Profile: HR at Heinz

Kraft Heinz is set on growth, but the people function needed to focus on L&D, hiring entrepreneurial talent and enabling innovation

Open most kitchen cupboards in the UK and you’ll find food from The Kraft Heinz Company. Think household favourites like Heinz Ketchup, Heinz Beanz, HP Sauce and Capri-Sun.

And it’s been this way for around 150 years, since Heinz and Noble launched its first bottled horseradish product, and went on to play a vital role in maintaining food resources during the Great Depression in the US and World War Two in the UK.

Fast-forward to 2019 and it’s four years since Kraft Foods Group and the H.J. Heinz Company merged to become the fifth-largest food and beverage company in the world and home to more than 200 of the most well-known brands, with a presence in more than 40 countries.

When HR magazine meets Kraft Heinz VP people and performance EMEA Georgiana de Noronha, in the firm’s EMEA HQ in The Shard, we get a glimpse of this vast range of products proudly displayed around the office. While baked beans and ketchup always spring to mind, there are more brands and special editions than most realise. Take the limited edition gold discoball-inspired jar of Heinz [Seriously] Good Mayonnaise to celebrate the 2018 festive season (which HR magazine gets to take a sample of home and can confirm is ‘seriously good’). Then for Valentine’s Day 2019 surely nothing says romance like Ketchup Caviar…?

Such innovations are all part of the organisation’s current global focus on growth, explains de Noronha. “We’ve got a big focus on top-line growth; so we’re talking about food culture and what our food is going to look like in the future,” she says.

Which, in a challenging FMCG market, isn’t easy even for such a big player. In February Kraft Heinz posted a significant loss due to a write-down of its Kraft and Oscar Mayer brands, announced it had received a subpoena from the US Securities and Exchange Commission over its procurement accounting policies, and saw its share price fall – all signs of competition hotting up from own-label retail brands and a growth in consumer demand for non-processed foods.

“The biggest challenge we have is the same challenge all FMCG brands have, which is making sure we’re adapting to ever-changing consumer trends,” says de Noronha. “Whatever we want to eat in the future are the trends we need to follow as an organisation in order to grow.”

Which is where HR steps in as the “enabler of this growth”, she explains. As VP of people and performance for the EMEA zone – a title she says “is much better than calling it human resources” – de Noronha’s remit covers the entire EMEA 5,000-strong workforce, made up of around 2,000 white-collar and 3,000 blue-collar employees.

When she was promoted into the role from head of talent in 2017 her “zone” consisted only of Europe and Russia. But “we are now EMEA so the complexity and size has significantly increased”, she explains, adding that this now covers the five business units of eastern Europe, continental Europe, Benelux, the UK, and the Middle East and Africa.

Her people and performance function has a complex structure to support this, with de Noronha’s 10 direct reports consisting of an HR lead for each business unit, business operations, and each pillar in the centre of excellence: internal comms and employer branding, reward, talent and performance.

But the function hasn’t always been this strategic, she concedes. It was very much about “setting up processes and policies” and building the talent function when she became head of talent in 2016. Which, with no prior HR experience, meant de Noronha was very much in at the deep end.

Starting out in investment banking at Lehman Brothers, de Noronha didn’t follow the traditional HR leader’s path. She “didn’t know HR” during her time there, but her experiences taught her to be resilient – which she now draws on every day in HR, she feels.

“I always joke that it taught me less about the capability itself but a lot about being resilient in a role where things can change every hour of the day,” de Noronha says. “And that’s the nature of HR. HR is about people and people change, so it’s important to be resilient in times that are easier and times that are tougher.”

She describes her next move into private equity as her “first real encounter with the corporate world” and her “stepping stone” between advisory and a full-time corporate role. It was here she had an “epiphany”: “I was sitting on the board of two companies and I remember thinking ‘these individuals know more about the business than I do, what am I doing here telling them what they should do? I should be on the other side of the table learning about the business’. And that’s when I decided to move into the corporate world.”

Moving to Kraft Heinz as director of sales met this desire, de Noronha says. But then her mentor Melissa Werneck, Kraft Heinz’s global CPO, inspired her to move into HR as head of talent. “She saw something in me I don’t think I realised I had, which was the ability to connect with people and help build capability for the business by understanding what the business needs and what people need to deliver that,” she says.

“My first responsibility was being given a blank piece of paper and being asked to build a team and all these things,” she says.

So de Noronha set about first building a graduate trainee programme to attract young talent to the organisation, which includes a 10-week live business project aiming to solve a real business challenge. It’s something de Noronha calls her “proudest achievement”, pointing to retention rates of more than 80% for employees who have gone through the programme.

Then came her promotion to heading up people and performance across all of EMEA – a role she admits has its “complexities”. “It’s a very different agenda to what I focused on in 2016,” she says. “Today we have the agenda of following the growth of the organisation.

“So when we think about what the organisation needs to do to grow: we can grow our existing business, we can grow through new categories, or we can grow through new geographies.”

One thing de Noronha quickly realised was that to support this growth the people and performance function needed to look for talent with different profiles than it had sought in the past. “To do those three things we need to fill the organisation with individuals who have an entrepreneurial mindset,” she explains, adding that this need is amplified because of the scope of the EMEA zone.

“The markets in the Middle East and Africa are very much a white space for us, so there’s huge growth potential there,” she says. “There’s a very different profile needed for someone who’s going into new market opportunities than for someone who needs to grow a mature market.”

Getting the right talent into each market has involved developing the workforce already there, recruiting locally, as well as giving the “opportunity to our people who aren’t in these markets at the moment but have the right entrepreneurial profile”.

It’s this focus on bringing in more diverse talent that de Noronha believes will foster growth. It was also a driver behind her decision to revamp the organisation’s parental policies into what she describes as a “holistic approach”.

Key to this has been making language more inclusive “so we don’t call it maternity or paternity leave or mothers or fathers, we call it primary and secondary carers”, she says. “You could be having a surrogate, have a notice of adoption or be pregnant. Whichever way and whichever parent you are, whether the primary or secondary carer, we’re here to support you.”

The second part, says de Noronha, is about “looking at the whole span of parental experience rather than just one stage”. This means supporting employees at all stages, including the planning stage (when someone decides they want to become a parent), the pre-leave stage (when someone is pregnant or has put in a notice for adoption), the leave stage (where the employee can stay connected as much or as little as they wish), and the return to work stage (where the organisation supports their needs for flexibility).

She is no stranger to the importance of this support, having herself gone on parental leave while at Kraft Heinz. “Yes it’s close to my heart but that’s not why I did it,” she says. “If we don’t do it we don’t foster a balance in the company, which is needed in our people – I need my people to be engaged and feel supported by the business.”

But finding that balance as a parent is easier said than done, she adds. “It’s about accepting that sometimes you have to make sacrifices,” she muses. “But that’s not just in your job it’s all over life.”

Another key area on de Noronha’s radar is L&D and “building functional capability”, which she believes is the “first and most important thing” HR can do to help drive the organisation’s growth.

One function she is particularly conscious to prioritise here is marketing, because “it’s very directly connected to [the organisation’s] ability to grow the top line of the organisation”.

The answer has partly come courtesy of the launch of a digital learning platform called Ownerversity, where employees take ownership of their own development. “The whole idea of Ownerversity is that you don’t have to be in a function to learn about that function, you can hashtag a topic you want to learn and then take courses, read articles, and hear from speakers on it,” says de Noronha. “I call it being function-agnostic.”

Being function-agnostic is something de Noronha is especially passionate about given her own unconventional route into HR. But giving people the opportunity to change function or career is just generally “very in line with the whole culture of Kraft Heinz”, de Noronha explains, which she describes as “super meritocratic”.

“What you’ve done in your past matters less to us than what you’ve delivered and the potential you’ve shown here,” she says. “I’m a living example of that so that makes it a lot more real for people. We don’t like to put anyone in a box.

“Lots of people want to change careers, and we have lots of amazing examples of people who’ve come from completely different industries or functions and wanted to work in marketing or HR or sales and didn’t get the chance somewhere else, and I’ve given them that chance,” she adds.

She recounts hiring someone who now works in compensation and benefits and leads D&I, who had only ever worked in finance before: “I see her happy and engaged and you feel you’re changing someone’s life positively.”

“As someone who came from finance, went into sales and then into people and performance, [I recognise that] there’s no limit to what you can do and what function you can work in.”

There’s also no limit to what employees do in their individual roles, she adds, with a culture of ownership and meritocracy running through everything the organisation does: “I always joke that we are a start-up with the scale of a global business in the sense that you can start things and really invent or reinvent something.”

Which means HR – along with hiring entrepreneurial types and focusing on L&D – “thinking about innovation in a disruptive manner”, says de Noronha. “We need the right capabilities in place, the right individuals with an entrepreneurial mindset, and need to foster and enable innovation.”

Part of HR’s efforts to help foster innovation has been the launch of Ideas in Practice, a global competition where employees submit scalable business ideas, with the winner receiving a financial reward.

But there’s plenty more to do, muses de Noronha. “My challenge is having to adapt to the ever-changing industry and new consumer trends and that comes with lots of consequences for HR,” she says. “It requires us in people and performance to be ever-changing.”

So does that mean another career change on the horizon? “I’m very open, but this is my role today and my dream is to make sure I enable the company to grow by having the most engaged proudest employees.

“If I achieve those things I think I’ll want to achieve more as you can’t ever have an end game to these things.”

This piece appeared in the June 2019 issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk