Martin Fischer on Shaping ZF's Automotive Leadership and Culture

Martin Fischer on Shaping ZF's Automotive Leadership and Culture

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Meet Martin Fischer, a member of the ZF Group Board of Management and the President of ZF Group Americas. In this episode of the Automotive Leaders Podcast, we'll discuss his views on automotive leadership and culture and how they play a vital role in his position at ZF Group. 

Martin talks about his leadership style and explains why aligning personal and professional values is essential to creating a consistent leadership identity. Reflecting on his intercultural experiences, Martin advises integrating the strengths of traditional German-style leadership and people-focused leadership styles for organizational success.

Martin gives a glimpse into ZF's culture transformation journey, including their "culture pioneers" program, which empowers employees to drive cultural improvements from the ground up. Martin describes "The ZF Way" as ZF's framework for running the company and identifies its core principles as part of its roadmap for success.

Discussing the emergence of EV startups in the automotive industry, Martin says ZF sees this change as an opportunity for learning and collaboration, sharing the approach they took with these startups and its positive impact on innovation.

Martin's role as chairman of MEMA OES Group takes center stage. His explanation of his motivation to give back to the industry speaks volumes about his commitment to collective progress beyond the confines of ZF.

Jan asks Martin, "What is the biggest challenge you see in this transformation?" Martin points out that uncertainty is affecting the entire industry. Martin said investing in new tech like EVs comes with risks, and solutions are needed to avoid supply chain collapse during the transition period.

Going personal, Jan wants to know what gets Martin out of bed in the morning. It turns out he's all about office life—meeting people, fixing problems, and getting that adrenaline rush from solving crises.

Stay until the end of the episode to hear Martin's advice for automotive businesses dealing with the industry's changes.

Themes discussed in this episode:

  • Exploring a leadership style that is deeply rooted in values instilled by upbringing
  • Why we should create a safe space for innovation and growth within teams
  • Importance of collaboration in driving progress, both within ZF and across the automotive sector
  • Having initiatives that empower employees to contribute to cultural improvement.
  • Discussing the necessity of authenticity and the ability to connect with employees regardless of hierarchy
  • Understanding ZF's methodologies and strategies for realizing its corporate vision
  • Exploring collaborative opportunities presented by emerging EV startups in the automotive industry
  • Highlighting the importance of investing in education and innovation to drive industry electrification
  • The importance of comprehending industry transformation and setting a clear vision for organizational direction

Featured: Martin Fischer 

What he does: With extensive management experience at Siemens VDO Automotive, Hella, and Borg Warner, Martin Fischer provides valuable expertise in his role as the President of ZF Group Americas and a member of ZF Group Board of Management. He is responsible for overseeing Electronics and ADAS, Passive Safety Systems, and the Chassis Solutions divisions, as well as North and South America regions and Corporate Quality. He is also a supporter of diversity in the automotive sector. He received recognition as a 2023 Automotive News Notable Champion of Diversity. Fischer established the North America Diversity Advocacy Council and introduced comprehensive training initiatives for DE&I throughout ZF Americas. 

On leadership: “I have to say, I am myself as leader, Martin Fischer. So, I prefer to have that one face, that one mindset, that one personality that shows in my private life and in my professional life, and what is it I'm made of?  I think that goes quite a long way back to the values that I have grown up with that my parents, in the end, gave me, and that makes me a person.  And my values that are really important and relate to that leadership are basically integrity; that's at the get-go. There was never any doubt about that at home, and I think that's a strong value to carry in. And then, it's probably most about performance and team.  So, I would say this is my values where I say it holds for the personal life and it holds for the leadership life.”

Mentioned in this episode:

Episode Highlights:

[00:02:15] Martin as a leader: Jan asks Martin about his leadership style. Martin reflects on the values he thinks are crucial in both his personal and professional life: integrity, performance, and teamwork.

[00:04:12] German leadership: Influenced by intercultural experiences, Martin advocates balancing German-style strategic planning and execution with a more people-focused, empowering leadership approach.

[00:05:53] Leadership Evolution: Martin looks back on his early days of leading a team at Siemens, where they grew a new product line quickly through innovation and a shared desire to succeed.

[00:07:59] Empowering people: Martin talks about the importance of establishing trust, clear expectations, and maintaining a balance between focusing on results and people in shaping organizational culture.

[00:13:33] Culture pioneers: ZF defined its company culture using both top-down and bottom-up approaches, including programs like Culture Pioneer to find and make cultural improvements.

[00:17:13] Authentic traits: Jan discusses the "21 Traits of Authentic Leadership," a document based on her experiences and podcast interviews, and asks Martin which traits resonate with him the most.

[00:18:32] Personal side: Martin shares with Jan what motivates him in the morning. He explains that he enjoys facing challenges, meeting people, and improving the business. They then discuss his routine, which includes spending quality time with his family.

[00:21:16] The ZF Way: Martin explains "The ZF Way" — a guiding principle that directs the operations, culture, and strategic decisions of the company.

[00:23:17] Transformation: How the changing landscape of the auto industry, particularly with new EV startups, presents opportunities for collaboration and innovation.

[00:26:34] Role at MEMA: Martin accepted the role as Chairman of MEMA Original Equipment Suppliers Group because he wanted to give back to the organization for the help he received.

[00:28:45] Biggest challenge: The biggest challenge faced by the industry, according to Martin, is the uncertainty around the switch to electric vehicles.

[00:30:13] Martin’s Advice: Martin urges automotive industry leaders to set a clear vision, be intentional about cultural shifts, and integrate new cultures without stifling innovation.

Top Quotes:

[00:06:22] Martin: “I was put in charge of a new product coming up. We were a team of five that I could head up, and we were to conquer the market with these tire pressure monitoring systems. I mean, me right out of school with two years of a bit of experience in Siemens, and then those four others. It felt like a startup. And we had to innovate. We had to create. And the market opened up for that system. Within three years, we grew that to a 100-person business and acquired 200 million in sales.”

[00:09:08] Martin: “I believe a key point of motivating them is to give that trust and to let them have their playground…but at the same time, it's not only empowerment, it's also accountability. So, of course, I want to see results from it. And in order to have that trust that I always give and sustain that trust. It's also clear we agree on clear deliverables. So, with the empowerment comes also the obligation to deliver. I think that's a way to play it.”

[00:17:37] Martin: “I really come from the authenticity field quite a bit and also from a place of humility as a leader always.  So, I find it extremely powerful to really merge with the teams to work on challenges to create results.  Sure. Ultimately, I'm accountable and responsible, and the very difficult decisions I'm certainly going to make, but I find it really very empowering and motivating to the teams to see a leader who is able to merge in.”

[00:23:44] Martin: “We love that change. Because when you really reflect on our vision as being a tech company, that's what we need. What we see from these companies is really a high level of agility, its risk-taking, its speed, in the end, to bring ideas to product and to production. So, it's a rich source of opportunity for us to say we can chime in, right? We can learn as that hundred-plus year organization, really from our new automotive customers.”

[00:31:29] Martin: “Set the vision out, be clear about what it entails, and then be very considerate, very intentional on what route you take through that change, and don't let loose on it, right? It's going to be a risk. And as you say, what is now with that uncertainty of electrification, but chart up the course and stick to it for a while.”

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This episode is sponsored by Lockton, click here to learn more