Volkswagen Group UK MD advises students to keep things 'gloriously simple'

On 24 March, the Business School welcomed Alex Smith, Volkswagen Group UK Managing Director and University of Leeds alumnus, who delivered an industry masterclass for our students.

In his 30 minute presentation Alex focused on the challenges facing the automotive industry, what he’s learnt about leading an organisation through change and his advice for those looking to build successful careers.

On leading through change….

When it came to the challenges facing the motor industry, Alex highlighted electrification, digitalisation and sustainability, as well as the more recent impacts of Covid-19 and Brexit. Alex had this salient advice for young aspiring leaders on how to lead through change:

“You need to be able to prioritise quickly and maintain your focus on the challenge at hand. During the pandemic our priorities had to change quickly and throughout the year we had to constantly reprioritise, whether it be staff safety, ensuring business liquidity or focusing on retaining our supply chains, a leader needs to know where to focus their resource at any one time.

When you face so many different challenges at once you need to be able to identify which has the potential to hurt you first!

“Next, I always tell myself that we should try and keep things ‘gloriously simple’. A good leader should never over-complicate things. You want to set really clear direction for your teams and demonstrate really strong communication. You can’t be a great leader without good communication skills, you need to be able to explain your decisions clearly in a way your teams can empathise with.

“And finally, managing through change can sometimes feel like you are going backwards, or that there is no end in sight, but it is essential to always take the opportunity to unify your team and celebrate any wins – no matter how small they may feel at times.”

On how to build a successful career...

Alex graduated from the University of Leeds in 1995 and joined the Ford Motor Company graduate scheme. He eventually made his way to the Volkswagen Group UK in 2007, before becoming Director of Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles UK and then Director of Volkswagen Passenger Cars UK. Alex then went on to lead Nissan Motor (GB) Ltd before re-joining Volkswagen Group UK in January 2019 as Managing Director. He offered this advice to those starting out in their careers:

“My advice for those wanting to build successful careers is to be prepared for rejection. When it comes to applying for jobs, I’ve had more rejections than successes, but you need be able to learn from your setbacks and use them as an opportunity to understand your skills gaps and where you need to focus next.

“Once you’re in an organisation, look around at the characteristics of other successful people within that organisation. You can often analyse the career routes of successful people to understand the best way to progress in an organisation. Find out how they got to where they are and I bet you’ll find a lot of similar themes.

“My final piece of career advice is don’t always go for the obvious roles. The jobs that sometimes look the most attractive, or that offer the most obvious progression on paper, are not always the ones that will give you the best chance of differentiating yourself.”

You need to be thinking strategically about which roles can best help you stand out from the crowd.

Alex answered a number of questions from students about careers and highlighted the wide breadth of roles available in the motor industry to top quality graduates. But he made it clear that it’s essential for people to “find an organisation that matches up with their own DNA. Look at an organisation’s culture and see if that plays into your own natural strengths and interests.”

Alex also spoke about the importance of leaders being able to build up their own personal resilience. “Most organisations don’t sit still and there will always be another challenge on the horizon for you to have to navigate. It’s not easy, but I always say that I probably wouldn’t have a job if everything was just straightforward.”

Finding ways to be resilient in the face of multiple challenges is a critical management skill.

Everybody at the Leeds University Business School would like to thank Alex for helping provide this unique perspective for our students. You can connect with Alex on Linkedin. Current students can access Alex’s talk by going to MyCareer.