Around the World by Bicycle With EMBA Alumnus Karsten Drath
On resilience and changing careers following the Executive MBA
When speaking to executive MBA...
A conversation with David Ebermann
How does resilience promotion succeed? Coach Karsten Drath dealt intensively with this question. One of the results is the FiRE model, which distinguishes between eight spheres and serves as the basis for working with leaders in the context of resilience at Leadership Choices GmbH, which Drath co-leads as Managing Partner. From Leadership Choices, the Cosmikk Foundation emerged. It supports socially engaged organizations. To raise funds for the foundation, Drath rides his bike around the world in stages - a step out of the comfort zone, which in turn promotes resilience.
In June 2022, you - together with Uwe Achterholt - established the Cosmikk Foundation. What are the goals of the foundation?
The objectives of the Cosmikk Foundation are to provide non-governmental organizations (NGOs) engaged in social, humanitarian and environmental activities with access to coaching, team building and organizational development - either free of charge or at heavily discounted rates. To that end, the Foundation works in three directions. One approach is to raise money. This is done, for example, through fundraising or partnerships with other foundations or companies that want to provide support. The second is to prequalify NGOs that want to be supported through coaching. It is far from a given that an organization would want to use coaching. The third thrust is to provide qualified coaches. In this regard, the Foundation works with Leadership Choices GmbH, which Uwe Achterholt and I have the privilege of leading as Managing Partners, and its digital coaching platform Cosmikk, among others.
How did the foundation come to be?
In 2021, after the flood disaster, we decided as a company to become active in the Ahr Valley. We made the offer to entrepreneurs affected by the flood to support them through coaching. In the process, we noticed that it was difficult to build trust. There were several reasons for this. For one, we are not from the Ahr Valley. Secondly, many people were unfamiliar with coaching. Above all, however, we repeatedly encountered the question of why a market-oriented company offers to work for free, and what ulterior motives we have in doing so. Even when people had lost everything, we really had to work against these reservations. The question is also justified. Therefore, we decided to put our commitment on a proper basis to underline the sincerity of our cause. We set up a non-profit foundation that does not pursue any market-based interests.
In the Ahr Valley, you work together with the aid organization Dachzeltnomaden. What does that look like?
Most aid organizations have stopped their work on the ground, although the people there will need many helping hands for a very long time to come. It was obviously important for politicians to show that everything was under control again. The state of disaster was therefore lifted. Aid organizations were cut off from public funding. Since the Dachzeltnomaden are privately or by ‘Aktion Deutschland hilft’ financed, they represent one of the few still locally acting organizations. We support the Dachzeltnomaden through individual coaching of the members of the council of elders, which forms the hard core or leadership circle of the organization. In addition, we offer team development as well as conflict moderation and support the management with strategic consulting. Working together, we have learned a great deal about the third sector, so that we can now apply concepts that we use in our work with private sector companies to civil society organizations. These are, for example, concepts of resilience work - also from the field of organizational resilience. The collaboration is valuable for all sides.
What concrete role does the topic of resilience promotion play in this context?
In the Ahr valley, one is faced with an insurmountable task. A diminishing number of helpers and finite funds are faced with work for many years. You will never finish this task. In the beginning - in disaster mode - the Dachzeltnomaden worked seven days a week on the construction sites. After half a year, however, even the strongest body and the most robust soul say: Now it's time to call it a day! This was also noticeable. The organization was exhausted. First they introduced the six-day week and now the five-day week. The camp was put on company vacation for a month at the beginning of 2023 so that the employees could regenerate. On an individual level, resilience plays an important role because everyone is confronted with their own issues. Some even experience re-traumatization because they constantly see the suffering of those affected. In addition, as their name suggests, the Dachzeltnomaden live on site in a camp located in a field in the middle of a forest. There it is dark, wet and cold in winter. There are no dry retreats or lounges, just a big tent. People can't avoid each other, which is why conflicts are inevitable. Of course, all this puts a strain on everyone.
What other organizations and projects does the Cosmikk Foundation support?
We support the zis Foundation. It awards scholarships for study trips to young people - not based on academic performance criteria, but on the individual motivation of those interested. The offer is aimed in particular at children of parents who do not come from the educated middle classes. The young people, aged between 16 and 20, choose a topic and travel abroad on their own for at least a month - or longer if they wish - but do not take any money of their own with them, only the scholarship sum of currently 800 euros. That is too little to live on, too much to die on. I.e., they have to approach other people, look for help and thus step miles out of their comfort zone. When I was a young man of 17, I was allowed to take up the offer myself. It was very meaningful to me. Concepts like self-efficacy, personality development or resilience were completely foreign to me at that time, but I already realized that the journey benefited my development. The zis Foundation was the first organization we supported. The scholarship recipients are assigned mentors. They, in turn, receive further training and support from us. They also receive coaching skills. So here, too, there is an intermingling of the provision of funds and the transfer of know-how that is brought into the organization.
You are running a project to support refugees together with the International Coach Federation (ICF)...
Correct. We operate the digital coaching platform Cosmikk. This enables potential coaching clients to look for a coach themselves. Of course, we originally developed the platform for use in companies. When a company wants to create a readily available coaching offering – e.g. for a specific management level – that’s where we come in. Together with the HR department, a coach pool is put together according to certain criteria and a framework agreement is drawn up. For the potential clients it is then a simple matter: they download the app, in which they can generate their coach shortlist by answering four simple questions and get in contact with the coaches. In the app, you can then start coaching without media disruption and at relatively short notice. However, the technology can be used in many contexts and when the war of aggression against Ukraine began, we agreed with the ICF that we would make the platform available free of charge. We translated the content into Ukrainian so that refugees can register to find a coach. On the other hand, many coaches from all over Europe and even North Africa have registered to offer their support - a great commitment. The platform helps both sides with matching.
To raise funds, you have been cycling around the world in stages since 2017. How did you come up with this idea?
I ask myself that every year. (laughs) A friend and colleague rode his bike across the Alps to raise money. I thought it was a nice idea. I also already biked to Scotland on my zis trip. I therefore have an affinity for it. At some point, the thought matured in me: You could also do this to do something good. And that's what I did. The first tour went to Verona - relatively unspectacular by today's standards, but it involved crossing the Alps. The tour was a lot of fun and I would have liked to go on if the scheduled time had not been over. Other similar tours followed. At some point it was no longer so exciting. The actions should already captivate and have an effect, so that sponsors are also willing to provide funds. I then asked myself what I was most afraid of - a good coaching question. In doing so, I discovered that the thought of cycling around the world was already anxiety-provoking. In Europe, I had now traveled from Gibraltar to the North Cape, from the west coast of Portugal to the German-Polish border. In 2022, I was finally able to travel to North America and start crossing Canada. I drove from Vancouver to the Alaskan border, on through the Rocky Mountains to Calgary and then through the Prairies to Saskatoon in the province of Saskatchewan. In 2023, I'll continue from Saskatoon about 3,000 km to Montreal and then - about another 2,500 km - to St. Johns on Newfoundland, the easternmost corner of Canada. When this distance is completed, I will have driven 10,000 km through Canada. After that, the plan is to travel from the German-Polish border to southeastern Europe, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Kazakhstan - with the ultimate goal of arriving in Shanghai. Australia and New Zealand are then on the agenda.
What experience did you bring back from Canada?
Only the best. I was already a big Canada fan before the tour. In the meantime I have cycled through 13 countries and can say: Canada is my favorite. The combination of very warm, hospitable people, great nature, the vastness of the country, the intensity of the weather and the wildlife is unique and has fascinated me very much. I had encounters with bears, moose, bald eagles and wapitis - those giant deer. It was all extremely impressive. When you're out in that environment with a small tent and exposed to the weather, it is very humbling. I got caught in a blizzard - that's in a different league than an ordinary thunderstorm in Germany. The great distances were challenging as well. You are simply grateful for every store that you find after 100 or sometimes 200 km. These are dimensions that you don't know from Europe.
Even before the tour, you expressed great respect for encounters with bears …
That's right (laughs). Once a bear ran past my tent at a distance of ten meters. That moment was really stressful, but luckily the bear wasn't interested in me. The question is, of course, what I could have done if he had been interested. However, I have always stayed at official campsites, so as not to take an unreasonable risk. There are safety precautions there and you can network with your neighbors, for example, to put your food in their cars. A small residual risk remains, of course. The Columbia Icefields were an exception. This is grizzly territory, which is not so fun, since grizzlies are less cooperative, larger and more aggressive than black bears, which are considered comparatively relaxed. There, I picked a spot near dog owners. Dogs strike when they smell a bear. So one wins time in the case of doubt to collect oneself. That I slept there uneasily - with the bear spray in the sleeping bag - I admit gladly. In fact, I had three bear encounters in total, but I had many encounters with trucks, which were much more dangerous. In Canada, logging is very intensive, and so I often encountered 40-ton trucks loaded to the brim with logs and driving past me at 100 km/h. The shoulder roads are quite narrow in places, so it got very tight. That was a realistic threat potential. One driving mistake and it would have been over - I wouldn't even have been able to say "beep". Fortunately, however, this was only the case in one region on my tour.
According to the foundation, you were able to acquire around 93,000 euros in donations with your tours through twelve European countries. Was the Canada tour also successful in this respect?
Not at all. From my point of view, it was the most spectacular tour so far. At the same time, it was the least profitable economically. We ask companies in the run-up to a tour whether they are interested in sponsoring it. Many companies have said in 2022, "We've always supported the campaigns so far, but this time we're sitting out." They want to be well positioned for the emerging recession, so they shy away from unnecessary costs. In addition, I think we need to raise awareness of what the Cosmikk Foundation is and does. We need to do a better job of explaining that we enable coaching for the third sector and thus help organizations to flourish or get through difficult times. Then fundraising will also work well again.
We have already touched on the topic of resilience building. You are the author of several books on the subject and work with top managers and their teams to improve their resilience. What does the latter look like?
It's about not trying to meet challenges with harshness, which is what we see time and again with many managers. They often behave as if they were invulnerable, as if they had infinite powers and resources without limit. Instead, they should be aware of the finiteness of their resources and understand themselves on a holistic level, e.g. get to know their own triggers. This is the level of personality in Leadership Choices' eight-sphere model, the FiRE model of resilience. FiRE stands for Factors Improving Resilience Effectiveness. The sphere of personality is about how the leader is knitted, how thick their skin is. How much stress from the outside is getting to him or her? Then we look at the sphere of biography: What resources does the executive's life story hold? What can be build on? What crises has the person already successfully overcome? What beautiful moments has he or she experienced, what great people has the person met? How has the self-efficacy been proven? The next sphere is about attitude. How does the manager get out of victim mode and into creator mode? We are deliberately not talking about the role here, but about a mode, because it is possible to leave this mode and move more quickly into other modes. How does the manager manage to see a challenge instead of an excessive demand? It's about the basic attitude of being the architect of one's own happiness and the question of how this can be achieved. Then we have the sphere of mental agility. How can you leave your comfort zone with a good feeling and become comfortable with entering areas in which you are not yet an expert? This is important because in today's world you are constantly confronted with situations that are new. The following are two spheres that map emergency resources, so to speak: energy management and the mind-body axis. How does the leader deal with destructive thoughts, thought traps, and dysfunctional beliefs? How do they use their body-whether through exercise, sleep, meditation, or diet-to influence the coloring of the own thoughts? The sphere of authentic relationships addresses the social network that supports the executive and consists of close attachment figures who mean well, value the person regardless of performance even in difficult times, and whom the executive opens up to. The sphere of meaningfulness asks: What is all this good for? What is the higher purpose of my actions? It is strengthening to have an awareness of this. The FiRE model maps the scientifically proven mechanisms of action that can positively influence resilience. It is the basis of our work with managers, but of course also with employees in the area of resilience. It is also the basis of our work in the context of team resilience, which focuses in particular on the following question: How does resilience function in a team and which leadership styles and characteristics are conducive or obstructive in this regard? For the area of individual resilience, we have also developed a personality measurement tool, the Executive FiRE Index. The idea is to measure both the resilience factors that are based on personality traits that are stable over time and those that can be learned. These resilience components are called habits, strategies, rituals, coping mechanisms that can be acquired over the course of a lifetime, including work with a coach or through workshops. The Executive FiRE Index is always conducted twice, at the beginning of coaching and then again at a later time, e.g. after half a year. It is then looked at what changes there are after the work on oneself in terms of habits and life satisfaction. In addition to the individual and team levels, there is another resilience level: organizational resilience. We approached this aspect conceptually in a completely new way and asked ourselves what factors influence the resilience of organizations, which are made up of people but are also large systems and thus subject to systems theory. Resilience in this context means longevity. There are many factors here that go beyond leadership: e.g., ownership structures, funding, innovation, and the emotional contract with employees. In the context of organizational resilience, developmental transitions also play a major role. In a phase transition or paradigm shift - e.g., from a traditional paradigm to a modern paradigm, the old world no longer functions or functions less and less well. The new world is not yet established, so uncertainty arises. In this state, a company is "vulnerable" because negative external influences have a greater potential for damage. The combination of all these aspects has coalesced into a kind of complete solution after the many years we have been working on resilience at Leadership Choices.
What leadership behaviors are detrimental to team resilience?
If both self-awareness and self-control are poorly developed in a leader, if he or she has little impulse control and consequently gives free rein to his or her emotions, this is very detrimental. If a person is then very temperamental or even choleric, this can lead to there being two versions of them as a leader. One that is visible on good days and one that comes out on bad days. This tends to contribute to stress and vulnerability in the team, rather than resilience. In addition, there are many other aspects. For example, even when the leader has the best intentions, microbehaviors trigger stress in employees. Leadership researcher Liz Wiseman refers to this as Accidental Deminishers - leaders who make employees feel small without consciously intending to. In our work, however, we focus more intensively on the question of what promotes resilience than on negative factors. We ask: What is already good and can be strengthened? For coaching teams that aims to improve collaboration, we have developed another concept, the POWER model. It is about enabling a harmony of the following five aspects. Purpose: Why all this? Orientation: Where is the journey going? What are the framework conditions? What is expected and what does success mean? Wavelength: How is the teamwork? Is there a good team feeling? Commitment: What about motivation? Resilience: Is our own well-being an issue? Do we support each other? This is where the issue of psychological security plays in.
With regard to the individual resilience level, you mentioned the importance of the inner attitude towards challenging situations. Would you have an example from your practice that illustrates this point?
We went to the Ahr Valley with the management team of a large German company and worked with the team for a day on the construction site of a hotel that had been flooded up to the second floor. The following day, we worked through what we had experienced together. Such measures are suitable for reflecting on how well one is actually doing and what privileges one enjoys simply because one is healthy, has a house and a good living. Issues that previously seemed huge were suddenly perceived as rather small. Consciously practicing gratitude is an important antidote and helps to get out of complaint mode. In saying this, I don't want to deny that it is important to grieve and learn a way to deal with pain in painful moments. Too often, however, we close our eyes to the many good things in our lives and focus only on what annoys us. So it's all about how we align our focus. This is a basic principle of mindfulness. If you don't take positive things for granted, you can draw strength from them. A personal example: I am very grateful for being able to have a happy family life. My wife, who is also a coach and works at Leadership Choices, and I have four children. I draw a lot of strength from this happiness.
With regard to mental agility, you also talk about a "muscle" that needs to be trained. How is that to be understood?
In order to strengthen mental agility, it is necessary to deal with new things that are outside of one's comfort zone. To be able to do this, one must first be in the appropriate resource position. If one is already totally exhausted and figuratively comes rolling in on the rims, leaving the comfort zone will only lead to negative stress. So the first thing to do is to recharge the batteries. After that, it is important to keep trying new things in order to train your own flexibility. I'm 52 years old now, recently started singing, and I'm probably the worst in the choir. But I try to do it simply because it is great fun and an exciting experience. The same goes for the bike tours. Every year they put me in a mid-panic state again. About two years ago, we also launched our podcast, Leaders Talk, a biographical interview podcast for leaders from a wide range of social sectors who are committed to better leadership, better organizations and a better world. The podcast, after also being something new to me in the beginning, has become a real matter of the heart. But it can also be very small things, like working at a coffee shop, taking a new route to work, or meeting someone who has a completely different job than you do. An artist will look at many things very differently than an engineer and have a different sense of purpose. If one conditions oneself, one's body, one's entire system to deal with new things constructively and with curiosity, it is easier to deal with the unexpected. If, on the other hand, you always do business as usual, you feel stress much more quickly when something goes off track. All of these resilience-building measures are not astrophysics. In our work with people, however, we want to use an easy-to-understand, low-threshold approach to get them to take action and show them where they can do something to take better care of themselves.
At Leadership Choices, you have developed a five-phase coaching model for supporting executives in change processes. What does the work with the model look like?
The first phase is awareness: What is going on in the executive's environment? Our coaching sessions usually begin with feedback. For this purpose, we conduct stakeholder interviews or online surveys with selected people, e.g. employees, colleagues and superiors. In addition, the client's self-image is determined in order to compare self-assessment and assessment by others. All this is done to improve self-knowledge. This leads to the Plan phase: What is to be achieved? What should be different after coaching and what is the client's motivation? The Choicepoints phase consists of repeatedly reminding the executive that he or she has a choice and that it is their job to generate choice options for themselves. If he or she then says "yes" to one option, "no" must be said to others. Therefore, this phase can also be about working on the inner drivers or beliefs to become aware of the inner saboteurs. The integration phase aims to transfer what has been worked on into daily life, e.g. through behavioral experiments and homework, which is reflected on together in the following session. The final phase is Results, in which successes are celebrated. Leaders often tend to focus on a problem but not really honor it once it is solved. By taking another look at why something worked well, you strengthen the coached person's sense of self-efficacy. The phases do not build on each other in a static way, but in practice they do intertwine. In the design of coaching, the micro and macro levels must be considered. On the macro level, there is a process that lasts perhaps half a year and pursues a specific mission. The goal is to achieve the agreed upon goal. At the micro level, however, it is only possible to work with the person who actually walks through the door. For example, if the goal is to improve the self-confidence of an executive, but the executive is going through a difficult divorce, it may be appropriate to first strengthen the person in dealing with this stress. So you always have to consider what the individual situation is here and now.
Before you became a coach, you gained extensive leadership experience. Which stations have had a particular impact on you?
I was strongly influenced by my time in management consulting, especially at Accenture. That was excellent basic training in problem-solving skills. We had a great team of people who are quick in the head, like to tackle things and make a difference. That was just inspiring. From Accenture, I went to Bombardier, where I was responsible for a team of 200 people leading large change processes internationally at a fairly young age. This was my first real leadership function, and it was quite large and very challenging for me, which is why I had a coach accompany me at the time. I needed a reflection partner without vested interests. So I got to know coaching in the role of the client. That was a very positive experience and so, after my time at Bombardier, I completed my first coaching training myself. After a stint at Perrot Systems, I became Managing Director in the European consulting business at Dell, but I always wanted to know more about coaching and went through another three trainings. On the one hand, the job at Dell was a lot of fun because we had the exciting task of fundamentally building up a consulting unit. On the other hand, in my opinion, there wasn’t enough focus on the people. The technological side was less appealing to me. So I decided to quit Dell and train as a psychotherapist. That was a life-changing experience. Part of the training was a clinical internship in a private clinic, which made a big impression on me. I could identify with the patients - many of whom held management positions - and I asked myself: why do those with depression or burnout sit on the patient's side and I on the therapist's? That was the impetus for me to look into the topic of resilience theoretically. The models I then dealt with were not wrong, but there was a lot missing - aspects such as psychoneuroimmunology, brain research or epigenetics were not taken into account. That gave me the motivation to develop the FiRE model. I have been with Leadership Choices for 14 years now. We now have 150 coaches in 16 countries. I still love coaching, but I am back more in the management role. However, I enjoy the work on the company just as much as the work in the company.
Karsten is passionate about getting to the core of things in leadership coaching. His clients often describe him as an intuitive, empathic and at times challenging sparring partner who asks the right questions.
He helps his clients to look at issues from a different angle to reach their goals.
Karsten has an extensive international business and leadership background gained over 16 years.
He held leading positions at Accenture, Bombardier Transportation and Dell. In his last position as Managing Director for DELL's consulting business, he built up the field of business consulting in Europe.
Karsten is a Leadership Coach since 2006. He is accredited by the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC)and the World Economic Forum. He published several articles and books on the topics leadership, coaching and resilience. Furthermore, he is a certified psychotherapist (naturopath) and works as faculty at the Center for Responsible Leadership at WHU business school in Koblenz.