In the last 170 years, Siemens has grown into a global manufacturing powerhouse and digital pioneer in electrification and automation; enabling enterprises to become more productive, efficient and flexible.
In the latest instalment from our Transformational Leaders series, David Thomas, Partner in Berwick Partners’ Manufacturing and Engineering Practice, spoke with Brian Holliday about leadership in a crisis. Brian is a member of the Executive Management Board of Siemens plc and Managing Director for Siemens Digital Industries, which serves the manufacturing and infrastructure sectors. He is also Chairman of Siemens Industry Software UK. In addition he is a supervisory board member for the High Value Manufacturing Catapult and main board member for Make UK, the Manufacturers’ Organisation.
A Chartered Engineer and Fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, Brian started his career with Texas Instruments and went on to study Computer Systems at Cardiff University before joining Siemens in 1993. He attained his Executive MBA at Manchester Business School in 2000 and in 2014 became a graduate of the CBI’s Executive Leadership Programme.
How have you adapted to the current circumstances?
Our first focus and priority was keeping our people safe. We managed to keep production going globally with clear purpose in our factories; for example, Siemens Healthineers’ work in blood gas analysis had a clear role to play in COVID testing. At our Inverter factory at Siemens Congleton we have been running at about 80% capacity with a reduced staff base, but our teams have really stepped up to enable the business to function.
Siemens has not stopped although we did have to undertake furloughing in some specific areas. Most of what we are doing has continued, with our office staff working from home. There will be a challenge as we deal with balancing health risks and people’s concerns alongside a phased return to the office.
The messaging from Government could have been clearer, but I of course appreciate this is an unprecedented crisis. As employers, we must find the right balance of pragmatism and management of the health & safety risk and I recognise the palpable sense of fear brought about by this tragedy, particularly where people have lost loved ones. We have listened carefully to Government advice and adhered accordingly. I have been encouraged however that Industrial Strategy has now been geared around Response, Scale Up and Recovery which should aid business continuity for manufacturers. We have also heeded lessons learnt from operations in our global network who have been affected at different times.
When it comes to leadership we have to consider the broad range of views from across our workforce, those with immediate family concerns and those who are desperate to return to work. It is a profoundly difficult time and messaging is vital, any reflection regarding leadership has to consider the gravity of the situation – lives are being lost. We need to re-assure people and understand the sense of fear brought about by the seriousness of the situation. I take that role very seriously as a leader in our company. We all have a responsibility to listen carefully to what the Government is saying and to relay what we are learning from colleagues around the world. Our business briefings have been open and I would rather be told I am overcommunicating than feel I have left someone feeling uninformed.
The biggest leadership step I have seen through this is a profound shift to ‘being a human being first’, connecting with people at a much more personal level. We have also recently had critical topics around inclusion and equality come to the fore. The emphasis on emotional literacy in a modern leader has never been more important. Caring about people matters, it is not just about the numbers. When we see deficiencies in leadership it erodes confidence.
There is a greater responsibility for leaders to share what is going on, to be able to provide reassurance and some degree of encouragement to those around them. I am sure this has been incredibly difficult in sectors in the UK economy hit hardest by the current crisis. Automotive, civil aviation, travel and hospitality for example, have been badly affected so I'm conscious that I'm speaking from a perspective where we're having a tough time, but not an existential threat. Perspective is vital as industries look to the future.
If you were looking at your identikit leader of the future, what attributes would you prioritise?
I was struck years ago by a report written for Government by David MacLeod and Nita Clark entitled ‘Engaging for Success’. If you can find a way to engage people fully it is astonishing what can be achieved. Engaged employees are much more productive employees and I've seen this as we contributed to the national effort in response to COVID; bringing our engineering and manufacturing capability to the Ventilator Challenge UK.
The criticality of the project created unbelievable focus, it was evident what was needed and this brought very clear purpose. We had no hierarchy because we weren't one company, rather a consortium with lots of people showing incredible engagement with the task at hand. Everybody, from the legal and contract teams, to the programme management office, to engineering and manufacturing were collaborating and working around the clock to solve the problem. I think that leadership in the future needs to be about framing the challenge and helping people deliver their best. The leaders’ role is to support the effort, remove barriers, cultivate collaboration and facilitate people to bring their ‘A game’ to a problem.
I think we are seeing a dramatic shift from leadership that is directive and detail oriented to flexible leadership that supports and encourages activity and celebrates the success that follows. Competing corporations driven by profit for their shareholders need to reflect on how they can form cooperative ecosystems to make progress. In the manufacturing space we are seeing industrial technology play a greater role and this is likely to accelerate as we adjust to increased remote working.
What about the evolution of the team?
There is a significant appetite globally for skills development with thousands of engineers taking time to improve their digital fitness around topics such as Industry 4.0, Industrial Edge Computing, Sensing, Advanced Automation, AI, Cloud Platforms and Data Analytics. Remote contribution and collaboration through ecosystems may prove to be our new normal. Digital tools and technology lend themselves to this in the design of more sustainable products and manufacturing environments, using real-time data to drive better, more efficient decision making. This has the dual benefit of improving the bottom line and utilising the planet’s resources wisely.
Companies will need to become more agile as they adapt and innovate in a world where industrial technology mirrors the software world we have become used to in our computing and mobile devices. A good example is the use of HoloLens during the Ventilator Challenge, enhancing the pace of remote collaboration for tasks that previously necessitated face-to-face contact.
It may be that COVID has fast forwarded the future with the ability to connect with customers remotely and still service their requirements. We have seen customers that have been happy to be supported by teams that are in Germany or India, rather than in the UK, connected through appropriate technology. Necessity has bred the advancement of clever new ways to do things online.
In our sales function we subscribe to the challenger sales methodology, complexity and access to information is changing how people procure. Emotional intelligence and subject matter knowledge is critical, but we have to recognise that it is currently even more difficult to arrange a first meeting. The natural consequence of lockdown is an acceleration of procurement decisions being made in advance of face to face contact. We believe that currently somewhere in the region of 57% of customers will take an advanced look at you online before they pick up the phone or arrange a meeting. This is likely to increase and means organisations have to focus on their content, not just listing the features and benefits of a given product, but also promoting its true value add. The sales conversation of the future is still important, but needs to be digitally connected. This could be your social media channels, other online content, content rich webinars and of course face to face interaction where possible. Sales is always about connecting the right person to the right customer at the right time to solve the need, but the delivery mechanisms are evolving.
As an industry we have made great strides in encouraging school leavers and university graduates to consider careers in manufacturing. Flexible working is something that we're having to find ways to accommodate better. Prior to lockdown this was for reasons of inclusion, too many groups were excluded as the working patterns in manufacturing were too rigid. The content of the work is really interesting and can be socially purposeful, however attracting people into engineering also requires continued focus on optimum flexibility whether in the office or manufacturing environment. Creating agile teams will help encourage the next generation and the way they want to contribute to the world of work, judged on output not a rigid nine to five.
I want my teams to contribute when they are functioning at their best and that's why I encourage them to put email signatures on every email to say that we are working flexibly and response will be timely but not necessarily in line with the working hours of the sender. We have to think about what works best for individuals and teams, for some that will be getting back to the office, for others it will be finding a way to better balance family and work commitments. We need to be more accommodating to maintain productivity and grow. There will be obvious exceptions such as production and some services but there is real impetus to find new ways of working and we want to encourage this. I have personally found great benefit in not being away from home two to three nights in the week (which was very normal), providing proximity to family and a chance to exercise every day. This has been profoundly positive for my mental health and as a leader I do want to see how we can harness productivity whilst ensuring the best staff welfare.
How do you recommend organisations improve their digital fitness, regarding both people skills and use of technology?
I reflect on Siemens’ journey and the reality is we are still as likely to be known for our electric motors and the things we were doing in the last century, as we are for what we have been doing more recently. Our transition has been one from electrification, generators and motors, power transmission and distribution systems; to automation. This has helped our company grow what is essentially ubiquitous technology that helps industry globally to produce products or control industrial processes. Today, digitalisation is one of the key drivers for our organisation.
We are an organisation that's invested over $10bn in the last 10 years on software companies, in the process becoming a very different entity – one that now has a firm foothold in the use and development of digital technologies. What is vital is that you must evolve but we have not lost sight of the engineering skills that we need when it comes to supporting our customers across our broad range of activities. We are constantly reviewing our own digital maturity levels. We provide online content for employees, providing sense checks of capability against an assessment of what we think a digitally savvy person can contribute.
Self-sufficiency when it comes to using the technology is important, equally we want people who can help customers by translating the potential benefits of the latest industrial technologies. That means that we've got to be ahead of our customers in our understanding, and walk the talk in our own factories. We must be able to use the tools to show what is required to drive productivity and sustainability benefits, ensuring future growth.
Our own people are on a journey to make sure they are confident and competent to talk about the future of industrial digital technology. This isn’t something that is happening just inside Siemens, we are both a manufacturer and evangelist. We have seen there is high appetite for digital fitness, witnessed through the incredibly high interest levels for our online digital talk series, where over 5,000 have attended since lockdown began. People want to hear about cloud and edge technologies, artificial intelligence, advanced automation and the like. It’s one of the many reasons why Made Smarter, for which I am a commissioner, and the Enginuity Organisation have worked hard to make available lots of online subject matter. This content will tell you all about different technologies and how they can support a raft of activities, such as product life cycle management or design capability.
This isn't just a topic for my organisation, it's a topic for the industry as a whole which the Made Smarter Commission has already identified. We could actually be making greater progress if we had more knowledge of the benefits of technology investment applied in the right way to industry, so I am a keen supporter and advocate for improving skills and infrastructure. I also personally challenge myself to be able to keep up, stay relevant and bring people in my organisation with me.
As a leader how do you empower and encourage others?
My personal philosophy throughout my career, as an engineer and latterly in leadership roles has always been to not ask someone to do something I wouldn't do myself. I don’t believe there is a need to be over-bearing or controlling, people want space to deliver. I do believe in setting clear goals and then engaging with teams to ensure their best ideas are encouraged. It is vital to check in and to celebrate success. I think engagement builds a self-sufficient culture and then, once you have this embedded, it becomes much easier to sustain people’s effort and enthusiasm. I've known very few people in the course of my career who came to work to do a bad job so I think leaders need to find the best way to connect.
I am also a big believer in looking at personality types and the way that each individual wants to contribute. Flexible working hours or people needing to balance home and work life has been topical in this discussion, but contribution styles can also vary hugely. For example, when gathering a team I will always have a proportion of the room that are introverts that might not want to speak up in the moment, but might reflect on the topic and come back later with a fantastic contribution. I don't mind making a call afterwards to those I know were quiet and I will typically receive lots of rich information doing this.
I have really benefited from the ‘Strength Deployment Inventory (SDI)’ model to recognise peoples’ strengths and developmental areas (including my own!) and how they might respond to situations when things are going both well and badly. Recognising different approaches is critical to understanding how you might be able to adapt to achieve a successful outcome.
What do you think you or your business might do differently in the future as a result of this crisis?
One of the aspects of the last few months is I have personally spent more time talking to team members about things outside work. Leadership visibility becomes even more important during a crisis. In the past we have probably been very focused on getting the job done but I can see less separation between home and work in the future. We have been running more regular team briefings since lockdown, in recognition of higher levels of anxiety regarding what is happening to the company and the people within it. We have engaged in a much more personal way, understanding how people are coping and developing greater empathy for each other. We only then move into functional updates. I would like to think we will retain this priority in the future, first enquiring how everyone is and whether they are safe; not just in our company but also when dealing with others.
From a business perspective I suspect we will become more unreasonable (in a good way) because we have been able to see the art of the possible played out. If I qualify that statement, at the Digital Industries factory in Congleton we develop inverter drives; power electronics units that offer control and sustainability benefits by reducing the energy consumed through industrial motors. In the future we are going to want to accelerate our development. Relatively recently, it took us nine months to design, verify and commission a new line for production. The Ventilator Challenge UK came along and the imperative to save lives was clear. A team from Congleton with digital design and verification skills worked in collaboration with Airbus and within 48 hours they had built the model that gave the Penlon Consortium the confidence to proceed with their ventilator. It was three weeks from the start of the challenge to working lines producing ventilator components. When it mattered, and the right people with common sense of purpose were in place, we saw that digital tools combined with people skills could make a dramatic difference to the pace of delivery. I am not sure I will expect this kind of timeline, but this experience will challenge us to exhibit more inventiveness and speed in the future. The industrial digital technology benefits that companies can unlock have a massive future role to play.
In conjunction with Government and organisations like The HVM Catapult, Made Smarter, Enginuity and Make UK, there is a real opportunity to invigorate UK industry and embrace new ways of working. Hackathons that we have undertaken with next generation talent have been inspiring and proven the potential of agile thinking and collaborative problem solving when supported in the right way. Younger people have been disproportionately impacted by COVID and yet have made a significant contribution. Having set up a difficult challenge to a team whose backgrounds varied from electrical engineering to physics, control and automation, their variety of skills came together to reduce calibration time from over an hour to two minutes, in four days of work. We can achieve remarkable things when we harness talent.
David Thomas is a Partner at Berwick Partners, focused on supporting organisations with key leadership appointments within the manufacturing space.