A leader must never appear in front of workers downhearted as it erodes their morale and motivation, says Emöke Sogenbits, head of HANZA Mechanics factories in Tartu and Narva.
Are you working from home or do you like to go to the office?
I’m currently working from home-office in Tallinn. I have spent the past four and a half years working in factories from Monday to Friday, staying in Tartu and Narva hotels where the staff know me by name. So, I must admit that working from home is a welcome change.
How have your companies fared in the crisis so far?
We are doing well for now. Luckily, our factory in Tartu makes a wide variety of different products. Some are moving at a steady pace while the demand for others has exploded. For example, we are manufacturing medical equipment, accessories used to make respiratory devices, as well as analyzers used in coronavirus tests. These products are selling like hot cakes. Our Narva factory finds itself in a somewhat more difficult situation as it mainly manufactures heavy machinery used in the mining industry.
Have you laid people off, cut salaries?
Not yet, because we have enough orders to keep us busy for two or three months. In terms of what will happen in the third quarter – I do not know a single person who could forecast that today.
Have your contacts with clients and partners become more frequent?
Definitely. If previously, a five-minute meeting was all that was needed, phone and Skype calls take much longer today as they begin with the exchanging of pleasantries and inquiries of how people are doing in the crisis. Our clients’ main concern is whether we are capable of supplying them with enough products.
While you do not need to be bailed out, to what extent should the state help businesses in your opinion?
I don’t want to be unjust toward small business, but plenty of limited companies of questionable value have cropped up over the years. Walking around in the supermarket, I often ask myself whether we really need 28 identical clothes shops. Crises sort out markets and a number of companies will disappear anyway because the state cannot keep everyone afloat forever.
That said, thinking of current state aid packages, if only KredEx loan surety, the sheer amount of documentation, forms and forecasts a company has to present is overwhelming. I cannot begin to imagine how small businesses can chew through all that red tape.
What is the reputation of Estonian industrial companies today? Are young people keen to work in manufacturing or would they rather go into startups and IT?
It is definitely not the promised land in Estonia, unlike Germany where working in the sector is a matter of honor. The problem isn’t with young people but rather the older generation that brought them up. For a long time, we have been telling young people they need a college degree. That dumb kids end up going to vocational school. I’ve heard it a million times.
Yet, we should be asking ourselves whether all young people need higher education. What use is that diploma to them? Do we really want to turn young people into certified heaps of misery who are not satisfied with themselves or what surrounds them? We need to realize that many young people want to make something using their hands.
What is your opinion of the quality of Estonian vocational schools today?
Unfortunately, we often don’t know what we’re teaching them there. It saddens me that we are not able to introduce the German model where you have 40 percent theory and 60 percent practical training with companies. When a vocational school graduate comes to work for us today, we basically need to train them from scratch.
The other thing is that vocational schools need better advertising. What sane young person wants to study to become an assembly fitter!? Whereas it is actually an exciting specialty where CNC workbench operators are trained. If we tie the name of the specialty to IT or programming, it sparks greater interest in young people.
A few months ago, we were talking about labor shortage in Estonia. Now, we have no work to give people. Are you planning on hiring in the near future?
The situation has changed even faster than that. I happened to read newspapers from a week ago the other day, and they seemed like they were from the previous century.
While the crisis has not reached us yet, we remain cautious. I don’t want to hire new people to have to lay them off three months from now. I’m reminded of how back when I worked at Elcoteq, everything was fine one moment and then Ericsson suddenly stopped making cell phones and we had to lay off half our staff inside a single month. Everything is changing very quickly.
What matters is whether and when industrial companies will fall down. They often survive the worst of the crisis by pulling together and cutting costs but go down later, when the markets start to rise again. By then, companies are squeezed dry and have laid off their best workers, they have frozen investments and find themselves broke. That is when companies start to fall. Our task is to avoid that.
You were voted Woman of the Year here in Estonia in 2019. What meaning do you attach to the title?
There has been so much work that I haven’t had time to attach any meaning to it. I feel proud. And I’m glad it was given to someone who works in the industrial sector. I always thought it more of a cultural and social title. It does less to boost my self-esteem and more to add new responsibility and the chance to showcase the manufacturing sector, technical education and encourage women to aim for new heights. And what is most important – a person must do what they love for a living and be supported by their family. That is what always makes me stronger!
The Equal Pay Day was recently celebrated. Do you believe the gender wage gap to be a serious problem?
I’m the wrong person to ask. I make a lot more money than a lot of men.
As an employer, it makes absolutely no difference to me whether an employee is male of female. What matters is their qualification, skills, experience and whether they’re passionate about the work. That is what their pay depends on. It also makes no financial sense to pay men more just to discriminate against women. I promote those who deserve it.
Therefore, I rather find too much has been made of this topic and that there is a great level of generalization involved. I would like to see specific cases. They are unable to determine how much of it is discrimination today – that I will pay you a lower wage because you’re a woman – and how much is down to other factors, such as women generally working lower-paid jobs.
I find the age pay gap to be a far more serious problem. A 25-year-old man fresh out of college wearing a pink tie is a much more valuable asset on the labor market than a 45-year-old experienced worker. We also need to revisit how employers see people with disabilities. One of my daughters has chronic illnesses and multiple related complications. I see a lot of people with disabilities in her social circle and it seems to me that employers, including the public sector, are not open enough in terms of utilizing their potential.
A lot of executives and entrepreneurs are crestfallen these days. How do you manage to keep your spirits up?
I have seen a lot of personal and professional crises, which is why I know it will pass. I try to balance myself by thinking that things could be worse when times are good and that they will soon get better when they’re bad.
The main thing is to survive and not give in to depression. Whereas I find that leaders do not have that right! You will demoralize the entire staff with your depression!
You need to find ways to recover. You can always take a couple of days off, hide somewhere and think about things. Luckily, I recover quickly. I sleep for ten hours and am right as rain again.
I believe that a crestfallen manager should not appear in front of their employees. You need to keep your back straight and your gaze confident. While this is admittedly easier said than done when things are really going downhill.
One thing a leader must not do is sow panic. It will spread like wildfire and poison the work environment.