When You’re Sure About Something, Stick to Your Guns

Siemens’ Helmuth Ludwig on how to be successful in business


Helmuth Ludwig

Dr. Helmuth Ludwig, Executive Vice President for Digital Enterprise Realization at Siemens / Photo: Siemens

Dr. Helmuth Ludwig has had a long and distinguished career at Siemens. In October 2014, he was appointed Executive Vice President for Digital Enterprise Realization. He joined IESE EMBAs last week in Madrid, and gave a personal talk on leadership, how he got to his current position – and the lessons that he learned along the way.

Here are his top eight tips to help you take the right decisions and avoid major pitfalls in your executive career.

Lesson 1: React Positively to Criticism

When Ludwig joined Siemens in 1990, he was a bright business school alumnus, full of ideas and plans for his career. From the age of 14 he’d wanted to head up a countrywide operation for a big multinational organization. Now the MBA graduate found himself working at Siemens’ head office in Munich, Germany. But it wasn’t plain sailing. The first time he presented a plan, he was told in no uncertain terms: "you know nothing about doing business."

Lesson 2: Get out of HQ for a Wider Perspective

Taking the blow on the chin, Ludwig asked what he should do boost his knowledge. "Go to where real business is being done. Get out of the head office," he was told. After examining the options, he opted to head for Kazakhstan, where Siemens was just starting to develop its business. There he made another interesting discovery.

"Sometimes the support of a big company can actually be a burden," he says. While in Kazakhstan, Ludwig was relatively free from the constraints of head office. He seized the opportunity to run things his way, from HR to choosing premises.

Lesson 3: Your Company can be Your Client

Back in the 1990s, Kazakhstan was ripe for inward investment. Ludwig felt one of his key roles was to encourage this investment from Siemens, whilst it still had an advantage over competitors.

Ludwig realized that he had two distinct groups of customers. "While I was selling Siemens to Kazakhstan," he says, "I was also having to sell Kazakhstan to Siemens." Thinking of your company as just another customer you have to sell to helps to "free up your mind."

Lesson 4: Ride the Rough With the Smooth

Itchy feet led Ludwig from Kazakhstan to a position in Argentina, which he assumed would yield great opportunities – both for Siemens and for his career. He soon discovered, however, that there were storm clouds on the horizon.

How could a country continue to function when the currency was pegged to the US dollar, while the economy was effectively tied to Brazil via Mercosur, he asked. Sure enough, soon after he left Latin America for Germany, the Argentinian economy fell into chaos and Siemens, like many other companies, was forced to radically restructure.

Lesson 5: There are Good Opportunities Beyond Core Business

Back in Germany, Ludwig was put in charge of a highly fragmented support business – a role that took him away from core business activities. But one that gave him a relatively free hand to buy, sell and invest in businesses as he saw fit. "Outside of the core of an organization, you will have a freedom you will not be able to enjoy whilst within it," he remarks. Exploiting autonomy is a chance to learn and grow. And the successes began to mount.

Lesson 6: When You’re Sure, Stick to Your Guns

On the basis of his accomplishments in Germany, Ludwig was offered a promotion. He was invited to lead and integrate a key Siemens’ software acquisition, headquartered in Texas. He was convinced that trying to fully absorb the software sales team into Siemens would result in a big risk, that the best and brightest talent would be leaving.

He maintained that the newly acquired team should not be fully integrated – a strategy that was ultimately vindicated.

Lesson 7: Always Maintain Good Relations

Things – and people – can change fast in business. You always meet people again, and the person who reported to you in the past might be your boss tomorrow - especially if you are good at developing talent. "Keep your relationships good and healthy," he says. "You never know what will happen next… or who you’ll end up working for."

Lesson 8: Know Where You’re Going

While you can never plan everything, if you know where you are going, there is a high possibility that you will get there. “If you don’t know where you are going, you will never arrive,” says Ludwig. “Opportunities often come unexpectedly and you might have to make key decisions on the spot. If you know where you want to go, you’ll be ready to seize the opportunity.”