A leader for new times – just be human. Interview with Ms. Karolina Szmidt, President of the Management Board of HENKEL POLSKA

A leader for new times – just be human. Interview with Ms. Karolina Szmidt, President of the Management Board of HENKEL POLSKA

The post-pandemic reality is completely different than from two years ago before it started. Many companies, including Henkel, have introduced hybrid or fully remote work in their teams. The professional field has undergone a comprehensive reorganization. The new reality also means new competences of leaders from various business areas. Other features and skills than those desired a few years ago have come to the fore. What do you think today’s leader should be like?

I think the starting point should be being mindful of the emotional state of our employees. After two years of the pandemic, while we were waiting for its end, then war broke out, completely changing the perspective and bringing even greater uncertainty. Our employees are exhausted and demotivated. Being aware of this, I believe that a leader today should be, above all, a human being. It sounds very general, but I’ll try to explain what I mean. I will also mention the most important, in my opinion, competences of today’s leader. Some of these competences are universal – good and always needed. Above all, it is consistency and authenticity – more important in these time that the leader speaks to employees not in the conference room but sitting at the table in his own kitchen and works in the same environment as his team. Today’s times also require leaders to be able to give direction and meaning to their work. After all, we all want to complete tasks that are important and make sense. Thus, leaders are expected to be able to infect their people with the belief that everyone contributes to the company’s success.

Another universal competence of a leader is being consistent, but also inspiring and motivating. Thanks to this, it can inject us with such energy that despite the difficult times, we can continue to prioritize our tasks, we want to do something more than the proverbial sitting for eight hours.

But being a leader in difficult times also requires additional competencies. Being mindful of other people has become of utmost importance, additionally due to less frequent face to face contacts we have a difficult task here. In recent times, I saw my people almost exclusively through my computer screen. This makes it difficult to build relationships. Even then, I still have a choice – we will either handle business matters right away, and I will look at Beata to see if she is smiling and generally happy, or maybe something is wrong and needs help. Mindfulness is also associated with empathy, i.e. understanding the situation of another person and the readiness to exhibit understanding. The company will not achieve its goals if people are tired and demotivated. The basis for action is trust between the superior and the employee. If entrust you with a task, as long as you get it done, it doesn’t matter to me how long it takes, it has to be done within reasonable amount of time. This is a healthy approach for me.

What difficulties do today’s managers have to face, including managing scattered teams working in remote / hybrid mode? What actions are you taking to make it easier for them?

We were all in emergency mode when the pandemic started. Then quick decisions are made, there is no time for deliberation. We appointed a crisis management team composed of people from various departments and with different types of experience. This enabled us to make the best decisions. How do I know they’re good? From our employees. We have already done three independent surveys since the start of the pandemic. During the first wave, we carried out just after the first wave, we asked our employees how they assess the crisis management team’s performance in the context of ensuring a sense of security and proper work organization. Employees gave us 4.5 points out of a possible 5. It was our first checkpoint, when we saw that, in the opinion of employees, these quick decisions turned out to be good decisions, seeing that our employees highly praise our quick decision making.

In November of last year, we did a similar survey, but this time among managers. We got a very positive evaluation again. 90% of people assessed the activities of the Polish management board as good or very good. Once again we got positive feedback that we chose the proper direction to go in.

In both surveys we also asked our employees if they would recommend somebody to work at Henkel. In the first survey, 73% of respondents answered positively, while in the second survey, which we did among managers, the percentage of positive responses was 100%. We are very proud of such an assessment. This proves that building trust, ensuring flexible working hours, accounting for tasks completed rather than hours put in is the right direction. This approach is gaining popularity especially in the context of challenges our managers face.

I could talk about it from the boards point of view, but I think the most valuable thing is what our managers themselves think. In the third survey, we asked them about the challenges they face and what their employees are facing. It turned out that in both cases we face the same difficulties, only our hierarchy levels are different. The main challenge for managers is a bigger workloads. On the one hand, we work remotely, we have flexible working hours, but it is difficult to define a clear line between work and home. The second biggest challenge is not enough personal interaction, and the third – the shortage of what we call work-life balance. In the case of employees, the three most important challenges are not enough contacts, a lot of work and insufficient home office equipment. This shows the importance of ergonomics at work, i.e. a comfortable chair and a large monitor.

We also asked our managers about their ideas on how they can raise the level of commitment and motivation of their employees in hybrid work mode. In more than half of the responses, there was more frequent appraisal of success and appreciation of employees. Other ideas included: greater involvement of employees in the decision-making process, granting more independence, empathetic communication and providing the right tools for work – the necessary systems, additional reports that will help organize their work better. Another question was, what our management team in the company can do to increase employee engagement. Most frequently given answer to the expectation was, to provide training in new competences that are adapted to today’s workplace needs. Second choice was reducing the amount of work. Third – more frequent appreciation of employees and providing them with feedback. Fourth – organizing face to face meetings, and the fifth most popular; providing their team with better equipment to conveniently and comfortably work from home.

Our leaders have provided us with this information. We took their advice to heart and in response we implemented a special training program for the managers Energiseleaders, energiseskills.

What exactly is the training program for managers about? What distinguishes it?

The program is addressed to managers who lead teams. In our company, it is a group of about 130 people. The entire training program consists of three four hour compulsory modules. The first one deals with the topic of “me as a manager”. We encourage managers to reflect on their needs: how they feel, what they need and where they can charge their batteries. Because the manager must always start with himself. He must first garner the necessary energy to be able to convincingly motivate and encourage his team to act. This is what the first module is about: how to take care of yourself to care for others.

The second module: “me as a manager and my employee” is about being mindful of other people, about the fact that a good manager always knows where his employee is at mentally and psychologically. About the power of a one-on-one conversation – even via a computer – that allows you to see possible problems, motivate or discipline.

The third module “me as a manager and my team” deals with the topic of managing virtual teams, building team spirit, the so-called team spirit and maintaining commitment in times when we work remotely and physically separate from each other. We have made our program as practical as possible, offering in each module specific tools to be used in the manager’s daily work. The three modules mentioned are obligatory for everyone. But we also have a fourth module, which is an individual choice of each participant. We offer the following options: “Building mental resilience”, “Leader energy management” and “Assertiveness”. We started the program at the beginning of April and I am very curious about the results and evaluation of the participants.

Leaders have changed and the work model has changed. Do you think flexible workplaces will stay with us forever and will be a key part of the new reality?

Of course. On the one hand, it is confirmed by many different studies and articles on the effectiveness of remote / hybrid work, on the other hand, the employees themselves have proved that they are very effective in this work model. This is our new reality. The only decision that remains is the proportion between working in the office and working from home, because here companies have room for maneuver.

After working mostly remotely, a gradual return to offices begins and work in a hybrid dimension begins. Could you please tell us what it is like now with Henkel?

Long before the pandemic – in 2017 – we introduced a flexible work policy in Poland, i.e. flexible forms of work, and we gave our employees the opportunity to work from home up to 10 days a month. As part of the entire international Henkel, the Polish branch was a pioneer in this respect. As we know, the pandemic changed everything. For months, office work was done only from home, although of course the production departments were working in the normal manner and maintaining the sanitary regime, sales representatives also visited customers. Now that the pandemic has passed and we hope there won’t be another wave, we’re starting a gradual return to the office. In April, 4 days of work in the office per month were obligatory. In May it is 7 days. We are moving towards our standard, which is instill the hybrid mode, half the time from, half from the office. We hope get this started beginning of June. In our approach, we assume that the tasks that require concentration and independent work can be performed by the employee from home, provided he or she has room conditions for it. But there are tasks and projects that require teamwork, creativity and integration, and that’s when we come to the office. Anyway, working from the office is also important in terms of building a sense of community. It is difficult to find when you are locked in your house and you can see others only through the eye of the camera. Working together in the office allows us all to feel like a team again, connected not only by one of our projects, but also by common goals and values that are close to our organization, such as sustainable development, respect for diversity and business ethics.

What have you developed at Henkel for how teams and work in the context of this gradual return to the office?

Henkel prepared for the change of the work paradigm and implemented the Smart working policy common for the entire company in the world, which can be included in 4 principles. The first rule sums up what we have just said, which is that “work does not equal office”. The second rule “an office does not equal a desk” says that ultimately we will not have desks assigned to each other, but we will simply sit in a place appropriate to the nature of work on a given day, i.e. when I come to work, because there is a team plan. brainstorming, I do not go to my desk, but directly to the conference room where this meeting is taking place. We do not have such a model in Poland yet, because it requires a complete rearrangement of the office, but this is the direction we will follow in the future.

The third principle “presence does not equal work result” says that we measure performance not by the number of hours spent in the office, but by the results obtained. And finally the fourth principle “meetings do not equal travel”. We already know from experience that we don’t have to be physically everywhere. We can still organize many meetings through online platforms, as we have been doing for over two years. Although business trips will not disappear completely. For if the purpose of the meeting is to build a sense of team community and relationships, it cannot be achieved without the physical presence of the participants.

How do employees react to the announcement of returning to the office? What are their expectations?

First of all, we must be aware that employees are used to working from home. At the beginning of the pandemic, everyone was optimistic: “Hurray, we work from home.” Later, we became tired of working from home due to the confluence of professional and private lives. Everyone wanted to come back to the office for a while, to rest (laughs), to work in comfortable and convenient conditions. Now, after two years, we are used to working from home, re-arranging our way of life and returning to offices is not easy. That’s why at Henkel we do it gradually. In addition, the return to the office should be facilitated by our employees flexible working hours, i.e. the possibility of arriving at the office at the most convenient time, without standing in traffic jams during the communication rush.

Personally, I really hope our people will come, see that being together is fun. We will drink coffee in the kitchen, we will start to rebuild relationships and a sense of community. This proverbial coffee is really important (laughs) and cannot be overestimated. That is why I am trying to replace the coffee machines, so that we can start each day in the office together with morning chats over the best espresso or cappuccino. I believe it matters.


Karolina Szmidt, President of the Management Board of Henkel Polska

Karolina Szmidt has been the president of the management board of Henkel Polska since April 2020. This position is combined with the function of the HR department director in the North-East Europe region, responsible for the development and implementation of the company’s strategy in the area of human resource management in Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia.

She has over twenty years of experience in working in international organizations, most of which in managerial positions, including at SC Johnson, Royal Unibrew Polska and Skanska. She has been working for Henkel since 2015.
She is a graduate of the University of Physical Education in Krakow, as well as postgraduate studies in human resource management, leadership and the application of psychology and sociology in management.

Last Updated on July 22, 2022 by Anastazja

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