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How to be a world-class HRD

As organisations become more international HR's job gets harder. Here's how to utilise your people skills for a global-level HR role

It sounds like the start to a bad joke. A Mexican manager walks into a meeting with several Dutch reports and tries to roll out his vision. But what happens next is no laughing matter for the manager. Nor indeed for the HR director tasked with smoothing over the cultural frictions that occurred, or Erin Meyer, the expert and INSEAD professor in cross-cultural management brought in to the company in question to help.

The Dutch employees, brought up to challenge authority, wouldn’t listen to the manager’s vision and – much to the Mexican’s chagrin, used as he was to a strongly deferential stance to authority – tried to take the project in a maddening number of new directions.

It is a culture clash scenario that will chime with many HR professionals who’ve worked within a global company. And a situation that will resonate with an increasing number of HR directors due, says Meyer, to the ever more globally-focused nature of the world in which we live.

“Every year more and more organisations are looking to global markets to find profits,” she says. “I think the idea of a local company that has suppliers and employees all in one country is slowly going away. Due to that, unless you’re a very tiny company, the number one difference of working in a business of any size in the next several decades as opposed to the last is your ability to work effectively in a global world.”

This rapid globalisation is affecting all manner of organisations, private and public, points out Jacqui Marshall, director of HR at the University of Exeter. And it’s not only those HR directors within businesses expanding in a very physical, offices and employees overseas, kind of way that will need to adopt a more global perspective and skillset. The University of Exeter is a great case study, says Marshall, of the challenges of attracting a more global customer base, the increasing need to compete with overseas organisations to attract UK custom, and the need for organisations of all varieties to embrace the challenges and opportunities presented by a much more globally mobile talent pool.

“In everything we do we now have to think ‘what does that mean in a global world?’” says Marshall. “The boundaries have changed. Students will now go to the US or Europe. We’re looking at international students more because that’s a funding revenue and that’s more important than ever.” She adds that key to the university’s (now successful) ambition to enter the global top 100 universities list, and to secure as much funding as possible, is to attract the best academics from around the world.

Juggling all of this is no mean feat. Gordon Headley, former CHRO at Tullow Oil, provides an arresting description of how much more complex employee negotiations can become in an international setting: “We [Tullow] employed local Turkana tribespeople for some of our work in Kenya. And when it came to moving the rig, when it was off contract with Tullow and in some cases had to move to Tanzania, many of these labourers wanted to stay with the rig and refused to leave. Eventually there was a strike where they closed the roads. Little things like that can actually get a bit nasty because these guys had weapons.”

Sobering stuff. And the kind of anecdote that makes clear that the position of global HRD won’t be for everyone. So just what qualities and skills are required, and how can those with global ambitions – or someone sitting in an until now UK-focused company that has global ambitions – best gen up?

Another’s shoes

Unsurprisingly, the ability to empathise, be curious, listen and be incredibly patient were cited by all those HR magazine put the above question to. “It’s the ability to leave your own experience behind when it’s right to do so, to really listen and be willing to step into the other’s shoes,” says Cristina Mariages-Janssens, European HR director at Domestic and General.

“The global HRD needs curiosity and openness to learn other cultures and styles,” agrees Headley. “I went to a presentation a few months ago by Clive Woodward [former rugby player and coach] and he said: ‘I want players who are sponges; I don’t want stones’. I think global HRDs have to be sponges. They have to be adaptable and sensitive to how other cultures see things and adjust as required.”

For the University of Exeter’s Marshall, this means tireless attention to detail in making the transfer of new global talent as smooth as possible and in marketing the benefits of working at Exeter: “I have to understand that the USP for Exeter if you’re in your 40s and in London or another really expensive city is that by coming to Exeter you can have an amazing lifestyle at a much more reasonable cost,” she says. “Where we’ve got really big eminent scientists they’ll maybe come to us for their last five or 10 years of teaching. I have to understand that and understand what they need.”

“Then there’s the on-boarding,” she continues. “We have just taken on a well-known scientist from Singapore. He’s such a big hire but has 4,000 zebra fish. So part of HR’s job is to sort out the logistics of bringing them over and building a facility for them. People have complex lives – animals, kids, partners, step-children... It’s trying to be as flexible as possible and putting ourselves in their shoes.”

The HRD skillset amplified

Of course empathy, curiosity and the ability and willingness to listen are skills one would hope all HRDs possess. But Gareth Way, HR and training director at Creditsafe Business Solutions, points out that the need for such qualities is hugely magnified within a global context.

He cites the ability to be incredibly patient as an example, pointing out that striking a delicate balance between tenacity in the face of obstacles and patience in overcoming them takes serious skill. “It’s about not trying to push things through too quickly while still maintaining an urgency around the way the company works,” he says, chiming with Headley’s warning that: “There’s this hierarchical mentality in companies where if they’re short of time or just have an urgency addiction what will sometimes happen is there’ll be a certain coloured communication across different countries. These messages though well-meaning can be misconstrued.”

Similarly pronounced in a global setting is the need, through such a patient approach, to be forensic, analytical and as objective as possible in assessing a situation, says Way. “One thing that’s incredibly important for anyone in HR is to be balanced. Particularly when you join senior management teams, it’s easy to get caught up in the story that’s being told so you need to provide that balance,” he adds. “It’s especially important in a global setting when you’re managing from a distance and dealing with potentially limited information as opposed to seeing it for yourself. I think HR’s role there is to slow things down a bit and get people to take a breath and think: What do we actually know here?”

Marshall explains that a willingness to change course and admit when you’ve got something wrong is integral to this. “You have to be constantly willing to do a U-turn,” she says. “When I first arrived in 2013 my team said nobody used the company car scheme. So my first decision was to cut it. But as soon as we announced that a US professor said to me: ‘Please don’t do that. Have you any idea what it’s like when you arrive in a new country and it’s rural Devon and you can’t get a loan for a car because you don’t have a bank account?’ As soon as you hear that you think ‘yes of course’, so it’s about listening after you’ve made a decision rather than just telling someone what you’re going to do.”

Control freaks need not apply

The importance of admitting your mistakes makes it clear that those of an over-controlling disposition may struggle. For Creditsafe’s Way there are two types of HR professional, and only one of them will be up to the global challenge: “There are those that get into HR because they’ve got a genuine interest in people and the advancement of the individual, and there are those who like controls and policies. Global HR professionals need to be brave enough to allow managers headroom to make mistakes. It’s not about shoehorning something into a country,” he says, adding: “People think when they’re at a certain level they’re expected to have all the answers. I’ve never prescribed to that.”

“Realistically, particularly when you are building a new international presence, you will have to be comfortable with ambiguity over a long period of time,” agrees Mariages-Janssens. “Setting up and unifying an efficient base takes time. Perfectionists should not apply – a building site can be frustrating.”

What is clear is that some people will – through their naturally inquisitive, empathetic and patient natures – be suited to a globally-focused role, while others will not. But there are still numerous ways HRDs can consciously build skills and qualities that will enhance their global effectiveness.

Visiting as many of the territories their company is active in as often as possible is the most obvious first step, and something Jan Wilman, global HR director at student accommodation provider Campus Living Villages, is conscious to never let slide. “I’ve found it invaluable to go and spend time in the other regions, so I’ve visited every property in New Zealand and almost every one in Australia,” she says. “I also find it crucial to talk to people in all parts of the organisation, not just the senior executives, to get an idea of what people are truly thinking and feeling in frontline and back office roles.”

Simply visiting places your business now has a stake in isn’t enough, agrees Meyer. “You have to get out there with a certain kind of attitude. When I go to a country I haven’t been to before I have a very specific goal, which is to get a feel for what the people and the culture are like,” she says, adding: “You need to take every opportunity to get a feel for what the people are like, to get out into the country’s fabric.”

Domestic and General’s Mariages-Janssens says that acquiring some language skills can be very useful. This doesn’t have to mean a high level of fluency though. “It’s rather the ability to allow the other party to express themselves,” she adds. “I often say to someone: ‘Why don’t you express yourself in your language so you’re more comfortable?’ Just by doing that you create a lot of good will. When you’ve given people that, often even in an emotional conversation, they switch back to your language or English because you’ve shown you’re not threatening.”

She adds that those not yet in global roles but wanting to prepare for and aspire towards them should take on international secondments and projects where possible. But where there isn’t the opportunity to go globe trotting this doesn’t actually matter as much as you might think, says INSEAD’s Meyer.

“Certainly experience is useful but I’ve worked with a lot of people who have worked in many different countries but have never really picked up the ability to understand and adapt to various cultures,” she says. “And I’ve worked with several people who have never worked outside of their own country but have really devoted their attention to learning to adapt their perspective to the various world cultures they’re working with.”

Diversity of thought starts at home

“There are things you can do to create a setting that encourages diversity of thought within your own environment and your own country,” agrees Will Serle, group HR director at multinational consultancy, energy sector engineering and project management company Amec Foster Wheeler. “There are definite tactical things you can do to prepare not just you, but also your team and organisation.”

He explains that creating diversity of thought and openness might involve gaining a wider variety of experiences generally, not just geographically. “It’s being open to people who have worked in other sectors, who can bring in functional expertise from different areas,” he says. “Whether you’re open to new ideas doesn’t depend on the country you’re in.”

“You can become highly effective in HR with experience from other departments,” agrees Mariages-Janssens, adding: “For the HR purist I would recommend gaining experience across as many different areas of HR as possible, and also across different sectors – you may learn different things in the public sector to the private sector, and again between manufacturing and services. All can help build the critical, questioning and creative approach you will need when working across countries.”

There are certainly ways, then, for those with the requisite natural qualities for a global HR role to prepare themselves well before they get there. And, with a rapidly globalising economy, there is strong incentive to do so. There is also, says Headley, a compelling argument for seeking to adopt a more patient, questioning, diplomatic approach to HR in general, even within those organisations that remain resolutely UK-centric.

“Having worked in global companies I was staggered when I joined UK company Barrett Homes to see, with my global focus, how different areas of the UK behaved,” he says. “I was struck by the difference even between people’s attitudes in Essex and Kent. Although there was only a river separating them it was as if it was the Channel. You couldn’t get people to cross that Channel to work. It’s nothing as pronounced as UK-China, but there are differences, and each one requires a certain skillset to manage.”

Headley adds that it’s disappointing when people assume there’s nothing to be learnt from a more global outlook. “When I’m at HR conferences and I talk about Africa sometimes people glaze over because they assume it’s not relevant to them. Then there’s others that actually get it and think: ‘I had a similar situation once’.”

While a parochial mindset has never been desirable for an HR professional, as work and the workforce become ever more global it’s critical that even those who spend most of their time in their home country acquire a more international outlook and skillset. Are you, in the words of Headley, giving yourself “enough space to look outside”?