At the recent Rockwell Automation Fair in Chicago, Mark Venables caught up with Susana Gonzalez, president of Rockwell’s EMEA region, to discuss her first four years at the helm.
Assuming responsibility for an organisation as large as Rockwell Automation’s EMEA region can be daunting and complex at the best of times for even the most experienced leader. But when you have barely got your feet under the table and you face the unprecedented challenge of a global pandemic followed rapidly by severe supply chain disruptions, the war in Ukraine, and a global energy crisis, the challenges multiply.
That was the scenario faced by Susana Gonzalez, who stepped into the role as President of Europe, Middle East, and Africa region at Rockwell Automation in 2019. Gonzalez joined Rockwell in 2017 as regional vice president of sales after spending 16 years helping industrial organisations transform their manufacturing operations and realise their ambitions for a connected and productive future.
“From a leadership perspective, there is nothing that they teach you in your MBA that prepares you for this,” Gonzalez says. “Luckily, I had six months to meet everybody and then we had to pivot quickly to employee safety, ensuring that people had the tools to work remotely, adhering to all the EH&S rules and ensuring that the offices were clean. We had to transform the way we work overnight.”
Troubles come in threes
The first challenge was handling the pandemic, communicating with employees, and maintaining a company culture cultivated over many years when the team was working remotely. However, while this was being addressed, the pandemic’s potentially more damaging consequence reared its head through supply chain constraints. “That was and remains a significant challenge,” Gonzalez adds. “We were running a sales organisation; every customer wanted their product, but because of the shortage of components, we did not have enough product to ship.
“It required a different model of management and way of working. First, the pandemic, then the supply chain disruption, and then this year, the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Even though we have a small footprint in Russia, cancelling business or announcing the suspension of operations in a country is not something you come up against every day. If I look back at the last three-plus years, those have been considerable challenges from a leadership point of view.”
Leading from the front
There are a myriad of management styles adopted by leaders of large corporations ranging from authoritative to consultative and persuasive to paternalistic, but when pressed about her leadership style, one word keeps coming up – collaborative. “I do not want a team of tennis players who excel individually but a soccer team where everyone works in unison for the same goal, especially on a team like the one I have today with thousands of people,” she adds. “Collaboration and surrounding yourself with people who complement your skill sets are essential to me.”
Along with collaboration, allowing space for other managers to excel and play their part is vital to Gonzalez. She confesses to being hands-on by nature, and stepping back and allowing others to move projects forward, although deemed necessary, is hard at times. “I think about that daily because I like to be involved,” she explains. “I am inquisitive, so I want to learn by doing, but sometimes at the level I am today, it is more complicated. I must be mindful that I have several regional vice presidents below me, and giving them the room to have their authority and make their own decisions is crucial. There are only 24 hours in the day, so you cannot do everything. It is a balance between my appetite for getting involved and executing with driving through others and achieving through others.”
The final piece of the management puzzle for Gonzalez is finding her voice and being authentic. “These roles are not sustainable if you are not your true self,” she says. “You cannot take a role and try to follow in somebody else’s footsteps. There is always a certain leader for a time and place, so you must be yourself, find your space, and be authentic. So I am transparent. Everybody knows where I stand, and I try to stay faithful to my values.”
Driving growth in a volatile market
However, style and overcoming unforeseen hurdles are only one side of the management’s responsibility. Important though that is, the traditional objectives such as profitability and growth remain the yardstick of success. Rockwell Automation CEO Blake Moret set a strategy for accelerated growth outside the company’s core market of North America. “We needed to revamp how we address our customers and where we put our strategic bets,” Gonzalez says. “The first year was all about understanding the business and setting up a different go-to-market model to serve the customers in a way that accelerates our growth. EMEA is one of the most important potential markets for industrial components and the technology we bring.”
With organic growth for Q1 2023 reported at 13.3 per cent, the EMEA strategy is proving successful. EMEA is now the second largest region behind North America, accounting for 18.8 per cent of global sales in the first quarter. “The number of changes we have made since I joined the company five years ago and how the company has evolved and transformed itself is impressive,” Gonzalez continues. “It all starts with the top. Blake had a vision and wanted to grow faster. So he structured the company into three operating segments instead of two.
“The first step that cascaded throughout the business changed how we look and what it means to the customer. That was the pivotal moment I have seen over the last five years, and this could not be achieved by one region alone. A degree of strategy comes from the top, and the regions align with that. For example, the market in EMEA is different from that in North America, so we have to localise some of the initiatives to serve the customers in our region best.
Gonzalez adds that the EMEA priorities align with the company’s global priorities. As for longer-term targets, the one priority is to increase the pace of growth. “To continue to grow, continue to integrate the companies that we have bought, and continue to bring all of that technology to the customer base that we have, whether it is OEMs or end users or system integrators; that is our number one priority,” she adds.
Solutions for the digital transformation journey
One additional challenge faced by suppliers of digital solutions to the manufacturing sector is the disparate state of readiness across the industry. Some companies, the early adopters, are well along the journey; others have, to date, only dabbled on niche applications, while others are still assessing their options. “For Rockwell, it does not present any problems as our technology, and most of our products are scalable,” Gonzalez says. “Some customers are still at the beginning of the data transformation journey; however, they still need the infrastructure to tap into the data. Some customers are already getting insights into the data but still need to figure out what to do with it or how to use it. And then other ones are much further down the road.
“We do not have to modify the technology depending on where they are. The complexity for us comes from the variety of industries that we are servicing. We operate in hybrid, discrete, and process manufacturing environments and touch many different sectors. The complexity is more aligned with understanding the value of the technology for the use case for those industries.”
One of the challenges that manufacturers face when developing their digitalisation strategy is fighting through the fog of buzzwords to determine which offerings can deliver the business benefits to meet their use cases. Gonzalez is quick to concede that Rockwell’s offerings feature many of these buzzwords but explains that the technology and the way it is bundled is a differentiator for its customers.
A vital component of this differentiation is the Rockwell ecosystem strategy. “I do not mean just the ecosystem of partners, but also to have smart factories, you need smart machines, smart equipment, and smart devices,” she explains. “One of our strengths as Rockwell Automation is connecting the dots between the OEMs; many of the strongest OEMs are in Italy, Germany, or France, with end users and bringing all of that together.
“If a greenfield or an upgrade of a brownfield requires multiple partners, they all use the same standards. The feeling and support you get from the ecosystem is one global sales organisation; we are not in silos. We do not have different divisions with different sales organisations with multiple people acting differently.”
The growing power of people
During one of the keynote presentations at the Automation Fair in Chicago, Jimmy Etheredge, CEO of Accenture in North America, said there was a war in talent, and talent has won. In the same keynote, Rockwell CEO Moret explained that microchips and his people kept him awake. “We always say that people are the key to our success,” Gonzalez says. “People are really at the core.
“We discussed the crisis on different dimensions, including the pressure the component shortage creates. We talked about Russia, the pandemic with the acceleration of working from home. People from a mental health point of view are something critical to us. We have several programmes related to well-being and helping employees with different tools to ensure they understand how to ask for help and raise the flag.”
For Gonzalez and Rockwell Automation, the portents for the future look good. Their experience as a manufacturer, their deep domain experience in the sectors they cover and the ability to span the IT/OT divide puts them in an ideal position to deliver on the promise of digital transformation. And in Gonzalez, they have the epitome of a modern leader, well versed in the traditional tenets of profit and growth but equally comfortable with 21st-century topics such as equality, sustainability, and collaborative working. It must be hoped that we have seen the end of unheralded global disruption, but whatever challenges the future holds, Rockwell in the EMEA region are in good hands to face them.