Siemens CEO Barbara Humpton: “Speak up and be brave”

“Speak up and be brave” are words I live by. At meetings I used to hesitate and hold back ideas. I wouldn’t say what I was thinking. I wouldn’t ask my questions. Now I no longer hesitate. I’ve gained the confidence to believe that what I have to say has value and that it will make a difference. Now my favorite thing to hear, at this stage in my life and career, is that my words have inspired someone else.

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“Speak up and be brave” are words I live by. At meetings I used to hesitate and hold back ideas. I wouldn’t say what I was thinking. I wouldn’t ask my questions. Now I no longer hesitate. I’ve gained the confidence to believe that what I have to say has value and that it will make a difference. Now my favorite thing to hear, at this stage in my life and career, is that my words have inspired someone else.

I had the pleasure to interview Barbara Humpton, the CEO of Siemens USA. Siemens is the largest industrial manufacturing company in Europe.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us about your journey to becoming CEO?

a. When I was studying math in college, I thought I was on the trajectory to become a math professor like both of my parents. But IBM back in the early 1980s was hiring as many math majors as they could find to get into software development. And when they brought a bus down to my school, I got on the bus, having no idea where it would lead me.

My first job got me into working on national security projects. Over time I advanced into senior leadership roles at Lockheed Martin and Booz Allen Hamilton. Then in 2011, I moved to Siemens. I became CEO of our division that serves the U.S. federal market. Then this past June I was appointed CEO of Siemens USA, providing me with this amazing opportunity to lead 50,000 people in our company’s largest market.

I’ve always approached each position as if it was the most important job in the company and might be the pinnacle of my career. Along the way some said I lingered too long in certain positions. In retrospect, those long assignments were valuable for building the experience I’d need as a CEO.

What is your definition of success?

a. Being able to say, “We achieved what we set out to accomplish.” It’s that simple for me. The first job of any leader is to have a vision for what can be accomplished and then set challenging, achievable goals with the team. Success comes when those goals are achieved.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

a. I was surprised by what I’ll call the hometown reaction to my recent appointment to CEO. People I grew up with were really excited for me, and reached out to let me know. People I went to high school with — who now work for different global companies — wrote to me to say congratulations and wish me well. These were people I hadn’t had the chance to connect with in a long time.

What failures have you had along the way? How have they led you to success?

a. When I was working as a software programmer at IBM, I had a male mentor tell me I had to choose between being a mother or an executive. I knew I wanted to be both. I wanted to have a family and a successful career. But early in my career, it was rare for women to be both. So the way I failed was that I initially accepted his comment as fact. But ultimately I’m not a quitter. That and having a strong support network at home — and even at work — really helped me and fueled my ambition.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

a. When I was software programmer, I initially thought the work was a bit of a grind. But I remember one day when a senior engineer called our team together and told us that our technology has been used to locate and save a fighter pilot who had been shot down behind enemy lines. He then added: That young pilot was my nephew. We couldn’t believe it. That day taught me the real purpose of working on technology.

Relating that to Siemens, I feel that same sense of purpose each day. Improving lives and creating value for society leads the core business and guides our innovation strategy.

Siemens has a long history of advancing the critical infrastructure and technology to support modern life, from power plants to rail systems and buildings. We’re still a hardware company, but now we’ve also reinvented ourselves to rank among the top-10 software companies in the world. That gives us new tools to serve customers, but also to drive forward our purpose and our mission to positively impact the world.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

a. One thing we’re doing is helping customers deploy the power systems of the future. The power market is seeing the value of supplementing central power grid connections with regional systems such as microgrids or combined heat and power facilities. These are smaller systems, yet they’re a huge step forward for cleaner power and being able to maintain power during natural disasters or severe weather. Take the devastation from Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico last September. As the island was plunged into darkness, a customer using our combined heat and power solution, Olein Refinery, maintained operations throughout the ordeal and had a record-breaking month that October.

We want to make it easier for our customers to innovate and pursue big ideas. We’ve designed a cloud-based City Air Management Tool, with the help of sensors spread throughout a city, to help mayors and other officials evaluate pollution data and formulate solutions to drive change and even save lives.

Another way we’re doing this is through our Product Lifecycle Management, or PLM, software, which enables customers to create digital twins of products. They’re now using PLM to rapidly test and even 3D print new products. An automotive start-up, Hackrod, is using PLM to create the world’s first car designed in virtual reality, then 3D print it in full size. Another customer, ONE Aviation, is leveraging the software to build the world’s first very light jet.

Is your company working to be more sustainable? If so, how?

a. Siemens has committed to cutting our carbon footprint in half by 2020 and to being net-zero by 2030. We’re on track with this goal. And it’s a pretty significant undertaking. We have more than 300 global manufacturing plants, and manufacturing requires a lot of energy. Our carbon footprint when we started out was roughly equal to Washington, D.C.’s. So far we’ve already cut our emissions by more than a quarter.

We’re doing this because we believe it’s the right thing to do for the planet. But what we really want to show is that achieving a net-zero carbon footprint is also a good business decision. We’ve already calculated that our initial investment in our sustainability goals will pay for itself within 5 years and produce significant energy savings going forward. We want to successfully demonstrate that the technology to drastically reduce emissions is already in the marketplace. There are fuel efficient gas turbines. There are optimized drive technologies for manufacturers. There are building automation solutions.

And that’s another important piece of building the case for sustainability: not only do you do what’s right for future generation and drive out costs; you also optimize your technology.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

a. It’s clear that every business requires a variety of functions and disciplines. You need experts in many different areas. So I’m surprised when I hear someone talk about an organization and describe “the core business” and “support functions.” Too often when they talk about the support functions, they use the word “just.” I’ll hear people say, “Well, I’m just a support person.” But I think you can draw employees in and get better results when they understand that their expertise is essential for optimal performance. My advice is: make it a central part of your communications to your team that every person, and every part of the business, is integral to the company’s overall success.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

a. For me it’s my family. My two children and my husband, David, have been my support system throughout my career. My children, I think, understood how passionate I was about my career. I did have to make sacrifices, in terms of missing certain things at home, but I can remember them saying, “Mom, what you do is really cool.” I’m lucky, I guess, that they were as proud of me as I’ve always been of them. Then David has always encouraged me to follow my passion as well — and I’ll add, especially when I was told, “Hey, you’d make a great math teacher,” or, “Hey, you know, we’re not sure if you’re up to this,” or when I was simply pushed to stay at home with the kids, as I mentioned. He would always just say to me, “You love what you do. Keep doing it.” That was all I needed to hear.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

a. I’m lucky in that I’ve been able to do it directly through my work. From the beginning and throughout most of my career, all of my work revolved around national security. I got to help bring the global positioning system to life. I was able to work on border protection, and on law enforcement applications as biometrics became more mature. And now I’m getting to work on global security. Because at Siemens, even in focusing on the U.S. market, our work revolves around global megatrends such as climate change, urbanization and changing demographics that are of monumental concern to the world.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

You’re not really the only CEO, and that’s a good thing: Large organizations are an aggregation of many, many smaller organizations. So I’ve learned quickly that, while CEO is an impressive job title, in reality there are many “CEOs” throughout a company, and each leader represents the company culture. As the full organization’s CEO then, the most important thing I can do is ensure strong alignment among my leaders.

Don’t let things linger. When in doubt, take action: When leaders in your organization don’t align with you, the sooner you correct that, the healthier your business will be in the long run. Too often we say, “Oh, that person will learn. They’ll change.” But once you actually make the change, your organization will thank you for it, and sometimes even the person who wasn’t aligned with you will thank you for it as well.

You won’t need new tools to solve problems; the ones you know already work: I participated in the Fortune CEO Initiative, and I got to see well-known CEOs form working groups and create action plans. They thought about solving problems in the same way I did in my very first assignment to a programming team at IBM.

Positive thoughts really are powerful: I found a coach a couple years ago who encouraged me to learn about the law of attraction. The idea is to focus on the positive things that you want to happen. Any time you start worrying that something won’t happen, get that thought out of your head. Focus intensely on the outcomes that you do want and things will fall into place.

Don’t fret: To anyone trying to climb the ladder, my one core piece of advice is: don’t fret. It’s amazing how much opportunity there is out there. Don’t worry about if you’re taking the right steps. Don’t worry about if you’re working with the right people. All of that isn’t worth the time and energy. Focus on doing great work.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

a. I would inspire the movement I’m a part of right now. Coming back to megatrends, Siemens provides such a powerful platform to positively impact people and the world. We know the energy landscape is changing dramatically. We know that the Internet of Things presents enormous opportunities for every sector of our economy. We know that healthcare needs are morphing and changing. And at Siemens, what we’re also learning is that digital technologies provide us with the tools to both address these megatrends and tackle challenges that have long been out of our reach. That’s a movement I want to be a part of.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

a. “Speak up and be brave” are words I live by. At meetings I used to hesitate and hold back ideas. I wouldn’t say what I was thinking. I wouldn’t ask my questions. Now I no longer hesitate. I’ve gained the confidence to believe that what I have to say has value and that it will make a difference. Now my favorite thing to hear, at this stage in my life and career, is that my words have inspired someone else.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this.

a. A colleague and I went to see “RBG” [the movie about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg] the other night. And I actually thought while watching the movie how much I would love to sit down with her. The way she drove change was so remarkably strategic. She was able to see the full landscape and all the fronts she had to win. She was part of movements in the 1960s and 1970s that shaped my thinking as a young woman: it made me believe that I could go as far as I wanted — and was willing — to go. She also used her gifts as a lawyer to make sure the law would support that level of ambition as well.

So I’d love to hear her thoughts on strategic thinking. And by the way, our offices are just a short walk apart. Whenever she has an open lunch recess, all I need is 10 minutes notice.

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