Advice from the Former CHRO of Adidas on Managing Cultural Change

Nov 18, 2019 | Blog

It’s been almost a month since the incredible Matthias Malessa spoke with us at our event in Berlin, and we’re still thinking about the insights.

Though there were many more than we can contain in one post, we’ve jotted down a few of them, just for you.

But first, for those of you who don’t know who he is, allow us to provide you with a short introduction to Matthias Malessa: Matthias is the former CHRO of Adidas group, where he worked in the Human Resources department for over 16 years, and in Asia as VP/SVP Global HR for nine years before that. He is currently a Senior Advisor to McKinsey group, as well as a Leadership consultant at the Authentic Leadership group at Harvard.

Last October, he spoke at our ‘People and Culture Club’ in Berlin about his career, Adidas, leadership, and directing and overseeing cultural change across a top-performing global company.

Build Your Values From The Ground Up

In 2006, Matthias was promoted to the position of CHRO of Adidas. At the same time, Adidas group purchased their former competitor, Reebok, heralding the integration of two significant companies’ entire workforces and signified an enormous cultural shift for the employees across them both.

The HR department, with Matthias at the helm, was left to oversee this monumental transformation. To assess the state of their culture and values, they focused on quantifying employee engagement and ran an employee engagement survey in every office across the globe.

The results of this survey surprised them. They realised that although initial employee engagement was high, participation from longer-term employees dropped dramatically.

They realised that Adidas was giving out a particular promise which they were failing to meet in the long term, and wondered how they could amend this.

They began to revisit their culture and employer branding – to look at what drew people to the company in the first place – and to see if these expectations were being fulfilled. They asked their employees why they had joined adidas initially and what they would say were they to recommend the company to a friend.

Based on these responses Matthias and his team began to re-evaluate their employer value proposition. From the ground up, they began rewriting the company culture – the company story – this time using the words of their people.

Over-communicate Your Change

Once the values underpinning that cultural change were decided on, Matthias had to ensure that they would be effectively spread across the company, and that change would in fact take place.

Matthias’ big piece of advice for professionals attempting this was to over-communicate the cultural change.

Just as when we’re learning a new language, we often have to over-pronounce the syllables until they become natural, so too does the new company culture have to be over-pronounced.

Signs stating the company values were placed in canteens, in hallways, in all communal spaces. A new employer branding video about the company culture was made, featuring not the external sports celebrities for whom Adidas were known, but internal heroes from within the company itself.

Matthias and his team made sure that the company’s values were omnipresent. From the conference room to the shop floor, their people were left in no doubt as to what the new company values and culture of Adidas were.

Make Change Relevant

Another essential element of Matthias’ approach to this cultural change was making it relevant to the people that had to live it.

Matthias explained that, when leadership envision new values and initiate a cultural change, they often create narratives which might make total sense to them, but are frequently entirely inaccessible to the employees at lower levels of the company.

For example, telling an employee in Germany that Reebok was purchased in order to “enter the American market” will feel totally irrelevant to them. “Yeah, that’s great for America, but we’re in Germany”. They can’t connect with that narrative.

He told us:

“You need to tell a story that is relevant for those who need to support the story.”

If your employees can’t see themselves as characters in your company’s story, then rather than feel invigorated and inspired, they’ll end-up excluded and disengaged.

To keep the company united through a cultural change, you need to ensure its stories are engaging and inclusive for your people – that they feel included.

Matthias had built the Adidas culture and values from his people. Now he made sure that they knew their role in those stories, and that they understood themselves as protagonists.

Find Ambassadors For Change

To spread your new values, you need to find role models for them.

While as a leader, it is, of course, essential that you role-model them yourself, it is also vital that you find role models for them across every level and from every department of your company.

These ambassadors for change, influencers, or as we at Unipos like to call them, “Internal Champions” create an impact on the culture far faster and more effectively than any one person could alone.

They are figures so inspired by the company story that they become storytellers themselves.

If you’ve succeeded in building relevant values from your people, this should be simple. Once these individuals can see themselves and their colleagues contained within the company narrative, they will begin to live their company lives, and encourage others to live, toward that narrative. You need to empower them to do so.

As Matthias said:

“Let the people do what they need and carve it out. You orchestrate the whole thing, but they figure it out, and then they drive it into their organisation.”

Recognition Is Essential To Cultural Change

Matthias reinforced something we’ve written about before, the importance of peer-to-peer recognition when spreading company values, explaining that it is essential in the endeavour to spread cultural change across your company.

He explained that recognition is a form of reward, just not a financial one. When you and your ambassadors recognise the value-aligned behaviour of your people and colleagues, you reinforce that behaviour. Not only do they become significantly more likely to repeat the interaction, but they also become more engaged and feel more connected.

Recognition is the means of creating your ambassadors and empowering your employees.

Matthias further explained that this has interdepartmental ramifications: “If you create a recognition culture beyond a function, but throughout the whole company, then people get engaged much better beyond your department, and collaborate beyond borders.”

“There is a proven correlation between employee engagement, which is created through a recognition culture… that satisfaction is created by recognition, which drives commitment, which drives engagement, which drives business results.”

Recognising your employees, rewarding them for their behaviour, allows them to see themselves in the narrative of the company and empowers them to realise themselves as protagonists in the plot.


Two years after creating and implementing this strategy, Matthias and his team ran another engagement survey. This time, engagement was unbelievably high – in the 90s across the board.

They had successfully created a culture built from and with their people. They had written a company story in which all their employees felt included, recognised and empowered.

By building a culture which focused on its people, Matthias and his team completely transformed their employer branding. In 2013, thanks to Matthias and his team’s work, adidas was named the “World’s Most Attractive Employer” by Universum. To this day, Adidas receives over 500,000 job applications per year.

So what’s the greatest lesson?

Make your people protagonists to your company’s story. Build a culture from your people, with your people, for your people.

By doing so, you’ll create an incredible work environment, increase employee engagement, employee retention, and attract more of the right people to your company along the way.

Perhaps by following Matthias’ advice, it’ll be your company that is named the next ‘World’s Most Attractive Employer’, or even, if you’re very, very lucky, you’ll be the one speaking at our next event 😉.

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