There’s something magical about a dinner at home with a colleague, under the beautiful mid-summer Zurich sun that never sets. Chris Leong, Chief Marketing Officer and Barbara Frei, Executive Vice President, Industrial Automation were very grateful to spend an evening together recently and exchange about anything and everything. The two may be on very different career paths but what’s undeniable is they each bring something unique to Schneider Electric’s executive table.
Chris: Thank you, Barbara, for being a superb host and a brilliant chef, I know how much we both appreciate face-to-face exchanges to share the joys and challenges we face in our roles.
Barbara: I know and lucky for us, our busy schedules finally aligned! It’s definitely in environments like these that we can share stories that sometimes get unheard.
Chris: Just wish we had more time! There are some awesome hiking trails not far from where we are! Or even better, you could show me how to kick a** on a standup paddle.
Barbara: Come on, Chris, kicking is your specialty!
Chris: Ah yes, kickboxing definitely works for me. I always encourage people to find their own wellbeing passion – whatever works for them! Our physical and mental health should always remain our number one responsibility!
Despite different backgrounds and experiences, Chris and Barbara have become close colleagues since meeting in 2019. On one hand, Chris personifies the hands-on change leader approach, while Barbara’s PhD in Electrical Machines means she knows the world of engineering inside-out.
Barbara: You know Chris, I really do admire your experience – it’s so diverse! Marketing and sales, B2C, B2B and working with some major global brands. All this has definitely helped shift our industry to a more digital mindset.
Chris: I think that comes from growing up in Kuala Lumpur. I learnt young that if you work hard, you can go far. Ever since then, I’ve believed that we should always aim to be our best and authentic selves. And also, way back in my first marketing and operations role at KFC, everything focused on the customer – I’ve tried to never lose sight of that.
But the same goes for you, Barbara. Look at how you’ve trailblazed a path for women in a traditionally male-dominated industry. Where does that drive stem from? That confidence?
Barbara: Hmm… that takes me back actually. You remember, back in the 80s… we were in the middle of an energy crisis. Efficiency and saving energy issues were everywhere. It was just fascinating to me – we could produce energy and we could consume it, but we were just so inefficient with it all. I wanted to be part of the solution and I wanted to make a positive impact. And that’s how it all began really.
I became a mechanical engineer. Even though there were just four young women out of a class of 200, I ploughed ahead, and I’ve been blessed with a rewarding career so far, working with fantastic people from all over the world.
The pair relish the power of purpose—both individual and corporate—to help people from all different backgrounds understand how they contribute at work, and, in turn, how a company can help change our world for the better.
Chris: You know, I realized some time ago that it’s my family, friends and colleagues that inspire me, they really boost me with each new challenge. And it’s not always easy, leading a global, diverse team needs the right attitude for collaboration. I think cross-cultural teams bring diversity of thought and that yields fantastic results. But at the same time, you need to be united, be one team, share a common purpose and have each other’s back.
Barbara: You’re so right, purpose is crucial. Not only to create a sense of belonging that connects us all, but for each of us, as individuals. Finding a meaningful purpose in your personal and professional life are essential for our focus and drive – for me, it was being part of the solution from a young age and seeing how I could make an impact.
Chris: It’s never simple though is it? There are daily challenges when teams are scattered in different parts of the world. Creating a more caring culture at work starts with us. We can begin by recognizing how we’re all prone to judging others, based on attitudes, experiences and stereotypes.
Barbara: Absolutely. I mean science has shown that bias is a part of being human. We can’t hide from that. We all make assumptions for whatever reason. Instead of getting defensive about it, we need to acknowledge it, try asking questions to better understand the realities that others face. If you unpick those assumptions when you notice them in yourself and point them out when you spot them in others, it starts to build a fairer work environment.
I’ve personally been involved in a few major company restructurings. It was one of the hardest positions I ever had to be in. I mean these were people – they deserved the utmost respect and that’s what we gave them. We told them how much we valued them, but we also showed them. And I think that was key. We all shared a common purpose and that was a testament to the teams wanting to add value right up until the closures.
Chris: We can all do more to learn and be more aware about how different communities experience work situations. By being open to the realities of other people, we can make small changes and adjust our behavior to actively be the allies against inequality. All our communities deserve acceptance and respect, so they feel safe to fully express themselves.
Barbara: And inclusivity like that also means being empathetic. When you’re coaching or giving feedback, you really need to listen well and think about how the person will experience the language you use and how they’ll absorb your message. I had – and still have – the privilege of working with great people: colleagues, direct reports, teams, customers and partners. Their feedback is invaluable to me – whether it’s a kudos or a ‘Barbara, you could’ve handled that better.’ It’s these conversations that have helped me grow. They are like my little box of treasures. And as a mentor, I am so happy to pass them on. For me, it’s about having the right attitude. If you don’t know what your blind spots are, get to know them and have people around you that aren’t afraid to tell you. It’s not a failure if you learned something, right?
Putting yourself in someone’ shoes is always an eye opener. You see – that’s one of the reasons why I always enjoy meeting up with you, it’s a chance to share opinions, get a fresh perspective and have some fun!
Chris: So.. we go for a hike in our next catch-up, Barbara?