Enabling Automation Podcast: S2 E8

We’re excited to bring you our first-ever podcast series, Enabling Automation. This monthly podcast series will bring together industry leaders from across ATS Automation to discuss the latest industry trends, new innovations and more!

In our eighth episode of season 2, host Simon Drexler is joined by Angella Alexander to discuss Building and retaining top automation talent​.

What we discuss:

  • Advice for diverse workforces, implementing technology, and competition of talent
  • Sourcing where you haven’t sourced before
  •  Best practice of managing team members in the automation industry

Host: Simon Drexler, ATS Corporation (ATS Products Group)

Simon has been in the automation industry for approximately 15 years in a variety of roles, ranging from application engineering to business leadership, as well as serving several different industries and phases of the automation lifecycle.

Guest: Angella Alexander, ATS Corporation

Angella Alexander is the Chief Human Resources Officer at ATS Corporation and has been with the company for five years.

——Full Transcript of Enabling Automation: S2, E8——

SD: Welcome, everyone to the Enabling Automation Podcast. This is our eighth episode of our second season, where we’re focused on building and retaining top talent in the automation world. My name is Simon Drexler. I’ve been a part of the automation industry for 15 years in a variety of roles, driving growth and innovation in companies large and small. We’re very fortunate today to be joined by the CHRO of ATS, Angella. And Angella, could you give a short introduction to yourself?

AA: Sure. Great to be here, Simon. My name is Angella Alexander, and as you mentioned, I’ve been the CHRO at ATS Corporation for five years now.

SD: We’re very fortunate to have you today, Angella. So thank you for joining us. The automation world is so reliant on the creativity of people to bring together unique solutions to complex problems. And so the building and retaining of top talent becomes really critical in at least my experience inside of the industry. And I thought, that’s a question where we could start today. Is there something unique about the automation world and the implementation of technology in scaling businesses that makes the building and retainment of top talent even more important than other industries?

AA: I think that’s a great question and a good place to start. Simon I think when, when I reflect on is it is it more important in our industry, given the pivot that that we’re seeing in in the labor market and in talent markets globally? Probably not more important or more urgent, but certainly plays a much bigger role strategically because in many respects, the nature of the mix of talent that you have within your organization is how you’re going to be able to innovate and differentiate in the market.

SD: That mix of talent is something that I’ve seen a lot of customers as a lot of partners have difficulty with, because when you bring together such a complicated piece of technology, there’s so many different expertise needed to make that work. Is that something that you’ve seen as well?

AA: It is. And I think in in many respects, you know, certainly in my profession, we talk a lot about the benefits of focusing intentionally on issues of diversity, inclusion and belonging. And from a from a technology point of view, it’s really about that diversity of skills and diversity of perspectives that enables automation. One of the things that we talk about when we talk about uniqueness and belonging is that innovation doesn’t come from sameness. And so it’s not only about your ability to capture the specific skillsets that you need for the technology you have today, but to capture that breadth of perspectives that’s going to permit innovation for tomorrow.

SD: Absolutely. And I couldn’t agree more about the breadth and that diversity of opinion and diversity of approach is what really drives innovation forward. And that’s what we’re striving for inside of the application of automation.

AA: Absolutely. And that’s what makes all the difference, both for our business and for our customers.

SD: A lot of our listener base is small to medium sized enterprises. They’re pushing their businesses forward, their scaling their businesses, and they’ve sort of reached the point where now we need to look at automation and either for the first time or in a really significant advancement. Would you have any advice or guidance on how they should look or think about that breadth of expertise that may be needed to incorporate technology well?

AA: I guess I would start with how we think about it. And I think we think about it first and foremost from the perspective of attracting talent with the right foundational culture. What is the purpose? What are the values? Iin this market today, more so than ever you know, talent has, employees have tons of options. And so really starting with securing the right foundation within your organization and offering the right compelling proposition for employees to gauge around I think is table stakes today in many in many respects you have to get your own house in order to attract the talent that you desire for future. And for us that that starts with our ATS business model, our purpose, our values and how we how we live and breathe those every day.

AA: I think next, you know, it’s thinking through intentionally the opportunity that you can provide those professionals when they when they join your business. And so the type of talent that drives innovative solutions for future they’re very motivated by having a wide variety of interesting challenges, problems, opportunities and clarity on what development is available to them within the organization. And so thinking through what is the proposition, the compelling proposition that we have to offer better or more so than any of the competition is, is absolutely key for us.

SD: And to those listening, do you think that automation plays a role in that compelling proposition in the competition for talent?

AA: I think automation in particular does have a lot of appeal. It has a lot of appeal for, I would say, technical talent across a wide variety of skill sets because of the diversity of the challenges, right? The complexity of the solutions that we provide, the complexity of the products the customers needs. So every day is interesting, challenging, fun, provides a lot of opportunity for experimentation and innovation. And I think those are the things that attract the talent for the future.

SD: I couldn’t agree with you more. Continuing on the line that those that are listening want to get their own house in order to attract top talent. But there’s a lot of breadth of skillset needed for the application of technology. Any advice or approaches that the SME could take, who might be daunted by the fact that technology might increase the size of their workforce too much or there might be a skill set that they need that might not be available to them?

AA: Well, I think I think in today’s market, there’s a lot of solutions available and a lot of different perspectives to bring to bear. So, you know, I think first it’s thinking about this from a partnership perspective. So for us, you know, looking at early talent, emerging talent and having the right the right partnerships with schools, apprenticeship programs, you know, other types of early career development programs, those partnerships are absolutely critical. And in helping to identify emerging talent that you want to have longer relationships with. I also think it’s not always the case that you have to provide for all the skills that you need in-house. So if you’re starting to scale in, in a way that introduces you to new challenges and new spaces, it can also be a very good idea to partner with others who can help provide those solutions or who can provide that talent on an interim basis. As you start to develop your longer term needs. So I think it’s being open to a variety of different approaches. And certainly as our organization has scaled, there’s no one size fits all for how do you scale? It’s about thinking flexibly. It’s about thinking in a broad way and also thinking about sourcing talent from maybe places you haven’t done previously.

SD: Putting my hat on of one of our listeners, I think that’s a topic that we weren’t maybe diving in a little more detail is sourcing where you maybe haven’t sourced before. Is there a couple of examples or best practices that you can offer to those listening?

AA: Well, I mean, I think it certainly depends on the way that your business is scaling, but I think always, always starting to think differently geographically is one thing. Challenge your assumptions about what roles need to sit in, what geographies. I think another thing is, is starting to think back to our earlier discussion about diversity, thinking about different partnerships, understanding that there’s a wider variety of schools or programs that you’re able to partner with and really thinking through. What have I relied on in the past and where does that fit and what are the gaps that I have in future, and what are some of the new partners that I might need to explore? And so as we’ve looked to expand some of our thinking, it has introduced us to a broader array of both school programs as well as other community programs to start to partner with. I think that’s key. I think, as I said earlier, thinking through also where are those other resources that can provide some of those solutions so you don’t have to provide them in-house. And so I think as we’ve scaled our business, starting to think more expansively about partnerships has made a big difference.

SD: And I think that’s good advice for a lot of those that are listening, that are trying to drive any sort of change. And there’s a number of topics that we’ve touched on in in this podcast even that seem like these big overarching challenges that that seem daunting when you’re trying to build the business. But if you prioritize what is important to you, you boil that down to what an interesting first step or a valuable first step. It’s important to get started rather than try to do all of the things at one time.

AA: Well, in your comment about priorities, I think is very relevant. I mean, the language we use within ATS is always start with your strategy. That helps you guide what are the critical things that are expertise we need to maintain in-house and we need to have like truly effective talent, attraction, talent development, pipelines and processes. And I think we do a lot of that very well, differently across our business portfolio. But I think I think very well. But you can’t possibly be a preferred employer for everyone. So being really specific on what are the most critical roles or what are the most critical skills that really drive your strategy, drive your business and get really good at that.

SD: And to the point of the podcast around enabling automation. If part of the strategy is to bring automation into the operations, you at least need one person who’s going to be able to ask the right questions or be able to reach out to the right partner and know when they need help.

SD: Angella something that’s been, I would say, unique for me in dealing with industrial automation around the world is no matter where I go, you look at an automation provider and for some reason the tenure of people inside of custom automation builders is always quite, quite high. You find people who have been at the same company for 15, 20 years and sort of continuing to push that that automation provider forward. Any insight into why that is the case in the automation world?

AA: Well, I think there’s a I think there’s a couple of things to consider there. I mean, I think companies that do a nice job of offering the right mix of development opportunities and growth to their employees, you’re going to see a good level of tenure and hopefully a good mix of tenure, I think. But in in businesses with the complexity of custom automation or with the complexity of driving highly innovative solutions you see the need of building capability through experience.  So you can’t always get the right level of insight from subject matter experts just through education. It has to come through experience with multiple solutions. It has to come with periods of learning through failure and other and other tools so that there is an element of constantly building on the prior experience and the prior successes. And so I think from that point of view, having really strong capability in certain industries and markets is attributable to that, that learning through hard earned experience. But I think importantly that always has to be blended with a mix of new talent coming in with, you know, some of the latest tools and technologies. You know, one of one of the areas that’s really going to drive a lot of transformation in our business and others over the next few years is the area of AI right? And so what you see with the new generation of talent coming into the organization is, you know, a different level of understanding and enthusiasm around the use of AI than you might have had with automation professionals who have 15 years tenure with the business. And I think that mix is the magic.

SD: The mix creates a healthy tension of different perspectives to drive innovation.

AA: Absolutely.

SD: You touched again on complexity and inside the complexity of highly automated systems needing experience. For those that are on the call, those that are listening to our conversation that are early in the cycle. Is there a lesson that they can take away from that, knowing that that experience, those hard won lessons, that’s not something you can snap your fingers and get. So how do they bring that into their organization and avoid the hard fought lessons?

AA: Well, I mean, I guess my first answer is that if you’re if you’re looking to bring in an automation solution, part of our job is to leave that complexity in our shop and to make it simple in your shop. And so a big a big advantage about the way automation has evolved over the years is it’s more about simplicity from a from a usability perspective than it is about bringing that complexity over to the customer. And so I think the advantage of us as an automation provider being good at that complexity is that hopefully it limits the complexity on the other end for the for the customer. But that being said, I think understanding the rapid evolution of technology, I mean, it affects it affects all of us. And so understanding how you’re going to maintain your workforce to keep pace with the evolution of your industry is an intentional part of strategy. So understanding where your business is going and understanding that the talent that needs to be available in part of your portfolio to deliver on that future is a critical part of thinking about the next evolution of your business.

SD: When you talk specifically about maintaining the workforce inside of someone looking to scale or drive change, do you recommend that they rely on their partners to help maintain that workforce and provide the opportunity for learning? Or is there another way that that one should go about it? Or maybe it may be how we go about it as a is a good place to start?

AA: I mean, I think there’s a variety of solutions to bring to bear. I mean, when we think about talent development, we think about it from a variety of perspectives. There’s a lot that we can do ourselves in terms of mentorship programs and other types of developmental partnerships internally to leverage the experiences we talked about of those experienced leaders or professionals and to bring some of that learning to bear internally. But it’s also about understanding where you need third parties, where you need other partners to help augment or complement some of that internal development and making sure that it’s a good mix. You can’t delegate employee development, you can’t fully outsource it, but there’s certainly expertise that you may need to pursue externally and of course, make sure that you’re leveraging all the expertise that you have within your organization internally. And I think when we look at our programing and our approach, it’s always a blend. It’s always looking at our leaders and our subject matter experts as teachers and part of their accountability within the organization is is to teach and coach and to be those mentors of the next generation of talent, but then to complement that expertise with strong partnerships where we can really get kind of the best of the latest thinking and bring it inside.

SD: That’s great, Angella. Coming back to one of the things we said there, it’s learning through failure and one of the objectives of this podcast and the discussions that we have is to try to share lessons from experts such as yourself, to make sure those that are listening avoid those failures. And we talked about one way here around maintaining workforce. But are there other things that you think our listener base could learn from, from our approach to help them avoid some of the pitfalls of growing expertise in this area of high technology?

AA: Well, I think first, I’m not sure that I fully agree that you can always avoid failures. I think the skill to build within an organization is how to effectively deal with failure when it occurs and to turn it into an area of learning because failure always happens. So and I think what we’ve learned increasingly is that understanding how to quickly engage around failure in a constructive way is an important part of driving innovation. And I think that’s also true as a culture more broadly, to say that if you’re going to endeavor to scale, if you’re going to endeavor to grow in new spaces, you are going to have a misstep, you are going to have places where you didn’t get it right. But the question is, is not to see that as a disaster, but an opportunity for learning. And so are there are there things that, you know, we could certainly provide in terms of insights for your listeners? I think, you know, being well grounded in in strategy and priorities, not being not being distracted by things that are not relevant to your business and your journey, understanding that every business is unique, having clarity and being transparent about strategy and priorities, I think is a good first step.

SD: That line of discussion circles back to what we started out with, with the uniqueness or the potential uniqueness of the automation world, and that the approach to people doesn’t really change. Be very grounded in what it is that you’re trying to accomplish in the uniqueness of your own business. Get your priorities straight and then make sure you communicate that effectively to the workforce so that they know where we’re headed.

AA: I mean, I think that that’s absolutely key and I think also being really clear on what it is you need to grow, what it is you need to scale. So transparency is important in terms of keeping your existing workforce with you on the journey. But it’s also critically important from a leadership perspective to make sure that that you stay on path and that you know what matters most because there’s so much change in the industries in the world around us. It’d be very easy to get distracted and get off track. And so I think, you know, staying the course on what you know is most is most critical and what are the things that are going to drive improvement and growth in your business is key.

SD: Angella, how does that translate down to the needs of an individual team member? And so the business has a clear strategy, has a clear set of priorities. Is there a best practice that you’ve seen in your role across the ATS group of companies? If somebody does that well  they take the business priorities and they translate that down to the tactics of managing the individual team members.

AA: I mean, I think what our employees would tell you is, is that they feel probably the most engaged and see the most opportunity when they really understand that what they’re passionate about, what they enjoy, fits perfectly in with our strategy and the direction we want to take the company. And so allowing for that alignment so that I can see that the things that I’m driving are making a difference and are connecting directly to what we care about as a company and where we’re going. But also that I understand that the things that I’m passionate about learning, doing and becoming are absolutely in line with the direction the company’s going. And so I think it’s both transparency and alignment, but those are the things that drive satisfaction. Employees come to work every day because they want to make a difference, they want to make impact and they want to create opportunity. And so to the extent that they can see that clearly fosters the right environment for retention.

AA: Angella, I think that’s a fantastic close to our discussion today. For those that are listening, what a great discussion on topics for building and retaining top automation talent in our world. So nothing more than a thank you from me for joining us today for the podcast. It’s been an absolute pleasure to have you.

AA: It was my pleasure to be here, Simon. Thank you for the invite.

SD: To those listening, thank you very much for joining us for this episode, Episode eight for building and retaining top talent. I look forward to seeing you again for episode nine, which will focus in on the digitization layer of the automation system and how we can use that data to support the business case and the development of technology inside of our operations. Thank you very much.