Our new podcast series, Sound Bites, delivers insights from the German-Australian business community. And what better way to start this series than to introduce our new Executive Director, Christoph von Speßhardt.
Christoph joined us as new ED on May 1, and while he can’t meet our members (and staff) in person just yet, he took the time to share a bit about himself with us. You can listen to the interview here:
Ulrike: Hi, and thanks for tuning in to our first episode of Sound Bites. Today I will be introducing Christoph von Speßhardt, the new Executive Director of the German- Australian Chamber. Hi Christoph, thank you for joining me.
Christoph: Hi Ulrike, thanks for inviting me to this talk.
Ulrike: Pleasure. First, of course, congratulations and welcome to the team! Since you are unable to meet our members in real life right now, this is the next best thing for everyone to get to know you a little better.
When we spoke last week, you told me a bit about your family. So first – how are you and your family, and how has COVID-19 impacted your life and plans?
Christoph: Yeah, thanks for this question. I’m indeed here with my family, and we are all safe and we’re all good. Let me say thanks for the wonderful and warm welcome to the chamber family. It’s been a great start. You know we in Germany have the saying “Alles neu macht der Mai”, and this May brought a lot of new things and I’m very happy about that.
Ulrike: And have your kids gone back to school now?
Christoph: Yes this is the second day and all three kids are back at school as of today. They will for the foreseeable future just go two days a week. But I must say on this occasion that the German International School here in Sydney is doing an amazing job in this obviously biggest social experiment ever.
Ulrike: That’s great to hear. In Victoria we will still have to wait awhile. …
Can you share a little bit about your background and what brought you to Australia?
Christoph: Yes sure, I’ve been the last nearly 18 months here in Australia working for Knauf, which is a German family company which produces plasterboards and insulation. I’ve worked for them for the last 10 years and before that in Berlin and obviously in Germany and in Brussels. In the last 20 years my focus was at the interface of politics and business. I had a few different stations at the German parliament. I worked for a consultancy and also for the media. The way to Australia was really through energy efficiency. That was my focus over the last 18 months, to build up an energy efficiency strategy and to implement it here in the APAC region out of Australia. But I caught the Australia bug a little bit earlier, already in 1996 when I was backpacking Australia for a year.
Ulrike: I think you’re not the only one there! You have started this role on the 1st of May without having met most of the staff in person. How would you describe the challenges of onboarding and leading remotely?
Christoph: Yes, that is obviously a challenge, but I’m quite positive because I’ve met you and the others now digitally, which is on the one hand challenging. But fortunately, I knew most of my colleagues, and also of the members because I was working with the chamber before as a customer and as a member so that actually eased my on boarding quite a bit. So this is a base I can really build upon. But of course, I’m very happy to see you all in person because I’m sure that all those new digital channels will really help and foster our communication, but there’s nothing which can really replace personal contact. So, I’m very much looking forward to come back to that as well.
Ulrike: That’s very true and that’s the same for all of us. We definitely appreciate the office and water cooler chats a lot more now. Looking forward, with the economic outlook being quite challenging because of the virus but also because of other factors that were present before COVID-19 – what advice would you give our members to go forward in this?
Christoph: I don’t think that there is one single advice or a healing to the situation. But, as there is no normal anymore, there will be a new normal and I think Covid-19 is really a metaphor of an uncertain future we have there with not just this pandemic but with a lot of different developments around the world which we face. I think in the end it’s the positive principles of humanity. It’s resilience. It’s the potential to adapt which has always helped people to thrive in a new situation. Every crisis, and we must see it like that, sets a spark for innovation and even in the greatest crisis there’s a chance. So maybe that’s something – very condensed – that we should look at.
And from a chamber perspective, I’m very happy to see that we have such a great variety of experts in our membership who actually developed webinars to help guide and navigate us through this crisis with their expertise and with actually very concrete help. We had those webinars on tax issues, on job keeper, on economic and education issues. I’m very happy to see that. and I think we as a chamber will have open ears and open arms to help everyone.
Ulrike: Yes, that’s been really good to see, and we have seen a lot of businesses adapting, pivoting their services even during this crisis. And yes, I think it’s very true that in every crisis there are opportunities as well, and learnings. Which would be my next question: Where do you see learning and opportunities in this, especially when you look at the bilateral Australia-Germany relationship?
Christoph: Yes, I think we’ve seen, especially during this crisis, that obviously no one can be alone by himself, but on the other hand, we can’t just rely on one. That may sound completely contradictory, but I think both is true. On the one hand, it is important, especially here in Australia, to have a certain ability to manufacture and to do advanced manufacturing, and to have a vivid industrial and manufacturing sector. On the other hand, what we don’t want is a deglobalization where we leave the principle of trade and of sharing work and go back to see it all nationally. I think in between is really the right way to go. The ongoing free trade agreement work which has been done between the European Union and Australia is very promising, so this will be a great way forward once we’re out of this crisis. This is the biggest opportunity for us and for German businesses to shape this further agreement and to then develop new business models after the crisis is over. Once we’re over this, there will be a very, very good opportunity and I would like to welcome especially the German “Mittelstand” to show their secrets of success here in Australia and vice versa.
Ulrike: That’s very true and that’s a huge opportunity to build a stronger economy. But to continue building it on international relations rather than being an island. As isolated as we are, we have many friends out there. Leaving the business world maybe a little bit: If I were to ask people who know you to give me 3 adjectives that best describe you, what do you think I would hear from them?
Christoph: Good question. Well, my friends would say, because they’re friendly, “Oh, Spessi – they call me Spessi – he’s open minded, he’s funny, maybe even he’s a quick thinker”. But my wife would say he’s too loud, he’s untidy and he’s overweight. So to be honestly Ulrike, I guess it’s somewhere in between.
Ulrike: OK, very good thanks. Well, as we get to know you in the next few months, we might be able to add a bit to that list.
Christoph: I’ll be happy to see that.
Ulrike: Looking at other organizations and their CEO’s, is there someone you admire?
Christoph: At the moment, it’s actually every CEO who is mastering this crisis with patience, with authenticity and with “Menschlichkeit” towards his or her team and with commitment to their customers. That’s the biggest challenge. This is the one great event which no one saw before and where every CEO’s leadership is highly tested. So that is something which I admire. But maybe I can also mention the CEO who brought me to Australia. That’s my old friend Jonathan Jutsen, who was the CEO of the Australian Alliance for Energy Productivity, and is now the new CEO of a huge public, private partnership for Energy 2030, so the energy transition here in Australia. The way he leads and has brought things forward was really inspiring with his clear orientation and strategic vision. He was one of the longest-term thinkers I’ve ever met. And he set a lighthouse and this is something which now Australia follows and this is something which I really admire.
Ulrike: Thanks for sharing. A few important keywords there when it comes to leadership: strategic and long-term thinking, but also empathy. That’s something that’s been on a lot of people’s minds. At the moment things are changing quite quickly. They have already changed a lot since we spoke last week, with some of the restrictions being eased in Victoria as of yesterday, and a few more in in New South Wales. We’re probably still a while away from speaking of normality, but it feels a bit like the end is getting a bit closer, and what are you looking forward to the most once life assumes a new normal or a new post COVID-19 reality?
Christoph: Well, that’s other human beings. I have a wonderful family here at home with my three kids and my wife. But actually I’m really looking forward to meet you guys and to meet up with the extended chamber family in Australia and to have back our great events and to see people to get out there and make the case for the German Australian relationship.
Ulrike: Yes, I can understand that, and I know for sure from Tina from our membership department that the members are really looking forward to meeting you as well. Thank you so much for your time, Christoph.
Christoph: Thank you Ulrike, it was great fun.
Ulrike: And thanks everyone for listening. Next week we will be back with an interview with Dr Michael Zettinig, also from the German Chamber, about the future of manufacturing in Australia.