Interview to the UNITECH Secretary General
13 Jul 2011 in Alumni by Marta Serrabou
Conducted in Zurich, June 4th 2011
UAA: What was your first involvement with UNITECH?
David Ward: I was at Hoffmann-La Roche, Head of Global Performance Management, Corporate HR role there and I was asked if I would take care of Roche's involvement in this new adventure that was happening. That was in 1999 and there were few Corporate Partners (CPs) beginning to collect together with ETH.
UAA: How has your collaboration with UNITECH changed over the years?
DW: I was initially a CP representative for Roche. I saw there was a need for some coaching in the first Start Up Week and offered to do that. My boss gave me one week off to do that which was great. I stayed as coach through all the 2000s and then moved to Secretary General (SG) from the 1st of June this year.
UAA: After 11 years of UNITECH, and having been part of the start of the program, do you see UNITECH as you envisioned it to be at the beginning?
DW: It is the same in many ways, the spirit and the energy are still the same, and what is supposed to be achieved by the organization and how it functions is pretty much the same in terms of the endeavor.
What changed - well the needs of the CPs, and the needs of the students have shifted.
UAA: Now that you took over the role of SG, how were the first weeks in charge of the UTI office?
DW: Challenging. Lots of things to think and a mass of operational things to get hold of I think that people see the office involved in the most visible events within the year (Start Up Week and GA, Assessment Centers and the Mid Term Week), but there is a daily flow of things we have to handle (small request from stakeholders, questions, inquiries…) which come into the office. Emma Zeisberger (Program Manager) and I take care of that, but it has been interesting to see how much of that actually happens behind the scenes. The other exciting part has been trying to make contact with all the stakeholders, the more established and the newer ones, making sure that everybody gets some stimulus, some ideas and caring attention.
UAA: Which are the main actions that you have already taken or that you are about to take as a SG?
DW: I have tried to get some of the new CPs onboard. I have been to Vorwerk and to Geberit and worked with them to help them get their focus on UNITECH and their early actions started. Another thing I have done is to pursue new CPs. And on top of this, a lot of small things intended to change my coaching network into a SG network. So that has been a lot of contact, a lot of calls, email exchange…
UAA: So you mention you have been visiting CPs and approached new potential CPs. Is this one of your main focus for you as SG?
DW: Yes, the main focus is growth and growth comes from increasing membership in the CP stakeholder group. A little bit more slow burn is addressing the Academic Partner (AP) situation. I am working on a couple of possibilities there too.
UAA: In terms of CPs then. What is the current situation of UNITECH?
DW: I think we are in a healthy situation with what is potentially out there. We would do well if we get probably up to 5 more in the near short-term future and I think the potential for doing that exists.
UAA: For the list of potential CP, which approach are you using? Have you changed something comparing to what was before?
DW: I think I am following the pattern that exists which functions on three levels: one is the high level strategic connections made mostly by members of the Management Committee and I follow up on that. Some CPs are also active in suggesting people that might be good targets and they make the first contacts. And then there is a group that I am taking forward on a personal, individual level. The next stage is to develop UNITECH’s external visibility to enhance its natural attraction of companies.
UAA: Moving into the AP area, how is the current situation in terms of increasing the AP stakeholders group? What are the next actions that you have in mind?
DW: In general we are trying to make sure that there is an AP in Holland. We are still looking for the right AP in France and also in a new European country. This is in early stage conversations, but there is one where the high level contact has been made with a senior professor through one of our senior CPs, and that has been met with some enthusiasm. At the same time 2 CP representatives have a contact with other potential APs. We will make a consorted effort to talk these Universities into becoming APs.
UAA: How do you prioritize these actions?
DW: I think a new AP in the Netherlands is my top priority and then the other 2 are probably equally second. I know the importance of a French University to the AP shape in UNITECH, so I feel that is an important pursue, but finding the right one is certainly challenging.
UAA: Having talked about CP and AP, which other focus areas do you have as SG?
DW: There are two areas that I would like to differentiate: short and mid-term focus and then the long-term focus. We talked quite a bit about the short and mid-term focus, which is growth, both on the CP and AP level. I think growth would also come through helping, supporting, encouraging existing CPs and APs to take more active part on UNITECH and therefore take more benefit from it. My view is that we can do best when a new company hears about the UNITECH program from a Corporate Partner company's excitement and enthusiasm about UNITECH, instead of someone having to knocking on the door and ask "have you heard about UNITECH?".
The long-term focus is to get visibility beyond the UNITECH network; visibility about what UNITECH is, that is, positioning UNITECH within the industrial community or European community. The goal here is that when you first talk to a potential CP or AP, you don’t have to explain what UNITECH is, but rather focus on the benefits they can take if they join UNITECH. I think this small differential will take us a little time to set up, but it is important that we do that.
UAA: You were saying about engaging CP and AP to be more active into the network. Do you have an idea on how to do it?
DW: I think there are two areas. One is making much clearer and maybe easier to achieve the benefits of being a member, what does membership mean and how does it function. A part of that is, for a CP, the value of the network, and how to succeed in recruiting talent from the network. I see these two run in parallel and I want to have an increment in those two areas, that CPs get more out of the network and they get more out of recruiting. Those two relationships need to be further energized. CPs should be able to see that there is value in getting more involved into the network.
UAA: Which are the main challenges ahead of UNITECH?
DW: From the SG point of view it is moving the growth quickly. And the challenge for me, personally, is recognizing I can't do that as fast as I would like to. Another challenge at the SG level is making sure that these drivers of growth (CPs and APs) move forward. The other underlying challenge is the overall quality of the network and the processes of the program: increasing quality is a thing that I am constantly thinking about. For example, the first big initiative that the Office will undertake in this respect is improving the whole process of the front end of the UNITECH year, which is around sharpening and supporting internal marketing within universities, intensifying the Assessment Centers and upgrading the selection process.
UAA: Do you already have a plan for this?
DW: I want to take a more accurate reading on what CPs actually need and soliciting CPs to tell us more precisely what they are looking for in terms of the qualities, skills sets and capabilities in a UNITECH graduate, and the type of engineers that they typically want to target. With that information we can front load the attraction and selection processes to bring more accurately the right kind of people into the program.
UAA: Let us talk now about the GA coming now in August in Gothenburg. How do you imagine it will be?
DW: We have been working a lot on it. I have to hand credit to Emma for that: She has done an amazing preparatory job, she has done a lot of the invisible work that goes on to make such an event function and she had great success in getting things as right as they can be. My vision of the GA is to make it more visibly a stakeholder event, for all stakeholders. For this purpose, we have built in some small adjustments, some small shifts in how we bring the stakeholders together. The new Stakeholders Fair is a very obvious one of those adjustments, but also there are smaller adjustments such as the way we have positioned the coffee breaks, so that there is more chance for different stakeholder groups to come together.
UAA: Are you planning any other changes for the Start Up Week / GA?
DW: We have done some timing changes to open up the program a little bit more: for example, we have split the General Assembly meetings apart, so the UAA GA is at a separate time from the UTI GA, allowing people to attend both. That is probably one of the more visible changes; we took time to make sure that the UAA is not a shadow, parallel process that is going on in the background. As a key stakeholder group, I wanted to bring the UAA Alumni Association more into the main stream of things.
UAA: As it looks in the program, the Graduation Ceremony will have a different set up this year. How will it be?
DW: It is a separate event, just before the Gala Dinner, which I think is a very good move. We will be making a little more formal process out of the graduation, more focused on the successful graduates, honoring them in an appropriate way.
UAA: Which is for you the main differential characteristic of UNITECH?
DW: I think the stakeholder interaction is a differential characteristic of UNITECH: the dialogue that exists between CP and students, CP and Alumni Association, Alumni Association and the main UNITECH body, CPs and APs. There is a real world contact among the stakeholders in each of the program modules. It is not just an educational/conceptual program; it is very much based on the realities of the working world.
We can make real world things happen with the Ideas Fair in the Start Up Week, with the case assignments in the Mid Term Week and now with the Stakeholders Fair with the returning students in the End of Year Module.
UAA: In terms of the result of the UNITECH program, which are the most relevant skills you think we have and which we would not have had if we had not taken part in the UNITECH program?
DW: The skills that are needed and which we develop in the program are the ability to assess rapidly the very sudden shifts in needs in terms of business, and then be able to react accordingly to them. Another skill is the ability to function that way among diversity. And that diversity is not only national or cultural, but also gender diversity, generational diversity, professional discipline diversity. The third skill I would like to mention is "standing out while fitting in" (SOWFI), and I think what the program allows us to do is to take conceptually amazing technical and academic top talent and equip that talent to fit into whatever working situation they find themselves in, so that they can still be high value contributors, without disrupting the inherent working environment.
UAA: How do you think the different UNITECH years (groups of people) differ to each other and which similarities do you see in them?
DW: The similarity which still exists is remarkable, and was a very interesting phenomenon in the very first group, is how much and how well they cared for each other as a group, and the support and the encouragement that they gave each other. This has not changed at all and it is still very remarkable as we have been through very competitive times and right now the competition for employment and great jobs is tighter than probably it has even been in UNITECH's history. What I have seen probably shift over the time, and in this last group is very clear, is that they were not only supporting each other personally, they were supporting each other in the way they try to achieve their goals. I see people sacrificing their own opportunity to show off their best skills in order for others who need that opportunity to get better at it. Generation X was much more competitive and individually focused.
UAA: How valuable do you find the UNITECH Alumni Association (UAA)?
DW: I’d like to split that one in two. From the UTI point of view, there is a huge value. I think your existence and the things that you do and the value that you bring, does much to maintain the long term flow and continuity of UNITECH. I really want to focus on that, moving the mindset away from UNITECH being a one-year program, from the CP mindset as well as from the students. My personal viewpoint -and in both roles, coach and SG - the UAA and in particular its council is very valuable as a group of people who understand UNITECH and lots of its challenges. As a coach I spend a lot of time talking to Council members from the UAA, and in my start as a SG that has continued and I hope it will be as constructive and strong as it always has been.
UAA: Our strategy is focused on content, career, spirit and friendship. How important are these areas? Would you add any other?
DW: I think the 4 are terrific focus areas. I love how you split this down, and I admire the simplicity you have brought to understanding what you should focus on. Three of them are very strong and active: content, spirit and friendship. The one that I would like to see us (UTI and UAA) develop together, to bring some strength to is career. This can be grounded in increasing the energy of your relationship with CPs. I know that is something you are working on and I would love to lend my support to that in order to make career as strong as your other three areas of focus. I see content, spirit and friendship very much UAA focused, whereas career is the one with bigger overlap with UTI.
UAA: Can you think of some ways to make the focus area “career” stronger?
DW: I have begun the discussion among CPs about what their needs are, from the talent pool of UNITECH. I think this needs to be balanced together with what the needs in terms of employment are from Alumni, defining the nature, the content, the shape, the kind of roles or positions that you are interested in within CPs companies.
The second action would be to go to the CPs with this information and market that internally, so that we increase the awareness of where to place a UNITECH Alumni in their companies for best mutual benefit and results.
UAA: One project we have for next year is to have a survey among our members. We could here include some information about the type of positions they hold.
DW: Yes, that would be excellent. You could ask what are the characteristics of a great job, what kind of jobs do you wish there were more of in the CP network. It would be a great focus point we could share, and I can bring to the UAA information from my discussions with the CPs, saying this is the kind of talents that they are looking for.
UAA: What is your assessment of what we do today?
DW: I am very impressed with how much you do with limited resources and the enthusiasm and energy that stand behind that, the impact that you have, the major shift in maturity over the last 3 years. UAA has actually become a fully-fledged, powerful, well-established and effective Alumni Association. What I see is that you provide services and activities closely in touch with what your members want.
UAA: What would you envision for us in 5-10 years?
DW: I was at a graduation ceremony back in Kansas in May, and the president of the Kansas University Alumni Association spoke, encouraging the graduates to join his association and said: "we have a membership of 45.000 Alumni globally". I am not setting numerical targets here, but I think that with the rate and pace at which you are growing and the foundation you have built over recent -- years – that we just spoke about -- makes you very a attractive Alumni Association to belong to. If we can really ramp up the career part and you can keep the other 3 focus areas as strong as they are in terms of value and quality right now, I think you would grow bigger and stronger over the next 5 to 10 years. And if, working together, we can get the visibility of the network, and UNITECH and UAA to become known in other circuits, it will be something you will have to manage but also something very magnetic. I see you in 5-10 years being an organization that still serves their members very well.
UAA: Have you considered the possibility to expand UNITECH beyond European borders?
DW: I am not aware of deliberate intend to go outside of Europe. I am not saying this is not going to happen in the future either. I think the focus is very European and there is a lot of excellence in Europe which we have not attached ourselves to yet. I think there is plenty of space for us to build UNITECH bigger and stronger. The initial intent when founding UNITECH was partly to create a European advantage so that European industry could then compete better with Asia Pacific and the USA.
UAA: How do you envision UNITECH to be in the next 5-10 years?
DW: This is not a decision or strategy but I am using it as a model for my thinking. The steps that we are taking this year of having the Stakeholders Fair on the Thursday of the GA, I can imagine that in 2012 to have probably a number of exhibitors from within the network, and that that number of exhibitors (CPs, APs, UAA, returning students, the office) will be large enough to attract attention from outside the network (media, other companies or organizations…). This could perhaps even lead to opening up the Stakeholders Fair day to create something like a “UNITECH Technical Conference” at which non UNITECH people could attend by 2013. And I see UNITECH to be, in 5-10 years from now, is a far more public organization, with a voice in the industrial landscape of Europe, through various events and activities, which we will have to design as we go along. But the nature of that activity will change with us some times opening them to non UNITECH people, creating a competitive advantage in many fields, that we have moved from the base of recruitment with additional networking benefits to be an organization that is valuable to the European industry.