Sport was the massive preoccupation of my youth – being Belgian, you probably think my focus was cycling or maybe football – but from the age of ten, my passion had been field hockey. I played as a goalkeeper, which in the hockey world marks you out as either being incredibly courageous or crazy – and the jury is still out on that. It occupied a good deal of my time, I was playing most evenings and weekends and I eventually made it onto the national youth squad. But inevitably, I had to decide whether to devote all my time to hockey or study. It was a real dilemma, but I knew the right thing was to focus on my studies. I’ve always loved being a team player and later on, I played for a couple of years in a major league in Belgium. I grew up just outside of Brussels, where I spoke French at home and Dutch or Flemish at school and this gave me the love of learning to speak languages wherever I go internationally. I went on to study law at university, which included one year specialism in Italy, courtesy of Erasmus, the EU funding scheme that supports education, training, youth and sport – and it was a wonderful experience that transformed me as a person and gave me a lifelong wanderlust. When it came to my graduation, I started looking for a job in law and was accepted into a Belgiumbased international law firm, where I specialised in labour and social security law, which some might say was the first tenuous link I had with HR. I was there for five and a half years, during which I sat my bar exam and became a certified lawyer. But I knew deep down law wasn’t something I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing. What I wanted was variety and the law label was pigeonholing me. Then, I was contacted by KPMG and was offered a position to start KPMG’s internal employment law practice, within the tax and legal services. They had always worked with an external law firm, but due to some new legislation, the relationship ended and they were keen to continue to be able to provide its clients with legal services. I took on the challenge and, along with two newly-appointed colleagues, we kicked off a brand-new law facility within KPMG.
CHIEF HR OFFICER , BARCO
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Remarkably, the law aspect wasn’t the biggest attractive part of the challenge. What was truly exciting was the entrepreneurship, the stark reality of being sat in an empty, quiet office, while the rest of the building was a buzzing hive, with no clients and no staff. What I thought was going to be a legal post became a sales job, literally knocking on doors to find clients. It was a change, but I met the challenge and before long, we had new clients, people were hired and I became a people leader, so I had to quickly learn some leadership skills. But as things were settling, I had that niggling feeling that I was still on the wrong career path and the missing piece of the jigsaw had HR written on it. It was the proverbial itch that could not be scratched. Again, I was in touch with countless executive recruiters and eventually joined the global telecommunications company AlcatelLucent, as Compensation and Benefits Manager. At the very least, I was one small step closer to realising my HR aspirations and was hoping that the new role would help me lose the legal tag that in the past had proved an unhelpful distraction for recruiters. However, I had underestimated how complex this area was and this role needed to be filled by somebody with relevant experience in a fast-moving, pressured environment. It was a case of personality fit rather than expertise, because I instantly clicked with the Head of Comps and Bens for EMEA. He was Italian, multilingual and, in the interview, we switched from Italian to French to English and back to Italian and I set my mind to learn from him in the hope that I would gain some valuable experience to support my long-term aspirations. I saw this as a break, because the philosophy of Alcatel-Lucent was that you could start in one role and move wherever your talent and aspiration took you. So that level of freedom really helped my mindset as I knew that, unless I wanted to, I wouldn’t be stuck in the same role.
Then along came one of those lifechanging opportunities. I was seconded to a pre-sales role, in Singapore – which, although it was still not directly HR – was a relevant aspect of the practice. My focus had been shifted to resourcing a rapid change of business perspective, moving Alcatel-Lucent into the overlycompetitive but rapidly growing markets, where the likes of Ericsson and Huawei were competing with promises of higher levels of service and lower costs. It was quite a brutal race, but it was an imperative for Alcatel-Lucent to be in the running. In this role, I found out what HR was all about. I was on the frontline, customer-facing and fronting up the shared services aspect of the business, providing HR solutions, the legal framework for the transfer of people in an outsourcing deal, as well as the mass onboarding of people post outsourcing, along with overseeing the quick deployment of training and development. It was an integral business operations role and there was a massive opportunity for me to stay in Singapore for the following three-to-four years, but then the priority of the company shifted from sales volume to higher profitability and the decision was made to cease chasing new managed services deals, not only in that region, but globally. Effectively, I was out of a job and was told to find a new role within the organisation within three months. I made my way to the headquarters in Paris and contacted some people and was given two opportunities, one in Shanghai and the other in Paris. I decided to take the latter, which turned out to be a brief sojourn as a project manager, which brought me back to Northern Europe.
I was certainly beginning to question my ambitions, but as happens often in life, just when you think it’s time to give up, quite by surprise, the Chief HR Officer asked whether I would be interested in taking on the leading regional HR role for North Europe and, as you might guess, I said yes. This was during a time of restructuring, followed by even more restructuring, so they were looking for people with broad shoulders and a healthy dose of pragmatism and resilience. What surprised me the most was the difference and disparity of law and process from country to country, making it very hard to achieve parity from territory to territory. I was, amongst others, responsible for Belgium and the Netherlands and there was even significant difference between these two, close neighbouring countries, similar, I would say, to Finland and Sweden.
You often have almost no time to reflect, because you are systematically overwhelmed by continuous rounds of transformation – especially when the business imperative pressure is on. You emerge from the transformation and there is a new CEO in place who decrees, “we need to transform”, on the basis that there is this modern directive that any change and disruption is good… but that’s not necessarily always the case. However, I could see clearly that a long-term view on HR strategy had to be set and so change we did. Back to your question, there were indeed some concrete examples of long-term strategic projects that we had been working on, such as diversity & inclusion, talent management and succession planning. In terms of D&I, it amazes me that only now diversity is the cause célèbre. Just a few years back, many companies barely ticked the boxes. Was it not obvious that people from different backgrounds provide the balance of voices and diversity-of-thought needed to be successful? Of course now, in more enlightened times, this contribution to the wider business objective cannot be argued against and helps a business stand out in a crowded market where others might be still trying to define their own voice.
We had been through a difficult period for the business, but despite all of the disruption, we had completed a major company transformation that was truly people-focused. We had values that aligned with the purpose of the business – which was ambition with sustainability – achieved through a balance of speed of reaction and decision-making, but tempered with trust, responsibility and accountability. That was a blueprint with no compromise or ambiguities and Alcatel-Lucent became a very viable and interesting proposition. That’s when Nokia came into the picture. By this time, I was Global HR Business Partner for the fixed networks division. No mergers are easy and to successfully navigate a merger and acquisition, it is crucial to understand the dynamics and issues that could frequently arise and the background of each company. To cut a long story short, it took some months after Nokia had initially announced their plans to purchase Alcatel-Lucent, for the companies to integrate and operate as a combined company. The merger was crucial for both companies to stay competitive and ultimately, they joined forces as a network company. Nokia was of course global, but didn’t have a strong foothold in North America, where telecommunication operators like Verizon and AT&T dominated. So, the merger positioned Nokia as a mobile networking player, whereas Alcatel-Lucent was an end-to-end player with IP route in optical, fixed and mobile networks. This was a crucial alliance.
Just imagine two companies – each with 50,000 employees – coming together. In terms of my own position, when the merger took place, a logical result was to have as much cross-fertilisation as possible, between both companies and so one of my former Nokia colleagues took over the role of Global HR Business Partner for the fixed networks business group, which was a 100 percent former Alcatel-Lucent organisation. Following the same logic, I then stepped up and was made Global HR Business Partner for Global Services, with the responsibility for 30,000 employees and this turned out to be the best move for both parties. I then met with the President of Services to discuss how the merger would impact the global services operation and then, when it came to employee engagement, culture and leadership, it was very much centrally led. There were many issues that could have been prioritised, but we had to be realistic, pragmatic and focus on the big issue, talent management and development. I designed a whole new programme and approach for global services and this proved to be an essential piece of the puzzle, giving us momentum to work on leadership and cultural change. In what seemed like a blink of an eye, two years went by and the newly-appointed President decided to redesign the services organisation. We had a good strategy in place, with new services to launch, however the strategy was not implemented well enough. One of the big hurdles for a good implementation of the strategy was the organisation’s structure of services, which had been put in place 15 years prior and had never been revised – while everything else was changing very fast – in terms of new technology and new market dynamics. A change was very much needed and so, working closely with the Transformation Leader and President, I contributed to the transition from early planning stages to execution. In parallel, we also worked on the effectiveness of the leadership team and, while all of this was happening, a new CEO joined Nokia and he immediately set about redesigning Nokia with clear accountabilities. We all knew that change was the only way forward, but having gone through many internal re-structures and having seen a continuous turnover of leadership teams in the span of over ten years, I decided to take on a new challenge and that’s how I joined Barco.
It’s strange, because I was beginning to feel like it was “déjà vu” and I would say that if you’re not completely absorbed by what you’re doing, it’s probably time to move on. UK readers may not be familiar with Barco, but it’s an omnipresent brand. It is the only Belgium-listed tech firm – and, not surprisingly, has Belgian headquarters – but is very much a global player. In fact, Barco has a great history spanning right back to1934 and, if you ask older people about Barco, they will remember when the early television sets started coming into homes in the 1950s. They were large, undestroyable boxes that weighed a ton. Barco is also famous for making projectors for inflight entertainment on airlines, as well as multi-screen cinemas around the world. But the reason why I was so interested in the opportunity was because, by comparison, Barco was small and I would be moving from a company with 90,000 people, to 3,400 people globally. Headcount aside, although this was a legacy company, there was a determination to forge its future in the fast-moving tech markets and so my role as Chief HR Officer was to make some speedy changes that would show tangible results, to bring people onboard for the bigger challenges ahead. What I found was, often the challenges are much bigger in smaller firms compared to bigger corporations. It’s more raw and intimate and there was some skepticism about change. I clearly remember when a colleague said during a staff meeting that it’s impossible to change operational aspects that were very ingrained, because the disruption was too much. I said that, when you try and make a change in a company the size of Nokia, it’s like trying to turn a tanker. By comparison, I was confident that change was much easier in a much smaller business. Not only that, change was essential, in order to be competitive. So, mindsets had to be shifted and Barco needed a culture that embraced change, not avoid it and that was a key consideration for the plans ahead. Personally, I had grown used to being the HR lead of the business, whereas, up to this point, I had always reported to somebody more senior. Now, I was working directly with the CEO.
The company had experienced twentyto-thirty years of incredible expansion and growth. But what makes Barco such an interesting company is the vast portfolio of products and markets and our brand is prevalent all over the world. Our projectors are being used at the World Expo and the Saudi Pavilion, they are used in museums, festivals and concerts. But here is the central point for the need to change, because Barco had traditionally been an exclusive hardware company and the plan was to diversify to include software and services into the business. Taking a look at the enterprise parts of the company, there is product such as ClickShare – which is a dongle you plug into your laptop and that connects you to the screen in the meeting room – that’s an example one of our hardware and software products. The other business units produce control rooms, for example, the Dubai police has Barco screens installed in their control room, which was built to be supported with software. We’re also expanding our reach into visualisation technology and exploring healthcare, in radiology and surgery, with an eye on both hardware and software. There’s no doubt it’s an incredibly wide market remit and with huge market potential and diversity.
You are correct, the future is hybrid and we are developing products to support hybrid working and providing solutions to improve the experience of the new way of working. As a tech company, hybrid working is second nature, but we are mindful that not all companies and sectors are as attuned to the whole idea of remote working. There’s no going back, where and how we work has changed forever and expectations from employees and businesses alike are reinventing the office into a dynamic hybrid space. This was backed by our very own ClickShare Hybrid Meeting survey, which was launched at the beginning of this year, showing that the majority of workers prefer the hybrid model, but more than one-third of workers still have trouble fully engaging during hybrid meetings. The meeting room, as we know it, will need to be adapted to accommodate both in-room participants and those joining remotely, supporting equity when it comes to meeting participation. Not only will hybrid employees working from their homes need to be able to take an active role in these meetings, but clients, customers and anyone else who is not a part of the internal structure may also opt to join remotely. Essentially, every meeting room will have to be equipped with audio-visual hardware and software that allows the host to easily switch from a two-person meeting to a ten-person meeting, without everyone huddling around a laptop. In person presentations, pre-pandemic, were hardly seamless or smooth when it came to sharing a deck, spreadsheet or even a Word document. Often, meeting rooms were only equipped with a single HDMI cable, meaning that any attempt for someone else to share their content would lead to a lengthy and unnecessary disruption. When joining meetings from laptops over the pandemic, we have become used to sharing multiple screens with just one click when using Teams or Zoom. There’s no doubt that hybrid working is here to stay and our survey reflected the attitudes and preferences of modern workers, as business leaders adjust operational models, workspaces and organisational cultures, in alignment with evolving professional dynamics. The immense power that an efficient hybrid work model can have for organisations engaging and communicating with their employees, and driving collaboration is phenomenal, and perhaps we are only at the beginning of this journey. Businesses will need to work hard to remove access barriers for hybrid workers and make sure all employees feel they can perform at their best, from wherever they are. In addition to ensuring privacy and confidentiality online, ongoing support tools and solution coverage will contribute towards an enhanced user experience, with an ever-increasing range of features and functionality. Employees expect easy-touse, high-quality voice and video experiences that allow all participants to see and hear each other. This essentially reiterated that, as employees’ appetites for a functional hybrid work model continues to grow, working conditions have become just as important as salaries in attracting and retaining the best workers.
As a business, we believe that the future is increasingly visual and immersive and we are going further afield to find talent and are setting up to support hybrid talent anywhere and everywhere. There has been the need to increasingly diversify the search for talent, by being creative and looking for development potential over actual experience. We have been working on our recruitment process because it was reactive, not proactive. For example, when an employee leaves, the system would start looking for a replacement, a replica of the previous incumbent and we really need to be able to fill vacancies for key people immediately, to mitigate disruption and inertia. The traditional mindset was to identify potential hires with the essential skills and capabilities and have a replacement lined up in the event of their departure. The trick is to never be caught out, as tech markets are renowned for never standing still and, case in point, when the CEO left last year, he was replaced by two nominated co-CEOs – one with a real entrepreneurial mindset, who was also Chairman of the board – while the other was a technical person as she was previously a CTO. They came up with the perfect reorganisation for Barco and we decided to rearrange and focus on verticalised business units – Cinema IX, Click Share, video rooms, enterprise and the healthcare division. The salespeople were transferred to those divisions, along with supporting functions – legal, HR, finance, operations, supply chain, logistics and manufacturing. That was step one. Step two was to focus on new product development to help drive the commercial side of the business. Next to the new portfolios, we worked on expanding the services linked to the products and set up software development to support the hardware. So, this is the new business strategy and is perhaps the most daring and diversified in the company’s history.
To me, HR priorities come down to everything that corelates to the overall organisational health. It’s about organisational design layers, span of control, performance management and optimisation of the compensation and benefit systems. Meanwhile, the key resourcing priorities are competencies, workforce strategy and management. Then, in terms of workforce strategy, there’s the strategy and the gap analysis; what do you have? What do you need? Where are the gaps and how can they be filled? It actually pays to have two plans – a short-term workforce management plan, so that people can see and experience change and improvement – running alongside the longer term, more sophisticated plan, which can continue off grid. On top of this, I’m also in the mid-stages of reorganising HR so that it is well-equipped to deal with the future business plans and organisational set up. The pandemic has thrown us a curve ball, but there are signs indicating that we are gaining momentum and I’m eagerly awaiting our latest round of employee survey results, so that we can assess whether we are back on track.
COVID hit the business hard – people stopped going to the cinema, festivals, museums and conferences. Our healthcare portfolios were also impacted because people had surgical procedures delayed. In terms of morale and retaining people, there has been high attrition rate and dissatisfaction and 2021 was a particularly challenging year, but we saw undeniable indications of recovery in Barco’s demand across all business units and regions attesting to the health of the company’s end markets and strength of our leadership positions. The Barco team really did turn challenges into opportunities, adjusting to the impacts of the pandemic on business operations. Our new organisational structure has been established and we are already seeing the benefits in customer responsiveness and team engagement. While we are still dealing with uncertainties, regarding the shape and pace of market recoveries, we are starting the year with a strong orderbook, a solid balance sheet and a cost structure that gives us the flexibility to navigate the risks and opportunities ahead. As a result, we are in a good position to resume executing toward our long-term financial objectives. Digitalisation is changing our society at a rapid pace and new experiences, more insight and more connectedness are at the centre of our product offer plan. After some tough times for all across the world, this is now a great opportunity for Barco – already a world leader in visualisation and collaboration technologies – to differentiate and grow more than ever through its breakthrough innovations. This is why the work we are carrying out in HR now is so vital. We were happy to have a better outcome in 2021 than 2020 and although we are still in recovery mode, we must progress this year, because investment in future innovation will depend on the financial results. It’s very hard to create momentum with engagement initiatives, if the company is not following on with results. But we are making the right moves and we are focusing on the capacity to use our relatively small stature to our advantage and act more like a speedy startup, to adapt more quickly. But like many businesses, we were seriously tested during the pandemic and we have learned a lot about ourselves and our resilience. We have a driving urge to change, diversify and to create the leading edge as opposed to reacting to it and I believe that this crisis has taught us about the importance of people and also made us more aware, understanding and empathetic for the challenges in people’s lives. As we look into the future, it is inevitable that robots and AI will be superseding human activity in traditional work settings, but I am confident that people will be even more fundamental to innovation and represent the true value within organisations.
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