HAMBURG - Frank Gundelach is a numbers guy. He knows about stock market prices, interest payments and going rates for real estate. In fact, his boss at Sparkasse bank in Hamburg promoted him to lead the real estate department — a position with many responsibilities, and the perfect job for a rational person like him.
But his bosses at the bank also sent him for further education to a place where he can’t use the qualities that earned him his promotion: a day clinic for alcohol and drug addicts. Gundelach worked there for a week, an “internship” that is part of the bank’s management program.
It has long been the norm within many companies for employees to commit themselves to some form of social work. The chairman might volunteer in a hospice, the financial expert could advise those in debt, or the team leader might serve up meals at a homeless shelter.
“When you’re talking about leadership and daily relations with subordinates, it’s not a bad thing to think outside the box,” says Svenja Hofert, a career coach and continuing education expert. In fact, it can do wonders. “One week’s experience in a hospice or clinic can really help close the gap between executives and staffers,” she says.
One reason for this is that amid the stress of day-to-day job realities there is often no time to tune in to what the people around you really need. But working in the clinic makes higher-ups more sensitive to that. Another factor is that continuing education in areas that are outside an employee's field is becoming ever more important for professionals with career ambition.
“Particularly at the middle-executive level, doing social work gets you plus points for the next step up the career ladder,” says Hofert. “At that level a slightly more aggressive mindset is required in the fight for the top jobs.”
For Gundelach, the first day at the addiction clinic began with an unsettled feeling in his gut. He was nervous, he says, about whether people would sense he had a genuine interest or whether they would merely write him off as a voyeur.
And the 47-year-old real estate expert had to prove himself first. “As a banker you don’t tend to bring a lot of skills with you that are useful in the clinic,” he says. Patients asked him a lot of questions, including details about his private life, but after a while he says he lost his reserve and any sense of embarrassment about sharing openly.
Alcoholic patients, Gundelach says, drank liters of vodka, red wine and beer on a regular basis. “Some of them were drinking more daily than I’ve consumed in my whole life,” he says. Many of them also lived isolated lives. For some, the pizza delivery man is just about the only person they still have contact with. “I was surprised at how open they were about their lives,” he says.
A different kind of loan arrangement
Every morning, Gundelach took part in the daily drug check and attended patient therapy sessions. Clinic patients perceived the banker as somebody “with both feet on the ground” — living a life they had never known and probably never would. “Many of the managers who do stints at the clinic experience things they have never experienced before,” says Elke Münchow, deputy program head at the Patriotische Gesellschaft von 1765 (Patriotic Society of 1765), the Hamburg-based association that organizes the internships.
The idea for the association’s SeitenWechsel (“Changing Sides”) program, which it has been offering since 2000, came from Switzerland. Some 4,000 managers from Germany and Switzerland have participated in the program to date.
The goal is to give executives other perspectives into areas that they seldom experience in their professional lives. Getting them better acquainted with social work not only creates links between the two worlds, but also makes executives more tolerant.
“Focus on business at the workplace shouldn’t mean that people are forgotten in the process,” says Münchow. The program costs 2,100 euros per participant. The institutions that accept the so-called interns get 650 euros, and the rest goes to the organization that arranges the internship.
In Germany, another entity besides the Patriotische Gesellschaft that organizes such internships is Stuttgart-based Agentur Mehrwert, which specializes in social learning and internships for managers. In Austria, Brückenschlag offers the same kind of arrangements.
But not every manager is well-suited to such an experience. “A prerequisite is that the participant throws him or herself into the experience heart and soul,” says Münchow. That also means that the Blackberry and laptop stay off during working hours. Every intern also has to attend some prep courses before actually starting work.
Then there’s the so-called “job exchange” at which the social institutions participating in the program present themselves to candidates. “The idea is for the institutions and the candidates to be a good fit,” says Münchow. In other words, both sides have to want to work with each other.
A real give and take
Managers aren’t the only ones who benefit from the program — the social entities do too, at least indirectly. Many hope the program might lead to future donations, but also that executives will come away with more understanding of what these institutions actually do after working there for a week.
Having completed his week’s stint, Frank Gundelach is back in his office in the bank dealing with a backlog of emails and paperwork. He’s wasting no time returning to his usual routine. The insights from his social work experience were simple but powerful, he says: “I was lucky.”
He says he came away with tremendous respect for both the clinic employees and the patients dealing with addiction. The experience confirmed what he’d suspected — that alcoholism is a particularly difficult disease to overcome. “Alcohol consumption is socially acceptable, and that often makes it that much harder for alcoholics to stop,” he says. He also learned that addiction is something that can happen to anyone.
Gundelach says he now makes sure to fit in the occasional break, however brief, to reconnect with himself as he shuttles from appointment to appointment. He says he’s also noticed that he's now much aware of the way he deals with colleagues and staff.
“I follow up more if I suddenly notice that my colleagues have changed or are displaying different behavior patterns,” he says. And that’s a professional quality that even numbers guys like Gundelach need to have.