Amith Singh - From South Africa to Newcastle
After being in operational roles for his whole career, Amith Singh moved from South Africa to Newcastle in March to head the strategy and innovation team at Siemens Power Generation Services. He reflects on the change in culture, what he’s learned from the past and the role of leaders today.
I was born under apartheid in South Africa and grew up there in an all Indian community and education system. I’m third generation South African: my great grandparents were brought over from India by the British in the mid-nineteenth century to work on the sugar cane plantations in Durban.
Owning a home was the most important thing in my family. I grew up with my grandparents and rarely saw my mother and father because they worked such long hours. We eventually moved into our own home when I was seven. They sacrificed a lot for me to go to university and I went the year apartheid ended.
Engineering was one of few careers my Indian community knew about. An older cousin, the first in our family to go to university and a great mentor to me, recommended I studied the subject and I always looked up to him. He’s now the CEO of Dulux and I can still pick up the phone to him for advice.
Eskom sponsored me through my degree and I then worked at one of their power stations where I was project lead for the turbine centre line. You need to know the technical side of a business before moving into management. I’d find it difficult to lead a team of engineers without understanding what they do or what inspires them. I still delve into the technical detail of new products. Engineers have curious minds and always want to learn new things.
Millennials and Generation Z want a different culture. They’re not interested in hierarchies and being micro-managed. They want a task they’re accountable for and they want a reward, but they want freedom too. I’ve changed jobs every two or three years but the cycle for them is getting even shorter. Mentors play a great role in helping new graduates to quickly find their feet.
I moved away from the power industry and into soft drinks for a while. At SABMiller I had the task of improving the productivity of a 24/7 packaging line. Whilst working at Turbomeca, a French manufacturer of gas turbine engines, I’d brought back benchmarking techniques and best practices from a site in Biarritz to South Africa, and that experience proved invaluable for the efficiency challenge at SABMiller.
My career with Siemens began at a factory in Johannesburg where I was responsible for a major stator rewind project. A year later, at 32, I was leading the Siemens Power Generation team in South Africa where a big focus was replicating best practices across the five stations we maintained.
I believe in embedding myself as part of the team. I don’t see myself sitting up above and meddling but rather as a facilitator who helps people succeed. If I do that well then I’ll do myself out of a job: the team won’t need me and it’ll be time for me to move on and create the space for others to develop.
When a Siemens delegation to Berlin arose it was too good to turn down. It was a chance to switch from steam to gas and to work in sales and marketing for Field Service. I made acquaintances there that I’ll have for life; they’re more like family. In the UK people are open and friendly but after you leave work, that’s it. Germany has a different culture.
Diversity is important to Siemens and I think that’s something the UK still has to work on. My grandmother ran a café in South Africa where everyone came – blacks, Indians, whites – and they all got to see the world from different perspectives. That’s inspired me to always want to learn about other cultures.
I challenged traditional boundaries when I married. I’m Hindi whereas my wife is Tamil and in India, with the caste system, we would never have married but I slowly won my family round. I don’t need to fit in to any one system. The more you invite people in and listen, the more you break down boundaries.
After Berlin I spent five years as head of manufacturing for Siemens in South Africa. We had a huge task to improve on-time delivery, quality, cost and productivity as well as customer satisfaction. One priority was adopting a single planning and control system that gave us visibility of our performance from enquiry to delivery, but of course people are the vital ingredient. You need a team of positive people that want to learn and to share knowledge.
The change management aspect of this new role was a big attraction. The business is going through a lot of change right now and we have to focus on what we need to do, rather than what’s nice to have: what can we stop doing and still achieve the same end result? Generating reports, for example, is one activity that consumes people’s days. We need a single management system where all the information is in one place, and we must look to digital solutions.
Having a speak-up culture is essential. After we’ve completed a seven week mapping of our current business processes, we’ll need to go deeper to look at the undercurrents and ensure everyone’s voice is heard. Then we’ll look at the pain points, the burning issues, and see what we can do differently.
Customers want the best solution. Where it comes from – Newcastle, Mulheim, Berlin, Orlando – doesn’t matter. We can only give them that by benchmarking our performance with others and reaching out to them. Being more responsive, flexible and agile is all part of our restructuring programme.
I was a bad listener early in my career. Experience teaches you that there are others with better ideas and greater knowledge. You can’t know everything. Something a lot of management teams could learn is to listen more than talk.
I always carry a notebook. I write things down in meetings and digest them afterwards. You can’t have people committing to something and then going away and forgetting. We all need to be accountable. It builds trust and respect.
What if we had leaders without titles? I see myself as a coach for the strategy and innovation team. I provide direction and the right environment and ensure the output is correct, but I’m a facilitator not a micro-manager. I trust my people 100%. It’s impossible for me to be on top of everything.
I come from a third world country where you fight for everything. It’s a ‘do it, and do it as quickly as you can’ culture. In a first world country, everything works but it takes so long to get there. Getting from A to B fills three weeks when it could maybe have been solved with two phone calls and a chat. It’s hard to adjust to that. I’m impatient to get things sorted.
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