Olaf Lang, Global Head of Reward at Swiss Re, explains the complexities of his role and the imperative for reward to keep pace with the changes in how we work.
“No one decided at the age of 17 that they wanted to be a reward professional,” admits Olaf Lang, Global Head of Swiss Re, of himself and his current contemporaries. “There wasn’t a course for it; it wasn’t something you considered as a career. But opportunities led me into the profession and, even after over 25 years, I still find it a fascinating, enjoyable place to be.”
Whether working as a consultant or taking internal roles for multinationals, Olaf has been fulfilled by his long career because “you can really make an impact in reward. You can help shape the direction of travel for a company, and that is unusual and satisfying.” Reward also presents enough challenges to keep his sharp mind engaged, not least within the financial services industry where “reward has an outstanding relevance. About 80% of costs are personnel costs. How do you best spend that money?”
Olaf says the reward role requires a mix of technical expertise with interpersonal skills; reward professionals have to meet the needs, demands and expectations of multiple internal and external stakeholders while guiding a company towards the optimal reward systems. “You have to be able to read people, definitely,” he admits. “And at a place like Swiss Re, where some of our investors are large, powerful companies, you have to manage expectations diplomatically.”
Trends and currents of change
Fortunately, Olaf is thoughtful, measured and perceptive, an ideal reward professional for the times in which he and his contemporaries find themselves within. The world of work is changing rapidly yet reward systems remain stuck in the past. It is time for rapid transformation, Olaf believes, and he has the cool head and expertise to be valuable in shaping the future.
“The reward models we have in place are too rigid and strict. Companies are struggling to make them flexible, open and agile enough to cater to the dramatic changes in the structure of the workforce and the expectations of the younger generation. Unfortunately, many companies are reluctant to change.”
It’s something that worries Olaf, not least because he works within financial services. The outside impression of the industry is often of it “not being the first mover when it comes to innovations” yet facing serious risk of losing out in terms of talent acquisition and development. “I worry that some companies might not be quick enough to adapt and offer an attractive package to young talent.”
Securing talent is the priority for organisations, but how this is best achieved via reward is influenced by the seismic changes in the world in which work is done. One of these major drivers of change is technology, says Olaf, “which is already transforming how we work, but this will only increase.” He also notes the importance of “changes in the social fabric, the way people live and work, and what they value and need”.
This life of geo-political ponderings while engaging with major investors at some of the world’s most influential financial services companies – he was previously with a major Swiss investment bank and spent 11 years at Willis Towers Watson, one of the world’s leading HR consulting and insurance brokerage companies – is a long way from where Olaf started his life.
“The career I have now was very unlikely,” he admits. “I came from a working-class background; no one in my family had ever completed higher education and so the things I do now, speaking to CEOs and major investors, didn’t come naturally at all.” He was, however, “ambitious to do something with my life” and, most fortunately of all, supported by parents who told him: ‘if others can do it, you can do it’. “I’ve never forgotten those words,” says Olaf.
An ambitious school propelled him to university in his native Germany (he studied economics) where he started to develop ideas of “working for an international company doing an interesting role – that was as specific as my aspirations were at that age!” His first role was in IT with Hewlett Packard, where he relished the “cool, young, agile” environment, but quickly realised he wasn’t cut out for IT. Consultancy work saw him moving into HR and reward, unexpectedly finding what became a very comfortable and enjoyable niche.
TR2050 and the future
Although being advanced in his career by now, Olaf remains determinedly connected to his profession and keen to share his decades of experience and expertise with the future generation. This is one of the reasons he joined TR2050 as soon as he understood the platform’s intentions.
“It super important to think about the reward profession away from the day job and consider where it goes in the mid and long term,” he explains. “I want to share my knowledge and support what and who comes next.” He was also tempted by the opportunity of meeting and mixing with some of the reward professionals he most admired. “It’s fun to work with smart people.”
He acknowledges the risk that such a group “could end up being a debating club, but I really hope that won’t happen. We need to create tangible, concrete ideas and I feel we have a good chance of achieving that because TR2050 is not a consultancy-based platform. It’s been set up by two experienced professionals who are driven by wanting to help reward professionals engage, review research, meet academics, discuss ideas and drive forward to solutions themselves. There is no ulterior motive.”
In an ideal future (if such a thing is possible), Olaf would hope for a simple and transparent reward system that can cover a wide range of different relationships between employer and employee. “That’s the ideal outcome, but it’s a hugely complex topic,” he admits. How to deliver such a simple, transparent and at the same time diverse and flexible approach while still providing the equity that remains important to employees is one questions yet without an answer.
“But that’s what keeps it interesting,” Olaf says happily. “And I think as TR2050 Membership grows and we get more reward professionals from other parts of the globe, for example from Asia, adding their ideas, approaches and values into the mix, we can really dig into some exciting new solutions for reward of the future.”