· 4 min read · Features

Interview with Pierre Barnab, Alcatel Lucent: From CEO to HRD

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Pierre Barnabe used to be the boss of Alcatel-Lucent (France). Now he is vice-president, corporate HR and transformation for the global business. It's not the usual career move. David Woods finds out why.

How many HRDs secretly believe they can do a much better job than their ultimate manager, 'the boss'. This time last year Pierre Barnabe was just that - the boss: chairman and CEO of telecommunications company Alcatel-Lucent (France). But in May, Barnabe, who came from a background in sales and venture capitalism, boldly went where few CEOs have gone before - into HR.

Today, Barnabe is executive vice-president, corporate HR and transformation, for Alcatel-Lucent's global business, He is working with Rob Watson, HR lead for north Europe, to transform the HR department and manage the company's 78,000 staff. It's not at all a normal career move. So what made him decide to take the plunge? "My role is not about being in the office," he says. "I have always had strong links with our customers - we are not just about selling equipment, we design networks and provide a service. But HR directors have two sets of customers - internal staff and external clients - and I wanted to create links between them."

Despite only existing in its current state since 2006, following the merger of Alcatel and Lucent Technologies, the organisation can trace its history back to the late 19th century and the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell. Bell created the American Bell Telephone Company in 1881, which later became known as AT&T. In 1925, this merged with Western Electric to form Bell Telephone Laboratories, which Alcatel Lucent owns to this day.

Presently, though, the company (the second largest telco by employee numbers after Cisco) cannot afford to look back on more bountiful times. It faces intense competition from Ericsson and Nokia Siemens Networks, and in 2008, following the resignation of its then CEO, Patricia Russo, actually posted a net loss of 5.215 billion euros. Its share price plummeted by 60% on the previous year.

With a new CEO on board (Bernardus 'Ben' Verwaayen), and an uplift in fortunes (its most recent financial results for Q2, 2010 show net losses in July narrowing to £184 million euros), the technology firm is getting back on track and, crucially, Barnabe's job description also incorporates HR transformation - something he is pressing ahead with.

"We need to have an intimacy with our customers," Barnabe explains. "We have to use strategic principles and practices to anticipate our future strategy, so I meet with HR leaders to find out what skills and competencies they need from us. Because our industry is rapidly evolving, and because we need to create new partnerships, the best way to create these links is through HR. Our customers will rapidly be able to see we have a partnership approach."

For one former CEO talking about another (Verwaayen), Barnabe is remarkably humble, heaping praise on his boss. "Our CEO has dragged HR into the 21st century," says Barnabe.

"He is the man whose neck is on the block, but he has got us where we are now because he likes people management as much as he likes business. He is a natural."

Elements Barnabe says he is particularly proud of include the 'ask Ben' function on the staff intranet, where employees can post their questions or queries to the CEO directly. Watson explains Verwaayen replies as quickly as he can, putting pressure on his senior team to get things done: "We are adopting a two-prong philosophy here - collaboration and innovation. We are engaging with our customers at every level so we can fully understand the business needs. This way we are working to get ahead of the curve - and this is not unique to HR, it is happening across the business."

According to Barnabe, this means everything he does in HR has to be what he calls "exemplary". He adds: "We have to be as open as possible; so we go to our customers and tell them about the openness in our HR department. We want to break down silos and collaborate. This is non-hierarchical and something we are really pushing."

But, as Watson explains, the road to innovation and collaboration is a long one. "We are a huge company operating in more than 130 countries and there is the temptation to recreate the wheel. Our external customer is, for example, a 23-year-old Facebook user who is multi-tasking. We need to get our staff ahead of the customer base," he explains.

In response to this, the company launched a scheme called Gemini in a bid to nurture a culture of innovation. The Gemini think tank, which Barnabe calls "an entrepreneurial bootcamp", comprises a cross-section of staff across borders. The group meets regularly to discuss ways of taking the company's strategies forward. It comprises multi-disciplinary teams who start up projects and propose the findings to a jury in a contest format. Successful pitches are tested across the company.

In the spirit of collaboration and breaking down silos, Alcatel Lucent's own HR department has not been immune. It launched its own social networking platform called 'Engage', a sort of internal Facebook. "We won't use social networking for the sake of it," explains Watson. "But we are supported by the board and this is a huge leap forward. 'Engage' allows me to talk to my international team in a secure environment, and in real time."

By using social networking this way, Watson believes the company is inadvertently training employees on the products its clients are using. "We are flying our own jet," he explains. "Staff need to understand and feel the technology, so this has been a good exercise."

Coincidentally, just hours before Barnabe and Watson met HR magazine, they held talks with HR representatives from one of the company's biggest customers, BT. So is the collaboration strategy working? "The relationship I have with BT has improved fourfold," says Watson. "The role of the HR director depends on the nature of the workforce and of the business. Barnabe's sales background has made me and the rest of the company much more aware of our employees' customers."

Considering Alcatel Lucent did not even exist in its current form five years ago, and the phenomenal rate of change taking place at the firm, it is perhaps no surprise to find Barnabe struggling to imagine what the company will look like five years down the line - especially given his remit of transforming the culture and vision of the company through its people. "Predicting the future is a very big bet," he admits. "And it is hard to even think about three years ahead. But I hope that everyone in our company will be working in a collaborative mode, both with each other and our customers in companies around the world."

Unconventional movers

- Mike Everett, formally CEO of Ipsos MORI in the UK, went on to become global HR director for the Ipsos Group. Prior to this, he was a senior manager in the business for a decade and played a central role in the merger of the Ipsos and MORI businesses in the UK

- Laurence Monnet-Vernier is vice-president of global HR for Right Management, but prior to that she was general manager for the company's operation in France

- Staying with the same organisation, Right Management's group executive vice-president for EMEA, Ruediger Schaefer, served as general manager for central Europe in a prior role. But before that, he came from HR. Schaefer was HR director (and subsequently managing director) for Schneider Electric in Germany and Paris