‘The things I’m most curious about are yet to come’

By MARLENE SCHÖBEL

Hannah’s career path has taken in communications, talent acquisition and training – and don’t forget the part-time film-making. What comes next?

How did you find yourself at idalab, Hannah?

I joined idalab years ago, and things were quite different then. For example, there wasn’t a structured application process for the role I applied for. The interview took place outside (it was summer), because there were no meeting rooms. I had just finished film school and was looking for a part-time job to support me while starting a career as a film-maker. idalab was looking for a Communications Assistant – a role I wasn’t actually qualified for, but naively assumed couldn’t be that difficult. Turned out, back then, idalab was still inexperienced too. I had two interviews – that were only partly about communications – and 15 minutes after I left, I got a text saying: “Hi Hannah, we decided: let’s just try this.” Luckily, things worked out. 

Did you actually work as a Communications Assistant?

Well, we certainly tried that! One of my first projects was to organise our idalab seminar and make it happen on a monthly basis. For almost two years, I was also responsible for our newsletter and for managing our blog and social media channels. But it became clear after a while that communications isn’t really where my strengths lie. Instead, my role first developed more towards project management – as an internal role, but also on some of our client projects. Partly, this was because there were so many things that simply had to be taken care of, like managing the construction site at our new office, or setting up and implementing a unique recruiting process for hiring our first Office Manager. That was when my role started to gradually shift towards talent acquisition. 

Hannah: ‘idalab was looking for a Communications Assistant – a role I wasn’t actually qualified for

These shifts didn’t happen completely at random, though. We’ve always discussed where my strengths lie in my regular one-to-ones. It’s the same if you’re a consultant too. Of course there is work that just has to be done, by all of us. But there’s also room for your own initiatives, and you get a lot of encouragement and support to develop in new directions. I finally took on a role in Organisational Development. 

What do you do now in Organisational Development?

Basically, my role involves everything that is talent related and develops the company. So in a sense, I still have touch points with communications, because I’m concerned with talent visibility – deciding how to best reach potential applicants. The role’s also about talent acquisition – creating and improving application processes that enable us to identify best-fit candidates for idalab, while ensuring a great candidate experience. 

Then there’s talent development – ensuring all idalab team members are constantly evolving and moving forward along their career paths. Developing training programs is a big part of this.

It’s this challenging mix of great freedom to create and constantly improve solutions for my team on the one hand, and the responsibility to ensure clarity and stability on the other hand, that I enjoy so much about my current role. 

What are you currently working on?

I’m always working on lots of different projects at the same time. Right now, I’m focused on organising our June summer retreat. I’m working on this with my colleagues Juliane, Julian and Paul. We have to make sure our goal – to create a meaningful team experience that boosts individual and company progress – is reflected in the agenda. That means having the right mix of strategy update and team alignment, training, time for internal projects, and, of course, socialising. 

One ongoing project is the development of custom training programs. We develop our team along a very detailed competence framework and are constantly working on a training canon to support development in all of our core competencies at different career stages. We recently started creating training programs especially for our Trainees and Juniors in the area of client communication – covering topics such as coping with the feeling of being inexperienced, answering critical questions on topics you’re not an expert in, etc. 

Why do you develop training programs yourself? 

Well, we had two rather disappointing attempts at working with external trainers, so we decided to change tack and develop almost everything in house – from writing strong action titles to performance evaluation for classification tasks and schema-less databases. It is a massive investment, for sure, but one that pays off in the long run. 

Which project challenged you the most and why?

To be honest, every new project I’m starting is challenging in it’s own way… But setting up our Junior Associate Programme – something I worked on with my colleagues Benjamin and Paul – was particularly challenging. 

The Junior Associate Programme aims to develop our Trainees into Junior Associates. Usually, our Trainees work part-time, because they are still studying at university. It has always been that way at idalab: you start as a student, then begin working full-time after you’ve done your Master’s. But until recently we’ve had no clear process for this.

The challenge was to think about how this transition might work, what it would involve in terms of training programs and mentoring, who would contribute and in what way. Then we needed to react to team feedback on the first ideas and finally implement what we had created, making sure everything we had planned would actually happen. That was certainly a lot of work. 

Our Junior Associate Programme now provides a structure for our Trainees and more transparency and predictability for our leadership. Our Trainees complete certain training programs in a fixed order, have regular feedback sessions with their mentors, and know exactly where they stand in terms of their development. I orchestrate regular performance reviews too, where everybody discusses how to best support our Trainees’ development. 

What does a typical day look like for you?

I work three days a week, since I’m still in film-making and currently working on my first feature film. Because of the part-time work, and because I’m involved in many projects at the same time, my work days tend to be packed with appointments. Here’s what a fairly typical Tuesday in March looked like: 

I started the day by looking at an interview I’d done with my colleague, Jeanette. I went through the text I had and prepared for a session with our writer, Bert, later that day. 

Next up was preparing for the team workshop Jeanette and I were conducting that day. In this workshop, we tried to identify what is most challenging for our current team about project and client communication. The results of this workshop are what we currently use as a basis for developing the communication training programs I spoke about earlier. 

“SMT Check in #1” refers to our Self-Management Training. Here, we simulate a client project and one of our team members works with Paul preparing an analysis and a client meeting to present our findings. The training stretches over several weeks and the candidate receives constant feedback on every step they take. The focus is on ownership and self-management, rather than methodological or technical aspects: how to organise oneself while working towards a deadline, how to communicate in a clear and structured way with your colleagues, etc. 

Benjamin and I then interviewed a candidate, before I had another session about improving our Self-Management Training. Then it was time to give Benjamin feedback for an internal project: improving our staffing process. 

What do you enjoy most about idalab’s team culture?

Something I love about idalab is how we sometimes spend a lot of energy on things that maybe wouldn’t receive as much attention in other companies. For example, I hugely enjoy the time before Christmas at idalab. Just one of the things that happens: three weeks before our Christmas party, we start having weekly choir practice with a professional musician at our office. On the day of the Christmas party, we go out and sing in public – solos as well as group pieces – and collect money. The idea is that “we sing badly for a good cause”: every euro collected is centupled by idalab, and for the past two years has been donated to the Berliner Obdachlosenhilfe

 

Another thing that I really like is that everybody – literally everybody – on the team is very positive. When we give each other feedback, which happens a lot, we’re always careful to be appreciative, looking for ways to do things better. That’s why you can openly talk about failure. I may be thinking: “Oh my god, I really screwed up here, I am so sorry” – but nobody will give me a hard time about it. That doesn’t mean I’m not afraid to fail at new and difficult tasks – but I always know I’m being trusted and fully supported. 

What was an important moment in your development at idalab?

A very important moment for me was when I was promoted to Associate. It’s that shift from seeing yourself as someone who is there to support the conceptual and creative work of others to being a person who is developing these concepts themselves. Then, it’s about keeping in mind the big picture and working on reaching certain goals, while closely collaborating with an inspiring team.  

Standing on the shoulders of iron – at the idalab Wandertag 2018

What are your goals and next steps at idalab?

What I am now really looking forward to is handing over many of the operational duties, which take up a lot of time. Marlene, who we recently hired as a Student Trainee to support idalab in talent and acquisition and development, will be taking these on. That means I’ll be able to focus more on building the organisation. We have an exciting 20-year roadmap ahead of us, with the things I’m most curious about yet to come, so let’s get going.