DHL is 50 – and one man has been there for a good part of that journey: John Pearson, CEO of DHL Express. By contrast, Jordan Racek only joined the company four years ago and is in his first full-time job. What happened when the two of them met to discuss business, technology and life across a generation?
At first glance, John Pearson and Jordan Racek seem like two very different people. For a start, they’re from different backgrounds and generations and are at completely different stages of their careers.
John has spent 30-plus years with the company. In that time, he has been all over the globe, from Bahrain to Brussels and from Australia to America, with senior positions in sales, marketing and general management. Born in 1963, he is, by definition, a baby boomer. It’s a term he doesn’t like, but more about that later.
By contrast, Jordan is a millennial who is just starting out on his employment journey; he joined DHL in 2015 and works at DHL Customer Solutions & Innovation in Germany.
So it’s no surprise to find that these two colleagues from opposite ends of the DHL spectrum have very different perspectives on a range of diverse topics, including mentoring, millennials, digitalization and e-commerce. Yet when they got together to talk about their lives, careers and views on the world, they found a lot to agree on too.
This, then, is what happened when Jordan met John...
John Pearson: How did you enter the world of work?
Jordan Racek: I’m from Slovakia, but went to university in Denmark and ended up staying for four-and-a-half years. I worked various part-time jobs ranging from working with horses to sales at IKEA; then, as part of my degree, I got an internship with DHL. This is my first full-time job after university.
JP: I think it’s interesting how we fall into companies – and how our careers evolve. I tell my own kids that if they show up, work hard, clean their shoes, contribute, get involved and are “team players”, then they’ll probably do OK and be promoted. I remember being at the Customer Service department in DHL Paris shortly after I took the EU CEO role and noticing a guy who caught my attention – I asked who he was. I was told: “Oh yes, he’s good. He only joined last week, but he’s really involved. He comes in before everyone else, he wants to read every report, and he volunteers for every task.” The word “involved” really caught my attention as I thought it really captures the type of people we want and who can contribute to making us better.
Here’s something I often, in fact always, ask in interviews. If I asked someone who knew you well: “What three adjectives would you use to describe Jordan?”, what would they say?
JR: “Willing,” “flexible” and “fun.”
JP: OK, good. All of those will get you a long way and flexibility in big companies is important – know what you are really focused on and know what you are prepared to be flexible on. When I’m interviewing people for a job, I’m essentially assessing them against three things: “Can do. Will do. Will fit.” To explain that a little further – Can do: Do they have the technical capability to do the job? Well, if they’re sitting opposite me for a second interview, they probably do. Will do: Do they run to work, or do they walk to work? How passionate are they about what they do? And will fit: Do they fit upward? That’s not the most important thing in my opinion. Do they fit sideways? Do they fit downward? Those are more important. I have a question for you: You’re part of the “millennial” generation. Do you relate to being called a millennial? I have to say it’s a word I don’t find especially helpful.
JR: Why not?
JP: I just feel you can’t group people in that way. We never really used terms such as “baby boomers,” “Generation X” or “Generation Z” in the past; but suddenly, they’re everywhere. Although I did hear a definition of millennial recently that I quite liked: “Someone who gets interested easily and bored easily.” Maybe that’s broadly found in all millennials?
In truth, I think being a millennial is mostly used to describe young people’s propensity for technology. Yet life is about so much more than that. For instance: Do millennials play sport differently to other generations? I don’t think so. Is their relationship with their partner fundamentally different to other generations? I don’t think so. I just don’t like putting a badge on an entire group of people. Because how can you possibly compare millennials in, say, Slovakia with millennials in, say, Ireland? You can’t, because they’re different people living completely different lives.
JR: Whenever I hear the word millennial I think of avocado sandwiches, people working on a beach in Bali and gyms in the workplace. But do I relate to it? Yes, I do. I like avocado, I could work in Bali, and I would love a gym in my workplace! The popularity of the word is also connected to the rise of social media and Instagram influencers – digital nomads who travel the world and have millions of followers. To answer you directly, I do see my generation as millennials. Sadly, I also think the older generation very often sees us as those who just ask, but don’t deliver.
JP: You mentioning a gym at work is interesting. In England, back in the 1800s, factories such as Rowntree Mackintosh and Quaker Oats offered crèches, company doctors and much more to their workers. They had a hugely philanthropic approach toward their people: If it had been invented then, a gym would have been the least of it! So I think we have to be careful about attributing that kind of facility and offering to millennials when several generations ago some companies were offering things that went far beyond what’s on offer today. Let me ask you this: What do you like most about your work?
JR: It’s the environment. It’s extremely diverse and international. I really feel as though I travel the world every day without having to get on a plane. I have colleagues in Singapore, I have colleagues in the U.S., and a lot of the events we do are global. I’m working on an event now in Japan. Also, I work with technology and it challenges me. I wouldn’t say I was a digital native or a technology evangelist when I joined DPDHL; but my career has been largely shaped by technology and digitalization.
JP: The rise of technology has obviously had a hugely positive impact on your generation. I’m interested to know if you think it presents any challenges too?
JR: Well, there’s nothing more annoying than going out with a group of friends who are on their phones all the time. I went through this phase myself, so there’s a lot to be said for online detoxing. And sometimes social media paints a picture of your life, but doesn’t show the reality.
Also, before social media, if you wanted to get a message out to your contacts, it took time to reach everyone. Today, all it takes is one tweet, and that can have a downside. You might get on a plane as the CEO of a company, but when you get off the plane you find you’re no longer CEO because of one misjudged tweet you sent in the departure lounge. So, yes, everything is very fast, but the speed of descent has also increased. We have many more communication channels than ever before, and that can be a challenge. Why? Because sometimes we’re overflowing with information that we don’t need and put out messages that aren’t necessary.
JP: You mentioned digitalization. That’s another word we have to explain well and be careful with.
JP: Well, if companies talk about digital transformation programs they need to explain in very clear terms what they expect from such a program, and secondly what it means to everyone involved. There was a company called DEC – Digital Equipment Corporation – that was founded in 1954. So the word digital itself has been out there for a long time. Digitalization, in my mind, is simply the latest “form” of technology. When word processors replaced typewriters, no one thought their job had fundamentally changed. Things became easier, yes, but people simply viewed word processors as a natural evolution of the technology they’d been using.
I also think we make this whole digitalization area too complex. I saw an Instagram yesterday that said: “Eighty percent of success is attributable to communication” and I think we often make things difficult for ourselves by not communicating properly. I just think the word digitalization is an ineffective way of communicating what it is we’re actually doing.
But what’s your view? Do you see a gap between millennials who are more digitalized and the rest of us?
JR: Well, I agree: I do question why we always have to give everything a name.
JP: So why do you think we gave digitalization a name?
JR: In one way, I think it’s because digitalization is a nice word, it’s a cool word – so why not use it as often as possible? But I also think it’s because our world is changing. My sister is seven years younger than me and has used technology in her studies, which is very different to when I was at school.
With that thought, I have a question for you: How has technology changed your life in the last 15 years? For instance, do you use your smartphone a lot? Do you use Instagram? You’ve hinted that you do. How has digitalization affected your life as “John at home” – and how has it affected you as “John, the CEO of DHL Express”?
JP: On a personal level, I’ve embraced it. Admittedly, some things I get to later, depending on their complexity. For example, I use certain services via my laptop rather than on my phone. My son says: “Do them on your phone!”, but I tell him: “Oh, it works on the laptop: It’s fine!” So I do love it.
Professionally speaking, the level of services and education that people can gain through their devices now is just phenomenal. The ease of everything – from booking an Uber through to the online shopping experience – is close to my heart, because e-commerce is such an important part of our growth story at the moment. I was sitting with the CEO of ASOS the other week, and he told me it won’t be long before we can point our phones at the TV screen and say: “I like the blue suit that James Bond is wearing.” Your phone will then tell you the brand of Bond’s suit and show you five other similar ones. Then you make your choice without pushing a button because you can say: “I would like to order model number 1234.” Then you get the suit the next day.
And people want things quickly. When I was nine or 10 years old, if the comic I was reading was advertising a badge or sticker, I had to send an SAE – a stamped addressed envelope – and allow 28 days for delivery. A month later, my envelope would come through the post with my badge or sticker. I reminded the ASOS CEO about this and he said: “John, if my kids didn’t get something they’d ordered within three days, they’d probably forget they’d bought it!” That really made me think about speed and how quickly people expect things.
JR: Millennials wouldn’t forget because we expect everything immediately! We would opt to have it delivered on that day so we couldn’t forget.
JP: But what if it wasn’t delivered?
JR: Then we’d complain and, in an ideal world, get an extra one. I think there’s so much emphasis on speed these days.
JP: Which is not all down to technology. Or maybe it is. Think about how international trade used to be done a couple of hundred years ago: If you wanted to buy a bale of wool from Australia, you’d have to go there by ship. That would take three months. You’d go to the farm, you’d see the sample of the wool and then you’d take that sample back by boat to your buyer in the U.K. Another three months. And then you’d send an order by mail, which would take one or two weeks; and then, within another six months, you’d finally get the wool you saw a year earlier. Even one generation ago, people had the job title of “overseas sales representative” on their business card – which would involve lengthy trips abroad with a briefcase full of brochures to drum up business. Sometimes they’d need visa extensions and have to ask for more brochures to be posted out to them! Everything took time. These days, people can create something magical in their garage and have it “on line” on the world stage tomorrow.
JR: I have a final question. I have a mentor – and what I find great about her is that she points out things that should be obvious, but that I don’t see because I’m in my hamster wheel, getting on with projects and managing deadlines. I don’t tend to get the eagle’s perspective on a problem and realize: “Ah, OK: Actually the problem has been me all along.” So I think mentoring is very useful because it helps a person develop. I think every manager should be a great mentor. That’s why it’s good for somebody like me who is at the start of their career to meet someone with experience like you who can tell them: “OK, I’ve done it this way, and these were the challenges for me as an individual.” But my question is: Can it work the other way around? Can company managers learn from millennials? Managers should be willing to hear what their people have to say. But I also think it’s the responsibility of employees to give them honest feedback.
JP: Mentoring when done well is very valuable. A good mentoring session works both ways, not just one way – although only if the manager is inclined to learn and listen. I know mentors who just speak at people. They do listen a bit, but they don’t imagine that any good is going to come their way from the other side of the table. I’ll sometimes have a career discussion with someone for a couple of hours and at the end they’ll look surprised and say: “You’re so busy, but you just spent two hours with me.” In my view that’s my job. It’s right in the middle of all our job descriptions. Developing people is literally our number one responsibility. And if I spend time interviewing people or discussing their career and that person is still in the company 10 years later, having done two or three other jobs in two or three other countries... well, that’s a pretty productive two hours as far as I’m concerned.
In fact, one of my favorite phrases on this topic is: “Two ears and a mouth, and they are to be used in that proportion.” The mentor shouldn’t be there simply giving answers. Instead, I should be asking you: “Tell me Jordan, why did you approach things that way?” Not: “You should have done it this way!” I can then take away things I’ve learned from your answers.
I’ve been approaching this talk with you like that, by the way. I truly believe we can recirculate things we’ve learned from each other for the benefit of the customer – but only if we’re all listening.
Published: September 2019
Images: Guenter Klein for Delivered.