Thomas Zinsli - Global HR Director at Adidas

Human Resources
17 April, 2023

Thomas Zinsli is Global HR Director at Adidas in Lucerne, Switzerland. Thomas started his Human Resources career as an HR Business Partner at UBS, before spending almost 12 years at Mondelez International, where he became HR Director Supply Chain Europe & Chair European Works Council. He is also the Co-Founder of a baby accessories business that he started with his wife.

You mention on your LinkedIn profile that leading change in transformation is important to you. Why is that?

It's really interesting work, essentially; it's usually not easy and it's different every time you do it. There are some things you can repeat, but the context is different every time - and transformational work typically touches multiple parts of the business. Often, that includes people, culture, organisation, leadership - all of these topics that are core to HR.

Change is happening whether we want it or not, so why not embrace it and be part of that cross-functional team that really looks at the change and how to solve it best?

Having said that, it's really important that we’re driving change from the head and the heart. What I mean by that is that we're really trying to identify what the problem is, what the underlying root causes of that problem are, and then look at what's the best and most sustainable option to tackle the problem for both the business and our people.

We also need to recognize that words like “change” and “transformation” are scary for people, because they're often connected to redundancies and restructurings, etc. It’s then up to us to also show positive transformational aspects, like building new capabilities, or bringing in exciting technologies or leadership programs, because often it's a bit of both.

I've been in quite a few transformations, and it's always been an opportunity to learn and grow for me and everyone involved.

How have you been successful in building effective organisations with engaging cultures?

I try to do this with my own teams and I think it's similar advice I would give to leaders for their teams. It is something that has evolved throughout my career.

For me, the idea is always to surround myself with a group of team members with different backgrounds, if I can, but they should also - of course - be really good at what they do. That gives us the best chance to tackle issues from different angles and to explore ways of how we can do our jobs better. Then it's important to find common ground, to listen and build trust with each other.

Once those things are in place, I feel it's quite organic - at least for me it is - as I usually involve the team when we flesh out priorities and responsiblities; we look at the context and see what's needed for the business. We organise ourselves in a way that people can do work they're passionate about and gives them meaning, while also growing and taking on new challenging work.

On an individual level, it's about the clear mutual expectations up front: What do I need from them? What do they need from me? The deal with my team members is always that we both give it our best - they deliver the best performance they can, and I try to be the best coach I can by helping them navigate through their issues and challenges, and becoming better leaders and professionals, and helping them get to the next step in their career.

It's really important to me to have time for the team, to be available when they need me and, if they need me for longer, then I try to be there longer.

What made you go into HR? Was it some of those aspects that you've recognised, actually seeing the potential in people?

Yeah, you're right. I started out in the Sales and Claims department of an insurance company, so quite different. But what it taught me was how to deal with clients - and often not very happy clients, as you can imagine in the insurance company. I knew that interacting with people was something that I did like – just not necessarily in this job. So, I didn't quite know what it was I was looking for.

Then, I went to university just as I turned 20 and started studying Business Economics. I really got interested in the topics of leadership and organisational psychology, and more human-centric topics.

It was a small university, so the closest thing they had on offer in terms of majors was Human Resources - and I guess the rest is history; that got me hooked. I also had very inspirational professors there. After graduating, I got a traineeship at one of the Swiss banks as an HR Manager, and I got the opportunity every few years to move into a new role and even abroad.

I thought, “Okay, this is what I really want to do,” because, what intrigues me about HR - still to this day - is the breadth that we’re working on. It's literally from hiring to retiring and everything in between, on both the operational and the strategic level. What we do really matters for people.

Also, in the more recent years of my career, I found that HR BPs [Business Partners] are often some of the people that are closest to leaders that need to make those big and difficult decisions. So, it is a bit of a unique place. It gives us the opportunity to gain insights of how those leaders think and also, sometimes, what they're going through, how alone some of them sometimes are with their decisions. We can have an impact by advising them and partnering with them.

It's interesting - one C level executive I worked with told me a few years ago that he thinks, in HR, we have some of the most challenging jobs, because the people and culture topics are the most difficult topics to tackle. Those were his words - not mine. But, let me just say that I don't disagree. Obviously, I’m biased, but it was nice to hear from a C level that he appreciated it, as well.

You mentioned that you started in HR in a Swiss bank and I've noticed you have worked across multiple industries. It's often difficult to do, so how have you adapted to that?

One of my favourite aspects of HR is that we can do that. When I’m looking at job advertisements, they often say that industry experience is a must-have requirement. I think, for many HR roles and others, that's a good bonus, but why would it be an absolute requirement?

I think quite the opposite - learning from other industries can be quite enriching. Otherwise, you're always in your silo. To get a bit of input of how things are done elsewhere, there is something to it, because many of our HR and leadership skills are transferable across industries.

Again, it's always about people, culture, organisation, inspiring leadership. Every company needs to attract and develop people. Every company needs to build capabilities and work on their Diversity & Inclusion, etc. I’m convinced that only when leadership fosters an environment where people actually enjoy to work, thrive and find meaning, will they really innovate and grow their business.

I think HR, along with maybe Finance and just a couple of other functions, allows you to really get to know every part of the business. During my 12 years at Mondelez, I had the opportunity to work with every function in some shape or form - not every job profile can say that. To be able to do that across different industries makes that experience even better.

On your LinkedIn profile, we can see that you founded your own business. How have you had time to do that alongside a successful HR leader role?

It's been a bit of a slow burner, I have to admit, and it's actually my wife's baby; she’s been toying around with the idea for quite some time. Just before our first daughter was born, she was looking for an accessory for pacifiers on the market and just couldn’t find anything good.

We saw something comparable that we sort of liked in the US, but couldn’t find it here, so we said, “Hey, why not explore that a little bit?” Then, before our twins were born in the middle of the pandemic, I decided, now is the time to take some time off and focus on the family. We said, “Let's do that for a year.” That also gave us the opportunity to switch gears and put a bit more time into the business.

Then, just over a year ago we went back to work - both my wife and myself – so, we said, “If we want to keep this going, we need to stay disciplined.” Now, we find time when the kids are with their grandparents for an afternoon on a weekend, or we have a dedicated evening per week when we say, “Let's do sort of quick sprints and try to get stuff done fast without overthinking it.” I have to say, it's mostly worked out that way so far.

At EMEA Recruitment, Paul Toms, our founder, set the business up with his wife, Kelly. How have you found the dynamic working with your wife?

We enjoy working with each other on a whole different level now. Of course, we're not always on the same page about everything. We do have quite complementary skills; she is a teacher, and very much into the arts and crafts. I wouldn't remotely be able to do any of these things that she does. I mostly take care of the business side of things. Plus, our kids are our best product testers, so it’s a family venture.

We also have a great network of friends and contacts that we assembled throughout the years, and that's enormously helpful. We're enjoying that we're learning a lot.

Last week, for example, we filed for a patent; I never thought I would do something like that. So, that's also exciting for both of us. We’re surprised ourselves how often we agree on things.

You started off in the customer sales side, you've moved over into HR across multiple different industries, and obviously you have your own business - what would you say is your career highlight?

That's a difficult one, because there have been many. But, specifically as an HR professional, I would point out two. What they have in common is that they both started out one way and then had a sudden change in context.

The first one was earlier in my career. It was my assignment for UBS to lead Wealth Management’s HR in the Caribbean. When the bank decided to acquire a Latin American bank and we had quite some involvement, especially from the Bahamas.

All of a sudden, I found myself in the middle of an international integration. That was exciting and a great learning experience. I got a lot of trust from my leaders who were sitting in Zurich, so I also learned a lot from them about leadership.

The second one is more recent. It was when I was at Mondelez - I was asked to take over as Chairman of the European Works Council on top of my job being in charge of the European Supply Chain HR team.

At first, I thought, “I probably won't like this much.” But it turned out to be a true highlight, because what happened was, at first, we had Brexit, then we had a company-wide restructuring, and - on top of that - a pandemic had started.

The pandemic was itself huge for the business, especially for our 50-plus manufacturing sites in Europe, and then, very quickly, Works Councils got quite involved. It became a tricky thing, especially because me and my colleagues had to manage all those topics with the Works Councils in parallel across many countries. Those consultations are heavily relationship driven, and we needed to manage it all remotely in multiple languages via telepresence - so, logistically, it was a challenge. But the results were good, and it was a good experience.

I think the learning from both was that stepping out of your comfort zone, staying calm and putting a bit of structure behind your thinking - while also remaining flexible, because things literally changed every day in another direction - were things that were essential and that I actually enjoyed doing.

Of course, it makes a big difference if you have a great team and colleagues that all support and go with you in the same direction, and way above and beyond what's in their job descriptions.

I can see that you follow Simon Sinek - he particularly always questions the “why.” So, has he inspired you along your career choices?

Yes. What I like about Simon Sinek is that he shifts the paradigm in a bit of an unexpected, but very simple way; it's not complicated models that he talks about. The famous Golden Circle model is to always start with the “why”, and you’d think, “Okay, that’s a no brainer,” but he was the one who wrote it down and brought it into the mainstream.

In that sense, yes, that is inspiring, and I actually try to use those approaches regularly, for example, when we build tools like change and transformation frameworks that we can apply to multiple parts of the business.

The other piece from Sinek that I really like is his book The Infinite Game. There is this notion in business - and I guess in life in general – that it's not a game with set rules that you're done after 60 minutes, like hockey or another game. When you play the infinite game, you need to be pragmatic and reinvent yourself; the rules change constantly, and you need to be conscious of how you play.

The bottom line is that inspiring books like his help me become a bit of a better leader, and a better partner to the business that I work with. So, Sinek has this quote that the goal is not to be perfect in the end, but to be better today. I think that sort of grounds you in the present, as well.

Thank you to Thomas for speaking to Keely Straw, Associate Director in our HR recruitment team in Switzerland.

Views and opinions contained within our Executive Interviews are those of the interviewee and not views shared by EMEA Recruitment