Meet Angelika Kambeck, Head of Group HR, for 11 years possessing HR leader function at Klöckner & Co, one of the largest producer-independent distributors of steel and metal products worldwide: it’s represented in 140 locations, 13 countries, and counts 7,100 employees.
Before, Angelika Kambeck has overseen employee development and learning at Volkswagen and E.ON companies. Today, her key focus is on driving the change and providing support of the Klöckner & Co digital transformation regarding all people issues. This transformation started six years ago, and since then, the company has been going through a big change. Along with that, it’s setting the ambitious goal: digitalize the entire steel industry.
Just recently, Christian Vetter, HRForecast CEO, sat down with Angelika Kambeck to talk about people empowerment, the role of upskilling, and essential aspects of workforce development amid the transformation and digitalization of the company and the entire industry.
Embracing the change of the way we work
Christian: We all see that there’s change going on outside and inside our organizations. It’s inevitable, and the pace of this change is accelerating quite fast. How do you envision creating a workforce that’s prepared to combat these future disruptions and challenges? What’s your approach to that?
Angelika: First of all, it’s about taking people with you: it’s essential to tell the story behind the change, set transparent expectation management, and explain where we are going and why we need the changes.
During the last five years, Klöckner & Co has gone through many changes, including headcount reductions. About a year ago we had to reduce our workforce by a thousand people, which was tough, but we did our best to quickly inform employees about this decision and implemented it in the best possible way.
To ease communication, we established an internal social network using Yammer, and it worked as a boom. More than 90% of our employees are in the All Company group and the interacting and networking is very high group-wide! That means all the middle management filter is gone. You have real-time direct communication from the Board and from the workforce back to the Board, making communication significantly faster and more efficient.
Another concept which becomes increasingly important is lifelong learning. You can’t guarantee people that the current strategy will not change within the next five years, as an ongoing change is the new normal. But you can tell people openly: this is what we would like to do, and this is where we would like to go and keep you with us. We can’t guarantee you a safe workspace for the next thirty years, but we will help you prepare well for the upcoming changes. I think this is important.
Christian: From our insights at HRForecast, where we analyze global job postings, we see that new jobs are rapidly evolving. External sources also confirm it, e.g., WEF has shared insights from their survey among mining and metals companies, and here are the figures: the average employees’ skill set will change by 40% in the next four years. By referring to your position on letting everybody know where they’re going, giving everybody a chance, I’d like to ask if these numbers resonate with you? What’s your take on employee upskilling and development in your organization?
Angelika: Now it’s becoming more evident that the tasks and jobs will change. I think three or four years ago, people were not taking that seriously, but now it’s been a reality for a longer time. I realized so far that not the jobs will totally change but rather the tasks within the jobs.
To keep up with the change, we try to go ahead and take forward-thinking initiatives. Specifically, three years ago, we established the Digital Academy. This is a programme where we invest in our people by offering them courses around digital upskilling during working time for free. Yet, offering doesn’t mean that people will participate and take this opportunity. That’s why we have to guide the change.
We’ve put a lot of passion into this initiative, advertised it, talked to the C-level so that they would push it. And it paid off: the latest data showed that we already have more than 10,000 course registrations in the Digital Academy. So, we see that we’re on the right track with our efforts.
In the Digital Academy, we offer courses for digital and technical skills, collaboration and leadership skills, and digital business models. We also invest in HR working methods to allow people to react quickly to changes and be more agile.
With this initiative, we give people the opportunity to upskill. Sometimes we might hear from managers: “my people have to do other things” or “people have no time”. Our answer is: “We give you the opportunity, it’s your choice to use it or not.” The benefit is that you expand your knowledge and at the same time prepare yourself for the internal and external labor market. The price you have to give is your time for it. But you are the decision-maker. We don’t force anyone.
The role of data
Christian: Now, let’s pick up on the data. There’s one part of teaching people data-centric skills. But then the question is, can you also use data already to measure people empowerment?
Angelika: At the Digital Academy, for instance, we’re tracking how many people take part in it, what kind of courses they are taking, in which languages. From the cultural aspect, we’d like to see if this project is used.
We also see people becoming more and more empowered in our Global Employee Survey. The participation rates are increasing as well as the engagement index. In terms of engagement, we also measure if employees are happy in their teams and work environment and are open to recommend Klöckner & Co as an employer of choice. There we see that we’re around 80% and this is very good.
We also track how positive people are about the Country Board. This is an important indicator that shows if the country is guided in the right way by the CEO and C-level executives.
Also, we started the Emerging Leaders Program aimed to educate the change drivers among middle management. We see how many people applied. In the beginning, nobody was allowed to apply themselves – they had to be nominated. Now we let people apply: if you think you’re the right one, if you think you have the potential for the higher management level, you can apply and accompany this journey. Within this project, we tracked participants’ empowerment and have seen that people completed the program and got promoted, becoming visible change drivers. We already promoted 70% of our Emerging Leaders, and we see now how they are actively growing: they are proactive on Yammer, they push the change.
So, this is where we see how empowerment becomes visible. In the end, cultural change is when you see that behavior changed. Good results mirror empowerment. This is how we look at it from our company perspective.
Christian: To me, that sounds like the metrics or the KPIs to measure empowerment are around engagement. Is that correct?
Angelika: Engagement, being a part of the company, show enthusiasm and activity. That’s how we look at it. People empowerment is a part of our new strategy “Klöckner & Co 2025: Leveraging Strengths” and the company’s values. We put it in our people strategy and push the topic forward to empower our people even more than we’re already doing.
Christian: It’s interesting because I recently got asked: What’s more important: employee engagement or employee empowerment? And I was on the same page as you. I think that to empower people, you need to engage them.
Angelika: Yes, with higher engagement, you have people more empowered. Empowerment shows if people are with you. You can see it through if they’re vital change drivers in your company and help you accelerate the strategy implementation. Basically, if they can and are allowed to help shape it and also know and like their specific contribution to the company’s goals, this helps us accelerate the strategy implementation.
Agility of the workforce
Christian: I’m totally on your side, and I think that’s the right approach. So, we talked about empowerment and the connection with engagement. Picking up on the original topic that business models are changing, and skills are changing, it also means that your workforce is constantly on the move and is very dynamic. What’s your opinion on empowering the agility of the workforce? How do you do that?
Angelika: We are not at the end of our journey regarding that topic, but we are on the right track.
From the beginning, we were looking for the answers: what’s behind the buzzword “agility”, how to measure it, how to show that it’s really running? We found out that you might be agile when you’re able to adapt quickly to changes, and when you are a forward-thinking person. Resilience is critical in agility as much as having a strong core, whatever happens around you. And the last thing is having learning curiosity. We intensively invested in making people curious as much as possible.
We also set up the Digital Hub in Berlin to get people with digital skills aboard, also to establish a new spirit there and show it to the rest of the workforce.
We also have a Digital Experience Program. In its core there’s knowledge sharing and exchange. For example, suppose you are a manager from a branch in Dallas or a Nurnberg. In that case, you can join the program for a few weeks in Berlin at kloeckner.i to bring over your steel knowledge, which is very important for other participants, and exchange the digital, agile working methods. This also helps to increase learning curiosity and adapt faster.
Other than that, we invested in a Group management meeting, providing employees on the lower management level with an opportunity to take strategy meetings and agile learning programs within two days in Berlin. They said it was a luxury to have the opportunity to learn.
Another aspect we’ve been working on is embracing the hybrid working model with working from home as well. It helps us become faster, more adaptable, and it’s very effective to work this way.
Last but not least, when talking about an empowered workforce, diversity also plays an integral part. I’m convinced that if you’re able to embrace the concept of diversity, you have more innovative power. Thus, you look from a different perspective on everything.
The recipe of people empowerment
Christian: Looking into the HR domain we have here in Germany, I think you, Angelika, are perceived as a role model for many. You are one of the top thinkers and influencers in our practice. I’m just about to ask you, are there any concrete tips or hints you want to give as an HR leader on how people empowerment could be triggered or improved?
Angelika: One thing is to give people a choice to be involved. When you’re a CEO or an HR head, you’re sometimes ahead of the change curve. But you still need to tell people the same things multiple times, letting them be part of the story, letting them understand the narrative, join, and contribute. This is something important to communicate in real-time through networks, which you have in your company, and also to allow and promote dialog about it.
Another thing is to keep in mind the company reality, which is different everywhere. When I came from E.ON, I thought I knew how the world is running. But then I started at Klöckner & Co, and I had to learn again. We in HR often forget it. We come with our skillset and think we know how it’s running. But the truth is, it doesn’t really matter if what we’re doing is called “talent management” or “workforce planning”. What matters is what brings the company forward, and how well and visibly.
In summary, there is certainly no standard recipe, but the following ingredients are relevant in my opinion: You need to very clearly communicate the goals of the company, its purpose and its direction, so that they are comprehensible and also attractive to every employee. Along the way, you need to inspire curiosity and engagement, equip people with digital skills, act as a role model top-down from the management for everybody to see, and make empowerment an integral part of the company’s strategy. And you need to really love what you do, do it, and do not give up.
Christian: Thank you, Angelika, it was my pleasure to have this conversation with you!