Meet Trelleborg Managing Director and CEO Martin Hignett; HR GIG 7 Speaker

Our next speaker needs no introduction, but we’ll make it anyway: for HR GIG 7, we’re lucky to have Trelleborg Managing Director and CEO, Martin Hignett giving us his thoughts on communication in the manufacturing industry, creating an environment of trust and open dialogue, and keeping on during COVID-19 and the remote-work revolution.

Posted on: Thursday, May 5th, 2022

Mr. Martin Hignett has been in his role as Managing Director for Trelleborg, a global world leader for polymer solutions, for 18 years, but has worked all around the world in manufacturing and technology roles for some of the biggest names in the industry.

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I grew up in London and studied engineering at Brunel University. My first job was with Rolls Royce in Bristol working on Jet engine development, then a period in the oil industry and then back to Aerospace with Dowty in the UK, making landing gear for Airbus.

I then moved with my family to Italy for a few years running three production facilities before finally moving to Malta to run a factory which was then bought out by Trelleborg.

I had originally come to Malta on a short term contract but really enjoyed the mix of work and lifestyle and so decided to stay.

I’ve now been in Malta for about 18 years. Trelleborg in Malta employs about 550 people, and forms part of a large Swedish group which has more than 100 manufacturing sites globally. Trelleborg (Dowty) has been in Malta since 1961 and we celebrated 60 years last year. We were the very first foreign direct investment company to arrive in Malta, and as a result, it has a very interesting culture.

What’s the work culture like at Trelleborg?

Having worked with many companies over the years, I’ve seen many different cultures. To summarise, I believe company culture comes from leadership, its history, and, to a certain extent, its size.

When you have a company that’s just recently been founded like a start-up, there is often a lack of structure, but this combined with energy and common goals can actually help to grow the company – you work hard, and you play hard, and you do this alongside the company’s founders or CEO.

However, as the company gets bigger, that lack of structure can create confusion and conflicts, so you need to start putting in structure– but if you’re not careful, the structure itself could create barriers against communication, especially for companies who have workers on different sites or in different countries.

Size does make a difference. It can separate people creating departmental silos and so you have to work very hard on the communication to overcome this.

Additionally, the culture that you have to build on will come from the leadership style.

Could you tell us a bit about HR GIG?

I attended HR GIG 6 last year and it was fascinating! I really enjoyed talking to people, especially listening to the challenges people were having.

The theme for this year is ‘Breaking the Silos’, something you’re very familiar with. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

When Trelleborg started in Malta back in the 60s, it did a massive recruitment drive and brought in 1000 employees; it happened when the British Navy was leaving Malta and so a lot of people needed jobs. The first CEO who led the company for 25 years used a command-and-control style which, although very effective, created a distinct culture within the organisation, and many silos.

Changing a culture like this takes time. Modernising a workplace with this in place takes even more time and effort.

When I joined, the first thing I did was to try and work on the culture and communication both internally and externally.

I reduced my direct reports from 13 to 7 and created clear responsibilities against common goals and targets. We worked on communication, moving towards sharing what’s going on in our separate departments and what are the key issues. This helped everyone feel involved and part of a team.

What are your thoughts on communication in the modern office?

The way that you actually work with people, the onboarding, and the communication are all vital to create a good place to work and break down silos, but you really have to put a lot of effort into communication as the company gets bigger. Logistic issues aside, it’s hard to keep everyone in the loop about all the projects the company is working on.

What are the communication challenges in manufacturing?

As you get larger, you might find that communicating the company’s goal to everyone might be a challenge.

In manufacturing, one of the challenges is the third shift. Trying to communicate the same intent over a 24-hour shift is difficult. Additionally, we have the challenge of languages: manufacturing attracts people of all nations, who might not really have English as a native language.

Silos in manufacturing are quite typical, especially in larger companies.

How can CEOs foster a better environment for communication and trust?

You need to have good, clear communication, and goal setting from the top.

If you have a leader who struggles to communicate, that will cause a lot of problems. People won’t understand what’s going on, and that confusion will start to trickle down, so each manager will focus on his own objectives, then the manager below him will focus on their own objectives, and so on – which creates an issue: their goals might not align with the company goal.

In a large organisation, it is difficult to see the common goal, so it’s up to leadership to remind everyone what are the common goals and that the customer is king. I have really missed not having customer visits during lockdown; we normally have a customer visit per week, allowing the whole workforce to actually see who they’re working for, and the staff get a chance to explain their products and vice versa, and it just creates a very good feedback loop, reminding everyone why we’re here.

What are the benefits of attending HR GIG?

Getting to meet people and HR professionals and getting a different perspective on some of the challenges we’re going through at the moment within Malta, such as the ones concerning legislation and recruitment.