“The ’30 by 30′ initiative really supports the transformational change we’re working towards in this industry,” says Alex Smith, Managing Director of Volkswagen Group UK. “It’s fundamentally important, but I think we have some way to go. Recent surveys suggest women only make up about 16% of employees in Automotive, which is obviously far from representative of the human population!”
Alex draws his conclusions from the changes he has seen throughout his career in the automotive sector, ranging from his early years in sales and marketing with Ford, subsequent roles at GM Daewoo and Kia, and with Volkswagen UK from 2007-2016. Alex recently returned to Volkswagen Group as Managing Director after two years with Nissan.
He regards the UK Automotive 30% Club’s ’30 by 30′ target as an opportunity to tackle future challenges with different thinking, innovation and a particular focus on customer experience. He comments it’s illogical if the team and decision makers in the organisation don’t reflect the make-up and demographic of its customer base.
“Redressing that balance is hugely, hugely important. The proportion of women in management at Volkswagen Group UK gained another two and a half percentage points over the previous year, so we’re now at 27% representation,” he says. “You need different opinions and diverse approaches to stretch thinking and solve problems. Attracting women into our organisation and developing and retaining their talent is key to making that difference.”
Alex firmly believes accountability starts at the top: “I think the leaders in organisations play a fundamental role in signalling direction and driving change. If you do that, and you can achieve more diversity of opinion in management and decision-making forums then it’s likely you’ll get better results for our business and our customers.”
Committing to action
He cites the need to commit to specific actions. “When we look at our employee feedback, people say Volkswagen Group is a fantastic place to work, and I agree with that wholeheartedly,” he comments. “But you still need to showcase the opportunities for women to join the team, and support the ongoing development and progression of the talented females you already have in your organisation.”
Specific actions include rounded presentation of externally advertised opportunities, school and university programmes, and an external mentoring scheme. In addition, every board member is a mentor and sponsor for female talent in the organisation – an assignment which happens quickly. As Alex notes: “I was allocated my mentees within 48 hours of finding my new desk.”
He adds there is a strong, disciplined focus in finding hidden aptitude among the organisation’s female population: “At all levels of the organisation, we actively look for and develop our female talent with tailored career planning initiatives.”
Additional structured support includes flexible working policies and training and guidance to challenge unconscious bias.
Beyond the structural
Action also goes beyond structural, comments Alex, noting the importance of senior management’s personal responsibility to create an environment where everyone feels able to contribute and fulfil their individual potential.
He adds: “You can have a balanced committee with diverse representation, but if the atmosphere in the room prevents people getting their views across you aren’t really making progress.”
Compelling business reason
“If you have balance, variety and diversity in your decision making, you will consider more options and will look at a situation, problem or challenge from different viewpoints,” Alex comments. “And that’s an absolutely compelling business reason.”
It’s a logical imperative which Alex has seen demonstrated many times throughout his career. “For example, a few years ago, I was having a business review meeting with a female CEO of a dealer group. We walked around a showroom discussing each of the products. It was very apparent as we went through the product range, that the way she assessed a vehicle’s design, specifications and features was completely different to mine, and told me I was looking at things from a purely male point of view”.
Alex sees it as an object lesson that two people can look at the same product, situation or challenge from a completely different standpoint. He notes: “If you have diversity of opinion in your team, you will have a more balanced approach, make better decisions, and will satisfy more customers. If your decision makers don’t reflect the diversity of people making choices about your products and services, you’re not going to get the best results.”
Alex is also driven by personal observation: “I have two daughters and a son, and the thought that anyone’s kids might not have the same level of opportunity or chance afforded to them, in whatever fields they choose to pursue, based on their gender must offend any parent.”
He concludes: “Membership of the UK Automotive 30% Club gives us an opportunity to show what we’re doing internally, and it gives us an external platform to demonstrate that we are an organisation that cares about diversity. It shows we’re serious about it and we’re accountable – that’s really important.”