February 26, 2024

Why empathy is a key quality in science leadership

Julie Gould: 00:09

Hi, it’s Judy Gould and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. Welcome to this series on the podcast, all about leadership.

Each episode in this series explores leadership from a different perspective. We’ll hear from academic leaders, research institute leaders, industry leaders, young leaders, as well as someone who studied leadership and what it really means.

I tried to find out what these people think leadership is, how they got to these positions that they’re in, where they learned their skills, and what they think of the scientific leadership we have today.

Leadership in science isn’t only something that happens in academia, and leaders in industry-based scientific endeavours are equally important.

In this episode, I speak with Hagen Zimer, who is the Managing Director of TRUMPF Laser GmbH in Schramberg, Germany. I met Hagen at the Humboldt meets Leibniz meeting in June 2022, which focused on careers in optics and photonics.

In our conversation, we talk about how Hagen became interested in science and how that interest ultimately led him to take on the leadership position that he holds now.

And we also discuss some of the characteristics that make a good leader, and how leadership is much like being the main character in a theatre play.

Now, normally, I start these episodes by asking the main question of the show: what is leadership?

But actually, in reality, behind the scenes, what I do is I ask my guests to introduce themselves to me first, and on this occasion, I’m going to include Hagen’s introduction.

So I’m going to let him introduce himself to you.

Before I ask you any questions about leadership, can you just tell me who you are?

Hagen Zimer: 02:04

Who am I? Well, I’m, I’m a scientific, deeply scientific-interested person all my life, Since I was a kid. I would say.

Yeah, and so, so I’m not talking too much about the job, right? So I’m, I’m crazy about things I don’t understand, right? In general, whether it’s in science or anything else. Everything which I don’t understand makes me crazy.

I want to understand. Unfortunately, there’s too many things out there today, which I don’t understand. But diving deep, and getting to the core of understanding gives me a deep satisfaction.

Julie Gould: 02:39

I was going more for name and affiliation, and….But this is great!

Hagen Zimer: 02:44

Sorry. Okay, I’m already connecting to the last session. So here we start again.

So yeah, my name is Hagen Zimer. I’m 49 years old. I’m a dad of three kids living in the southern part of Germany, in the Black Forest. And I’m the managing director, TRUMPF Laser GmbH.

So basically, in TRUMPF which is a large globally operating company, for machine tools, laser processing machine tools, and lasers themselves.

And I’m responsible for all kinds of solid state lasers in this company.

Julie Gould: 03:17

Okay. So now let’s go back to your scientific curiosity. How did you, how did you get into, you know, becoming a scientist, and following that path of trying to learn more about the world?

Hagen Zimer: 03:30

When I was a kid I wanted to become an astronaut, like a young boy. So, so the stars, the sky, the rockets. Look, I grew up (I’m born in 1973), four years after moon landing. So when I was born, and six years old here, the moon landing was 10 years away, so, but still in the people’s mind.

And this is how I was raised. It was the Cold War if you go back to this time, heavily driven by the race into outer space.

And this somehow, I caught fire on topics like that. Yeah, and much I was occupying myself to understand how rockets work.

So my parents were giving me textbooks and educating it a little bit on that.

All this Lego stuff. Lego for outer space and so on.

And that was always part of me. Yes, since a kid. But very vague. Then I started at some point, when I grew up to the age of 12, I started doing experiments in the basement of our house.

Julie Gould: 04:35

Yes, so your parents must have been thrilled.

Hagen Zimer: 04:39

They were thrilled. Mother was really annoyed by what was going on because it wasn’t only me. I had a cool buddy, my friend (we are still friends today). He also studied physics later on. Completely different metal than I.

So we started building rockets in our home, right? So spices, you could buy into the shop and sugar right. So one rocket exploded in our basement.

I don’t know, not going into details yet, but I was driven then then by this stuffs, obviously, by by doing something with your hands, you can do exciting stuff. Sometimes a little bit difficult and dangerous stuff, maybe.

But that’s what we did, yeah. And over time, I would say the enthusiasm grew. Because in the end, I saw here by, let’s say being a quantum mechanical concept, if you put some mechanics optics around it, by a sudden you have a device, a tool, which can bring benefits to society.

Julie Gould: 05:37

And so that is what you have been spending the next part of your life doing?

Hagen Zimer: 05:41

All my life, until today. The decision making point at that time in 2005, my wife was pregnant, yeah, must also admit, there was a private component involved, that I decided going maybe into the safe harbour direction, into industry.

Because academics, it’s not so clear whether it really turns out to get a professorship at some later stage or not. So that were the reasons going into that directions.

Julie Gould: 06:09

Okay, so now you’ve spent considerable years working with TRUMPF Laser. You have worked your way through the R&D department doing fundamental research. You spent many years doing that, and you are now a managing director.

So it’s a very different working style, working environment, between research and management.

So can you tell me a little bit about why you’ve moved away from the research into management? And what sort of skills you’ve learned in both places?

Hagen Zimer: 06:37

Yes. So basically, maybe going back to research first in TRUMPF, I was going with the technology development. From, from one technology to the next technology in lasers, and so on, and so on.

And over time, my responsibility grew. So not only the scope of research and the bandwidth, and at some point I came to the decision-making. Do I want to execute project research project after research project, or would I like to take over a larger responsibility for an entire site?

And I found this quite attractive, because at some point, even as an R&D leader in a company, you’re coming to the point where you would like to influence the strategy of the company, and not just execute that what the company is looking for. But really influence and decide where the company will go for.

And obviously, other people were needed, really, to bring me in this position, to get into the position for decision making.

Julie Gould: 07:39

So what sort of people? Are you talking about mentors, or teachers, or people you looked up to?

Hagen Zimer: 07:45

Yes, I had mentors in the company who worked very closely, looking at me.

Well in the aftermath it’s always clear to know. At that point in time, I didn’t know who was really looking. But giving me advice: go in this direction, or go in that direction.

And at some point, of course, it came as a surprise. I was offered then the managing director position in United States for our semiconductor factory.

I must admit, sometimes this also depends on luck and opportunities, because the former managing director was allocated to another site. So there was an empty vacancy, which I could fill. And the question is: who could fill it? It must be someone who understands the subject.

So to say, the science, or the technology, should be also someone who has skills in leadership, who understands people management, and that’s what I learned over time, yeah.

Julie Gould: 08:36

So you mentioned earlier that you, you know, when you were looking forward, and you thought about the fact that, you know, if taking a leadership position meant influencing and strategizing. And, you know, looking at bigger picture type of things. Why did that sound attractive to you?

Hagen Zimer: 08:53

Well, it comes back to that what drives me. In the end, I want to create products now in our company, which matter, which make the difference?

I don’t, I’m not so much interested in building products which everyone could build, where you only separate or differentiate yourself by surprise, because you can make it cheaper.

This is always an ingredient in our product development, for sure.

But to build a laser, to build technology in general speaking, which all the other people cannot do. To undertake challenges with high risks involved, where everybody in industry will say “Well, we don’t touch this topic. It’s too early on. We don’t do that.”

This is a challenge I would like to take. If it’s clear, if you succeed, what then the opportunity for the society might be?

Julie Gould: 09:41

You mentioned earlier that you’ve developed skills along the way that you now use as a leader. So what are these skills, and and how did you learn them, or from whom did you learn them?

Hagen Zimer: 09:51

Yeah, I think as a leader, you ask: What is the most important skill a leader needs to have, right?

So I would say one thing, you need to listen first.

You need to listen to the people who you are leading. If you don’t know the team or the people around you which you would like to lead, then you have a severe problem.

So you need to have some empathy, strong social skills from my perspective, really to understand: What are the fears or concerns of each individual in your group, in your team? And really to get everybody sworn into a mission what needs to be accomplished?

And there, you need to be authentic. To some degree, you can learn that, right? But you cannot fake. People have a very good feeling for, let’s say, “Is that what this leader in front of us is telling us? Is it fake? Or is it just driven by monetary purposes or goals? Or is he really standing up for something special?”

That, I think, is where you really need to be authentic.

Second thing, or maybe first or equally with the first is: you need to give direction.

If you want to lead you need to know where to go?

Yeah, if you don’t know where to go, you cannot lead. Then you’re running up, ending up in a random, random walk problem, yeah?

Then you’re sending your team back and forth, criss and cross.

And by a sudden your team will not follow, will not execute what you’re doing, right.

But don’t think about leadership like someone is telling the path and the goal.

So typically, what we do today is we develop the strategies together as a team, yeah.

So very early on, I bring people in, share their thoughts, make them sharing their thoughts, so that they are part of the story, of the journey to define our goals.

Yeah, it’s not that the goals are defined top down, and here you have them and off we go. And you need to just deliver. This is not how we do that.

And I think this is the skill of leadership. You need to get in such a process where you start defining strategy, goals, give directions.

You need to bring people together to connect, you need to have a fine feeling for which people can work together, which can’t work together, how can you negotiate between certain parties or opinions to really make it happen?

Julie Gould: 12:10

So where did you learn all of this? Because you know, you say all of this, you know, with with experience, but when you started on this path towards becoming a leader, you know, at the company, I imagine you did not know all of this.

So do you, do you study up? Do you read about leadership? Or do you do watch people that you are, that you’re you know, that you that you think are doing a great job?

Hagen Zimer: 12:31

A very good question. Very good question. Of course, you don’t have this all inside you. Some certain things you have inside you…I think like social skills, empathy.

I deeply believe you cannot learn empathy. Either you have it, by how you were grown and raised, or you don’t have it.

But there are certain things you need to learn. And I did a lot of failures. Early, when I joined the company, very stubborn. I said: “This is how we need to do it.” Either we do it my way, or we don’t do it. And then I was surprised that the team was sometimes not responding, or, and so on and so on.

So what’s very important in such kind, it’s that you have mentoring, yeah. That you get feedback, yeah? Feedback on how you act and how you do it. But also doing engaging in seminars, sometimes.

I’m not a particular fan of a lot of seminars, yeah, but there are really good seminars about communication skills, really understanding first, what kind of communication type you are, right?

What kind of empathy are you giving to the people and receiving by a coach, some feedback?

Are you a person who is listening on the subject topic, or sending on the subject topic, or more relationship-oriented person and so on. But really understanding what kind of communication type you yourself are, because you cannot really change it, is very, very helpful to understand your role in midst of a discussion of people.

So I would say, to answer your question quickly. Over time, by success and mis-success, improving, adjusting, learning, getting feedback. I am still not perfect, don’t get me wrong, I’m still doing a lot of mistakes, probably every day. But this helped me to get into this role where I am today.

Julie Gould: 14:26

What are the joys of being a leader?

Hagen Zimer: 14:31

The joys of being a leader I can very clearly tell you is you can multiply your ideas, your inspiration, your goals, by a multifold of people, yeah?

So everything…if you were alone and not in a team, you would need to do it all in sequence by yourself.

If you are basically a leader of a company, if you can define the strategy, you can make all those wishes that what inspires you, to become through by a lot of people.

And regained feedback I must read, it’s maybe a little bit safer, selfish. If you see people having joy in the same idea which inspires yourself, it’s the most fantastic feeling you can have.

Julie Gould: 15:13

Okay, so now let’s flip the coin over and ask what are some of the most challenging things about being a leader?

Hagen Zimer: 15:22

The most challenging thing is tough decisions, I would say, yeah.

If everything runs smoothly, nicely, it’s easy. But what do you do if you have difficult employees, if you have employees who simply don’t want to be part of the journey you have in mind? To deal with them and figure out paths out of such kind of difficult situations is difficult?

Another, now, in my role today, what do you do if, for instance, economy crashes, by a sudden you need to deploy people? Or need to explain people that that what we have in mind is coming later?

Or maybe sometimes the strategy goal was also wrong, right? These are then tough decisions, where you need to then be open to feedback to the people.

Sometimes you’re going into the wrong direction. That happens, yeah. That’s difficult.

Julie Gould: 16:17

Difficult from the point of view that you know, people don’t, people are disappointed, like the team is disappointed, or also, there’s a lot of money down the toilet, or you know what?

Hagen Zimer: 16:25

It’s both, it’s both, yeah. For industry, always money is associated to decision makings.

If you flush millions down the toilet, because you took a poor decision, then it’s a bad thing.

Yeah. And so that’s also a lot of pressure, which weighs on me, but not only on me, but also on the team.

So if you see a project which matters to the company, which is a strategic goal, is going off in the wrong direction, either we underestimated the challenges we had to take, or the cost spendings are too high, or the market has shifted by a sudden, which you didn’t hit on the radar.

Or, for instance, the geopolitical system is entirely changing. These are sudden topics, which in former times were still of concern, but far away from your daily decision-making.

These are topics you don’t have in your hands sometimes. And then you need to flexibly adjust, and then again, get the team re-involved into the process. Why do we adjust? Why do we do it now different? As we have just decided it may be three months ago in an all-hands meeting.

Julie Gould: 17:32

So for those researchers who are still in their early careers and making decisions about where they’d like to go, they will at one point be a point where they need to take on the role of a leader, whether it’s a small group or a big group or an entire company?

What advice do you have for these younger early career researchers who may one day be leaders?

Hagen Zimer: 17:56

I assume all those those potential leaders we are talking about, that they are smart, they have ideas, they are encouraged to drive something special.

The one question I would ask them, if they would need to play a role in a theatre piece, the main role, would they love to play it on stage?

Because it matters. In the end, if you are in the leading position, you cannot hide anymore. You are at some point also alone.

And you have your team around you, of course, but in the end, a leader decides. You cannot hide again, behind anyone anymore.

And this is what you need to to love. You need to like this. There are situations as a leader where you need to stand up in front of a group, everybody is watching you spot on, whether it’s your employees, whether it’s your bosses, whether it’s your shareholders, or whatever it is, you need to give answers.

And the question then is would you feel comfortable with doing so? Or is that more a job you would dislike? If you dislike, my recommendation would be don’t go for a higher leadership position.

Julie Gould: 19:00

Okay. Hagen. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me.

Hagen: Zimer: 19:05

Thank you. You’re welcome. Thank you very much.

Julie Gould: 19:10

Hello, again, Julie here. So I just wanted to say that I hope you’ve been enjoying the leadership series, hear from the Working Scientist, and that you might have found something interesting or insightful into what it takes to be a leader in science.

But there are many, many other topics that we know would be good for us to cover on this podcast. And we’d actually love to hear from you our listeners about what you would like to hear from us on the show.

So if you’ve got a minute, please do leave us a review wherever you get your podcasts and let us know what topics you’d like us to look into. Thanks for listening. I’m Julie Gould.