What do zoology, sailing and HR have in common?
Life at Siemens
Meet the oddball boss who has been shaped by an unusual background
Toby Peyton-Jones has an unusual background for an HR Director. But sailing on the seas and studying animal biology, he says, shaped his way of thinking about people and the work he does
Toby Peyton-Jones admits that he’d get bored dedicating himself to just one thing, and it shows; before he was HR Director at a global engineering organization, he spent time on the seas as a skipper. Before that? An education at Sandhurst Military School and degrees in zoology and psychology which have helped him to understand how people function and the “bricks” that make up the building of life.
Get somebody at a place this vast talking about where their work has taken them and all sorts of stories come out of the woodwork, so naturally, this is where I prod as we talk one Friday afternoon down the line from his home in the Lake District. He’s worked on projects in Germany, the US, and UK but his time living in Beijing “just as China was opening up to the world”, stands out the most.
There was the time he took his Chinese driving test in a disused airfield, “full of lorries and buses and cars, driving round in a circuit as traffic all day.” He was in the middle of it all, inside a small car with a perilous driving instructor determined to show off his own skills. Peyton-Jones becomes more animated, describing formal meetings with government officials in the Forbidden City, conducted in freezing rooms of -10C: “It was just fantastic. Nobody took their gloves or hats off, you could see your breath! It was like being sent to Siberia — nobody really understood why I went.”
If others respond with a wrinkled-up nose when you say where you’re moving, that’s a good place to go, Peyton-Jones believes. “It’s where you can really make a difference and turn something round. It’s only a risk is if there’s a big downside, and the biggest downside comes if it’s life-threaten-ing...”
Growing up in Trinidad, Toby Peyton-Jones and his brothers and sisters spent hours at shore, climbing the rocks and fashioning flimsy sailing vessels from bits of wood. They’d camp out overnight alone when Toby was as young as seven. It sounds like an idyllic childhood, but his mother was always terrified the kids wouldn’t come home alive. His father, another risk-taker at heart, would joke: “We’ve got four kids, we can afford to lose one or two!”
And so you can see where Peyton-Jones’s aversion to staying still comes from. At the weekends, he spends time at home in Windermere and goes climbing or hill-running. He likes to do his thinking whilst moving — he’s also a fan of what he calls the “talk and walk”, the on-the-go meeting for busy types made famous by TV writer Aaron Sorkin in shows such as The West Wing. Being out in the countryside helps him to sort through the thoughts in his head, but he’ll never sit down and work when it’s the weekend. “That’s a time to let the mind settle.”
A radical boss
Based on his style of working, Toby Peyton-Jones looks like a boss you’d want. If something goes wrong he has a habit of saying, “Nobody died”, and confirming with refreshing honesty what we all suspect deep down; work is one small aspect of life’s bigger picture, so we may as well enjoy ourselves.
Maybe this conventional wisdom means more because it comes from someone who has spent two decades within the organization, showing that it’s not a place to grind one down.
There’s something I’m curious about: how does he hold onto him calmness in heated situations? Peyton-Jones pauses for so long that I fear the line has been cut. He does this a few times during the call, but always comes back with his thoughts gathered. “People tend to get angry or very emotional about things,” he says, “I always say there’s a lot of difficult people out there — just remember that you’re one of them.” There’s a gentleness in the way he regards workplace dynamics; he’s not a boss who has forgotten that people are people.
“If you live your life as if everyone has good intentions, that helps you to deal with all sorts of difficult situations,” he says. Holding on to a positive mindset is one of the most critical things he’s learned. It reminds me of my own mother’s advice, that “you never know what’s going on in other people’s lives,” and should always be kind.
I admit to Peyton-Jones that the way he talks about work has changed my view of HR. I’d always assumed it was an area mired in bureaucracy, only to facilitate the creativity of others. He views operational HR as “a kind of hiring and firing machinery” and agrees he wouldn’t have survived long doing that.
But the “boring” process-driven parts are becoming automated, and actually HR is a license to get involved in any topic. “I’m known to be a business person rather than an HR person,” Peyton-Jones says. “I don’t restrict my contributions.” Part of his work involves working the UK government on education policy to ensure future generations maintain skilled workforces within the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) field, proof that you can climb high without checking your work email at the weekends.
Friday evening is approaching fast, so one more question before weekend compartmentalization is enforced. Peyton-Jones believes Siemens has one of the most qualified workforces in the world — what does that mean? “It’s not like in finance or marketing or the arts where often it’s about individual brilliance,” he says. “Teamwork is hardwired into our way of working. Nobody can build a power station or a whole train infrastructure or a hospital on their own.”
Right now, Siemens is in the process of reinventing itself — and not for the first time. The organization has remodelled itself constantly since it began 160 years ago, Peyton-Jones says.
Born at the tail end of the industrial revolution, the company spawned the age of communication, laying the first undersea cable linking the UK to the US. It discovered the principle of electro-dynamics, which led directly to power generation and electric motors as we know them today, before leaping on the electronic revolution of the 1970s and refashioning itself once again.
But this latest shift, called the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” by some, is different, Peyton-Jones believes. Technology and automation are creating a globally-connected world. Combined with digitization, globalization and demographic change, it’s leading to huge social change and volatility.
Peyton-Jones explains: “Digitization, globalization and demographic change mean organizations can start up and attack existing business models as the barriers to entry are very low. This has serious consequences for large organizations and could even put them out of business, which means people need to think and work in a very different way.”
Responding to a fast-moving and volatile environment means planning can no longer be undertaken centrally, and established processes can no longer be stuck to religiously. Instead the focus has to be on “empowering individuals to act much more quickly in the field”, enabling them to “react and experiment as they come across opportunities.”
But creating this kind of culture requires change across all areas of the business. At top management level, the so-called ‘visionary leaders’ of the past who spotted big opportunities and then put the necessary structures and people in place to execute on them, will no longer cut it.
Although leaders still need to define the field of endeavor, their role is more about acting as an orchestrator and co-creator than as a top-down commander. This means empowering and enabling people to work together co-operatively in order to reach an end-goal. It is also about creating a culture of ownership so that employees take responsibility and come up with answers for themselves.
In order to encourage such behavior, the company’s appraisal system now incentivizes its staff not only on what they do, but also on how they go about doing it. This is because, in order to effect change, “you have to start with mindset”, Peyton-Jones believes.
Instead of running townhall meetings where corporate information is broadcast by leaders to employees, Siemens has created ‘conversational forums’ and ‘listening groups’. Staff sign up to events they’re interested in contributing to and managers and senior executives attend in order to listen, share information and act on the input. It’s a set-up that changes the dynamic quite radically.
People are also encouraged to develop a learning mindset, which includes being willing to undertake secondments to other departments in order to develop valuable ‘meta skillsets’.
Peyton-Jones explains: “For example, if you’re an accountant, you’ll know all about accounting. But if you also have specialist knowledge of the healthcare sector, it’ll be harder to automate those skills out using new technology like artificial intelligence — especially if you have project management expertise too. The real advantage of a meta skillset though is it allows you to ask different, more informed questions than if you were just developing your career in a more traditional siloed context.”