TR2050 interviews Uwe Kilian: “Reward seems to have watched everything else change around it – and just stayed the same”
Member Interview

We speak to Uwe Kilian, Vice President of Compensation & Benefits and Labour Relations at Essity, about his journey to a role he loves – and why he’s passionate about innovation in Reward. 

Uwe Kilian’s whole demeanour seems to glow when he talks about Reward, the profession that his penchant for seizing opportunities – and his natural skillset – brought him to:

“It’s such a rare role,” he explains. “You can impact a lot and you have direct access to the executives and the board. You’re doing what is best for the company but also advocating for every single employee. I love the way the role is half about what motivates people, and half analytical, with statistics and accounting and a huge data component too.”

He gets equally fired up when discussion turns to the future of Reward. Uwe is determined to see traditional assumptions challenged with innovation and see change in a function he senses “has watched everyone else change around it and just stayed the same”.

For all these reasons – and so many more – Uwe was drawn to and is welcomed by the TR2050 community.

Living life to the full

“I’ve never met a Reward leader who had ambitions for this role from a young age,” Uwe laughs. “It just happens.”

Some credit for determination to seize the opportunities presented to him is due to the example set by his mother, who he describes warmly; “She was the adventurer – I really admired her for that. She is so courageous.” Born and brought up initially in Germany, Uwe and his family moved to Australia when he was 16 at his mother’s behest, in spite of her husband’s reticence and the fact none of them spoke English. “It was hard, but it was also so so valuable to us as people. Living abroad opens your mind and broadens you as a person. It’s always the right decision.”

Both Uwe and his brother thrived at school, but while the latter quickly found himself on a structured path into medicine (he’s a cardiologist), Uwe had no driving ambitions beyond “living life to the full and making some money on the way”. Fortunately, he had a lively interest and was adept at various different subjects, resulting in an intriguing blend of qualifications and work experience.

His initial degree included German Literature (“because that was easy for me”), econometrics and history. He then became interested in computer science, earned a diploma and worked as a coder. “But I’d get bored of the repetition and the routine of these jobs and want to try something new.” He qualified and worked in accountancy; he’d also pondered joining the army and becoming an aviator.

The dream of flying for his country was inspired by his Great Uncle who told great tales of his intriguing life: he’d been a professional soccer player, he’d flown planes in the war and then moved to Australia and gave all the excitement up to become a clockmaker. “The impression I got from him was that he’d missed opportunities,” Uwe remembers. “I was determined I would never do that.”

Balancing the people and the business

When once again finding himself seeking something different, Uwe seized an opportunity in HR and finally found something he could commit to. The breadth, diversity and variety of the work – plus the human element of the role – appealed quickly.

While he has been working his way up through HR and compensation and benefits for many years now, Uwe’s role with Essity – which he took on in September 2021 – is his first time in the top Reward job at an international listed company, with responsibility for 45,000 employees. “I never thought I’d get this position,” he admits. “I really enjoy it and I am learning something new every single day.”

Fundamentally – as with all Reward leaders – Uwe is aiming to “optimise spend on people to get the best outcome for the company” but he delights in the nuance and the challenges inherent in this task. “I enjoy problem solving and solving issues with people – I’m able to be quite logical, which you need when emotions are involved.”

Uwe is also a keen observer of how Reward has (or firmly hasn’t) changed over his years of involvement. He notes the current focus on benefits rather than compensation as a differentiator in the market. Also, “skills are becoming a hot topic, although it’s so difficult to create systems to just pay for skills.”

One positive development is how increasingly connected the different areas of the business are now. “We have so much more data which means we can really see the impact that changes to Reward systems have on other aspects of the company. It brings all the areas of the business together in a way I haven’t seen before. It feels like companies are recognising that the whole is worth more than the sum of its parts – it wasn’t always like that.”

Despite welcoming this, Uwe is impatient for more robust transformation and innovation in Reward. “I’m really interested in the theories of the Future of Work,” he says “and it’s definitely time for change and challenge in Reward. Too many are stuck with the assumption that ‘money talks’ – it does, but there is so much more that counts now. Work is about fulfilling yourself as a person and doing the right things for the ‘right’ company. Reward has to cater for this.”

Discussing the Future of Reward

Uwe joined TR2050 the moment he heard about it, eager to help drive innovation in his function. “This is a very rare group and a very special opportunity,” he says. “This is a real Think Tank, where brilliant people come together to discuss, to challenge, to brainstorm. And having academics and industry leaders interact like we do is unusual and so valuable.”

He goes as far to say that his time spent at TR2050 Think Tanks is “the most fun I have in my job! It’s unique to be able to take time out and have people challenge you in an environment of innovation and reflection.”

Uwe was incredibly keen to host a TR2050 Think Tank at Essity in Stockholm, which took place in June 2024 in his new home city. Three years into his time in Stockholm, he continues to be pleased by what he finds: “it’s such a beautiful city and a lovely environment – Swedish culture is so open, welcoming and happy.” While he admits that the winters can be hard, he maximises the lighter months with outdoor pursuits, including boating and his new hobby of boules.

The future is very much alive to Uwe via his three children, all back in Australia and in the transition phase from education into careers: one is a lawyer, one is training to be a teacher and the youngest is channelling her father. “My youngest has no idea what she wants to do, which is great! Like me, she’ll find her way because she is open minded and interested in many things.”

Let’s hope the world of opportunities is as generous as it has been to Uwe, who continues to glow with delight at the position, role and function he has found himself in. His energy and drive will be welcome to Members of TR2050. 

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