Transa CEO Daniel Humbel on digital leadership

Interview with Daniel Humbel, Transa CEO

“We have an organic hierarchy”

The Transa CEO compares his company organisation to nature. He sees employee development as the only really disruptive element in specialist retail and has completely new and successful approaches.

Text: Hansjörg Honegger, images: © Daniel Brühlmann, 30

In your opinion, how is the leadership role of a CEO changing in the era of digitisation?

For me, CEO is not a job, it’s a state of mind. We need to rethink the idea of hierarchy. The traditional power hierarchy is too rigid and slow, and it doesn’t give employees any room to manoeuvre. We want to work with people who are changing and developing.

Give us a specific example of how this is implemented at Transa.

For example, I don’t put together work groups based on hierarchy, but only on content and topic.

Daniel Humbel

The 40-year-old CEO of Transa has led a varied life. After primary school in Lebanon and secondary school in Lenzburg, he completed the Diplome de Commerce in Neuenburg. Then came the years of travelling around the world: gardener, cook, sailing instructor, secretariat and foreign office employee. He founded a number of companies and has been CEO of Transa since 2011.

People’s skills are what counts?

Yes, but also ambition, desire, interest and how the people interact.

In that case, you need to know your employees very well. Is this even possible at a company the size of Transa?

Does a structure like this also need middle management?

Wants to work with people who are changing and developing: Daniel Humbel.

Does a structure like this also need middle management?

Sure, it’s just a question of how the structure is experienced. It’s certainly possible for someone to have a hierarchical position but work in a different role for the most part. It’s a balancing act between old structures and new ideas about roles that one has to perform in one’s head.

This recipe doesn’t work in every company.

No, certainly not. But at Transa many people understand organically how processes are meant to operate.

Why is this the case?

Many of our employees spend a lot of time outdoors and experience natural processes at first hand. In this way they develop an intuitive understanding of organic hierarchy and natural organisation. With every “into the wild” experience, we learn how we are a part of something big and how our own body is continuously interacting with these existential processes. The body itself exhibits the most complex form of organisation in existence, and everything works in a wondrous way all by itself with incredible efficiency. We benefit directly from this resource of consciousness.

“For me, CEO is not a job, it’s a state of mind.”

So you are drawing an analogy between a company with employees with their own interests, abilities and motivations, and a body that functions without a hierarchy?

In nature, and therefore also within our bodies, there is a highly differentiated hierarchy. Or would you voluntarily assign the job that your liver does to your heart? Of course not, because you trust the competence centre that is your liver 100%, and you would never give your heart the task of “managing” the liver. With this example, one understands the radical difference between a power hierarchy and an organic hierarchy (or a hierarchy of skills or predispositions). Translated into the language of company organisation, this means that you cannot expect the same things from employees who are ambitious and want to pursue a career, for example, as from those for whom this is of no importance. These are interests that even run contrary to each other. In other words, a person who struggles somewhat with responsibility must be provided with a setting that matches their character and predispositions.

And how is this achieved?

That’s an interesting question. How do I activate this existential, natural organisational intelligence at my company? The answer is: nurture attentiveness, curiosity and fascination both for the natural processes outside the body and for the inner processes. The prerequisite for this is that as the head of the company I have to deal with my personal processes seriously as well as with those of my employees. Then everything works all by itself as if by magic, and incredibly efficiently (grinning). But one thing is clear. Companies have to become much faster and more agile. The market doesn’t wait for the people with power in the power hierarchy to react to changes.

In the age of digitisation, conventional hierarchies and leadership principles are not agile enough for Humbel.

What changes do you mean? New products or changes in purchasing habits?

The whole environment is changing very rapidly. Customers are changing, employees, all of society.

Triggered by digitisation.

Certainly, digitisation is changing everything – how people act and think, how they interact. Every single person is affected by this. This is a huge opportunity for an employer to go through this learning processes together with the employees, because people have to learn to deal with digitisation, in both the private and the public sphere.

“In nature, and therefore also within our bodies, there is a highly differentiated hierarchy. Or would you voluntarily assign the job that your liver does to your heart?”

You have high aspirations. Do your employees understand what you expect?

I haven’t announced my philosophy and stipulated that this is how everything has to work right now. This is a process of change that has to grow organically. To cite an example from nature: I can’t just tell a tree that it suddenly has to grow with different soil and half as much water. You have to experiment with how much soil you can change and still keep the tree healthy.

To stay with this image, have there been moments when you realised that you changed too much soil?

Yes, there have been moments when I was unsure about whether my approach was working. But there are very many people working with us who have the passion and ambition to make the Transa project work. Should things not be going so well, that’s when you find out whether this dedication is sustainable.

And if it isn’t?

Then it may be necessary to assign that person a new role or develop the processes further. We have to discuss this together.

But then the boss decides what happens?

Not necessarily. Usually the person recognises that something is wrong and tries to solve the problem. It’s an organic, interactive process.

Can a new role also mean at a different company?

When you’re making a long journey along your own personal route, there’ll be parts of that journey that you make with different fellow travellers. Basically, development must be possible – otherwise you have a blockade and nobody moves forward. Only when someone is able to develop their own story do they get into a flow that enables their potential to be realised. This is my big opportunity as an employer, to make this development possible for my employees.

“In nature, and therefore also within our bodies, there is a highly differentiated hierarchy. Or would you voluntarily assign the job that your liver does to your heart?”

How did you arrive at this leadership approach? Not from books, presumably.

No (laughing). Every person is made up of stories. Between the ages of 20 and 30, I gave myself the space to break with conventions and try out different ways of living. I lived in monasteries in India for a year, crossed the Atlantic as a sailor, pottered around the Caribbean as a cook and worked as a bike courier in Zurich. I usually had little or no money and no fixed goal. Travel was a great teacher, but also pantomime and jazz school.

“As a society, the way we work will have to be more organic, holacratic and integral.”

You run a large company and ultimately the numbers have to be right. Can you still be yourself?

If I can’t be authentic and be myself, then I’ve strayed from my personal path and lost my way. My work at Transa is a part of my journey through life, and as long as I can develop myself on this path and my talents and potential can be realised, I am motivated and productive and everybody wins. Transa is not a charitable organisation, so the bottom line must be right. But we need employees who can make their way in a complex, fast-moving world. Henry Ford once said: “Every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached ...” He didn’t want employees to think for themselves. Today we urgently need such people, and as I already said, to enable these people to realise their potential.

In other words, this is an economic advantage?

I would go even further – it’s the only possible way. In the age of digitisation, conventional hierarchies and leadership principles are not agile enough.

For employees in specialist retail, digitisation is primarily a threat. Online trade, self-scanning, whatever: jobs are disappearing. How can you prevent your employees from becoming defensive?

Our focus is on the needs of the employees: What do they need in order to work with passion and enthusiasm? For example, we have very flexible working-hour models. Each of our employees should be able to manage their life in the way that best suits them. If they want to go on an adventure holiday or get further education, they should be able to. We even have different pay models – more money or more holidays.

But this means a lot of work for HR.

Yes, of course. But we want to enable our employees to structure their own lives individually. This is actually the only really disruptive element in specialist retail that I can see: People want to develop themselves, and as an employer we have the opportunity to support this. This is where success comes from, not vice versa. Only in this way can specialist retail change in the long term.

Digitisation is not a threat?

No, quite the opposite. It’s a huge opportunity – for society too. Our existing system relies on power and control from above. With digitisation, this construct will no longer work. As a society, the way we work will have to be more organic, holacratic and integral.

Many people also see digitisation as a disadvantage. Being available at all times, for example. Do you switch your phone off when you’re out in the forest?

I find this question just as strange as the discussion about work-life balance. I don’t want to patronise my employees and prescribe when they have to turn off their phone and their mailbox. I’d much rather talk about what they need in order to deal with this maturely and autonomously, and to develop themselves. Then they can act and make decisions in the same way in their private and professional projects. I don’t tell anybody which route they are allowed to climb, because its much more effective just to support them. In this way, they can find out what they are capable of. This is fun, and you make a connection.


Transa Backpacking AG is a leading provider of outdoor equipment in Switzerland. Founded over 40 years ago as Trans-Sahara, the company now has branches in six German-speaking cities in Switzerland, with around 300 employees.

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