Relishing a “New Type of Operational Leadership Role”

An Interview with Kirsten Lange

When it comes to learning curves, Kirsten Lange’s attitude is simple: “the steeper, the better.”

Perhaps this explains why, after a two decades-plus career in consulting, Kirsten (Munich, Shanghai, 1990-2012)—who, in her own words, had “absolutely no technical background”—took a senior management role with Voith Hydro, a global hydropower company dominated by engineers.  

“I found it exhilarating to jump feet-first into an entirely new industry,” she said.

Voith is one of the world’s biggest names in hydropower plants and equipment, and manufactures and services components of large and small hydropower plants, including: generators, turbines, pumps, electrical and mechanical equipment, and automation systems.

An immediate challenge, Kirsten says, was to weigh how much technical detail she would need to attain in order to be taken seriously by her new colleagues and those reporting to her—while identifying those aspects of the job where, ironically, a layman’s perspective might be more advantageous.

Two years in, it’s a balancing act she feels she’s mastered.

While about half of her time is allotted to her responsibilities as a member of the company’s board of management—overseeing, advising, and leading twelve global operational units around the world—Kirsten is also responsible for the profit and loss statements of two international divisions: automation equipment and aftermarket business. Finally, in her role as chief business development officer, she acts as what she calls a “trend scout,” and looks for new business ideas and development opportunities.

“I’ve come to really love hydropower. It’s a fantastic industry, not only in terms of growth—every country needs energy for growth—but also because we are in the business of sustainability.”

Indeed, hydro can claim more than 90 percent efficiency and, when compared to solar or wind, is significantly cheaper in terms of generation. It is the largest renewable source of electricity available today. In countries such as Canada and Brazil, that boast the necessary natural resources—large rivers or high heads from which to drive generation—hydro is by far the dominant source of energy supply.

“Hydro is completely underestimated as a source of energy and does not have as good of a reputation as it deserves,” said Kirsten. Consumers, she adds, simply do not understand it well enough and have misconceptions about the industry.

“While, in general, public opinion toward sustainable energy is positive, when people think about hydro, they too often envision mega dams and mammoth projects such as the Three Gorges Dam in China or the Belo Monte project in Brazil. But if you consider the extensive number of dams that already exist—dams not currently used to produce electricity—there is huge potential for increased hydrogeneration outside of mega projects.”

In addition, hydro, unlike solar or wind—which can’t necessarily produce electricity when most needed—can store vast amounts of energy. When power is in low demand, she explains, water can be moved into pump storage plants. When demand goes up, the stored water can then be released through turbines to generate power.

“Pump storage plants are currently the only economically viable, large-scale way of storing and quickly releasing energy,” she said.

In listening to her speak, there is no doubting Kirsten’s belief in and enthusiasm for her new industry. But does this new-found enthusiasm in any way dilute her affinity for consulting?

“Not at all. I’ll always owe a great deal to consulting and I certainly owe a great deal to BCG. BCG influenced and shaped me entirely in what I’ve learned and how I’ve developed professionally. I have BCG in my veins—I like to say that I have green blood. After such a long time in the industry I am not just a consultant—I am a BCG consultant. It never leaves. I moved on simply because I was ready for a fresh challenge.”

Early in her BCG career, Kirsten worked in her native Germany on pulp and paper industry projects. Her responsibilities broadened until she was appointed the firm’s pulp and paper lead, first for Europe, and then globally.

“I had achieved all that I could in that role, and was beginning to feel that the challenges weren’t what they used to be when I was offered this job at Voith. I was drawn by the opportunity to tackle a steep new learning curve. ” And by the chance to go beyond the traditional consultant’s role of advisor to “accept direct operational responsibility and to lead from within.” The international aspect of the job was also appealing.

Kirsten had always enjoyed that her role within BCG had a strong international flavor, but her current job, she says, “takes global to a whole new level.”

“We are a decentralized organization. As such, at least once per year I try to visit each country in which we do business. I have about 500 employees across the world reporting directly to me and I make an effort to see them regularly, face-to-face, to find out what’s on their mind and to visit our customers together with them.” 

Meeting so many people has, she says, piqued her professional curiosity in a new way.

“When you work alongside consultants, you’re pretty much dealing with the same type of people; whether they are in Shanghai, São Paulo, or Stockholm, professionally they’re not that dissimilar. But when you deal, for example, with people of different nationalities on the shop floor, it demands a whole fresh set of leadership skills. Leadership skills I could only have developed on the job, as an industry insider.”

“What I’ve found most fascinating in the change from consulting to this operational leadership role is how different a company looks when seen from the inside and how truly different life is as part of an industrial company’s management team,” she concluded. “Voith is a successful, profitable company and so there’s always a question of how much change can and should I—with my green, consulting blood—bring to make it even more successful, and what elements core to the company’s culture, strategy, and success should be left untouched.”