"Changing Sides" - What Bankers Can Learn From Addicts

Patriotische Gesellschaft von 1765's project
Patriotische Gesellschaft von 1765's project
Tanja Tricarico

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.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!