Becoming Christian Schmidt – Customs & Trade Compliance Leader

2020 was a challenging year for business and not just because of the pandemic. Global politics and changing international relationships mean that trading internationally can be a complex process.

The Customs team play a key part in how a business moves its goods or services around the world. This is certainly true for Adient, which manufactures automotive seating for customers worldwide.

Christian Schmidt is Adient’s Customs & Trade Compliance Leader and he tells us about the role and the attributes you need to succeed in customs and trade.

Christian, thank you for taking the time to tell us your story and give us an account of your journey. To kick things off, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Hello – I am happy to give you a little insight into my story. I’m Christian Schmidt, 36 years old and with full conviction and passion, I’m a Customs & Trade Compliance Leader with an interest in digitization and trade compliance tech. Together with my wife and three children, I live in the beautiful area called “Bergstraße”. At least if I’m not at home in North Rhine-Westphalia during the week from a work point of view.

I prefer to spend my time with my family outdoors and I’m a fundamentally positive and open person.

But to be honest, it’s not that easy to talk about myself. Where do I start and where should I stop? Probably it’s because I don’t like to be in the foreground but prefer being in the observer role. 

From this role, a lot of ideas flow into my projects and tasks. People say to me that I am very creative and always looking for new ideas. I think that’s true, but it can also be a bit intense. 

So maybe I start with a quote that I find quite appropriate and that describes my private and professional attitude quite well it’s more like two quotes:

“If you can dream it, you can make it” and “Paths are created by walking them”

I am convinced that anything can be achieved if you believe in it and that it’s necessary to make the first step. 

Today I am glad that my professional path has taken me to the customs area – and I still enjoy it. Developing the topic every day with my team is something I like. As mentioned, besides the customs area, the topic of digitization and everything to do with technology is incredibly exciting for me. Probably because I grew up with a lot of new technologies, there have been a lot of changes and further development. I think it’s great to combine the two themes because it can create completely new solutions.

I struggle in the same way you do, I’m very much an observer as well. I will also say that both quotes are extremely true. Passion certainly plays a key role as the vehicle that takes you down that path, I think. That being said, where did your journey in Customs start? Did you fall into the sector, or was there something that drew you to it?

This started quite early in my professional life. From time to time I had to go to the customs office to handle exports to Switzerland. I didn’t have any experience or any idea how it worked, but it worked somehow. Thanks to the help of the customs offices. Today I just smile about it when I think about what and how we have managed everything. That’s been many years ago, but I was already excited and interested in the customs agenda at that time. Now, however, I’m happy to know much more about international trade and to pass it on.

It’s great to see that your career naturally took you down this path. It’s very common to see Senior professionals accidentally fall into Customs. Now that you lead a team, what’s life like being a Director of Customs?

Exciting! Although it also depends a lot on the company, the corporate culture and the environment, how the life of a Director of Customs looks like. I also think that the tasks cannot be described firmly, as it also requires a great deal of flexibility to adapt to the company strategy and the department to ever-changing requirements. You must be quite a good all-rounder.

Simply summed up, in my case, I would describe it as mentioned – exciting, sometimes crazy, quite varied with a lot of fun. 

Above all, it makes me happy to work with the team, but also to work with each one of them individually. I’m attracted by the difference and how this fits together very much. I also like the focus on the strategy of what the role brings and planning. That certainly makes a significant part of the job for me. I also believe that it is a core task to show a perspective and purpose creating a common alignment.  

Of course, I also spend a lot of time in meetings and always try to get the necessary information and maintain relationships. Meetings always take some time with preparation and follow-up, of course, but it helps so that we can do our job. 

Also, I would compare my tasks less with those of a customs expert, I grew out of an expert role and frankly others are much better on special things in my team than I am. I consider this a good thing. For me, it’s about promoting collaboration and co-creation and building a relationship of trust in which everyone gets their role and can shine. The development of virtual teams has also become more important. Staying up to date with changes can be time-intense. We always need new ideas, and I see it as one of my priorities in helping the team be creative.

It’s always refreshing to hear someone as passionate as you are in approaching Customs with a creative mindset yet take the time to focus on your team’s development. I’m sure many would very much agree that that is of utmost importance. Considering the time you’ve spent at Adient now, would you say there’s anything that you did to put yourself in your position? Was there a certain skill set, or attribute that you felt gave you the upper hand? 

I’m glad to have been given the chance to take on a director role at a young age. I have learned a lot in the last few years, for which I am incredibly grateful.

I felt ready to take the next step and was happy when I was contacted at the time. When a door opens and you’re ready, you’ve got to go for it and give it everything – that’s what sets me apart. All in or not at all.

The offer fit well into my situation, as a sensible next step in my career. Since the task covers many subject areas in the field of foreign trade, another criterion was to be able to draw on a broad general knowledge of the customs sector, which I was able to acquire over the years. In my previous jobs, I was also able to demonstrate that I can build up departments and specialists as well as unite people. That was also one of the requirements for the task at Adient. The talks were promising, and we were on the same wavelength with the vision and how we can build the organization. Sometimes it helps to be in the right place at the right time, that’s how it was with me.

I can certainly understand that sense of fulfilment or achievement when doors of opportunity open up. Unfortunately, on some occasions, some do not go all in. This is where I feel the self-betterment comes into play. 

Nowadays, professionals at your level encourage proactivity in learning. How active are you in self-education?

Highly active – and that’s always been me. I love learning new things. After school, I started my professional life and realized quickly that I had to do more. My Bachelor’s in Procurement & Logistics, MBA and Masters in Leadership & Management which I studied during the weekends.  Luckily, I was also allowed to attend countless specialist training.

Today, I’m a big fan of online learning, to be honest. There are countless offers and the effort is always worthwhile. In the digital age, dynamic learning plays a greater role and gives a lot of flexibility. Besides, I am always curious when it comes to new knowledge.

It’s certainly a good time to take full advantage of online learning in that sense. With the time that you spend on your learning, I can imagine that routines could be difficult to follow as a Director… Do you have a daily routine? If so, is it something you stick to?

For sure everyone has certainly developed their style and routines. But it also needs a good dose of flexibility and adaptability to get through the day well, with an open ear. 

However, my day usually starts right away, with the various tools in my AutoStart program on the PC, the e.g. dashboards that give me a better feeling about our operations or my daily to-do lists. Since I love structure, I have my procedures and routines otherwise I could not do the work or help the team. 

What’s crucial is to develop the style and to try new things, I also like to consider what others use for routines for themselves to develop my style. This is also what it needs to be effective, in my opinion. Besides, as a big tech fan, I always look at new tools that make life easier, which has saved me a lot of time.

It’s no mystery that technology has taken significant leaps in recent years. It must have been interesting to watch it develop throughout your career. 

Since you’ve attained your role, what key working habits do you think someone needs to become an expert in Customs?

It’s a matter of gaining and developing customs knowledge. But this also requires initiative. This is essential for any department. Knowledge alone, however, will not help – experts must be able to apply it. So, it also needs a certain portion of empathy to understand the problems. Otherwise, in addition to the virtues that I think are typical, such as passion and willingness, there are a whole host of things, including flexibility and transparency too. But I also believe that a good team is characterized by the fact that everyone can bring top performance, which means different habits are also exciting and profitable or they complement each other as a whole. 

Very well said. Applied knowledge is power as I’ve heard before. With that being said, what key advice would you give to anyone that wants to drive their careers deeper into leadership roles?

When I think about it, I must first think of patience, even though I am the most impatient person I know. My grandpa always said that if the behaviour and work are done right, the rest will be right at some point. 

But somehow this doesn’t help the readers as advice, so I’ll try it differently. Being authentic always helps not to slip into a role or try to be perfect as well. And then I think you must be in the right place at the right time as I mentioned. I would also encourage anyone if there is a desire to address this directly. That also suggests that someone wants it. Besides, can’t everyone be a leader in what they do?

I certainly agree with that. I do think it’s a case of faking it until you make it, right? Not only is applying yourself important but being habitual plays a key role as well. What are your top 5 habits in your professional life and how can one adopt these into their day-to-day lives?

That probably sounds memorized by now. In a leadership training course a few years ago, we did something very similar. Each had written down their top habits, and the other participants could choose which ones could be taken over. Here are my top tips:

  • Getting Up Early
  • Positive Thinking
  • Keep your word
  • Reflecting Daily
  • To-Do Lists
Strong points to live by! In addition to that, do you have any career inspirations or professionals that you look up to?

There is no one I consider specifically. Some people are inspiring to an extent. Of course, the people who supported me were and still are for me positively remembered. I’m happy to have worked with a lot of great people and I’m happy for everyone who comes along on top. That’s enough inspiration for me, everyone has their own story and that can be very inspiring.

Great way to put it. To close us out, what are your recommended reads or inspiring books you have come across recently?

I recommend “Platform Revolution” and “The Bezos Letters”. I am also a big fan of biographies in general and there are many. I also recommend “Managing, Performing, Living”. I was recommended this before and it accompanied me in the first steps as a leader.

We’ll certainly add this to our reading lists! Christian, thank you again for taking the time to speak with us. I’m sure many young professionals will have plenty to take away from your Customs journey.

Also in the Becoming Series

Andrew Bohnet

Philippe Norre

Paolo Girgenti

Cristhian Rodriguez

Mike Glover

& many more on our Media Hub

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