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Instilling an Innovation Mindset in a Recruiting Team of 1,000 People

Headquartered in Berlin, Deutsche Bahn is widely known as Germany’s national railway company. However, the organization does much more than move millions of people in trains every day (as if that were a small feat!).

With a workforce of over 300,000 people across 49 countries, Deutsche Bahn is also a logistics provider that moves goods around the world in trains, buses, planes and ships. Completing the company’s wingspan is mobility infrastructure, as they also build railways and railway stations.

In a recent conversation between Kerstin Wagner, Deutsche Bahn’s Vice President of Talent Acquisition, and our CEO, Dimitri Boylan, Wagner discussed the company’s diverse recruiting operations, the challenge of conveying an attractive employer brand across multiple talent segments and how to instill an innovation mindset in a team of over 1,000 people. Read on for the main takeaways from this inspiring exchange of insights.

Cultivating an Innovation Mindset

“We want to be trendsetters and not only trend surfers.” Wagner is renowned for pushing the boundaries and keeping her finger on the pulse of new technology. One of the hot topics from this conversation was her team’s innovation mindset and how she instills it in a team of over a thousand people. Her tactics draw on her professional experience earlier on in her career.

After specializing in business and finance, she spent a year and a half in Boston, where her employer at the time had just acquired three startup companies to merge into one. Wagner quickly realized that growth and recruiting go hand in hand in the startup world: You need high performance and only highly driven people can help you achieve that.

Startups are agile by nature, even more so in talent acquisition (TA). Since they don’t usually have an established name in the market, they’re always looking for new ways to become more attractive as potential employers. That constant need for improvement and reinvention defines Wagner’s approach as the leader of a 1,000-person talent acquisition area at Deutsche Bahn.

It always starts with leadership and with being a role model. Not only telling people you have to be innovative but also being a role model. Be curious yourself.”

Kerstin Wagner
Vice-president of Talent Acquisition, Deutsche Bahn

With teams spanning from strategy to operations to employer branding to sourcing to data analytics and cross-border hiring within her TA function, Wagner has implemented different measures to encourage innovation across such a wide array of roles and profiles. One of them is welcoming everyone’s insights and opinions when it comes to improving a particular process or defining annual objectives. She highlighted how it would be a waste of a thousand great minds not to involve them in decision-making.

Whenever we have something we want to solve, we ask a lot of people. We are currently defining our roadmap for next year. And that’s not a discussion that happens first in my leadership team. The first discussion is to send an email out, shout it out to a thousand people and ask them to tell me what they think, what should be on the roadmap in their opinion.”

Kerstin Wagner
Vice-president of Talent Acquisition, Deutsche Bahn

The second way in which Wagner fosters innovation in her team is by encouraging blue-sky thinking.

Normally, the reaction is, ‘I have an idea, but it’s not feasible because of data protection or because we have no budget.’ We have all these reasons why ideas are not realistic. But I tell people, let’s give me all your crazy ideas and then we can talk if we can realize it, or if we can realize it in a different manner.’

Kerstin Wagner
Vice-president of Talent Acquisition, Deutsche Bahn

The Role of Learning

Another powerful way in which Wagner instills the innovation mindset in her team is by facilitating learning. She does this by allocating two hours every week to an academy where team members can acquire new skills and learn about trends and technology. It’s a space designed to arm Deutsche Bahn’s recruiting team with resources and insights to keep up with and thrive in a dynamic job market.

Something I’ve learned during the pandemic is that we’re in constant change as talent acquisition, so you have to give people an opportunity to learn because change is normally a hurdle. If you are anxious, if you don’t know how to do your new job because the job is changing, you need more new skills. Therefore, we founded our own TA academy.”

Kerstin Wagner
Vice-president of Talent Acquisition, Deutsche Bahn

The learning space is undergoing a significant transformation, primarily influenced by social media and the way we consume content today. In this sense, Boylan highlighted the need to offer learning experiences that are as dynamic, bespoke and on-demand as possible.

We see learning really having to evolve to fit what we talked about in terms of flexibility and change. It’s got to become very dynamic, very on-demand and very bespoke to each individual experience because people are now moving around more. So the experiences are much more individual.”

Dimitri Boylan
Founder and CEO, Avature

In line with Boylan’s comment, Wagner explained how Deutsche Bahn enables a flexible, on-demand learning experience by allowing team members to learn virtually, either through pre-recorded videos or live sessions.

Wagner’s approach to TA innovation and leadership at Deutsche Bahn is truly inspiring and one quote from her captures its spirit at its best: “You can’t say ‘you have to be innovative right away.’ You have to train that.” With 1,000 people, Wagner’s recruiting team might be more a mid-size organization than a startup. However, the agile, continuous improvement imprint cuts across the different teams and employees under her charge.

Maximizing Talent Engagement

There are hundreds of different jobs at Deutsche Bahn, from engineers to constructors to cooks to IT specialists to drivers to beaver advisors (yes, you read that right). At the same time, they hire people with different levels of experience, from students to recent grads to seasoned professionals. So, when Wagner was asked how Deutsche Bahn positions itself as an attractive employer across these audiences, her answer immediately focused on the organization’s employer brand and value proposition.

One of their strongest differentiators is how railway mobility positively impacts the environment. Many of today’s candidates, especially those from younger generations, look for meaningful, purpose-driven jobs, and forming part of a company with a strong commitment to sustainability and our planet speaks right to that goal.

But as organizations transform, so do their value propositions. Driven by the innovative mindset we delved into above, Wagner explained that Deutsche Bahn frequently revisits its value proposition to check if what they’re communicating aligns with the company’s current vision or the market’s characteristics.

It’s always good to recheck if your proposition is still true. What do I stand for as an employer? What are my traits that are really attractive to the population out there, to the labor market out there? You have to do that first and then do a 360-degree employer branding campaign, not only a little film or a little bit of work on your career site. Let’s do the whole thing, the overall approach. That helps us quite a bit, that we are consistent in what we convey to the market.”

Kerstin Wagner
Vice-president of Talent Acquisition, Deutsche Bahn

In addition to conveying an authentic and attractive employer value proposition, Wagner highlighted the importance of tailoring the recruiting approach to engage these talent segments.

As she explained, they hire between 25,000 and 28,000 people every year, a population the size of a town! Dealing with such a variety of profiles and skill sets, a one-size-fits-all approach to connecting with them is unlikely to yield successful results.

It’s a totally different story, totally different campaign, totally different storyline for each. But at the very end of the day, they all have to understand what Deutsche Bahn is all about when they decide to work for the company.”

Kerstin Wagner
Vice-president of Talent Acquisition, Deutsche Bahn

Enabling an Innovative Candidate Experience With Technology

Having known her for almost a decade, Boylan underlined that he’s always seen Wagner as a “serial early adopter.” This led to one of Deutsche Bahn’s most recent innovations around candidate experience, which involves incorporating a chatbot into the company’s career site.

Thinking of candidates as customers, she explained that offering this functionality complements all their recruiting and employer branding efforts by providing talent with quick answers to some of their most frequent questions. It might sound trivial, but in today’s crowded market, quickly clarifying a doubt might be the difference between a candidate submitting their CV or leaving the site for good.

Deutsche Bahn’s purposeful approach to technology deployment is one of the most valuable takeaways from this conversation. As Wagner said, “We’re not doing technology just for the sake of being awarded in some competition.” Instead, they’re crafting an innovative, technology-powered strategy that drives candidate conversion and generates a powerful competitive advantage.

The Trends Shaping Talent Acquisition

The conversation swiftly moved on to artificial intelligence. Wagner explained that they know AI will have a transformative impact on recruiting in the future and are particularly excited about the use cases around data to support analysis and forecasting.

But, if there’s anything we’ve learned about Wagner during the interview, it’s that she’s deeply passionate about innovation. Beyond AI, Kerstin shared that she is also exploring the metaverse and augmented reality and how Deutsche Bahn can become a trailblazer in these fields.

While the technology advancements we’re seeing in recruiting are a sea change, Wagner also emphasized the human trends that guide her team’s strategy. Regarding candidates, for example, the demand for flexibility continues to be on the rise in terms of working hours, location and the types of projects they would like to participate in as employees.

All our candidates are really looking for flexibility in hours, where to work and what to work on, by for example tackling other projects in parallel to their regular tasks.”

Kerstin Wagner
Vice-president of Talent Acquisition, Deutsche Bahn

This conversation has uncovered some of the numerous ways in which Wagner and her team of a thousand people stay ahead of the curve in talent acquisition, even in one of the toughest job markets in years. The key to their success? Embracing change with creativity, flexibility and a strong innovation mindset.

I’ve known the talent acquisition industry for two decades and it’s in constant change. It’s part of our professionalism to do stuff, to change things. We’ve done one trend and then all of a sudden you have to redo it because the labor market is changing.”

Kerstin Wagner
Vice-president of Talent Acquisition, Deutsche Bahn

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