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Dr. Karin Thelen on Transformational Leadership: “The More Ideas We Create Within Our Unit, the Greater Is the Success of the Transformation”

Dr. Karin Thelen, Head of Quality at Stadtwerke München GmbH

Leadership requires more than setting strategies, calculating the business model and making crucial decisions. Today, a modern leader is often expected to be a source of inspiration for the employees. The Executive MBAs of TUM School of Management are designed to educate leaders with vision. Our alumni Dr. Karin Thelen serves as a striking example for this. As the Head of Quality at Stadtwerke München GmbH, she leads her team through the company’s own digital transformation process and makes an impact in a variety of aspects in her working life. How has she become the leader she is today? And which key learnings have contributed to her professional development?

 

Leading companies through transformations

At Stadtwerke München, Dr. Karin Thelen is responsible for digitizing complex processes and – together with her team – supporting the company with fully embracing the digitalization and optimizing workflows at the same time. “Being able to draw from various experiences in different technical companies and being familiar with complex technical processes is, of course, essential for my work”, explains Thelen. “But besides understanding the technical part, the most important thing as a leader is being able to relate to your coworkers to motivate and to encourage team spirit to shape the future when working together on transformational processes.” For her, making an impact requires having a good and appreciative relationship with the employees and helping them embrace change. Her most important tool? Communication! “To continuously communicate with the team, make everyone part of the process, and explain the details of the transformation transparently is essential for creating a culture based on trust, confidence, and security”, says Dr. Thelen. To lead a team or company also means establishing a culture that influences every member of the team. For Dr. Thelen, this comes down to a positive error culture. Because ideally, every team member should always feel encouraged to speak their mind, suggest changes, and try out new things without fearing to fail. “The more ideas we create within our unit, the greater is the success of the transformation”, explains Dr. Thelen. “And even if we fail, we are all learning from it and apply this knowledge in the next projects.”

Great leaders often differ in their approaches, strategies, and methods. During the course of an Executive MBA at the TUM School of Management, participants are given the opportunity to systematically work on their very own transformational leadership style.

“Our students are given personal ‘leadership profile’ based on their self-assessment as well as follower ratings of different leadership aspects”, explains Prof. Dr. Claudia Peus, Senior Vice President for Talent Management and Diversity at TUM. “Based on this profile participants develop a personal development plan for further advancing their own, customized approach and continuously receive feedback and support in doing so from our digital coach.”

 

How to Become a Strong Leader

Working in a start-up prior to her job at Stadtwerke München, Dr. Thelen had already been part of diverse teams with people of different age groups, levels of motivation, and hierarchical positions. She realized then, that being the person in charge requires certain skills for creating a work environment where everyone can thrive and reach their full potential. When she faced the challenge of leading a heterogeneous team of 80 people through a fundamental transformation process, she decided to focus on sharpening her management skills. “In our complex, volatile and polarized world, one should never stop learning and challenge your firm beliefs”, Dr. Thelen emphasizes. Committing to an Executive MBA at the TUM School of Management was the perfect fit for her. The course for experienced leaders connects theoretical knowledge with praxis-oriented teaching – also in the form of mentoring. “For me, being in close contact with my mentor and getting to know his perspectives was one of most enriching experiences,” states Dr. Thelen. Also, the close contact with the Professors was a source of inspiration for Dr. Thelen, for example with Prof. Dr. Isabell Welpe, Chair for Strategy and Organization, at whose chair she wrote her master thesis. “For me, Prof. Welpe is a role model because she is a widely respected, driving force of digital transformation. Her research tackles some of the most relevant developments of our time.” For Dr. Thelen, Prof. Welpe represents what she herself means to other women: a source of inspiration in female leadership.

 

Being a Female Leader and Inspiring Other Women

There is one thing that Dr. Thelen really cares about: having a positive impact on other women and empowering them to take the next steps in their professional life. Sadly, looking at the total number of female leaders within the industry, there is still a lot of room for improvement. Role models like Karin Thelen, who are modern, innovative and transformational leaders, do their part by serving as ambassadors and showcasing the benefits of having a woman in the executive chair. The TUM School of Management has adapted its Executive MBAs to support female leaders. “We have included a new session in which our female participants can exchange experiences and get inspired by successful women from business and academia. Additionally, we have introduced new formats that are likely to be of interest to women such as a practitioner conference on new forms of leadership, highlighting part-time and shared-leadership models and include more female speakers”, explains Prof. Peus.

Women encourage women: To support the female colleagues in her department, Dr. Thelen fosters open discussions on career goals, ways to reach them, and shares best practices. But her efforts do not stop there, because she believes in the power of networking, she additionally serves as a mentor to three women who work for different technical companies and are facing different career challenges like the first job or deciding if taking a leadership role is an option. As part of the mentoring program, Dr. Thelen accompanies their career steps and shares her experiences with them. Her advice for achieving career goals and happiness in the workplace: “Stay curious and open-minded. In times of uncertainties you should not hesitate to seize opportunities, gain visibility, reach out, and network strategically. Your career is solely your own responsibility, you need to continually evaluate your goals and objectives, and drive initiatives for your personal growth.”

 

Breaking new ground in management and exploring new ways to lead and create impact, like our Executive MBA graduates do, is a big challenge. Our Executive MBA programs are designed to equip you with all the tools and knowledge to help you become our next success story while leading businesses at the intersection of management technology. Applications are open to apply for our Spring 2021 Intake.

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