Times like these call for two important qualities: resilience and leadership. Though Tom Westrick (BBA ’90) understood that long before COVID-19, these qualities have served him especially well in recent months.
Westrick, vice president and chief quality officer at GE Healthcare in Milwaukee, shared his insights recently during a Badger Executive Talk, a new virtual speaker series featuring executives from the UW–Madison alumni community. Vallabh “Samba” Sambamurthy, Albert O. Nicholas Dean of the Wisconsin School of Business, led the conversation and fielded questions from alumni.
Westrick and Sambamurthy engaged in a wide-ranging discussion that tapped into Westrick’s passion for diversity and people management, but it was the personal and professional challenges people face now that served as an undercurrent to the conversation.
“In our careers, we all need to go through something that blows you away,” Westrick says. “The resilience you develop, you carry that with you.”
Westrick experienced professional upheaval 12 years into his career. He graduated from WSB with degrees in accounting and risk management, and pursued a career in public accounting with Arthur Andersen based in Milwaukee and San Francisco. He was on his way to making
partner at the firm when it shut down in 2002, and found himself starting a new job at Deloitte instead. He later moved to GE Healthcare, first as global controller and chief risk manager before taking on his current role in 2015.
As he has moved through his career, Westrick has recognized the importance of leadership and building teams, even more so in challenging times.
“Leadership matters,” he says. “It’s such a cliché but we see it everywhere. When I think of things that didn’t work it was never because we couldn’t figure it out or it was a technical matter. It usually comes down to some leadership failure.”
Westrick shared four key elements he believes have helped him build a successful career and become a strong leader.
Don’t fight change. People are rightly proud of past accomplishments, Westrick says, but you can’t worry too much about protecting them as an organization moves forward. “When people get defensive and don’t get on board with the transformation, they fail.”
Have empathy. In crisis moments, everyone worries about themselves because it’s only natural; their livelihoods are on the line. Leaders need to recognize this, Westrick says. “People say, ‘What are we going to do?’ but what they’re really thinking is, ‘What does it mean for me?’” Good leaders, he says, find a way to communicate in a personal way that also resonates with team and company goals.
Find the change agents in your organization. Look for the people Westrick describes as “appropriately disruptive.” That’s who you want as peers and who you want to spend your time with, he says. “Who do you want to learn from? Find the people who ask the hard questions.”
Be transparent and be quick. Tough decisions abound in business and it makes no sense to draw them out and make people wonder. “Trust your gut,” Westrick says. “If it takes six months, you’ve lost six months.”
Badger Executive Talks will continue on Oct. 6 with Gayle Fuguitt (MBA ’80), former vice president of global consumer insights at General Mills and former chief of customer insight at Foursquare. Two more talks are planned for early 2021: Cheryl Stallworth (MBA ’81), co-founder of ShedLight and former CEO of Firefly; and Ericson Chan (BA ’90), CEO of Ping An Technology.