Dr. Carsten Rübsaamen knows one thing for sure: “A truly authentic leader can only make a difference if they wholeheartedly believe in what they are doing.” Together with his co-founders, this enthusiastic boy scout and graduate of WHU’s Doctoral Program started the social enterprise BOOKBRIDGE in 2009. The idea? To provide today’s leaders and talent an education in entrepreneurship that assumes a “learning by doing” approach. The goal? The creation of new social enterprises in areas of the world sorely needing them—and the sustainable improvement of the lives and career prospects of the people residing there.
BOOKBRIDGE and WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management jointly offer General Management Plus (GMP+), an executive education offering that combines the latter’s Management Essentials Program with the former’s Capability Program. In this interview, Dr. Rübsaamen gives insight into the program and the incredible impact it has on participants, their companies, and society as a whole.Carsten, you co-founded your social enterprise BOOKBRIDGE in 2009. What is the company’s goal?
BOOKBRIDGE combines social entrepreneurship with managerial development. With our curriculum that focuses on experiential learning, managers start their own social enterprises in parts of the world that need them most—for example, a study center in Mongolia or a water start-up in Africa. They learn to assume an entrepreneurial mindset and management style and they get a masterclass in values-based leadership. And while doing so, they help improve the lives and career prospects of thousands of people.
We give managers an opportunity to take on new responsibilities and have a positive impact on the world—and to learn a ton and grow on a personal level. Anyone who participates in our program is not just honing crucial business and leadership skills. They’re joining an interdisciplinary and international team and becoming true social entrepreneurs.
For one of these management programs, you’ve opted to work with WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management, where you yourself studied. And together, you have been offering the GMP+ Program to prospective leaders for years now. How does your collaboration differentiate itself from other management education programs?
The GMP+ Program combines theory and practice in a unique way. In the classroom, participants acquire a knowledge of management topics—from strategy to leadership to finance—and then they put that directly into building their social enterprises. They found a company that shouldn’t just operate sustainably and profitably. Rather, the primary focus is on the betterment of the local people’s lives and career prospects. And in doing so, the participant learns how a functional business model develops, how to do business with an entrepreneurial mindset, and how to lead people based on their own vision and values. In assuming this responsibility, they grow as people tenfold and commit, alongside other participants, to a goal that is bigger than themselves.
According to the official website, BOOKBRIDGE and the Capability Program have the goal of educating “purpose-driven leaders,” people who want to make a difference. Why is that so important to the company?
Working for the greater good is necessary for leading a full life. Having the experience of working on something that’s bigger than ourselves can have a monumental effect on us. A truly authentic leader can only make a difference if they wholeheartedly believe in what they are doing. I am convinced that this is the only way for leadership to have a lasting and positive effect. And that’s more important now than ever before, given the challenges our world is currently facing.
Have career expectations changed over the years?
When we started BOOKBRIDGE fourteen years ago, “purpose” wasn’t really a topic of discussion. Today, it’s everywhere. Questions like “who is doing what—and why?” have become essential. For example, people buy certain products (and entirely avoid others) because they want to make a difference. Or perhaps they consider their next employer’s goals when looking for a new job. They want to be able to identify with that company’s goals. And that’s something that is just as relevant for small or mid-sized enterprises as it is for larger corporations.
How does the Capability Program from BOOKBRIDGE help managers grow?
Managers enrolled in the Capability Program learn what it means to build and lead a company centered around a good cause. They have vision and are committed. They take what they’ve experienced in the program and put it back into their companies: They start to lead differently, reevaluate available resources, and act in a more entrepreneurial way.
Is the focus exclusively on personal experience? Or do employers also benefit?
To our participants, the program is always a personal transfer project. In looking closely at the needs of the locals, they start to think about their own values, the purpose of their work, and the purpose of the work their originating companies do. A personal leadership coach accompanies them on this journey. Once they’ve completed the program, they entirely change their working environment, a process for which we get superiors involved. So the program does not only have an impact through the social enterprises it bears; it effects the locals, the individual participants themselves, and the culture at their originating companies.
Can you give an example of an employer that has benefited from this training of its managers?
A Foundation of a leading reinsurance company has customized & adapted our capability program to support early-stage social entrepreneurs, leveraging skillsets, and expertise of its corporate talent at different locations around the world. This program has now been integrated with the organization's leadership development journey. We are proud that companies like our approach and are adopting it.
Sustainability matters have increased in importance for all companies, something that should not be underestimated. How can the joint programs offered by WHU and BOOKBRIDGE help find that balance between sustainable and profitable business?
The Capability Program is not a sandbox for quick practice projects. They should have a sustainable impact, be self-sustaining in the long run, and, if possible, be profitable. That our projects have had such a high success rate can be attributed to the management and leadership skills we teach as part of our program. In fact, 90% of the social enterprises founded through the program are still up and running today after ten years. Each participant improves the lives and career prospects of 790 people with the social founded founded. They influence an average of 93 other colleagues at their companies with the skills they acquired during the program. And the collaboration with the local teams ensures that those who are in charge and on-site also benefit. The participants learn to operate the enterprise cost-efficiently and for the long haul.
So, managers become active entrepreneurs during their time in the Capability Program. What do participants learn through this unique and practice-oriented experience of founding a new social enterprise?
In the program, managers work together in a high-performance team inside a considerably diverse and intellectual environment. They learn the responsibility that comes along with their actions. They make and stand by their decisions, even in moments of uncertainty. A wise man once said that “in theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is.” Our participants learn to trust and to listen. They don’t merely reflect on where they stand and declare what they think; they get feedback from the other participants and develop their own understanding of what it means to be a leader. But given that they are working hand-in-hand with those on the ground—and therefore have to place aside their own personal ambitions for the greater good—the most crucial thing is those partaking in our program learn humility.
The General Management Plus Program has been around for quite some time now. Can we take a look at the “balance sheet,” as it were?
In ten years, around 1,000 managers from 115 organizations have taken part in our programs. That includes representatives from Hilti, Swisscom, and BSH Hausgeräte GmbH. Participants have developed a new way of looking at resources. They conduct business in a more entrepreneurial way. They lead differently. And in doing so, they’re directly contributing to a more future-ready corporate culture. Our track record of 118 social enterprises built in 15 different countries across the globe speaks for itself. The 90% of them still in operation today are financially self-sufficient and able to pay back their initial interest-free investment loans. And, of course, they’re improving the lives of thousands of people every single day.
That truly is quite impressive. What are your plans for the future? What are you all hoping for?
We want to inspire companies, encourage them to customize our programs and run them internally at their own locations. Instead of flying abroad and working effectively there, corporates could motivate their employees to implement effective social projects closer to home. We have already succeeded in doing this with one of our clients. An executive of a leading reinsurance company participated in the Capability program in 2017 and relaunched the program a year later in their country in APAC in partnership with their corporate foundation. Given the success, the Foundation now established the program at seven locations worldwide.
It’s surely an incredible experience watching all this success in the entrepreneurial scene. How important is it for BOOKBRIDGE to have renowned partners such as WHU officially accrediting the program?
Our cooperation with WHU, as well as the accreditation of our programs, is extremely important to us. WHU is a renowned business school, and it imparts to our participants the knowledge in finance, leadership, and strategy they need. These basics of management, based on the latest research, are taught in a practical way and then directly implemented at our companies. And our Capability Program also has an influence on WHU and the way leadership is taught there. That’s something we’re proud of!