03/29/2012 06:17 pm ET Updated May 29, 2012

What We Can Learn From German Leadership

Interview with Markus Hipp: Executive Director of the BMW Foundation

Markus Hipp is the Executive Director of the BMW Foundation, headquartered in Germany. He began his career in philanthropy at the Robert Bosch Foundation. I recently spoke with Markus about his work and his perception of German vs. American leadership.

What did you want to be as a kid?

Well, when I was younger I had this idea of being a very interesting mix of a famous soccer player and a missionary somewhere in Africa or Asia. It's very strange, but church was boring and I would start to think about stuff like that.

What was the path from that idea to where you are today in corporate philanthropy?

What never changed was that I really wanted to have a life in which I could change the world. As a young man, you always think you can really change it, and as you get older you realize that you can, but you have to take smaller steps. I sometimes say that I took a lot of curves in my career, but that "red line" was always there and in the end I found exactly what I wanted to do. Not as a Jesuit, of course, because now I'm married and have four children. But in a secular way, I never lost this idea of bringing something to the world.

What's the difference between American and German leadership?

I sometimes think that there is more long-term thinking in leadership of German companies. Especially in the medium-sized, family- or private-owned companies. There, success is really not about building up quickly and then selling, but to build something which you can hand over in a very successful, and still innovative, way to the next generation in your family or your region. You've seen the success of the German economy in the past couple of years, and that's really due to the success of these small and medium companies. They're not thinking about the next year, but really thinking about how they can hand something sustainable over to the next generation

Take the CEO of BMW. Of course the CEO is the head and the face of our company, but I am always impressed how it is not all focused on one "big man." From the beginning, you know that you are not the big leader. You are an important leader, but it's not just about the hero at the top, it's about the system. You need the DNA of the organization to be stronger than the day you arrived. German companies like BMW and Porsche, for instance, absolutely oppose this cult of personality. It's really the brand and the company first. Of course the leader must represent it, but in Germany it's called a "servant leader." Not a hero. If the organization is in crisis, you have to be strong enough to push it in another direction, but that's not the normal situation. It's all about long-term thinking.

Is Robert Bosch is an early example of this kind of leadership?

I think it's really interesting to use Bosch as an example because he is absolutely a role model of what the German entrepreneur can be. And he really illuminates some differences between our systems. He was not just a very successful and strategic entrepreneur, but he also saw his entrepreneurial work as part of the development of society and what it means to be a part of the whole system. He built a company that is owned by the Foundation today, so the "win" for the company is not just the money being reinvested. The real win, the dividend, is completely going back into society. Bosch combines this entrepreneurial world with the philanthropic world. He is a unique German person and a real role model for a lot of today's German-owned companies, especially the medium sized companies and family businesses. It influenced me very much in my career to have such a role model.

You run the BMW Foundation, which is separate from the company. What is your focus?

Our grants are really about research and development, identifying new, innovative players in society that have developed concrete solutions to problems. It's important to keep the grant making body open to people asking us to support civil society, but it's really important to stay linked within the social context and implement the operative work to scale.

A special focus of our Foundation is that we help develop leaders to think about how they could make an impact for society. We want to inspire them and show them there is another road, perhaps beside their professional career, by which they can make a difference. In the end, it's more venture philanthropy. It's not just money; it's the consultancy, the partnership, the network and the brand that people can use. I think as a small corporate foundation (by American standards, anyway), we've tried to create a mix of tools to enhance our grant making activities.

How do you develop leaders?

We run a young leaders program and host forums for these leaders around the world -- from New York to Buenos Aires to Shanghai. Over 1,000 young leaders have participated.

It's normally a four-day format because that's about the most we can get from the leaders who attend. They always travel to us on their own costs, and we try to focus on one or two special topics. First, we try to open up their intellect with speakers and inspirational people, focusing on topics that don't necessarily appear in their daily lives. These topics can include anything from education to integration to participation or health -- anything. We try to open up their eyes and say this topic is important to society and perhaps important to you.

Second, we take field trips out of conference rooms and hotels to organizations operating in civil society, including public administrations, universities and corporations to show how all of these organizations address social problems, develop solutions and change society. We call this "emotional learning," showing that you can make a difference and this is how people are already making a difference.

Finally, we say that you can jump in the game! You can bring your competence into this arena, even if you're not an education expert or anything like that. You have talent that these organizations need, just like your business. And it's a give-get. You provide your talent and they provide an inspirational experience that might open your eyes a bit. Opportunities include joining an advisory board, for instance, where you get more experience, more competence and get a feel for the kinds of things you can bring to this organization.

How, on a personal level, do you know that what you are doing works, that it's making a difference?

This goes back to when I was a kid. These are the moments when I'm back as a Jesuit missionary. If I sit, after a forum, with a leader in a bar somewhere and they say to me, "I'm 42 and, in these three days, you have reminded me that there was something I wanted to build when I was younger, and you brought it back in my life," it's exactly this situation that I look for and, after a while, you see that you brought this person back to his own red line in his life. That's the moment for me.