Faces of HR

You Must Take Calculated Risks to Grow Yourself

As a very cautious person, I have always been fascinated by the risk-takers out there who put it all on the line to progress themselves. In this issue of “Faces of HR,” I met one such person. She was willing to take a different path to achieve her goal, even if it was risky and somewhat uncomfortable. She also firmly believes it was worth it.

Meet Tami Wolownik, Head of Human Resources for North America at Siemens Mobility.

How did you find yourself in HR?

So, I am an Indiana girl, and I went to Purdue, where I actually studied public relations and political science. At the time, I really wanted to do political campaigns and that type of thing. As I was getting ready to graduate, I realized not many people can make a living doing that. There are some but not many. So, I ended up in a management training program for an insurance company in Indianapolis. After I completed the management training program, they moved me to Chicago, where I did insurance—health insurance, life insurance, and that type of thing. I worked for that insurance company for probably 2 ½, 3 years, but it was during that time that I attended a convention where there were a lot of speakers, including from the customer side.

One of those that spoke was the executive vice president of HR for Chrysler. I happened to be in his presentation, and I was just fascinated! To be honest, I can’t even tell you exactly what he said, but I just recall being fascinated with his job, what he was doing, and the scope and accountability that he had. I thought, “You know what? I can do that! In fact, I would like to do that.”

I decided then and there and told my husband that night that I’m going to get my master’s degree. I’m going to go to the other side of the business, and I’m going to someday be in a role like the executive vice president of HR for Chrysler. That was what made me decide to do it, and I did. I got my MBA and ended up as the head of HR for my first company, Mark Controls Corporation in the Chicago area. I’ve progressed in HR through various companies and various organizations since then.

Was it everything you had dreamed of?

It has been. It has been a very fulfilling career. And I wouldn’t say it’s over.

I purposefully took a detour for a few years as well. At the time, I was the director of HR for a company called Quebecor World. The general manager approached me and asked me if I would go into the business side and become the director of customer service. Quebecor World was a printing company, and customer service in the printing industry is very much a combination of production planning and account management. I was somewhat scared to do it because I’d never really been outside of the HR arena. But one of the philosophies or tenets I believe in is that you should be willing to take risks—calculated risks—to grow yourself.

So, I did it, and I actually loved it. I ended up becoming the director of customer service for this printing company for about 6 years. We were in the Chicago area when my husband got an opportunity in Atlanta. We had three children by then, and I had not spent any time as a stay at home parent with the kids because I was so busy with my job. So, I decided to let my husband pursue his dream job and went to Atlanta expecting to spend a little bit more time with the kids. Unfortunately, my husband’s job didn’t work out. So, I went back to work and ended up with Siemens in Atlanta, and that was 2004.

Most of my career has been HR, and it has been very fulfilling. I really encourage HR practitioners who do want to understand and work most effectively with their business partners to take a step, whether it’s shorter or longer, outside of HR so they can better relate to their business partners. I feel like that was very effective for me. I think I’m stronger as an HR person because of it.

I’ve heard that is very important. One person I interviewed said she spent a month going on in-person sales calls for a new organization, and that insight helped her truly understand how money was made in the company and what works or doesn’t work.

Yes, when I was the director of customer service and not the HR person, I was that person who would get the phone call at 2 in the morning when the press went down, and the customer’s there, and unhappy because they had been there for 5 hours, and unable get to the color approval for another 10 hours or whatever, and it’s interrupting that person’s whole day.

In other words, I’m the one who dealt with unhappy customers and with production delays and the impact they had on customers’ schedules. But the good thing is I think that gave me credibility when I went back into the HR arena with my business partners; I understood the importance of understanding and focusing on good business.

I’m sure being a customer service director had a lot of crossover with HR.

Yes. Account management, good customer relationships, absolutely. In fact, I frequently find myself telling my team stories about things that happened when I was in customer service and making an analogy of how that might be a way to deal with a difficult employee or a difficult manager, as it was the same way I had my customer service folks deal with difficult customers. So yes, there is definitely some crossover.

How have things been going for you recently? I assume the coronavirus has offered some challenges for you.

We are like every company. The coronavirus has definitely had an impact. Of course, it’s a horrible situation we’re in, and we’re always concerned about the health and safety of our employees. But there’s a silver lining in that there are some positives that have come out of it: I think it’s really brought our executive leadership team together. We’ve really had to work very closely to make sure we’re aligned and connected on what to do. It was something we’d never dealt with, and we were meeting, at first, daily, but that wasn’t always enough.

Often, we would meet hourly as an executive leadership team just talking about how we’re going to proceed and what we’re going to do. All of this was new to us, as it was to everybody else out there. But we worked very closely together to get it done.

I think another positive that has come out of this is a new level of trust and empowerment that has been required by our leadership, as well as our managers and supervisors throughout the organization. They’ve had to learn a completely new way of working with their employees and leading. It’s now more about focusing on outcomes rather than on seeing people every day putting in time in front of the computer or the task they’re doing.

In fact, about a month ago, Siemens globally announced it is going to a permanent new-normal working model. That working model is one that’s based on trust and empowerment, and it’s telling our employees that we’re OK with a model that says they would work remotely 2 to 3 days, on average per week, and come into the office or their assigned location for collaboration and critical meetings. It acknowledges that remote working works and allows us to be highly productive. So, yes, the coronavirus has been horrible, but I think we have turned it into something positive in terms of how we now work with our employees and relate and recognize they are still very vested in this company.

Have you given any thought to the relationship between outcome-based successes for employees and their degree to which they can be present at work? Before, the equivalency of hard work may have been a combination of how much time someone put into his or her job combined with how successful the person was. Now, some people maybe don’t have 40 hours to give because they have kids at home or they’re taking care of an elderly parent; maybe they’re only putting 25 hours of work in but still achieving those outcomes. Have you guys given any thought to how you’re going to reward employees going forward based on outcomes and how you’re going to make sure that people who don’t have as much time as others are still going to be able to have opportunities?

Yes. I mean, the first and most important thing is that every manager be connected to his or her employees individually and not just as a group and that each understands the environment each employee is in. There needs to be a good open dialogue about what employees need and what the manager needs. They need to be in agreement and aligned on what needs to be accomplished. I think once there’s agreement on that, there can be agreement about what the employees want to do in the future; whether they want to continue to work in their current role for an extended period of time or they want to move up or around the organization.

Then, the recognition comes as outputs of that conversation. Recognition isn’t always compensation. It can be, but recognition is also about getting out of an employee’s way, letting the person perform, letting the person be recognized, and be seen for what they are capable of. It means putting them into roles or letting roles develop for the person that takes advantage of his or her strengths. I think it’s up to managers to understand how to manage that individually, as opposed to a peanut butter spread across the organization and the idea that the only way people in an organization succeed is if they all do the same things. No, that’s not going to be the right approach. If you understand people have different strengths, different capabilities, and a different bandwidth and you set them up for success or get out of their way for success within those parameters, then you’re going to be able to recognize that—perhaps in compensation—but also in opportunity and the responsibilities you continue to give them and the recognition.

I find with my team that a lot of times, the visibility that comes from being in front of the executive leadership in the company is one of the most rewarding aspects of their job. When others on the executive leadership team compliment them or engage with them in a fascinating dialogue around a topic or something they’ve been working on, they’re on a high from that for days—which carries them over into the next assignment.

You’re going to see a lot of people being held back in their professional development in ways that are going to be very hard to identify, but they’ll be real, especially in aggregate across the entire country. And they will fall among certain demographics more than others, especially among single mothers, people of color, and single mothers of color.

We’re really trying to raise awareness about that. You might think that a global pandemic would perhaps not be the right time to really reinvigorate some of our diversity efforts. But in fact, that’s exactly what we’ve done. The strong emotions around these issues affected us to do more: we restructured our diversity, equity, and inclusion council to form a strategic taskforce to address this issue more broadly, with champions at each of our sites.

We’re also looking to make sure people are aware of biases and that they know how to have courageous conversations around these topics, being open to hearing diverse viewpoints but also having the courage to counter biases and approaches that are just not consistent with our values. We absolutely believe we get strength from diversity—diversity of thought, diversity of background, diversity of experience, and ethnic diversity. We believe that makes us a stronger organization.

So, we have to say what we believe and be willing to back that up. We’re working with our managers to understand how to have those courageous conversations, how to counter biases, and how to really self-examine whether we have those biases. Again, that kind of goes back into our new normal model as well because we’re really working with managers to help them understand that outcomes are different from presence every day in front of you. Outcomes are: How did they drive the business? How did they contribute to the business? How did they contribute to a critical project? You didn’t have to see their faces to know what happened. So, yeah, we’re really trying to counter that. Are we 100% there yet? Of course not.

But we’ve made positive strides.

It’s very rewarding to see executive leadership taking up that mantle. I participate in an executive roundtable in the Atlanta area. It’s a best-practice-sharing kind of networking group. Some of the stories from that roundtable that talk about how their executives aren’t empowering the organization and aren’t open to new ways of doing things are heartbreaking. I have to be honest: My chest kind of puffs out with pride when I talk about Siemens, particularly Siemens Mobility. I’m most proud of how open our leadership has been to moving forward and challenging old ideas. So, it’s really been rewarding.

It takes courage, as an individual or as an organization, to shine a light on yourself like that. Some are just not willing to do that introspection because introspection means you might find a weakness or other unsavory things about yourself. Yet, it is so important. I’m sure you’ve learned that well-operated diversity does a lot more than just finding and supporting diversity. There are a lot of parallels with building company culture and tackling employee engagement. I’m sure you all have learned a lot about yourselves over these last months. Can you talk about that a little bit?

I would say that we were very surprised by how some of our “old-school” leaders in the organization were open to trying to do things differently. In initial conversations we would have, some people would openly say, “What if the employees take advantage of me, and they don’t really give me 8 solid hours?” Sometimes, the conversation we had then was—What if it’s not 8 solid hours? What if it’s 4 hours and 2 hours and 2 hours, or what if it’s 12 hours on 1 day and then 3 hours on another? We would challenge those ideas, and we’d say, “What was it you wanted them to accomplish at the end of 5 8-hour days or 5 days in front of you? What was it they would accomplish?”

We kept getting that back to them, really focusing on a result. Inevitably, they’d come up with things like “Well, the project plan would be completed, or I’d know they talked to the customer because I saw them talking to the customer.” Then, we’d ask them questions like “Well, how can you be sure now that the customer’s getting what he or she needs? Do you still see a project plan and that type of thing?”

Yes, we had to lead them down that path. But we got our managers and our supervisors to think in different ways.

It was really rewarding to see that transformation. We’re still not there completely. It’s definitely out of some managers’ comfort zones, but they’re getting pushed on it out of necessity, right? I don’t want to say it’s just because HR and others are doing a good job of convincing them. It’s out of necessity.