Interview: Creating Value Through People – An Hr Leader’s Perspective (part 2)

June 16, 2010 – Manny Sousa was recently appointed head of HR for Royal Bank of Canada’s International Banking and Global Insurance businesses. With over 25 years of total experience, Mr. Sousa’s background includes key HR leadership roles spanning the consumer products, financial services, retail and telecommunications industries with companies like T-Mobile, Invesco, Mars and PepsiCo. Mr. Sousa is recognized for his deep HR expertise complemented by a strong business acumen and a passion for creating value through talent. He has worked and lived in the U.S.A, Canada and Asia. In the following two-part interview, Mr. Sousa explores the new role for HR leaders, discussing the importance of managing human capital effectively and strategically, the increased importance of the HR function in today’s companies, and what companies need to think about next for their people.

Manny, last week you discussed how the financial crisis has affected HR leaders. Tell us specifically how the current economic crisis worldwide has made the challenges facing the HR function more acute?

For RBC, again we came through the crisis in a strong competitive position. Our consistently strong performance is due to our diversified business model, our strong balance sheet, a comprehensive approach to risk management. We continued to deliver on our long-term strategy. Our employee engagement also stayed high, and that helped to deliver strong performance and high levels of service to our clients. For others, it varies by company and by industry. Some companies are re-thinking their business model and revising their goals and strategies. There has been an impact, in turn, on employee engagement levels, careers, compensation opportunities, and some companies have had to re-set their employees’ expectations. That’s a tough issue for any leader to take on and HR has a significant role to play here in being much more consultative, developing creative responses to these issues, and educating and coaching the workforce. Some companies are in survival mode and waiting for things to normalize. Others, like RBC, are seizing the “new normal” with different products, services or distribution channels. Either way, change is involved and HR leaders are expected to help facilitate the change process while simultaneously maximizing employee engagement.

How difficult is it becoming to manage human capital not just from headquarters or from one or two domestic locations – but from many locations scattered around the globe?

In my experience, I believe the biggest challenges are communications, maintaining the company culture, and keeping people focused and aligned on accountabilities. The lack of regular visibility makes it far more difficult to assess their talent and performance. While it may not always be true, in general, access to corporate resources and capabilities diminishes with distance from the home office and this can affect our perceptions of people. Leaders in these organizations need to make the extra effort of touching base with their people – leveraging the new virtual technologies at their disposal – and spend the time required with their people to understand their roles, their needs, and their output.

With many far flung locations, especially for multinational companies, what sorts of cultural issues crop up that make the human capital issues even more complicated to deal with?

Aside from communication issues related to cultural differences, leadership styles and management techniques can vary around the world, and a potential solution in one country may not work in another. If not managed properly, these differences can make it difficult to achieve universal talent management standards. I remember years ago facilitating a multi-country steering team to develop a global leadership assessment process that incorporated 360 degree feed-back. During the meeting, the Japanese unit HR representative rejected the idea of having leaders receive feed-back from subordinates, citing that this would be unacceptable in Japan. Fortunately, a member of the team suggested that, in principle, we embrace a “multi-rater” feed-back process as the global standard, and allow the definition of the raters to be a local decision. This idea was acceptable to all members of the steering team and we were able to move forward. The Japanese unit embraced the idea and leaned more heavily on peer group evaluations. The lesson here is that it’s important for HR leaders to understand and appreciate cultural differences, and apply creativity to achieve mutual objectives.

What new skills sets do modern-day HR leaders need to bring to the table that perhaps did not exist a decade ago to deal with this?

There are a number of things that come to mind. With all that is going on in the world around us today, I would have to say that the two personal attributes of flexibility and creativity are critical. These skills are helpful to address the ambiguity we face in a multi-cultural world where we may be operating from afar and with flexible workforces. I would also have to say that, while it’s always been important, I believe that financial knowledge and the ability to identify and use relevant metrics, have become even more important for us in building credibility with our business peers. We have got to be focused on the business with everything we do, and we must be able to understand and speak business concepts and language to earn the trust of our constituents. It’s too easy for HR to get lost in HR and to forget that the end game is about creating a terrific customer experience, driving revenue and cash flow, maximizing profitability, and engaging our employees in these goals.

Manny, what do human capital leaders need to be thinking about as we come out of the financial crisis we’ve been embroiled in for the better part of two years now?

Given that many companies have modified their approach to the market and adopted new business models, essentially, I believe there are three things we need to address; first, reinvest in building the engagement among current employees; second, recruit and/or develop the "new" employee who will bring the capabilities required to successfully execute in the “new normal” environment, and; third, maintain the efficiencies and productivity gains made through the recession. We need to also bear in mind that over the past few years, most businesses have been focused on getting through the crisis and most employees have been reticent to leave. As the economy turns around, unless companies pay attention to them, these people may leave for greener pastures and the investment made to train and develop them will be lost.

What do companies and their HR leaders need to be thinking about next?

We need to be thinking about differentiation in the market and how to efficiently deliver greater value to our customers and engage our employees accordingly. It looks like the economic turbulence will be here for a while, and it is therefore important for company leaders to reinvent their organizations and keep focused on their customers and employees. HR leaders are well positioned to create value through their people and should be seeking to lead the way on this mission.

This concludes Part Two of our interview with Lim Chye Lian. To read Part One, please go to HSZ Media news archives.

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