NOT A HOUSEHOLD NAME, BUT AKZONOBEL’S PRODUCTS ARE EVERYWHERE. A CREATOR OF PAINTS AND PERFORMANCE COATINGS FOR BOTH INDUSTRY AND CONSUMERS WORLDWIDE – THE LATTER INCLUDING DULUX AND POLYFILLA – HEADQUARTERED IN AMSTERDAM, THE COMPANY HAS ACTIVITIES IN MORE THAN 80 COUNTRIES, EMPLOYS OVER 32,000 PEOPLE AND TURNED OVER €8.5 BILLION IN 2020. FROM THE GLOSS ON A SKIRTING BOARD TO THE COATING OF A SUPERTANKER’S HULL, TO COIN A PHRASE, THIS COMPANY HAS IT COVERED.
HR DIRECTOR UK&I AND NORDICS, AKZONOBEL
NOT A HOUSEHOLD NAME, BUT AKZONOBEL’S PRODUCTS ARE EVERYWHERE.
I started my A-level studies, but then decided to gain some life experience and do some travelling instead. When I got back to England, I took a temp job at Serco Rail which was, by complete chance, an HR administrator role. Time passed and I came to realise that if I was going to progress a career in anything, I would have to go to University and so I enrolled at night school to complete my A-levels and duly gained a place at Nottingham Trent to study Communications. I think the lofty ambition was a career in politics, but on graduation, reality dictated that I find a job fast and so I enrolled at an agency and my Serco experience profiled me towards HR again. I eventually gained a place in HR at Balfour Beatty in Derby – at its power networks division – and it was your typical HR admin role again and so a good deal of data processing and filing. But I had a really supportive manager who made sure that I took advantage of development opportunities when they came along and it was in areas such as disciplinary and grievance – the real, human nitty-gritty reality of work life – that made me decide that I wanted to continue on this HR journey. Balfour Beatty was very HR-orientated and I observed senior department colleagues who were positioned as business partners, working directly with business leaders. I was really building a career ambition in my mind, but this was the era of shared services, HR was duly moved to Sheffield and my role was redundant. However, the seed had taken root and I set my sights on my next HR role.
Well, I was very ambitious – I look back and realise naïve too – and I was looking at an HR manager position. I wanted to be involved in the strategy and decisionmaking with senior leaders and the next company I joined couldn’t have been a more different experience from the massive, multi-national that is Balfour Beatty. It was a small firm called Loxam Access, a plant hire company, based in Nottingham, where I was the sole HR Manager. It was a shock not to have the systems and processes that I was used to at Balfour Beatty and it was very immediate and personal. So, I really had to hit the ground running and gain a grip on the HR issues in this busy firm and familiarise myself with all the policies and procedures. It was the whole hire-to-retire model and I had to singlehandedly deal with disciplinary and grievances, organise recruitment and selection and process the monthly payroll. To put it bluntly, it was ridiculous, but the optimism of youth kept me going as it was really accelerating all my learning, progressing me on from the administrator-type activities and opening the door to the wider world of HR. Of course, I only knew what I knew – and that had some limitations – but because I had literally nobody else to blame for mistakes, I learnt very quickly. Then around 2010, an agency whose books I was on, gave me a call about a more senior role at Siemens Energy and that’s a company name that you cannot ignore. So, I applied, was interviewed and accepted for an HR Advisor role – which swiftly changed to HRBP – in Siemens’ wind renewables business. This was the exciting and burgeoning market that I had set my sights on, as the wind power industry was starting to boom. There was a big focus on recruiting and skills and, within a year, we more than tripled the workforce and that gave me the amazing experience of working with people from all over the world from all sorts of industries and disciplines. In terms of my development, as this was a young business, I was keen to start bringing into the organisation what would then have been considered new-wave HR – including emotional and cultural intelligence – which in an engineering setting was revolutionary, back then in that sector. What I remember most is that I was introducing completely new initiatives and I felt that I was becoming a true, consultative business partner, working at a strategic planning level with senior leaders. Siemens put me through HRBP training in Germany as well, which gave me more opportunity to travel and learn about different cultures. But the really great element, from a personal developmental level, was that Siemens would assign you to project opportunities, which meant that you were never in a rut and constantly learning and playing a part in developing and evolving this exciting market within this iconic organisation.
There was a real buzz around working for renewables and people and businesses surrounding those localities viewed it as great potential to regenerate. Nevertheless, like now, recruitment in engineering was competitive and we were in a race against time to find the skills we needed. But as is typical with big corporates, processes were slower than we needed and so there was a certain amount of recalibrating and short-circuiting the inexorably long procedures, in order for us to meet workforce planning objectives. I look back and remember how exciting it was to be a part of the dawn of this technology and industry in the UK and because we moved premises during this time, it gave us the opportunity to introduce some changes, which were pretty alien for the engineering sector. HR’s focus was very much on engagement and as we were moving into new premises, we somewhat bravely took the opportunity to try out collaborative working environments. Trestle tables came out of the canteens and were replaced with café-style environments, which were designed to encourage collaborative chat. Meeting rooms were fitted out with so-called ‘hyper walls’, massive wall-sized whiteboards, designed to encourage people to get up ad-hoc and contribute in meetings, rather than quietly waiting until somebody asked them for their point of view. Back then, the workforce was primarily male engineers – traditionally used to working in some tough environments and now servicing turbines hundreds of feet up in force gale winds – and to see this level of openness and collaboration was a massive step-change. Then a moment comes when you step away from the plate and you start thinking, “what next”? After six years at Siemens, I was ready for the next challenge and one presented itself here at AkzoNobel – initially to be the HR Business Partner for the Marine Coatings Division Europe – covering a number of countries across Europe, from Greece and Turkey all the way to Vladivostok.
We make sustainable and innovative paint and coatings and the chances are, that you’re often no more than a couple of meters away from one of our products. Some of the brands in group, people will be familiar with, such as Dulux, alongside some brands that, unless you’re in related industries, you may not know like; International, Sikkens and Interpon. The products are cutting-edge and used to colour and protect anything from wind turbines – so a bit of synergy for me – to the McLaren F1 cars. We’re in more than 150 countries and our ambition is to be global industry leader, leading with sustainability and making products that help our customers use less energy and fuel. To give you an example, in our Marine Coatings division is a foul releasing coating that we create called Intersleek, which is biocide-free and designed for application onto the underwater hull of ships. The product combats micro-fouling on a ship’s hull, reducing drag and maintaining vessel performance.
What immediately struck me about the role was, there was a lot of breadth, but perhaps not the depth that I was used to, insomuch as it was a smaller number of people across a lot of countries. So operationally, I was supporting less people, more widely distributed and on multiple fronts, which always brings challenges. Here I saw a massive opportunity to be involved at a business strategy level and I was building on my experiences and achievements from Siemens in engagement, skills pipelining and future competencies. I actually covered this HRBP role for about a year and a half and then came an opportunity to support a massive transformational project and my role moved and expanded into corporate functions across all AkzoNobel businesses, here in the UK. Following this, last year I was given the opportunity to step up into the HR Director role for UK&I and Nordics. There’s always something to find out about this business and, right across the organisation, there is this compelling level of engagement and dedication to making the products as brilliant as they can be and that – along with the amazing innovation – really defines our culture. It might sound a cliché to say “we’re passionate about paint” but take a look at the technology behind the shiny surfaces and it’s a fascinating world.
With all the disruption and change we have all experienced over these past couple of years, one of our core focuses is employee experience which, I stress, is no longer a bolt-on responsibility of the job for HR, it is the day-job staple. We’re increasingly seeing that employees are expecting customer-style experience – moments that matter for them – and there are some innovative ways that we’re approaching employee experience. Not surprisingly, one very important element is DE&I, along with health and wellbeing and, although these sound like the obvious corporate statements, there is a fundamental difference between saying and doing. A great example is, we held a month-long virtual wellness festival called Wellfest, during the lockdown in March last year, which featured some 100 different activities. The whole event was focused on supporting wellness, health and happiness of our colleagues and their families and the events took place in seven virtual tents, which saw 3,000 bookings from staff across the month. We had people like Jason Fox from SAS: Who Dares Wins and Victoria Humphries, who’s a Guinness Book of Records holder and they held some inspirational sessions that have proved incredibly impactful and popular. Additionally, colleagues themselves held sessions, but what was really key about Wellfest was that it was created by colleagues for colleagues and that’s what made it really special and made it the tremendous success it was. In fact, it’s created a real momentum to do more and, really encouragingly, we have been recognised for a number of awards internally and externally for it. Another initiative that’s really close to my heart is called Thrive, which is our engagement, wellbeing and diversity programme. Again, this came into prominence during the pandemic and we again seized the opportunity to enhance that employee experience space and really promote inclusion and collaboration. It gave colleagues the opportunity to have their input and voice come to fruition in events and it has continued to support a great number of people right across the organisation.
We created networks to drive awareness, educate, inspire and connect colleagues on a number of key DE&I topics. We’ve created networks for our female employees, our LGBTQI+ community and colleagues from ethnically diverse backgrounds. We also have networks on wellbeing, mental and physical health, for working parents, career, capability development and sustainability as well. But I cannot emphasise enough, the reason Thrive and Wellfest were so successful and special was because of the authentic and passionate input from collaborative people, working on issues that matter to them. That has really resonated powerfully across our entire business and convinced me that this collaborative approach is so much more effective and sustainable than an HR diktat for people to sign up to. All of this activity has collaboration written all over it and it’s been a real light-bulb moment for me and we’re in a really exciting space right now. It’s also given us insight and impetus to look more closely at the topics and issues that colleagues want to learn about and discuss. A case in point is a session we hosted, entitled: ‘Why we should all be feminists’, which came from our Women Inspired Network. Compelled to do something, after the horrendous and tragic death of Sarah Everard, we ran some domestic abuse and awareness sessions and we were somewhat taken aback at how these important issues really transcend the workplace. When it’s something that matters to all of us in work, life and the wider society, it switches a light on and these sessions in particular were incredibly well attended. This typifies why we need to look beyond the traditionally obvious areas to reveal what really matters to people.
All of these elements and our experiences in these challenging times are guiding and informing us of our purpose, our culture and behaviours and we are really proud to be creating a diverse and inclusive culture. We understand, right across the organisation, that if we’re serious about being the global industry leader, we’re going to need a workforce that is truly diverse, so that it can bring innovation and experience from the widest of backgrounds and reflect and represent our customer base and the communities we work in. We’re really focusing on some key areas – including fostering an inclusive culture – which, at the moment, is very much about unconscious bias training, how to recognise biased behaviour, challenging it, understanding its toxic and damaging impacts and how to guard against it taking root. It’s not just internal, we’re concerned about how we look externally and so we’re investing in how to promote our diversity-positive culture. We’ve also introduced gender-balanced interview panels as standard. As with all of these initiatives, it’s about not taking anything for granted and scrutinising everything in the cold light of day and asking: “Is there anything in the way we advertise jobs that disengages candidates from diverse backgrounds from applying to AkzoNobel? Is there a policy or procedure that is not completely rooted in our DE&I culture?”
The reasons run very deep, but to say this cannot be overcome is not an option. Admittedly, it is very tough to turn tides and we are still a long way from that in STEM sectors for sure. But there is real momentum, because within those groups that are not representative in STEM markets is the potential answer to the skills shortages, as we work to identify the skills and capabilities for now and in the future. We want to modify our apprenticeship programmes in order to change perceptions that they are for everyone, regardless of class, age, gender or ethnicity. We’re building awareness across our business that the apprenticeship levy is an opportunity to help us level up our skills across the organisation and to reach out to a wider community than the traditional engineering colleges. We’ve just set up a steering group that is working to promote the opportunities that apprenticeships can offer. Something that we really want to do more – and we’re really fiercely passionate about in the HR team – is that we want to connect more closely with the communities we work in. We want to work with schools, universities and colleges to, for example, share the skills and capabilities we need in the future. In this area, encouraging colleagues to talk about our organisation, remodelling and using social media to amplify these messages, is key. We have to maintain this momentum, if we are serious about our skills and talent pipelines now and for the future. We’re making progress but there is still much to do. We’re really encouraged that, according to Top Employers, our DE&I score is 12 percent higher than the industry benchmark and we are now in our tenth year in a row to be included in the Top Employers list, an achievement that we are really proud of. But now is not the time to stand back and admire our handiwork, we have to move forward and progress our ambitions.
Yes, despite its disruption and tragic impacts – or perhaps even because of them – the pandemic has turned a telling light on the world of work, has accelerated the direction of travel and we have listened to our people throughout and responded. We’ve introduced hybrid working, like a lot of businesses, as a pilot and we are watching with a view to configure and adapt, so that we have a system that is sustainable and equitable. From a productivity point of view, it remains a reality that this is a business, like any other and we can only deliver on our strategic aims of being the industry front runner, with our people onboard. To make sure we weren’t making assumptions about anything, we put in place a Team Charter, a lot of businesses probably did similar. For us, what we want the Team Charter to explore was and still is, how are we going to continue to delight and deliver for the customer? Importantly, what behaviours are we going to need to adopt, to make sure that it’s a fair and inclusive environment? How do you avoid proximity bias? There are many more besides and it all comes back to transparency, trust and confidence in the ways we collaborate and co-create. Another element of importance is, we want people to celebrate differences – in terms of who we are and how we like to work – and, above all, it’s that culture to stay curious, always questioning the status quo and innovating. As we progress along the hybrid path, that needs to apply equally, whether it’s in the face-to-face or virtual working setting, if the protocol is right, both should spark organic and spontaneous creativity and innovation. We feel we have that balance set right for us, but we’re never complacent. We’ve also created what we called the New Skills Curriculum, in which there are three skills that we believe people are going to need for the future work. One of them is resilience – obviously, that’s key to successfully navigating through constant change – the next is, of course, digital and the mindset that tech is never the destination, it’s integral to the onward journey. The third is emotional intelligence, as leaders and colleagues, it’s about how we collaborate and manage relationships, it’s – as we’ve discussed – DE&I, irradicating bias, celebrating and optimising differences and supporting the types of behaviours we need to adopt as teams to deliver.
As a profession, there’s no question in my mind that HR is stronger and has emerged with an enhanced reputation as a function and proved beyond any doubt the influence that good practice can have on a business. During unprecedented times, senior leaders relied upon HR’s pragmatism and emotional maturity to make the right calls. When we went into lockdown – which was such a strange and alien experience – HR was integral for guiding people on how to adapt, in order that businesses – if they possibly could – were able to continue operating. Now, as we move into a whole new era of significant change, HR is continuing to take the lead, as organisations recalibrate to the many changes. I genuinely believe that the pandemic was a crisis in which HR stepped up to the plate and this time has galvanised its position as an essential asset in business. We need to be kinder to ourselves and be proud too. In the past two years, we’ve been navigating complex situations that could not be planned for and have not been experienced in living memory and that’s the most rigorous test of all.
We have created what we call, The Culture and Change Network. My mantra is, there is no point HR making any change for HR’s sake, nor should HR be the sole change agent in an organisation, everyone, regardless of department or job role, has equal responsibility to make positive change. That’s the basis on which we created this network of people from across the business, who are trained to ensure that we deliver on these important objectives. We have a number of tools at our disposal and one is called the Change Management Palette that takes all of the input data and helps the teams optimise decisions and outcomes. Obviously, big organisational changes are fairly easy to plot, but it’s the many and varied nuances that we need to look after with equal care and attention. We all need to be able to identify changes early, assess the best approaches and deploy in good time, not after the fact.
When you hear warnings that we’re at one minute to midnight in terms of the environment, we need to double up efforts as individuals, in business operations and the wider society. We have a genuinely meaningful purpose with People. Planet. Paint. – it is our reason for being. It’s not only about doing business sustainably, it can benefit everyone and has a key role to play in our future success as a future driven company. A big part of that is to build responsibility and care into the people who are responsible for running our sites to make a difference, however small that might be. Because of the nature of our business and the industries we serve, the environment is at the apex of our CSR commitments, but that cannot be relied upon without the care, awareness and input of individuals and, here again, role-modelling is so important.
They keep saying that this is a time for change, but I cannot remember a time in my career where change took some time off. Admittedly, it does seem to be faster and more profound, but my opinion is change is not about disruption, it’s about momentum. There is nothing more damaging for a business, a career, a relationship or indeed a life, than to repeat the same old mistakes again and again. From a forward strategy, it is more difficult to plan say, five or ten years ahead. But perhaps in the past, that was the wrong approach anyway. In the modern era, if all sights are set too far ahead, you can eventually arrive irrelevant to the set of circumstances prevalent for the time and there are an awful lot of industry leading businesses that have drifted from the front of the curve to the back because of that. From an HR point of view, there is always much to do, but a constant focus is attracting and retaining talent. The job market is so frenetic and that it is a challenge for all businesses cannot be overemphasised. But, I’m convinced that if you do the right things with real conviction and authenticity around the employee experience, the positivity radiates from the organisation out to the wider world. We’ve talked about having those moments that matter, those are things that resonate and that people remember. It’s these elements that really matter when it comes to talent in these ultra-transparent times, in which no business can get away with inauthenticity and not deliver on promises. We need to be visible through engaged people, brand ambassadors and we need not to be afraid of social media, if we are wholeheartedly doing the right things consistently. That’s the journey that we are on.
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