Effective leadership in the age of COVID-19

Effective leadership in the age of COVID-19

By: John Karczmarczyk, Vice President, Smart Infrastructure Building Products Business

In my 40 years at Siemens, I’ve seen a lot. Organizational changes. Leadership changes. New technologies. Mergers. Acquisitions. Great years. Bad years. But I’ve never seen anything like what we’re going through now. And when this pandemic started, I can honestly say, it threw us for a bit of a loop. But, we’ve all adjusted, made changes, acted quickly—and safely—to do what’s right for our business and our people. I’ve had to make adjustments in my role, for sure, but there’s one thing I learned a long time ago that remains the same: Leaders cannot lead from the rear. Those of us in leadership roles must be present and out front with our people.


As we work remotely, and have our own individual struggles in the pandemic, business-unit cohesion will feel some strain. Now, more than ever, clear communication and common goals are essential. When teams, programs, and entire business units operate with a clear understanding of common goals is when an organization is really executing. Ensuring that understanding is a key part of my job.

If I’ve learned one thing about how to effectively lead, it’s this: trust your gut. Assess all the inputs you have and make your decision with all your goals in mind. And as a back-up, surround yourself with people whose opinion you trust and respect.

That’s a main reason I spend a good deal of time doing walk-arounds to talk with people in the Building Products factory and warehouse here at Buffalo Grove, Illinois. Showing up in person—albeit a safe six feet away with the proper face mask—on the production floor is one of the simplest ways to take action on what I hear. It allows me to quickly understand what people are frustrated about and what they need from me. I take the feedback to my team, and where we can, we take action to make the change. You have to talk to people and get to know them to have a better picture of what they’re up against. Especially now when we’re faced with stress and angst related to COVID, balancing work and life, and in some instances parenting and teaching full time, too.


I’m also a big believer in recognizing people who get the job done. In February, the BP leadership team, senior finance director Nico Von Delius and I, launched an employee recognition program called Ring the Bell (RTB). Any employee in the BP organization can nominate another employee to be recognized for high performance. When we started out, the three areas that we focused on were: utilizing technology, process improvements, and customer satisfaction. Since COVID-19 and the implementation of Shelter in Place, we’ve expanded that to recognize our people across even more topics. In the first six weeks alone we had over 100 nominations. 


One thing you’ll find out quickly when you meet me is that when I say something, I really mean it. So, when I say, “Ring the bell,” I really mean it. We ring a giant brass bell that hangs in our factory to recognize our folks across the business. We stop production, we bring the office workers into the factory, and with everyone’s attention we introduce the nominees, give a brief overview of their achievements, and ring the bell—loudly. Even with more than half the workforce working from home, we have continued RTB. Most recently, we had 174 people attend a virtual RTB ceremony using Microsoft Teams. 


I’m lucky in that I’ve moved around Siemens a good deal, and I have a wide variety of experience I can lean on to help me communicate and navigate challenging times. I went to work for Texas Instruments back in 1979, as a newly minted engineering graduate, and was working in industrial automation when Siemens bought that division in 1991. I spent my first 18 years with Siemens in the factory automation business. I helped run the medium-voltage business in Wendell, North Carolina, for two years. Four years ago, I arrived in Buffalo Grove.


In all that time, if I’ve learned one thing about how to effectively lead, it’s this: trust your gut. Assess all the inputs you have and make your decision with all your goals in mind. And as a back-up, surround yourself with people whose opinion you trust and respect. 


Last, but not least: no one has ever told me that you can’t have fun while doing your job.