Balancing the horizon with the here and now: A crisis leadership perspective

Never has the leadership of manufacturing companies been so tested as it is today by Covid-19. There is the immediate crisis, for some, of plummeting demand and managing staff at home or on furlough. But then there is a deeply uncertain future for which leaders need to prepare, most of the time in the dark. Brian Holliday, Managing Director of Siemens Digital Industries, offers his thoughts.

In leadership we often find utility in the dramatic. Recognising existential threats and unprecedented situations or in adopting military acronyms to highlight the Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA) of our world. These mindsets help us coalesce, find single purpose, or develop distinct responses.

But when asked to describe the present, these notions appear trite given the gravity of the global pandemic impacting everything we do at home, work and play. Lives are at stake; the drama is real.

There are new macro and micro realities to manage and no timetables anymore. And while we rightly laud the NHS and the key workers who are helping to keep our country going, manufacturing plays a critical role too.


CROP - Whitehall Downing Street in London - image courtesy of Depositphotos.


In the short term, we have government schemes to help firms continue, hibernate and hold on to roles that might otherwise have become redundant, but the timing hasn’t worked for all and it’s a shame to hear reports of questionable banking behaviour compounding the liquidity challenge for some.

The way forward for manufacturers may be found in the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) or its SME and corporate equivalents. But commercial lending and HMRC flexibility as well as customer, supplier and employee support will be critical too.

Further help is at hand with our industry associations stepping up to assist, like Make UK and CBI who stand out as two of the best.

Adapt, and learn

The leadership challenge is palpable in balancing the horizon with the here and now. While we lack influence on demand cycles, we can invest in our employees for the future.

Emotional literacy and being attuned to our own and the functional, rational and emotional needs of our employees is tremendously important, with many of us facing anxiety, loss and mental health challenges while continuing to work.

This article first appeared in the May issue of The Manufacturer magazine. Click here to subscribe

More is at stake than the numbers, and checking in regularly with my team and communicating openly are among my most important priorities. We need to support team members taking time with family as well as acquiring new knowledge, with options abound in online learning through platforms that organisations like Enginuity (formerly SEMTA) are pulling together.

Siemens companies face similar challenges the world over in serving the needs of the industrial, infrastructure, energy and healthcare sectors. Therein are many Covid-19 impacted examples of activity that sped-up, slowed, or in some cases, came to an abrupt halt.

At Siemens Digital Industries, we have continued to make things in our factories and support our manufacturing and industrial customers, while staying in touch through our Digital Talks series.

Many of our employees are now working from home and I am proud of how they have adapted and gone out of their way to add value. Some are even emerging as budding ‘YouTubers’, with one creating popular ‘tips & tricks’ videos for process instrumentation in his garage.


CROP - Remote Working - Data entry digital - image courtesy of Depositphotos.


We support numerous supply chains and I am encouraged to see the level of lockdown activity and even potential for progress in the infrastructure and logistics, food and drink, pharmaceutical and chemicals sectors, while others have been able to eke out some unexpected business continuity too.

Our template for the future

The importance of making things locally has been thrown into sharp relief through the critical need for healthcare equipment, and manufacturing has responded, although many voices have yet to be heard.

Diversification into ventilators, PPE, hand sanitisers, vaccinations and testing kits has taken leadership to new levels (some of it bottom up), and we have seen the best of British as well as inspiring our manufacturing key workers who have seen their firms make a difference.

When we reflect on all this in the future, some leaders will stand out for their availability, resolve and impact. One example for me is Dick Elsy, CEO of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, who delayed retirement to form and chair VentilatorChallengeUK.

Within weeks, this consortium which includes Ford, Rolls-Royce, GKN, Airbus, McLaren F1 and Siemens will have produced a decade of ventilators in just 10 weeks, keeping us below the Coronavirus curve.


Female Engineer Quality Control Components In Factory - Quality Assurance - image courtesy of Despositphotos.


It has been a privilege to contribute to this initiative, one that has redefined the art of the possible through diverse skills, digital tools, extreme collaboration and clear leadership. Dick has called it a ‘template for the future’.

For manufacturers to maintain business as usual there are difficulties and moral hazards ahead and as leaders, we should reflect on how we might be judged in the future for our actions today.

To furlough or not, to stay at home or not, to restart or not, to spread financial sacrifice appropriately and accommodate the practicalities and cost of socially-distanced working.

Many companies are now mothballing non-essential projects and investments and we too are grappling with what’s important and what can wait.

Recent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) data show that a V-shaped recovery by Q4 2021 is at least a possibility despite many firms struggling with both demand and liquidity.


Making Tax Digital - Graph on rows of coins for finance and banking on digital - image courtesy of Depositphotos


Some trade bodies within the banking and finance industry highlight an expectation that up to 40% of borrowers are likely to request forbearance in this period, so it’s clearly going to be tough for a while.

Focus on renewal

In building foundations for a British manufacturing recovery, we will need to seek new levels of efficiency, effectiveness and collaboration to compete within new global rules. This necessitates a focus on renewal, to be agile as leaders in thought and action, and to empower people to progress.

The world won’t stand still and there is a significant appetite globally for skills development with thousands of engineers taking this time to improve their digital fitness. Popular topics include Industry 4.0, Industrial Edge Computing, Sensing, Advanced Automation, AI, Cloud Platforms and Data Analytics.

Remote contribution and collaboration through ecosystems may prove to be our new normal but digital tools and technology lend themselves to this in the design of sustainable products and production environments, and use of real-time data to drive better decision making to aid the bottom line and the planet.

In conjunction with government and organisations like the HVM Catapult, The Made Smarter Commission, Enginuity and Make UK, I believe we will have an opportunity to reinvigorate UK industry and embrace new ways of working together.

It will take extraordinary leadership from all the necessary stakeholders to get through this. But domestic manufacturing matters, and get through this we must.


Brian Holliday, managing director, Siemens UK & Ireland.


*All images, except of Brian Holliday (above), courtesy of Depositphotos