a case study for Harvard students
The Schuberg Philis way of working is taught as part of the curriculum at Harvard Business School, one of the world’s most prestigious universities. Professor Thomas DeLong developed a thorough business case about our company, which he uses in his lectures on Management Practice in Organizational Behavior. Our colleagues Arjan Eriks (MD) and Ivo Roefs (CMO) spoke to him.
Thomas: “When people arrive at a lull in their work or life, they have a number of fears, and the most prominent one is about purpose. What is my goal? Why do I work so hard? Every engineer I spoke to at Schuberg Philis had a clear answer to those questions. They all thought: I don’t know if this organization would function without me. They saw their role in the organization as a calling, not as a job. It wasn’t arrogance but a quiet confidence. They knew they were all playing crucial roles.”
Back in 2012, Harvard Professor Thomas DeLong boarded a plane to Amsterdam to work on an exciting new business case for his students. He had recently learned about Schuberg Philis and wanted to meet our three co-founders (Pim, Philip and Gerwin) to interview them about their experiences. He recounts: “When I first met the founders, they talked about ‘all for one and one for all.’ At first, it felt a bit macho to me, a bit Darwinian. But when I was in that room with them, within a short time I thought: these three have been through some kind of transformation. They were different than typical leaders. They did what they said. They walked the talk.”
That turned out to be the guiding principle that Thomas recognized in all his interviews at Schuberg Philis, and which became the cornerstone of the business case that he still teaches today. He is especially struck by the fact that we really try to live by our mission statement. He says: “You focus on what really matters: the extreme attention to customer intimacy and satisfaction, and the well-being of everyone at Schuberg Philis. I am also impressed by the fact that you, as an organization, are going through a process of rigorous self-reflection. Especially in the past year, when the founders took a step back and asked fundamental questions about their approach to leadership and the company’s vision.”
Arjan: “More and more organizations are working without management layers. But only a few of them do it successfully. Why do you think Schuberg Philis has managed to pull it off? What do you see as our success factors?”
Thomas: “First of all, you select professionals that are comfortable in their skill set. The colleagues at Schuberg Philis don’t need rewards like titles to feel good about themselves. And your rigorous recruitment process consistently selects the right person for each profile. That approach to hiring is key to getting the right people on board. Second, everyone at Schuberg Philis has experience working under a hierarchical boss, at another organization. The scars that those experiences left have taught them what they don’t want. And finally, the leaders at Schuberg Philis are trusted. Everyone at the company knows that they’re honest and that they’ve instituted fair practices, many of which were initiated by the people themselves. They believe that the leadership cares more about the professionals than about themselves, and that there is no room for image management at Schuberg Philis.”
Ivo: “Which conversation with Schuberg Philis is most memorable to you?”
Thomas: “My last talk with Pim, Gerwin and Philip made a big impression on me, because they dared to question the organization and their own roles in it. They had the guts to voice their doubts about whether they were creating the legacy they wanted, in terms of leadership. They said, ‘We say we trust people, but maybe we really don’t. Do we have the courage to back off on control? Do we really see that everyone is important, do we know they’re delivering top performance?’ The conclusion was: no, not yet, not enough. In that one hour we spent together, I saw a pure example of authentic leadership. They shared their struggles, but they also realized how important it is to pass on the responsibilities and relinquish power.”
This is a place where colleagues say what they think, as if they’re among friends.
Arjan: “How can Schuberg Philis continue to be a leader in terms of organizational culture?”
Thomas: “Stay honest. To yourself and others. This is a place where colleagues say what they think, as if they’re among friends. You need to keep on nourishing that climate by being honest, direct and supportive to each other, in every way.”
Ivo: “Finally, what lesson do you teach your students with the Schuberg Philis business case?”
Thomas: “That everyone is special, and no one is more important than anyone else. That you need to treat each individual with dignity, in every interaction, because each interaction is sacred. But also, how important it is to live according to your own values. I always say, ‘If you are guided by your own values, you’ll sleep well every night.’ And I think that the people at Schuberg Philis certainly should sleep well.”
PROFESSOR OF MANAGEMENT PRACTICE AT HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL