DHL Express CEO: “There’s no such thing as a support function"

John Pearson, CEO of DHL Express, speaks to HR magazine about the importance of cultivating a people-first culture.

Pearson took over as CEO of the international logistics giant in 2019 having spent over three decades at the company leading various territories including Saudi Arabia, Belgium, Florida and Singapore. 

He has one of the firm’s one-line mantras for every situation, yet proving there's more to it than just words, the company has consistently ranked highly in the Great Place to Work's top five Best Places to Work – topping the ranking in 2021.

The culture Pearson seeks to cultivate is one in which employees are a priority. Here he shares his vision for how to do it.


HR: How would you describe your relationship with the HR team?

Pearson: Well, as I always say, you can't spell the word hero without an H and an R in it.

It’s not my line, but I do say it authentically because it links to the point that I say at DHL Express, which is one division of Deutsche Post DHL Group, there's no such thing as a support function.

Sales and ops and finance are sometimes called the lead or frontline and IT and HR are sometimes called support functions.

Well, what I observed in the pandemic when our IT guys got 8,000 laptops into the homes of our people so they could work from home that said to me: that doesn't sound like a support function. I use that example for HR as well because HR were mobilising to look after our people during the pandemic.


HR: What does a people-focused culture mean to you?

Pearson: HR is critical to our business. Lots of people say it, but then not everyone backs it up.

My predecessor said the customer is at the centre of everything we do. I twisted that around and said that our people are at the centre of everything we do. And if our people feel like they are, then our customer will get what they want anyway, so I have no problem.

My boss, Frank Appel, used to say: people got us through the financial crisis in 2008, people got us through the Icelandic ash cloud crisis in 2010, (when not one plane, flew above Europe for 30 days) And then here we are in 2020, with our people getting us through the biggest thing that has happened in 102 years since the Spanish flu.

So, when people ask 'what worries you?' I sort of say not too much, because I think: great people – they'll get you through many things.


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HR: DHL uses a lot of mantras as part of its culture. Could you give us an example of one that works for HR?

Pearson: DHL Express is full of one-liners, because I believe, and my predecessor believed, that the message cuts through when you say it.

One of those little formulas we have is P = GQ, for people equals growth and quality. So, forget about growth, forget about quality unless you've got the people bit.


HR: You travel to many of DHL’s different sites around the world. Is that something that's important to you? To be seen by employees in all your different locations?

Pearson: It’s interesting you make that point. Another company came out with a statement that said: travel should be for purpose, not presence. And their point was: if you're going to get on a plane and visit a country you've really got to have a meaningful agenda.

You've got to have something that can't be done on Zoom or Teams, and you've really got to use every minute of your day. But in my view, our presence is purpose.

I don't need any reason to go to any country because I know that just seeing people and thanking them is enough of a reason. I and my management team and their management teams are very present. We believe that in a global company you have to be visible.


HR: How are you keeping up that culture post-pandemic?

Pearson: We have a series of Employee of the Year events coming up and soccer camps in the regions. So, we're sort of catching up on all these things that didn't happen during Covid, and for the next six months, I don't care how much people are travelling because if they're seeing people, and thanking people then that's building our presence

Gone are the days of you know, being on the 54th floor of some corporate centre in New York and never being seen.


HR: What is one of your big challenges for the next 12 months?

Pearson: The big themes, at the minute [include], finding enough people, but I'd say it's not giving us a lot of pain in the markets where the labour market is hot.

I think either the fact that we're a great employer brand and we have good visibility through our sports sponsorships – whether that's Formula One or Manchester United – that gets us enough résumés. And then it's a question of whether we've got the right pay scales and everything to attract people.

But the message I'm giving to my team at the minute is: Okay, attracting people is one thing, but the best weapon in the war for talent is retention. Let's keep the people we have and let's really understand our frontline employees that are leaving and why they're leaving.


HR: What’s your top leadership tip?

Pearson: If you want a really short, spontaneous, answer, I'd say 'listen'. That's why you have two ears and one mouth. My grandmother told me to use them in that proportion. People eventually tell you everything you need to know, and most people will tell you what's true.