You Must Take Calculated Risks to Grow Yourself

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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…

Source: HR Daily Advisor

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