own interests. “A team player,” is how he likes to describe himself. At Volkswagen now, he wants to “win back confidence,” but he is not content just to repeat that phrase, so beloved of the crisis manager. In the wake of the terrible damage done by Volkswagen’s manipulation of diesel emissions data, he knows deeper solutions are needed: “Understand what went wrong, be transparent in solutions, and have the strictest compliance and governance in the industry.”

John Cryan is a living embodiment of what Deutsche Bank always claimed to stand for: achievement through passion. He sets an example.

Mr. Müller views the Dieselgate catastrophe with the clear eye of a systems analyst. “Take action!” he says, while others wring their hands. With excellent contacts in the United States, he knows how to stand up to preachers and moralizers: “You have not told the truth,” was one accusation hurled at VW. “We did not lie,” said Mr. Müller. On first acquaintance, some American colleagues found him “condescending.” But those who get to know him, know different.  Berthold Huber, a prominent labor leader whose IG Metall union is powerful at Volkswagen, has praised Mr. Müller’s “strategic, corporate, and social competence.” Bernd Osterloh, the worker representative on the VW board, singled out Mr. Müller’s “determination and dogged will.”

He loves fast cars. He made himself few friends among eco-warriors with his sober assessment of electric engines: too few charging stations, limited range, little consumer interest. Climate change professionals shrieked with disapproval. But here too, a systems analyst was talking — without the customer on board, you have nothing. And with the customer, take it slow. “I am not a strategist,” said Mr. Müller. “I just turned ideas into concrete plans.”

Another manager who has a clear view of his own abilities. And a modest one. Glory comes from a job well done. Performance comes from commitment: “We can and will lead the company out of the crisis of confidence.”

The scandal-hungry media, and their audience, should learn some patience from these anti-heroes.


Gertrud Höhler is a writer, an advisor to politicians and executives, and a professor of literature. She has worked for Deutsche Bank and Volkswagen, and served on boards in the U.K. and Switzerland. To contact the author:

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