Barbara Karuth-Zelle: A new kind of manager

She loves to laugh. She’s eloquent and engaging. Barbara Karuth-Zelle is curious about other people and knows how to accept and motivate them “as they are”. In fact, she’s a “team whisperer”, which is easy to believe when she talks about her childhood: there’s a hint of the spirit of the late sixties that permeates the first twelve years of her life.

In those days her parents, with their three children, formed a kind of commune for their leisure time. They spent practically every weekend, including holidays, with two other families at a farmhouse in Tyrol. Those were happy days, in harmony with nature, and the Munich native wouldn’t have missed them for anything. They’re the foundation of an easygoing attitude that has stayed with her to this day.

But there’s also her other side: the disciplined manager who has always worked hard and enthusiastically, with only a short interruption even for the period when she bore her two children (now 18 and 15 years old). Someone to whom it’s important to stay transparent in everything she does, so everybody knows where they stand with her. Someone, for her part, who can tell you very clearly what she does and does not like. And who’s ready to do what’s needed when people and attitudes aren’t a good match. The daughter of a rather strict vocational school teacher, who was always fully committed to her job. That too may have been an influence. 

barbara karuth zelle allianz

The winding road to a career

Having grown up between these two poles – flower child and school principal – she took a while to settle into a career.

At first, she wanted to be a farmer – the alternative lifestyle still beckoned. She got over that pretty fast, once she learned about slaughtering animals. She’d much rather protect them. What remained right down to today was a strong interest in environmental matters.

Her next thought was marine biology. That too evaporated. What remained of that was an interest in marine ecology and an enthusiasm for diving. Which is why, with Allianz Technology, she heads a group of Allianz companies aiming to jointly sponsor a ship that will fish plastic waste out of the Mediterranean.

Her parents pushed for business administration. And that was how it finally turned out. Karuth-Zelle took an interest in incentive systems. What remained of that was a conviction about how essential insurance is for people to feel safe and at ease. Plus, a career at Allianz, which at the moment is undergoing a change that has taken Barbara, too, somewhat by surprise: As of January 1st,  2021, she’ll be joining the Board of Management of Allianz SE – where she’ll take over from Christof Mascher as head of Operations, IT, Allianz Technology and Allianz Services. 

Health economist 

Her original preference at university was to study environmental economics. But her professor maneuvered her into health economics. Where she quickly discovered there was a lot of pleasure in developing practical solutions. Her department was advising the German ministry of health at the time. And isn’t it just as satisfying to do something to improve patient care as it is to promote environmental protection?

Barbara is a woman who gets involved.

After a period as a university lecturer, Karuth-Zelle served as the assistant to the chief medical officer at a nonprofit dialysis organization. A desire to get back to Munich got her into health insurance at Allianz Krankenversicherung in 2000. Some of her projects: improving health management, introducing programs for chronically ill children, setting up patient advocates for severely ill patients, and establishing a special program for dialysis patients. 

An athletic balance of job and family

Ultimately Karuth-Zelle took charge of large areas of the claims department, in charge of such matters as rehabilitation, extended care and health insurance abroad: “An exciting, super time.” During which she also had her children – which occasionally raised questions like, “Can a woman really serve effectively in a prominent management position?” That’s what things were still like back then at Allianz Krankenversicherung…

Barbara, a big technology fan, cheerfully replied, “Sure it will work – if you’ll provide me with a slightly different environment.” And so they did. “During my time at Allianz I was thankful for every step forward in virtualizing work.” Because that enabled her to hold down a demanding job, yet also give her children the attention they expected in the evening. And to work while the children were asleep. “The weekends were reserved for family in any case.” But she hasn’t forgotten a Solomonic pronouncement from her son: “The worst pirate of them all is – the Blackberry Pirate” (which was managers’ common mobile communication tool in those days).

In 2007, Oliver Bäte became COO at Allianz, and needed someone to build his office team. Barbara was front and center – after many years in health economics, she was looking for a new challenge. Four years later she became Head of Transformation at Allianz Technology –then named AMOS – and in 2016 moved up to CEO there. Something she’s always appreciated at Allianz along the way: all the know-how stored up at the company. And how willing her colleagues and supervisors have always been to share that know-how with her.

An attentive listener

Barbara is a leader who listens. She enjoys talking with experts so she can get a picture of how things stand. “The challenges and problems are so complex today – no single manager can get the whole picture. Especially not in IT.” She thinks back with gratitude on all the knowledge and suggestions she’s absorbed over the course of her career, both professionally and privately. Including long talks with her supervisors.

But also Ted Talks, newspaper articles, things she’s gleaned from conversations and coaching. Her coaches encouraged her to be calmer and put herself into other people’s shoes. “There are always understandable reasons why people behave a certain way. You’ll have an easier time of it if you understand that and try to keep feelings from running too high when you’re talking together.” Those insights led her to meditation and yoga in her free time. And also to introduce the SAP personal awareness program at Allianz Technology. 

Team builder and problem solver

Another of Barbara’s outstanding qualities: she’s really good at assembling very diverse teams that complement one another well and get things done fast. She understands how to get everyone to see what value they’re contributing to the team and for themselves. The result: motivation and excellent team results. 

In fact, throughout her career Barbara has been a manager who has understood how to get things done. “But – you have to be clear about where you’re heading.” Then if problems crop up along the road, she and her people always figure out how to make them go away. 

Hobbies and recreation

How does Barbara relax when she’s off the job? Unfortunately, she can’t indulge her passion for diving much at the moment – but she loves playing tennis and skiing. Including with her children, who are growing up. She reads books on everything, especially in literature: from Austria (thanks to Christof Mascher’s recommendation), Updike, Canetti. . .  Her last book was Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side – “really wicked good.” And she loves smaller-scale indie-pop and indie-rock concerts, for example at Munich’s Muffat-Halle. And in that she also happily follows her children’s recommendations.

One of her favorite slogans is, “Good work turns out especially well when I know what I want and I’m in a good mood.”  

Barbara Karuth-Zelle is a manager who inspires good cheer. In short – a “team whisperer”.  

Written by Andreas Schüler

The Allianz Group is one of the world's leading insurers and asset managers with more than 100 million retail and corporate customers in more than 70 countries. Allianz customers benefit from a broad range of personal and corporate insurance services, ranging from property, life and health insurance to assistance services to credit insurance and global business insurance. Allianz is one of the world’s largest investors, managing 766 billion euros on behalf of its insurance customers. Furthermore, our asset managers PIMCO and Allianz Global Investors manage 1.7 trillion euros of third-party assets. Thanks to our systematic integration of ecological and social criteria in our business processes and investment decisions, we hold the leading position for insurers in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. In 2019, over 147,000 employees achieved total revenues of 142 billion euros and an operating profit of 11.9 billion euros for the group.

These assessments are, as always, subject to the disclaimer provided below.

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Christian Kroos
Allianz SE
Holger Klotz
Allianz SE
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A portrait…