· Features

Interview with TNT's HR director Sue Barnes and head of people development Malcolm Pickup

TNT Express's UK HRD, Sue Barnes, and head of people development, Malcolm Pickup, have a refreshingly simple view of HR. It involves new ways of looking at common HR issues to tackle change, as Peter Crush reports.

'Is Dutch-owned global logistics company TNT really one of those rare (and little-publicised) companies where everything about it from an HR perspective is, well, exemplary? It's a question that pops up because everything from its pension (7% contribution to all employees after six months) to its benefits package (voluntary benefits were introduced in 2008), to its management training (its 18-month Corporate Development Programme accredited to Nottingham Trent University), is textbook stuff.

And there's more: staff ideas programmes, paying up to £1,000 for the best ones; engagement scores are always climbing (from 70% in 2006 to 75% most recently); it is Investors in People accredited; staff raise money for charities; and even its corporate social responsibility credentials have been noticed by none other than former US president Bill Clinton. This follows the 2008 launch of 'Planet Me', TNT's goal to become the world's first zero-emission delivery firm. A year later, its boss, Peter Bakker, became the only CEO that year to earn a Clinton Global Citizen Award.

With credentials such as these, the expectation is that its UK HRD, Sue Barnes, and its head of people development, Malcolm Pickup, will be firing facts and figures at me about HR strategy, attrition rates, recruitment costs - all the important hard business figures. But while I'm convinced both know and report on these measures religiously, it is a rather pleasant surprise to hear things I've not heard HRDs talk about for a long time - "IQ, emotional intelligence and learning agility," says Barnes, when asked about what really is important for TNT in the present. "This, and gauging a sense of people's willingness to change, are the crucial drivers for us right now," she adds.

These may sound like fluffy HR ideals of yesteryear, but for TNT they are bang up to date. It's been a tough trading environment for the parcels and logistics company as a whole that up until 2008 was growing at 8% every year. In the past two years its postal unit alone has declined by 6%. Its recently announced second-quarter profits for 2010 were just three million euros, a massive decline compared with the 81 million euros profit it made it 2009.

To combat this, earlier this year, the company announced plans to reduce TNT's mail costs by 125 million euros as part of efficiency-saving plans of around 458 million euros by 2017. Included in this has been a statement to cut between 6,500 and 11,000 jobs (out of its total 160,000 global workforce), 50% of which it hopes will come from natural attrition. Although TNT Express is largely separate from this (it deals with the B2B market, with an income that rose from £86 million to £132 million in 2009), Barnes says: "We're not immune; we need to be very careful in our planning and how we react to the marketplace."

She adds: "New technology, new ways of working, changes in the liberalisation of mail delivery are all areas where we face challenges. We need people to be able to reinvest their energies elsewhere if we can see they're not doing the right thing, right now. Our company is built around adaptability. We know people have this quality. We need to be a company that can react to change quickly and prepare for it before it happens."

This requirement to react to change will have intensified, literally, in the past few weeks. Last month, TNT announced it was going to split its Mail and Express units into two separate companies. Within Barnes and Pickup's team in Express there are 150 committees looking at the performance and succession planning of groups of staff. It is organisational capability planning on a serious scale. "Our biggest requirement is setting our talent route for the future," says Pickup. "We need to know whether the people we have now are the right fit for future decisions we will need to make. If you identify who these people are, you at least have options."

Barnes says the company is a "past master" at holding onto people (it has what it calls a 'home-grown timber' approach, such that more than 470 staff have at least 25 years' service - thanks partly to its aim of promoting 70% of its managers from within). But, she argues, the qualities she looks for are, again, words you don't hear too often: "Integrity is the key attribute," she says, "as is passion - not in a mawkish 'I love TNT' way, but passion for being a role model for TNT externally in every shape and form."

Pressing Barnes on exactly what she means by these apparently less concrete notions elicits an interesting reply: "We may all live and work in a transactional world, but I don't think we need to behave like that," she says. "I believe in development, rather than assessment; I think people need development in 'areas' rather than, say, specific 'skills', because that way it's easier to align them to a particular strategy - like operational excellence, customer relationship management, or creativity and innovation. You've got to think of new ways to look at common HR issues."

It's certainly a refreshing approach. And likewise, Barnes has her own idea about what capability really means. "Too many people see it as about what you've not got, that your organisation is somehow not good enough now. For me capability is not about measuring the deficiencies TNT might have, or about 'gaps' in knowledge or skills. It's simply about moving up to the next level in performance."

According to Pickup, 'change' is sometimes an overused word, and HR professionals need to understand what preparing for change is about. "We're always in a period of change," he muses, "but we sense that it's more acute, so we're really all about being 'change ready' - being equipped to see it when it happens. 'Sure We Can' is TNT's corporate motto, and it fits here. When we say sure we can do something, it means, sure, it will happen; whether it's the best way, that's another matter, but at least it will happen. We need to realise there's no such thing as huge step-changes in anything any more. At TNT we do incremental change, but incremental change that's more rapid in succession."

Recently launched initiatives around this concept include the firm's customer promise campaign, promoted in-house around 10 promises all customers should expect to receive from TNT staff, 70%-75% of whom are customer-facing. Barnes and Pickup say they have worked particularly hard to align the internal comms departments with the HR and business plan messages. The pair have also recently launched a global 'leaders for the future' programme. The first 20 have gone through their first 12 months of 'development' (not assessment, remember).

To get the widest possible view of talent, Barnes has also integrated the company's engagement survey into the global TNT survey, and the results of its 2010 survey will be coming through right now. "It will be what it will be," says Barnes, knowing that engagement has "taken a hit in some of the businesses". But, she adds: "It's a score of what people are experiencing, and my view is that we have to move away from the 'it's survey time' approach and make engagement something that's alive the whole time."

Convinced that I've met two people with an alternative view of HR (or one that's just refreshingly simple), I ask them both where they get their HR ideas from. "We meet the global HR partners three or four times a year," says Pickup. "We like to sense-check, so that we know we're doing the right thing," they both say, while Barnes says she gets her inspiration from the sales, ops and financial directors. "Being board-level gives you a real closeness to the business issues and a way of identifying how HR plays its role," she adds. Maybe these FDs, CEOs and operations directors would be surprised to hear just how their company view gets translated into such interesting ideas about HR. "We've simply needed to be more efficient," Barnes says, almost downplaying things. "The turmoil of the economy has caused us to look at things differently and radically. If it means us being concerned with the now, and the future, that's fine with us."

2007: UK HRD, TNT Express
2000-2007: Group compensation and benefits manager
1995-2000: Assistant compensation and benefits manager

2007: Head of people development, TNT Express
2005-2006: National training and development manager, United Biscuits
2004-2005: Academy of Excellence - development manager, Allied Bakeries
1977-1999: Regular Army - Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers