Interview with Silvia-Luna Yzaguirre Sánchez and Dr. Liming Wu
At the Center of Excellence for Battery Cells (CoE) in Salzgitter, a diverse and fast-growing workforce from 16 countries is working to make the battery cell another core competence of Volkswagen. Silvia-Luna Yzaguirre Sánchez, Head of Battery Cell Development and one of three Diversity Managers, and developer Dr Liming Wu talk about what counts when working with people from a wide range of backgrounds.
Mr Wu, you arrived in Salzgitter just six weeks ago, into a lockdown situation. Have you been able to get to know your colleagues personally, apart from work?
Wu: In the first week we already had the video-based meeting for the entire group. Apart from that, every Wednesday we have a digital lunch, where you can meet one-on-one in a video call and talk casually while eating. I actually feel quite at home during that. I also have a “Pate” [mentor] who helps me with the details of my work, so I have had quite a smooth start.
Ms Yzaguirre, you have been at the Center of Excellence (CoE) from its beginning in 2018. In those three years, the workforce has grown very quickly. How do you feel in this fast-growing environment, with so many new colleagues?
Yzaguirre: I often make the joke “I am a Container Kind” [container child], because the office is always in a high-end container in order to be able to grow as fast as the organization and the market. I started my department three years ago with one employee and now we're about 25 people. I have a good feeling, because really different backgrounds come together here. We have people coming from the VW Group, people from other brands, and people from other companies, but everyone shares the same vision and motivation.
The CoE is a diverse unit also in terms of nationality. Its currently 450 employees come from a total of 16 countries. What does it feel like to be part of such an international workforce?
Wu: In such an environment, people are offering different ideas, different backgrounds, they have different stories to tell, different points of view on special topics. When you put it together, you come to a more complete and comprehensive overview.
What are the challenges of working with so many different nationalities and mindsets?
Yzaguirre: It may take longer to listen to more points of view and to come to a consensus, but in the end the product is more robust, because you've already had feedback from different markets, different people, different segments. It is very much like a first market research. The second challenge is the language. Quite often, people from production do not speak English, some researchers or developers do not speak German. What we do, for example, is use slides in English while we speak in German.
Is there a strategic consideration to hire people from markets where you are intending to sell products, so you get their input rather than others'?
Yzaguirre: Diversity is not only about nationality or gender, sexuality or age and so on. I always summarize it as backgrounds. It may be interesting to have for example Liming [Wu] here who is helping us understand a lot of what is happening with cell components and cell designs in Asia, which is a huge market, in terms of suppliers but also of our clients. So, in some groups we do need that. I see it as an add-on. In the end, Liming could have any nationality, if he brought this add-on of understanding and know-how. It's not about the passport.
Mr Wu, can you think of something helpful or pleasant you learned from colleagues based on their different cultural background?
Wu: What I learned from the German colleagues at University is the afternoon teatime. In my PhD period, every afternoon at 3 pm the guys joined together to have a cup of tea or coffee. That is a very good chance to exchange ideas, and to understand one another's point of view. And also to relax if there's too much pressure on the working topic. So these five or ten minutes might look like they're wasted on tea, but it is quite important for getting things going.
Ms Yzaguirre, you already mentioned the diversity of educational or work experience backgrounds at the CoE. Can you give us some examples of how these differences come to the surface?
Yzaguirre: Sure. When you are working with the electrochemistry of a cell, the process has noble materials and processes behind it and many variables which you cannot control to its fullest at the beginning. It is a bit like cooking. I am also a mechanical engineer, and we are used to measuring and improving things and then they turn out the way we design them. However, when it comes to electrochemistry, people are sometimes surprised why using the same copy-pasted process has different results on the cell depending on some chemical reaction changes. It's interesting how much understanding is needed up to the level of the molecule, and that's where the cell developers and the experts come into play and they'd say “Wait a minute, the particle was a bit smaller, and that had a domino effect on everything.” This is a good thing, it actually helps us understand the base of each project to its fullest and use it for the project’s benefit.
The transformation of Volkswagen in Salzgitter from a mechanical engineering site to a battery cell facility is certainly not only a harmonious process. Do the different professional backgrounds of the people working there sometimes clash?
Yzaguirre: They may. But if you take the best from each industry, the chemical industry can learn from the automotive process, while automotive can use the understanding of the energy or chemical industry. And if you use that to your benefit, things move so much faster. For example, in my department, there are two sub-departments. The one Liming is part of is more about chemistry, the cell design. Their neighbors are literally the construction guys, the cell mechanical designers. These two groups do different loops where they give input, check back, and then the other group might say “No, I need two millimeters more”. And then they go back and forth until they have a solution that works for them. So, we don't have to wait to build the product to already have the first proof of concept.
Automotive is still very much a men's world. Do you think the involvement of sciences like chemistry helps raise the quota of women in the industry?
Yzaguirre: I do think so. In chemistry, there are way more women. Also the electromobility industry in general is way more interesting for many people. One thing we are seeing is that if the wording we use in our job descriptions is more collaborative, team-based, more women engage. But even more importantly, we get interest and attention of more people in general. What we are also seeing is that the people applying are looking for personal development and impact. And this industry, electromobility, is awesome for that because you're developing today and tomorrow it will be on the street. Then the impact of the whole industry on CO₂ is really big and the people are passionate about it. These aspects make the jobs more appealing to everybody.
Women are even more starkly underrepresented in the management of German corporations. Volkswagen Group Components' top management team is no exception to this – with one woman and ten men. What needs to change before more women reach the top jobs in the automotive industry?
Yzaguirre: It is a process. I don't think it has to do with prioritizing a gender. It is about always taking the best profile to the best position. If there are less women in a pool with a specific profile, it is less likely that a woman will reach the position. On top of that, it's difficult to create a role model to make women think, that job could be interesting for them. I am actually in a mentoring program that's called Compass 2.0 and I am mentor to one woman in the group who is interested in vertical development. I am pro role model and pro support. Women, and companies in general, will benefit more from promoting women if they are the best profiles to match the job positions.
May 18 is German Diversity Day. Will there be any special events to mark the date?
Yzaguirre: Yes. One thing I really like is that Volkswagen Group Components have prepared table documents for each manager to make reflections on the diversity of their own team. It's not so much about the numbers. Diversity is not a competition like “Oh, I have more nationalities, I win!”. Instead, I look at my team and ask myself: With the know-how and the backgrounds I have in my team, can I cover what I am responsible for? And can I integrate it? If I have different bubbles working differently, not integrating each other’s know-how, it doesn't help.
Which diversity management measures at the CoE are you happy about or proud of?
Yzaguirre: Liming, you go first.
Wu: I am the perfect person to answer that, because, firstly, if the diversity management had failed, I would not have had the chance to come to CoE, right? Getting people from different backgrounds together and getting them engaged for one target is working. The second thing is that I do not feel a language barrier because I am still free to communicate in English while I am gradually improving my Deutsch [German].
Yzaguirre: I like that people feel integrated, that's the feedback I get.
From your personal perspective, what could be done to manage diversity even better?
Yzaguirre: Everyone is diverse. And that's a really important point: I am no more diverse than you are. The important question is, do we have all the profiles that we need in order to cover the know-how and potential needed? That's it. And the second one is about integration because if you have perfectly diverse groups on paper but they don't feel like they can act as a team, then you have failed. So for me, integration is way more important than diversity itself.