Wayne Griffiths: “Now is the time to accelerate electrification”

Do Better Team

The vehicle industry is undergoing a transformation. During the last five years, more changes have taken place than in recent decades. This is the case of SEAT, which has gone from powering post-war Spain by making combustion cars to having plans to electrify its factories and develop more sustainable solutions for urban mobility. 

Wayne Griffiths is president of SEAT and CUPRA. In addition, from January 2022 he chairs the Spanish Association of Automobile and Truck Manufacturers (ANFAC). He holds a double degree in International Management and German from the University of Leeds (UK), his career has been closely associated with the Volkswagen Group, first at Audi AG and now at SEAT and CUPRA.  

Below, we offer a transcript of the conversation he had with Àngel Castiñeira, director of the Esade Center for LeadershipS and Sustainability. You can listen to the podcast in Spanish here.

How do you lead a company like yours in a context of permanent crisis, not only in terms of pandemics and climate, but also energy and geopolitics? 

Crises can be seen in two ways: either as a risk that makes you want to protect yourself, or as an opportunity to make changes that you would have developed much more slowly if there had not been a crisis. I see them as a chance to make changes. In every crisis, there are opportunities. And the only thing I know for sure is that there will be yet more crises. We have had several crises with the semiconductors and the war in Ukraine, and there will be more, but we must see them as opportunities. 

We need clear long-term objectives, but we must also have short-term plans that make them realistic

In times of crisis and change, it is difficult to make strategic plans. How is a manager's vision put into practice in times of change? Can we continue to have long-term visions, or is there now much more resistance to change, and much more of an obligation to change the vision more quickly? 

We need clear long-term objectives, but we must also have short-term plans that make them realistic. There will be no more combustion cars from 2035 with the CO2 targets set by the European Union. Ten years seems a long time, but it is the life cycle of a car. That is why we must now manage the decisions that need to be made for the future and, at the same time, try to survive and generate the money needed for these investments. Surviving in the current economic situation is the big challenge: and, at the same time, we must find the courage to make the investments needed for the future.  

You say that these transformations can be experienced as terrible crises, but also as opportunities. You are now carrying out a major transformation at SEAT; how do those members of your teams who are more comfortable with traditional vehicle models respond, and especially those team members who may become outdated by electrification? How do you manage trade-offs between the teams who are going to lead the innovation and those who may be afraid of being left behind? 

We can show them The Lord of the Rings, as I did with my management team. We took the story of The Lord of the Rings, which begins with fear, chapter by chapter. There is another fear, which I have seen in my company, and I see in Spain: the fear of losing. This attitude must change. We must not go out trying not to lose, we must go out to win. To convince everyone that this really is possible, you need time, patience, passion, and symbols that show that your dream can become reality. Gradually, the dreams, which were initially few, grow in number. This is what I am experiencing now in the company. Attitudes have changed a lot in the last four years. 

Authenticity and consistency are the most important skills

From what you are saying, we are talking about motivational and emotional abilities, or what we could call soft skills. In times such as ours, can these abilities be more important in a company like yours composed of engineers than hard skills? 

Yes. For me one of the most important abilities is consistency. For me, one of the most critical issues for people – not only for your employees, but also for your customers and for your environment – is whether what you do is authentic. That is, whether your actions and your communications are consistent with what you are doing. Soft skills are especially important. Young people don't buy fake news, they don't buy marketing if they see that it is not authentic. In short, authenticity and consistency are the most important skills. 

You also say that these are times for courage. You have spoken, on other occasions, of rebelliousness. How do you relate coherence with rebelliousness? They may seem to be two abilities or attitudes that are quite different. I find it difficult to associate the characteristic of rebelliousness with top management. Can you explain this to us? 

Rebelliousness without a cause is probably bad. But rebelliousness is a good thing when challenging convention, when questioning whether we are doing well, and when provoking new responses to challenges. That's why I always say I'm a rebel – but a rebel with a cause. And not just with one cause, but with two. I don't want to have a strategy with 20 points that we cannot satisfy. I want just two points: the electrification of SEAT and CUPRA in Martorell; and the launch of CUPRA, a new Spanish brand with enormous potential.  

As vehicle manufacturers, we are part of the solution for sustainability and not part of the problem

COP 27 has recently ended and much has been discussed about the present and the future of sustainability. The Esade Center for LeadershipS and Sustainability is currently considering the importance of regenerative, systemic, and sustainable leadership. In a sector as classic as the vehicle industry, how do you deal with the issues of sustainable leadership and sustainability?  

By demonstrating that as vehicle manufacturers, we are part of the solution and not part of the problem. So far, we have been described as part of the problem, because current cars emit CO2, so we must make cars that do not emit CO2. That is, electric cars. To meet the 55% reduction targets by 2030, the only way forward for individual mobility is electric cars. Consequently, it is not enough to have targets for 2030 or 2035, we must also have them for next year. On this point, Spain is now at the tail end of Europe. We want to manufacture electric cars here in Spain from 2025, but we are not selling enough electric cars in Spain: only 10% of the market, while in Portugal it is 20%. I am trying to show the need to carry out this change in these tough times, but someone could say: "We are going to delay this decision because it is difficult to invest now given market demand, or because there is a lack of semiconductors." I believe the opposite – now is the time to accelerate electrification. 

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