· 8 min read · Features

Keeping Gen Y happy: the secrets of FNZ's HR director

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If there’s one word that trips off Daniel Kasmir’s tongue more than any during our interview it is ‘fun’.

"If I were to put my 1989 hat on, I'd be asking what on Earth is going on?" admits Kasmir (pictured). "But these people are having work conversations over table tennis. They are figuring things out."

And that's the way FNZ employees work, for the average age is a mere 27. It seems Kasmir is facing the challenge so oft debated among today's HR professionals - how do you get the best out of Gen Y?

A fun and stimulating work environment is one pre-requisite, if Kasmir is to be believed. While FNZ's glass-towered City building shouts 'power' more than 'fun' at the moment ("come back in three months' time, it will have more va va voom," says Kasmir), the new Edinburgh site that opened in February includes a four-pod think tank, a kitchen meeting area with pool table and a large graffiti wall featuring the work of local artist Brian McFeely (aka Elph). This, after all, is where the bright young techies work.

"The cool thing in this business is the culture," says Kasmir, who clearly relishes the dynamism of working in a young, entrepreneurial and fast-growing business.

"There's a real can-do culture; people get stuck in. Then you have to put it into the context of Gen Y. There's a real temptation when you arrive from another business to cut and paste what you did there. But, having come from more mature businesses, it's a case of hang on, if we dig out the usual HR apparatchik and inflict it on a 20-something tech-savvy employee we will get an interesting reaction. You need to get into the heads of the people working here," he says.

"From an HR perspective this is not about imposing solutions on people but having debates and discussions about what is required and what makes a difference, then working through and presenting people with a series of options," he adds.

"We have been talking about performance-related pay and performance management, looking at what will get people excited and what will make them sustainable. It causes you to sit up and think. For example, you are dealing with a population with lots of software developers who enjoy working in different ways and work later into the night."

In a bid to 'get into the heads of the people' Kasmir is spending time networking with other young organisations in the UK and abroad to see what keeps environments fresh and inspirational.

"It's tremendously exciting," he says. "The more I see these things, the more I see Gen Y wants to be set challenges, to see opportunities and to work in an environment in which they can just get on with it. Money is important and our packages are competitive, but this is not what they spend the day chatting about. What they seem to respond to are the culture and environment - an open, fluid place to work, with an ability to collaborate and get stuck into the latest technology."

Of course, not only is FNZ's population Gen Y, it is also technical, throwing up another load of issues for anyone hoping to impose new systems.

"This is a highly tech-friendly employee population so they quickly tell you what they think," says Kasmir. "Put in a new system and the guys will ask, 'What did you spend on that? We could have done it in an afternoon'."

In response to all this, Kasmir has spent his first six months in the role putting in place a sensible HR framework that works for the business and Gen Y employees. A framework that ensures systems and processes are rigorous in order to comply with standards required in the financial sector while being sufficiently engaging for employees.

"There are some clashes between the two," he admits, "but that's what I am spending my time trying to figure out."

With a distinguished career history behind him: Shell; mobile-phone company Caudwell Group; EMEA HRD at Manpower; partner at BDO; and head of HR at outsourcing firm Xchanging - Kasmir certainly has the experience to tackle a challenge like this. He is also obviously delighted to be back in an entrepreneurial company, perhaps somewhat unusual for an economist by training.

This interest in entrepreneurs sparked during his time at Caudwell, run by one of the world's richest businessmen, billionaire John Caudwell of Phones4U fame. It was consolidated during his time with Xchanging, working with founder David Andrews.

"He was an infectious entrepreneur and I spent three intense years there. It was just coming out of an IPO and had to move from being a fast-moving private business to getting used to being a listed company. All sorts of things were thrown up, but it was fun working in an entrepreneurial business where innovation was key, you had a certain amount of chaos and the HR agenda was not always entirely predictable. Yes, great fun and I would finish the week looking back and asking, 'what went on there then?'" he reminisces.

During his time at Xchanging, Kasmir came into contact with private-equity company General Atlantic, last year taking the role of special advisor, focusing on human resources and operations. General Atlantic is an investor in FNZ and thus Kasmir found himself in front of FNZ group CEO Adrian Durham, another "thrusting entrepreneur". He was persuaded to take up the HR director role in June last year.

"Time has flown," says Kasmir. "It's great to work in a business where the challenge is around how to fuel growth and the role HR plays in terms of driving talent and ensuring the right mechanisms are in place for this relatively young audience."

FNZ has grown exponentially, from a start-up in Wellington, New Zealand eight years ago to a global business administering around £35 billion in customer funds today. Its business is in building platforms for the wealth creation industry, with customers including large insurance companies, banks and independent financial advisers who use the platforms to manage wealth online. It's a niche space in which FNZ has a strong position, but rivals range from other niche players to the big IT firms and financial institutions' own bespoke platforms.

Founder Durham spotted the opportunity when compulsion for pension contributions began in Australia and New Zealand, figuring that this would not be restricted to the southern hemisphere. With auto-enrolment in the UK coming on stream last year, his move has proved canny.

From that beginning, with its smart young people in sleeping bags in the office and a campus-type atmosphere, FNZ has grown into a business employing 700 people across Australia, New Zealand, the UK (Edinburgh, London and Bristol) and Czech Republic. The ability to move readily between the different countries is popular with the Gen Y employees, who will up sticks at a moment's notice to relocate to the other side of the world, according to Kasmir.

But this growth brings the typical issue of how to balance retaining an entrepreneurial focus and visible leadership with expanding geographies and employee numbers.

"It's difficult to keep the entrepreneurial spirit as you grow," says Kasmir. "It becomes less personal. Adrian is no longer able to say hi to everyone. So one of the things I have been concentrating on is enhancing the way we communicate. We are doing regular conference calls with the CEO and town-hall meetings with business leaders."

These meetings are used to distribute feedback from employee surveys, which have now been implemented on a quarterly basis.

Growth also puts a focus on talent. With financial services being a fairly close industry, attracting senior people to FNZ has not been an issue, despite its relative obscurity as a general brand name in the UK. The company is also targeting particular universities for the best tech graduates. Where the problem comes is with junior and mid-management roles. Here, Kasmir says the company needs to be ever more creative and is relying more on the power of networking.

"As a technical company we have the ability to use social media to go out and talk, and that is proving powerful. Where there are relevant discussion groups we can find people who are interesting to us. If you can recommend people from your network, then that will potentially give us better results than plucking from elsewhere."

The company has brought recruitment back in-house, with recruiters in each of the geographies. There is also now an emphasis on growing talent from within and Kasmir has brought in a global head of learning and development. The approach is two-fold: to give formal management and leadership training and also to increase knowledge sharing of specialist skills.

"One of things you find in entrepreneurial businesses that grow really quickly is you have people that are super bright and doing fantastic stuff but then, as you grow, you ask them to manage a team of six and they have not been given the capabilities," Kasmir says.

"We will be running a leadership/management development programme with one of the business schools, containing lots of innovation and creativity. The reason for using a business school is that, because much of the emerging talent has been here pretty much since they left university, they do not have reference points for things that have happened in other organisations in terms of leadership. So a business school will give the case studies and draw the parallels."

To encourage knowledge transfer the company is testing a number of approaches. In February it ran its first FNZ Lab event designed to help employees overcome challenges and to create and fast track solutions. The event brought teams of employees from different locations together for two days to work through a series of ideas and challenges identified by the staff.

"It offers the opportunity for employees to take a day away from the usual rigmarole and focus on innovation, development and where we can go next," says Kasmir.

"One thing Labs does is say to our employees that collaboration is fine; we want you to innovate because that will enhance the experience of our customers."

There are also Friday afternoon learning sessions based around a theme and delivered by a member of staff.

Technology is another way to spread the knowledge, with a wiki site where people capture knowledge.

"We are going to use some technical writers to ensure it is all captured to help the process along. They will interview people with a specific skill and put it online. You also see people popping up with video cameras to record elements to put online. Whatever is going to work for our people, that is what we will do," says Kasmir.

On a more conventional note, the company has finished piloting a career framework that lets people figure out their skills and what skills are needed for the next level.

"We are trying to do the traditional things in a more contemporary way. When I worked for Shell, what fascinated me was the long-term scenario planning - questions like, 'where's oil and gas going to be coming from in 25 years' time?'

"Today, planning horizons continue to diminish. You can look 90 days out and have a reasonably good feel for what's on the agenda. Beyond that you can have a grand plan, but in fast-moving businesses like this you need the skill to adjust and adapt much quicker, and you need people with you who find that a fun thing to do." This, says Kasmir, is having a big impact on HR systems. For example, if you operate appraisals annually, you are in "grave danger of being irrelevant before you start," he says. This does not mean annual appraisals should be dumped, but that regular feedback also needs to be delivered on the go.

"People are moving project to project and customer to customer. We need to develop skills that are 'just in time'. There could be a project in three weeks' time, so we need to say you must enhance these skills so you can make a contribution."

HR systems, therefore, need to get data that can reflect and capture the reality of organisational life as it moves through. Unfortunately, says Kasmir, they are not as developed as might be expected.

"There is a bit of a lag and need to catch up. For example, there is the notion of self-service from the perspective of filling in holidays online and so on, but in terms of being dynamically out there and meeting the needs of Gen Y-ers in business, there is some work to do. If we can be successful here it will be because we have made some of these things happen."

Aside from finding the right HR systems, the biggest challenge for Kasmir in 2013 is to keep everyone energised and working closely together to deliver for customers, what FNZ describes as having 'energy for customers'. Fundamental to this is quality leadership, an area that has been neglected in UK business through the recession, he believes.

"This is where real growth comes from. Ultimately the line manager is the source of making people stay."

Meanwhile, as a long-time HR professional with experience in all sorts of organisational models, he has some words of warning for HR directors in big business.

"HR needs to understand there is a different generation at work and this generation needs to be fed differently. There are big warning signs out there that these people are not being fed differently. As well as delivering solutions that drive business forward and give greater levels of satisfaction to the customer, HR must make sure there is transparency. This is important for Gen Y.

"Gen Y-ers are not interested in dreary. HR should be about creating excitement, energy and a source of value."

And on that energetic note, we move to the table-tennis area. Just to talk about business, of course.