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Interview

In these times of uncertainty, familiarity is a powerful feeling and a comforting reminder. 

Fulya, tell us about why you decided to pursue a career in HR.  

Well, from a very young age, I didn’t particularly want a predictable, life-long one-dimensional career. What I wanted was diversity and to take advantage of opportunity when it presented itself. That meant breaking the mould when it comes to the usual career path and relying on learning and experience to take me on the journey. I have to say, as a career, it generally has panned out how I’d hoped it would and I’ve worked for some great international brands along the way and each one has enriched my knowledge and experience set, including; P&G, Merck, BAT, PepsiCo, McCormick and now pladis, of course. It’s also been a life of exploring different sectors and geographies, which I cannot recommend enough, through which I’ve been lucky to learn and experience different cultures. Along the way, I’ve worked in; North America, Korea, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Turkey and now in the UK. Unquestionably, the key to a diversely experienced career is not to box yourself in and be easily categorised, so that you end up in a groove, which inevitably turns into a rut. I actually began my career working in finance for a couple of years, then worked in marketing and commercial roles and began to move towards general management. At our group company, Yildiz Holding, I was the General Manager of Turkey’s biggest dried food culinary operations for three years. That gave me huge learning opportunities and insights into the whole supply chain and how you manage a complex operations. That business was sold to Ajinomoto a few years ago and that led to a different role for me at pladis Headquarters in the UK, as Chief of Staff. After 18 months in pladis, I moved into the CHRO role, so finding the profession has taken some time. I’ll be very honest and say I never set out to be in HR at all. But everything I have done and every single role, has demonstrated to me over and over again, that every element and operation of a business, no matter how technically and digitally advanced, points back to people. AI is driving our world and the way we work, but a business is nothing without human beings.

Your career has taken you to many different parts of the world, explain how those different cultures and your experiences with people, have shaped your approach to being HR Director at pladis?  

Whatever walk of life you’re in, whether commercial or non-profit, the people who are most effective are trusted and respected for their capacity for empathy and that is developed through having a rich and diverse set of experiences. The very worst thing that can happen is that you end up in a company where everyone looks and thinks the same… and you feel like you fit in perfectly. I always recommend if somebody asks me if they should take that job abroad, to seize the opportunity and absorb and experience all they can about the place and the people. It is the most impactful way to have an open mind. I’ve always found different human behaviours fascinating. When I studied for my PhD, I wrote a thesis on cultural intelligence and this gave me a great theoretical framework, but you really need to go out there and experience it to truly understand.

Tell us about pladis and what is it about the culture which is so compelling.  

 I’ve been with the Yildiz Holding group for a decade, but with pladis only for the past three years – pladis’ holding group is Yildiz Holding and that is how I joined the business. So the company is actually relatively new, but with world famous heritage brands – some of which have been around for decades, even centuries – including McVitie’s, Jacob’s, Carr’s, Jaffa Cakes, Ülker and many other brands in Europe, such as BN and Verkade, plus Flipz and Turtles in North America. It’s an organisation of many people from different backgrounds and it is this diversity that marks the business as being ahead of the diversity imperative – it has long understood what a strength it is to have a diverse range of thought, opinion and experience, long before the mainstream were forced along that line. Our products and brands reflect the many different geographies, cultures and nationalities that we sell our products to and this all adds to a truly international mindset. This also provides huge cultural exposure and learning to colleagues and the learning never stops when it comes to culture.

What does HR represent for pladis?  

Well first, any business that thinks that the changes in work mean that HR can be sidestepped is on a slippery slope. Unless HR is in the centre, no employer can compete, however cool and desirable their product and brand. We are a young company that was formed by bringing many brands together and so HR is particularly important at pladis, because it’s at the heart of establishing one culture. It’s championing this drive to bring all this together, respecting local cultures, backgrounds and tastes and establishing one company with a similar set of values and purpose. The objective is to have all geographies connected to this.

You speak of geographies, tell us about the scale of the business and what do you think are the big challenges?  

 We have 25 bakeries – which is how we term our factories – globally and the scale is pretty amazing, with our products reaching four billion consumers. HR has incredible reach to every single function from manufacturing to sales, marketing, logistics and deliveries – a real end-to-end operation in the truest sense. When you work in a global company of this scale, leaders need to formulate a common strategy for the company. First of all, defining our common purpose was a massive piece of work and connects to common values – why do we exist and how should we all interact and behave with each other, our customers and the wider world? These are the fundamental issues that create organisations that can last. Alongside this, it is the responsibility of leaders to define the strategy and that it is clearly defined and articulated. It’s a well-worn cliché, but it’s always best to over-communicate and, through that, build relations across borders, which in turn builds synergy, understanding and empathy – the trinity of foundations for good global management.

Because of your business-focused background, you have come into HR quite late in your career, with a very commercial experience-set. Has that helped you in this senior HR strategy role?  

I see the commercial imperative and the people agenda as two clearly important foundations and I have a foot in both the business elements of; product, brand and meeting customer expectations, as well as meeting the safety & wellbeing needs, expectations and aspirations. If you look in any one of our bakeries, the level of technology is incredible and yet, as technology has superseded human effort and input in many ways – it has of course brought greater efficiency in output and performance – but it has also increased the value of people in more cerebral and creative elements of the business. Technology changes all the time, but the humanity in businesses like pladis has greater influence and value and that is a really encouraging outcome for the future. From an HR perspective, I can really call on my background and experience, as I come from the frontline and I have a well-rounded understanding of the business needs, plus a lot of exposure to consumer-led functions. So, bringing that knowledge and working with a team of experts in our people function, we can plan our human resources in such a way that it is helping our brands to succeed and grow. In terms of the general business model, we are actively moving towards our objective to establish a globally-defined business, reaching out further and faster than ever and HR is in every single part of the major decision-making… it really helps to have the ear of the CEO, who places people as the top priority.

What has stood out for you as being more of a challenge than you expected, along the way?  

Well, there have been a number of challenges along the way, but then COVID-19 hit and blew everything out of the water. This will probably be the biggest humanitarian crisis in our lifetime, so it puts the other obstacles and challenges into perspective. Paradoxically, however, this crisis has brought people together with a heightened sense of empathy, compared to where we were before the pandemic where uniting people was a vexing challenge. So, in spite of the tragic and disruptive impacts of COVID-19, if it teaches us to be more considerate and to look out for one another, then some positives can come out of what is an otherwise difficult time. I’m sure like me, your readers will have been inspired by how people have adapted and carried on and that really should inform employers about what their people represent.

Talent and skills have been in short supply for some time and although your brands are well known, pladis as an employer brand is less so. So how do you compete with the better-known brands that draw talent through awareness?  

The answer is, you don’t compete on brands alone, that will not attract or keep talent. Of course, people are attracted to working with our exciting, heritage brands that they already know and love, but any business must be, above all, people-centric. That means inspiring and offering exciting careers and understanding the drivers of ambition and aspiration, then providing the tools, training and opportunity to not be stuck in a one role groove. Increasingly, it is important not to train and develop people to fit a particular role – nobody wants to be pigeonholed and left to stagnate – they want to be challenged and stretched and often now that means changing track altogether. It’s also about creating a culture that is built on inclusivity and diversity. I’m extremely passionate about supporting people to go and work with different cultures in other geographies and build that connectivity and cohesion between colleagues across the business. If you truly and consistently support all of this, the positivity beams out of the business, from experiential perspectives that create common purpose and innovation.

As this pandemic readjusts its grip, what are your immediate thoughts and concerns?  

I should imagine it was very similar to your readers – as HR Director, it’s the safety and wellbeing of people, supporting everyone and providing answers to concerns. The crisis has also been the sternest test of purpose and values, because you can’t manage a crisis through hierarchy, it’s not until a real challenge presents itself, that you can truly gauge how well you have done there. During the pandemic, we have been really tested, but I’m very proud that by having an agile,  resilient and flat organisation – where everyone works together, we have managed to fulfil orders and keep the nation fed and we are coming through it even more connected as a company. Like your readers I’m sure, I’ve been really impressed by people’s stoicism, loyalty, resourcefulness and innovation. That seems to be the message that is coming out again and again and it’s one of the big positives, as we begin to emerge from this crisis. The other big win has been the tremendous pride in people and their respect for our much-loved and renowned brands. A part of that pride comes from heritage, take McVitie’s, at over 180 years old it has seen it all – two world wars, a previous pandemic and a global depression – and I believe, in this context, heritage is a fundamental component to the present and future. It’s lineage and we’re all so proud of our brands and our history. When the going gets tough, a biscuit really can make the world seem a better place. What has also been a great boost has been our people helping out with charities including; the NHS, care homes and helping to support essential workers. They have used our social network platforms to post stories and pictures of their experiences and that has been a very important part of our journey through these times. As for my HR team, this has been a challenging time and they have all coped well with their own difficulties, whilst providing unstinting support and help for our people. It’s a time where HR has to be at its best… and they have been. I’m very proud to see the function that I’m leading has really shone and demonstrated fully that we have a very resilient team of people, where positivity prevails.

In general, HR has come through this crisis having gained good plaudits. I believe that this deep challenge has proved beyond all doubt the importance of people and good HR management. You can go through the ups and downs in life and wonder how you would cope with a real crisis, but this has tested us to the limits and I think we have excelled. It has really turned the light back on the  importance of humanity in a commercial context. This has been the time to show the best of humanity, when we’re all fighting against an unknown and unseen threat and it has definitely brought the best out of the people function and put diversity, inclusion and equality at the front of the stage. We have always been committed to inclusion and diversity in this organisation and this is what drew me here. Given all my experience in life and my passion for working with different cultures, it has always been clear to me that pladis truly operates in this way. But the mistake many make is, you cannot take it for granted and leave it to chance. You have to work at it and keep moving the agenda on. Recently, during lockdown – and in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests – our Global CEO, Salman Amin, held a company-wide townhall session, where colleagues from all around the business joined in. Many shared their experiences and stories and it was very moving, we all learnt a great deal about people’s different experiences. We are in the process of formulating our roadmap to push the inclusion and diversity agenda even further and this is very high on Salman’s priorities. We also recently launched our e-learning platform during the pandemic and have included unconscious bias training, which will be a continuous programme, ensuring that we’re creating awareness as we build for the future. I cannot perceive a business that does not have diversity at the top of the agenda. If, like us, you have billions of consumers around the world, how can you not have an organisation that reflects that?

Do you think good progress is being made?  

Politically, one could be forgiven for thinking that currently, it’s one step forward and two steps back. Definitely, the world is becoming more aware that we have a challenge ahead of us and we need to work hard at it. We cannot take things for granted, we cannot be comfortable and numbed to what we see when it is wrong. As exemplified by Black Lives Matter, we’re seeing that this is not a moment, it is a movement and we all have a part to play, no matter how big or small. As businesses and employers of people, we must create an environment where differences are celebrated and that starts with education and listening. We have a chance now to build back better and, just because something is hard and seems impervious to change, that isn’t the sign to quit, it means, try harder.

Manufacturing is such a fascinating world and demonstrates how machine technology can take the repetitive jobs out of human hands. How does that reflect on the skills that you need and must develop, with the future and constant change in mind?  

 The world is indeed constantly changing and fast. In its wake, all industries and businesses are reacting and changing. So we have to stay relevant and, in order to be at the forefront of innovation, we do need talent that can develop because, what you knew yesterday will inevitably not be relevant at some near point in the future. That goes back to developing people with diverse skills and providing a variety of experiences. My career started many years ago in finance and here I am, a Chief Human Resources Officer for a global company. Each and every day, I have felt stretched and challenged and I want to do all I can to offer these kinds of possibilities for the colleagues who are coming up behind me. Diversity of experience has come up often in this interview and there is a good reason for that. Increasingly, our talent demands that and it’s our responsibility to provide every opportunity, to enable and support that ambition.

In a work sense, this crisis has been called a catalyst for building back to a new normal. What does this opportunity represent?  

We all need to think about and reflect upon on how we’ve been operating for generations. People have been under constant pressure, juggling their personal lives and their work lives. The ratio has been out of kilter, we’ve been time poor and, unsurprisingly, this has led to underperformance and disengagement. The big learning is that speed of action and agility are fundamental to constant change and we must always expect the unexpected. That the world knew that a pandemic was inevitable one day – but had nothing planned and ready to deal with it – speaks volumes. There’s that very famous phrase that anyone can manage when things are good, but the real test of good leaders is when things are tough… no question that right now, it’s tough. I think this crisis casts a light across what it means to be a leader as we go forward. If you’re not going to shine, if you’re not going rise and put people at the top of your agenda and move forward with clarity, determination and positivity, then don’t sign up. When things look bleak, the fundamental role of leadership is to instil confidence and hope in people, lead with authenticity and walk the talk.

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