RSS Feed

Interview

Didier Charreton
Group Director Human Resources, Anglo American

It is easy to forget that the raw materials on which man is entirely reliant upon are excavated. Mining, of course, is essential to the world, and it is the veritable canary in the mine, ultra-sensitive to change – whether economies are booming or busting – mining is the first to know about it.

Didier, tell us about your early life and why you decided to pursue a career in HR.  

I was born in Lyon, France. My father was an entrepreneur and owned a small company commercialising and installing professional kitchen equipment. My mother was a school teacher and my childhood was fairly typical of any middle class child in provincial France. After formal education, I went to business school, where a lot of my peers were pursuing more finance or marketing oriented studies, but this was of little interest to me at the time. Even at this early stage, I was more drawn to people than to numbers or products. There were only a few of us choosing to steer our curriculum toward people related disciplines but, as I progressed in my studies, it became obvious to me that this was my area of interest and one which, although less celebrated than others, was fundamental to any organisation’s behaviour and performance. After graduating from business school, I considered staying in education to do a PhD in social sciences. But after my first year of post-grad studies, I realised that I needed real life action and took up my first job in a French bank in Lyon. There, I spent the first two years of my career cutting my teeth on matters ranging from job evaluation, to remuneration, recruitment and learning.

After a couple of years, I was presented with what turned out to be a truly life-changing opportunity. I joined Schlumberger, which was, and still is, the global leader in the oil and gas services industry. I joined the company in 1989 as personnel manager of a small R&D and manufacturing centre. I couldn’t have hoped for a better learning ground. It was a small entity within this massive and diverse business ¬only about 250 people – but in terms of demographics, skills and backgrounds, it was truly diverse, from people building heavy equipment that would go to well sites all over the word to scientists from at least ten different nationalities that were true experts in fields ranging from chemistry to fluid mechanics, modelling and software development. I got to witness how this diversity of backgrounds and cultures was integral to the technical leadership of the company. And, in the two years that I spent there, I also developed an affinity with populations working in technical fields which was going to guide many of my career choices going forward.

After a couple of years, I moved to Paris and became head of HR for the well services division of Schlumberger with responsibility for southern Europe and Africa. I spent a lot of time in Africa, mostly western and northern Africa, at a time where many countries on the continent were suffering from political instability and social unrest. During my three years in the job, I had to manage many situations of crisis, from public health related evacuations to redeployment of critical staff during civil wars. These very stressful situations brought me very close to employees which were exposed to them and taught me the importance for HR to truly be an “employee champion”. They also helped me mature quickly and built my character. In 1994, I was offered an assignment based in Venezuela and covering ten Latin American countries. The role was essentially the same but in a different geography and in a context of rapid growth fuelled by foreign investment in countries such as Venezuela, Colombia or Brazil. The arrival of international oil companies in these countries drove a need to internationalise our own management and workforce. HR played an instrumental role in this transformation and enabled the business to double in size and profitability over a two year period.

I also got married in Venezuela and, shortly afterwards, I was asked to take up a new role in Houston, Texas. It was in the seismic division of Schlumberger, which was the most recently assembled division, built from a series of acquisitions. This was a very different operation and a new set of experiences. Most significantly, this was my first direct exposure to the US. A couple of years later, the business was transforming itself and morphing into a matrixed organisation, and I returned to Latin America, this time to Argentina, to head HR for all Schlumberger oilfield business. I thoroughly enjoyed living in Buenos Aires but only got to stay there for a year and then came back to Houston, where I took my first global HR director role for Schlumberger’s well services division (mostly known today for its fracking operations). I was 36 and had landed my first global HR leadership role for a population of about 9,000 people worldwide. It felt like a great achievement at the time and the job was everything I had been hoping for. However, after a while, I felt the need to explore something different and for the first time in my 12 years at Schlumberger, I took stock of my career and the age I had reached and decided it was time to move on.

In 2001, I came into contact with a company called GemPlus (now Gemalto) which was a pioneer and global leader in the smart card industry. At the time, they were lobbying governments to adopt smart cards as an identity support. One of the first governments to issue a tender for this was the government of Venezuela. Because of my experience in the country, GemPlus offered me to build a team of local partners to handle the answer to the tender and develop a solution that would become the basis of their commercial offering for ID based identity systems. Unfortunately we were not successful in Venezuela, but I was asked to stay on to prospect other countries and so, for nine months, I travelled the world, literally knocking on doors and trying to sell our solution to governments. We eventually had some success in the Middle East and in Asia but we were invariably coming up against the largest system integrators and, at the time, GemPlus was not a position to make the investments that would have been required to make this new business truly competitive. After 18 months of a challenging but very rewarding experience outside the boundaries of HR, I decided to get back to my trade and bring my family to France where we had never lived. So we packed our house in Venezuela and moved to Paris – only to land a new job in London! This was in 2002 and I became HR Director for Coats plc, a FTSE 250 company with a wonderful history and the leading manufacturer of sewing thread in the world.

I joined Coats at a time of growth and change plans, which presented significant HR challenges, not least in migrating our production capacity west to east. Shutting down plants in North America and Western Europe in a responsible manner, bringing new capacity on line as quickly as possible in Asia and not losing any of our know-how and technical leadership in the process was an interesting equation to solve. Half-way through my tenure at Coats, the company was taken into private ownership, which added to the complexity and transformed the HR agenda. It became all about focusing the organisation on cash generation. I stayed at Coats for five years and was then presented with the opportunity to join Baker Hughes as Chief HR Officer based in Houston. Baker Hughes is one the largest oil and gas services companies in the world with approximately 50,000 people operating in some 80 countries. This was 2007, and the CEO wanted to transform the company from a very strong US centred company to a true global competitor to the leaders in our industry. His transformation strategy was based on three pillars: technology, infrastructure and people. The investment in R&D was increased and to strengthen the company’s technology leadership acquisitions were made to broaden the range of services offered and make the company more relevant in the emerging shale oil and gas segment, new facilities were built in the geographies where we had the ambition to compete more effectively (Brazil, Nigeria, Angola, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Iraq to name a few) and I was given the remit to develop and implement an HR strategy that would make us better aligned to a customer base where national companies were controlling an increasing portion of the oil and gas reserves around the world. We started with the organisation and created one where decision making was more decentralised, allowing for local managers to better tailor solutions to the need of their customers and make decisions at the pace that they were requiring. Staffing this decentralised organisation with local managerial talent was the next challenge which we addressed with a mix internal promotions and external hires. And, to ensure its long term sustainability, we established very robust talent management systems and an industry leading learning infrastructure. I left Baker Hughes at the end of 2014 and joined Anglo American in 2015.

Tell us about Anglo American and what the proposition was that made you decide that this was the career move for you?  

At this stage in my career, I am more interested in capitalising on my experiences to lead meaningful transformations than in optimising the status quo. For me it was essential that there would be a change agenda and I found it here. Anglo American is going through a deep transformation where we are reconfiguring our asset portfolio and our organisation quite radically. We strongly believe that we will come out of this restructure in much better shape, performing at a better level operationally and being in a strong position to continue building on the company’s prestigious past. The relative proximity between oil and mining was another attraction for me as I strongly believe that the ability to understand the drivers of a business are key to my ability to impact that business positively. Among other things, I wanted to find in my next job, the international dimension was essential, given my track record of working in multicultural environments and building diverse leadership teams. Also, working in a company where technology is at the centre is a plus as I have always enjoyed working with engineers.

It is widely reported that the mining commodities sector has many challenges ahead, how does this impact on the operations and business objectives?  

Indeed, your readers will have seen and read the headlines and yes the sector faces some significant challenges. There is pragmatism within the sector itself in so far as mining is a volatile industry. What makes this tricky is the low visibility and the difficulty to predict how long it will take for the wheel to turn to more positive territory. From a brass tacks business perspective, the current environment provides a platform for change. It is essential to adjust your priorities, your structure and even your leadership style to the times you are in. Another fundamental challenge is to maintain your ability to create value. While it is normal to increase your focus on costs when the environment gets tougher, you mustn’t lose sight of how you can buck the cycle, in particular through innovation. Trimming organisational fat without attacking the innovation muscle is a major challenge for HR in this kind of environment. There is no doubt it will occupy a great deal of my time, and that of my teams globally in the years to come.

So like many, you're the soldiers caught up in the war for talent?  

I’ve learned during my career that the time, money and energy that you spend fighting this so called war for talent is much better spent building an engine that will produce the talent that you need where you need it and when you need it. Ideally, I would never want to have to go to an executive search firm for anything else than a validation that our in-house talent is indeed better than what the market has to offer. This is my ambition for Anglo American. Once we have achieved this, there will be no talent war for us to fight.

In terms of creating good connections with universities and colleges?  

I would much rather fight the war for talent at that level. I strongly believe in our ability to attract bright graduates from the universities that we choose to work with globally. We have a compelling proposition that can appeal to many of them, from the geographies where we operate to the range of technologies we are working with, from the complexity of some of our copper or platinum mining operations to the mystique of the diamonds that we produce and commercialise. Branding that proposition properly and offering consistent career growth opportunities to graduates joining the company is a central piece of our talent strategy. We’ve had good success in this area in South Africa and will extend our efforts to all the countries where we work.

There are territories, Texas being a good example, where the whole locality is oil oriented and a career in oil is an obvious option. That isn’t the case everywhere in the world?  

It is the same in mining in some ways and building strong and lasting relationships with the communities among which we operate is key for us. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to this but there are strong interdependencies between community relations and our brand as an employer. It is true that we must sometime work hard to attract talent to some of our more remote locations. Deploying talent in the best interest of the group, both at global and local levels is essential to share knowledge and ensure the consistency of our operating standards. We have designed our organisation to make this possible.

How do you imagine the long-term plan for HR will pan out in the organisation across the globe?  

HR has gone through significant changes in the business over time and is seen as a reliable partner in each of our business units. My ambition is to align the function globally behind a common purpose to create a sustainable competitive advantage for Anglo American through an effective organisation and capable people. We have spent most of this year enabling a more effective organisation and will now focus our efforts on ensuring that we produce the talent necessary to properly staff this organisation at all levels: operational, functional, and managerial. This is an exciting agenda for HR. If executed properly, it will undoubtedly strengthen the leadership position of the function, both internally and within our industry.

Is HR likely to be more or less centralised?  

We are operating in very different environments and you do want that strong knowledge of the local issues and sensitivities. But there are things you absolutely want to standardise. These are the things that guarantee that people operate to the same global standard, the things that contribute to shaping the corporate culture. A good example is your talent management and learning activities. You want to use the same criteria to identify talent across the group. You want to train your operating personnel to perform certain operations in a given manner that is the safest and the most effective. You want to develop your future leaders in a consistent way so that they acquire the core competencies that you want to find in all of them. All this requires a certain degree of centralisation.

As we conclude, the mining sector is in a lag at the moment. In years’ time, what do you think will be the big indicators that you are doing the right things?  

The performance of HR will ultimately be reflected in the operational and financial performance of the company. The effectiveness of the organisation we put in place and the capability our staff at all levels will drive productivity gains and are key to our ability to create value. Aside from that, we often talk of HR being a partner for the business but I want us to be business leaders. Leaders in aligning the organisation and in creating the capability that will ensure that we meet our objectives.

What constitutes a leader? Expectations about leadership are changing significantly and as this sector is noted for its older demographic, how challenging is it for you to bring these changes in line with needs and expectations?  

In my experience, in an organisation, every change starts with the leaders. To truly transform an organisation, leadership has to start by, in a way, transforming itself. By this I mean that it would be delusional for any leadership team to think that they can generate extraordinary results by continuing with the same ordinary behaviours. And, to change to way you behave – as a team or as an individual, you have to first understand and then change the way you think. The way you think of your business and what it is capable of but also the way you think of yourself as leader or group of leaders. Often a deep crisis stimulates a change of thinking. But in cyclical industries, such as oil and gas or mining, there can be a tendency to ride the wave and when things are tough, wait for better days rather than challenge our thinking to generate new pathways for the business. I am very confident that, at Anglo American, we have created the platform and are having the leadership conversations that will lead to deep changes in organisational behaviours and ultimately to a differential level of performance.

From a personal point of view, you have travelled the world many times over in the course of your duties, and it sounds like you never did have that fixed position for the family for the long term.  

This year, my wife and I have become “empty nesters”: our eldest son is out of college and lives in New York, and our two daughters are students at McGill University and UCLA. From a very tight family unit travelling the world from one assignment to the next, we now have to cope with life on different continents and time zones. In this context, establishing a home base where the family will be able to get together has now become a priority for us. I would not risk predicting where this will be quite yet but it makes for interesting conversations between my wife and I at the dinner table.