Either way you look at it, Riccardo Meloni has faced some key challenges. A business in the hard hit government security and defence markets, merging Italians with English and Americans, and being asked to move resources into, not only new, unchartered territories, but new markets too. Jason Spiller expected to interview a man that has aged 20 years in the past two, but Meloni is clearly in possession of an elixir of youth.
Riccardo Meloni is HR Director of SELEX Galileo, in the defence and security electronics. He is responsible for resourcing for the future needs, the future of which lies in diversification and new, emerging territories. Jason Spiller interviewed at the organisation’s London HQ. Photography by Gary Batchelor.
Riccardo, can you begin by giving us a brief overview of SELEX Galileo? SELEX Galileo has an expertise in defence and security electronics, and also provides systems for space applications. We have, roughly, about 7000 people, largely based in the UK and Italy, with a strategic presence in the US. Surveillance and situational awareness are our core competencies and we offer sensors and complete systems that boost the awareness of end users in armed forces, civil, defence and security roles. Key for us is staying cutting edge in the technology that drives these markets, and we invest a huge amount,15 percent of revenues, which in 2009 was about EUR 1.7 Billion, back into research and development.
Take us back to University in Perugia back in your home country of Italy, your law degree and what were your first moves into work? I got my law degree in 1984, and my original ambition was to become a judge, this was my dream and I think that this strong sense of justice remained inside of me and is helping me to advance my work in HR, right up today. My first thought was, of course, to become a lawyer and I went into practice, but I had high aspirations and took the very difficult course of becoming a judge. In Italy, as anywhere, it’s a very demanding ambition. It required a long period of study and I tried my hardest, passed two exams, but failed the third. Of course, I was very disappointed, but I started to contact companies to pursue law commercially. But after some corporate experience, I decided HR really started to appeal. This was the mid 1980s and the typical careers were legal office or HR, which in Italy was much needed and desired at the time.
Was HR different back then in Italy to what it is now? How did your interest evolve? HR usually takes the form and style that is needed to best support the size and ambition of the business. During the 1980s, globalisation started to take off in Europe and generated a lot of new opportunities in HR careers. HR is very different today, in terms of the technicalities and alignment with business, but the basics are pretty much the same. For me, my interest was in organisation and people development, I started to work in this department: this began to evolve my interest in HR as a vocation. Another significant area of development was to be progressively involved with trade unions, which were very prevalent and active at this time in Italy.
I was very lucky to get a role in the largest telecoms organisation in Italy, Telecom Italia, and during the 1980’s and 1990’s it was a golden age for HR. HR and integral at this time for this organisation. As you can imagine, at the beginning of the telcoms boom, there was so much activity in resourcing, to meet the huge demands and expectations of the business and sector and, consequently, I had to rapidly develop a lot of high level skills. I was thrown in the operational strategic deep end, no question, and I spent ten years in Telecom Italia, in that most exciting boom period, learning and developing my HR capabilities on the go.
My roles changed in those years, and I had experience in regional management… I even had about six months outside of HR, working with the Chief Information Officer (CIO) of Telecom Italia. He was one of the key architects of the business systems, but his approach was totally different to the standard HR methodology. My next move was also in the telecom sector, at Wind, part of the Italian Energy National Utility ENEL group in Italy. I spent two years in charge of people management, and then left just as the telecoms bubble burst.
Your early experience was heavily involved with change and development, which is hugely absorbing and complicated, how did you get a grip on this, having had very little past experience? Being so responsible for this development was daunting, I had to get very close to the company and to understand the strategy which constantly changed – the market was so volatile and competitive. For me, it was all about getting the right talent and retaining it, which was very difficult to manage. Due to the market bubble, we ended up overpaying people to retain them and yet I was dealing with key people, practically on a daily basis, who wanted to leave the company because they had been offered something better.
To keep some form of balance and perspective was incredibly tough. And I saw that HR had to be balanced, pivotal and capable of absorbing an awful lot of pressure. It was a case of constantly stabilising – all good experience for me, embarking on this HR career, but very intense. I also realised the importance of getting total buy-in to a strategy, and sticking with it at all costs. Any deviation or wobbling could mean failure to achieve the end result.
You got out of telecoms just before the .com bubble burst, what was the real reason for the collapse, do you think? Unrealistic growth and expectations, over-inflated value, not aligning with the needs of customers, and over- saturation of suppliers. There were four or five different networks in each city – Rome itself had five different networks. At Wind, some of the senior colleagues were saying it was too much, too early – and that an explosion was inevitable. I’m willing to admit when I am wrong and I thought they were being too cautious and should capitalise on the growth. So I learnt an important lesson, and I truly believe now you have to be prudent in analysing the new businesses. And it could all easily happen again. I keep reading about the over-inflated values placed on social networking sites, getting super high stock market prices, and it all sounds very familiar.
You say prudence is important, but you have to be brave and dynamic in business too? Of course, it’s a balance. I would say HR, for example, needs to always be very curious, enquiring and interested in the business. This is fundamental, and you also have to listen more than speak, and filter out the important stuff to make HR relevant and effective. Equally, you have to be interested in the individual, what makes a person tick, their aspirations. That is the real appeal of HR, and HR holds a unique position in this area. For example, a colleague will speak to their line manager in a significantly different way than HR, who they have a different relationship with, one which is more personal and holistic. I have learned much more about the business from talking to individual people rather than reading the company’s plans, this alone makes it an exciting sector above all others, in my opinion.
The individual is important, and when you are responsible for a small team, that personal relationship is, understandably, possible. But what about when you’re responsible for hundreds, if not thousands of people? HR’s influence can be achieved indirectly through establishing the correct organisation, and the messages have to be right and consistent, and the flow of communication must be two-way. But reaching out to individuals in the business and collecting these different stories is very key, and I’m still able to gain a better understanding of the business by staying, as I’ve said, curious and interested in people and what they have to say.
What appealed to you about your current post as HR Director of SELEX Galileo? From day one, Steve Mogford was crystal clear about what he expected me to achieve, and much of my experience set would be called into play from the beginning. (Steve Mogford was CEO of SELEX Galileo until 1st January 2011. Now the role is filled by former Deputy CEO Fabrizio Giulianini). The HR objectives will naturally evolve under Mr Giulianini’s influence. First was a merger of the Italian based aspect of the business with the UK base, and we also had to focus on the relationship with the trade unions, before any work on development and policy making took place. Steve asked me to create a common corporate culture as a priority and to invest in learning, motivation and retention.
In a volatile situation of considerable change such as today, it’s HR’s job to retain the best people. Especially when the dust settles and the economy recovers, it’s important that key people haven’t walk out.
The UK HR department was already very strong and capable when I started, but even then you have get the right approach, and here my experience and sensitivity were helpful, and having a sense of judgement. This is a little different to the old Italian style of HR, which can sometimes be tougher and more controlling. Once synergy was achieved, and people felt confident and informed, then I could start putting the HR building blocks in place – the
policy making and strategic issues of integration and salary strategy. I had to set the blocks in place and guarantee consistency to achieve internal alignment and comply with the markets, and I was quite persistent from day one.
There were clear cultural and, of course, language differences, but the binding elements were commonality, a clear understanding of business needs, delivered through clear and honest communication. As usual and as expected, it wasn’t an easy process, different pressures from different environments, and there was some resistance to integration. I fought it and overcame it. Unquestionably, this was the most difficult part and it has taken until last year to finalise the key elements. But now, in terms of relationship and the common view, it’s not perfect, but we have made very good progress.
How have you set up resourcing for the ongoing needs of the business, and what challenges are you facing? It’s clear what will happen in the long term. Our business is based on large international programmes… Government, defence sectors are facing significant cuts, which will increase competition significantly. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s very clear that we must capitalise on emerging markets, as well as maintain competitiveness in our traditional markets. That alone is the significant challenge, making the business an attractive employer in our non-traditional markets and maintaining competitiveness in traditional markets. And so planning the resourcing for our plans for 2011 and beyond is a two-pronged strategy. It’s time to innovate! If you launch the right product, at the right time in our markets, it can change a company significantly and very quickly. But we need to be more competitive with the emerging markets and geographically, there’s immense potential in emerging nations and markets. In these circumstances, HR is one of the big value sectors. I look back at my telecom experience, and recall that if you focus short term, you tend to be too tactical in HR issues. I like broad HR, strategic plans, which can really show HR’s alignment.
How much is analytics and how much is about gut feeling, when deciding on a course of action? And how do you plan resources for the unknown, for example new markets? Of course, it’s a mix! You need a clinical approach to understand the figures, but you need intuition equally, and adopt a pragmatic approach. At the moment we have three key geographical areas that we are focusing on and each requires a unique approach and it requires awareness and qualitative data. Our global sales force is the leading edge of the business, while our technology and engineering follows customer needs. In terms of new territories therefore, it’s all about understanding culture, from the ground not from records and data. There’s a lot going on now, with the business model, changing in the UK market, and new territories to compete in, such as Brazil, India and Saudi Arabia, diverse cultures requiring different approaches.
Even the US is a very different culture and it comes with its own challenges. The US is a strategic customer and our in-country operation is a key part of approaching that market, but harmonising the US part of the business with the UK and Italian parts is challenging. I am finding that you need to tread carefully with the business we acquired there. You can’t just immediately assume that you can win plaudits and influence things, you have to be balanced. It can be frustrating when you are unable to progress quickly, you have to be strategic from the beginning. Of course, in due time it is likely that we will be able to work together on common issues. At the moment though, we are in the starting stages of working together, and I am in the early process of learning about the US culture and, in return, working to win their trust.
Do you think global expansion will be increasingly seen as the route map for future business? I think it’s inevitable – compulsory if businesses want to compete. When I started in Finmeccanica in 2001, the company was very much an Italian firm that served Italian markets. Nowadays it’s one of the biggest defence companies in the world, with 41 percent of its employees working outside of Italy and customers globally. With respect to my HR role, this is exciting as it gives me constant opportunities to learn something new and meet people with completely different perspectives.
Do you think HR itself is still changing to meet modern challenges? Yes, I think there are impactful elements externally and internally, which could further change HR – managing the new generation, new graduates, it’s totally different in terms of motivation, the use of technology. In terms of learning it’s challenge for HR, in the national and export markets, but the key issues remain intact, those surrounding engagement, retention and the core transactionals. A good example is the perception of work/life balance, totally different to the 1970s and 80s. The role of trade unions are totally different, but also in Italy they are starting to understand they have to change their approach. In Italy, trade union influence is decreasing, meaning that the unions themselves must change their approach in order to move forward with the business.
How would you compare trade unions in Italy with those in the UK? I think the UK trade unions are very different form the Italians. My feeling is trade unions in the UK are partners of the business; in the UK Unions are focused on challenging the Company on the key strategic themes. Of course, they won’t agree with everything the employer proposes but that is part of the challenge, isn’t it.
How reactive can HR be, when following the long-term strategy? The key element is to keep HR very close to the business and its strategy, this allows HR to understand immediately the business needs and to react in a timely and strategic way. If you adopt this position you can be fast and effective. It’s not a matter of power it’s a matter of effectiveness.
Do you think that this also applies to UK businesses? UK businesses need to keep HR in mind when planning strategy so that they can make changes happen. They need to put their trust in HR teams so that they can be responsible for carrying out the wishes of the organisation.
You have said sales are the cutting blade of this business, but you are also responsible for technicians and engineers etc – all very different profiles – how do you adopt policies to suit all? My former experience in telecoms has been invaluable. The most important commonality is the products, and from the technicians and engineers throughout the organisation, the passion for the products is unquestionable. The technology is exciting and passion fuels engagement, and so that is a significant driver of engagement and motivation. Of course, our various programmes are very different for each environment and discipline. But imagine a young engineer after his degree, coming into our company and working on leading edge technologies and products such as radars, UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), sensors, space payloads? They are, of course, immediately engaged and very passionate.
How would you say you have changed as an individual and an HR practitioner? I'm definitely less idealistic than the young law graduate coming out of Perugia. You change a lot, of course, for better and worse. What I haven’t changed is my sense of fairness and justice, I’m happy to say – and most importantly, the way I use my power in a senior HR role.
An HR director can use their power to enforce their role. For me this is negative. Yes you must exercise your strengths and control, yes you will be close to the CEO and the business, but if you misuse your power in the wrong way, in such a sensitive, reactive field as human resources, you could cause serious damage. It’s important to understand that you have a powerful role, but you must use it to improve the people and the company they work for. A lot of powerful roles are based on fear. I don’t think that’s acceptable or at all useful.
What are your ambitions now? There are a lot of HR directors that, when they are successful, tend to get ambitious for the top job, I don’t feel this ambition! I think that to be a CEO of the company is very difficult, you need the right characteristics, and even if you are the best HR in the world, it doesn’t translate that you will be the best CEO in the world. I don’t think I need to change roles significantly, although I’m always open to new challenges and I have a great interest in ICT and Quality. I think the people in a company need to do what is close to their real, core capabilities.
In the past people got to the top of businesses due to certain capabilities, but leadership is different, it’s not necessarily about your technical capabilities. I would rather stick with HR and be the best I can possibly be, walk closely with the customer, really understand the people that do the work, and compare my knowledge with the other top guys in the field.
Would you say you understand people fully? Every day I discover something unexpected in managing people. People are able to surprise me every day even after all my twenty years in HR. You manage similar situations but people are always different and invariably, something new is thrown up. I like to constantly challenge myself, gain an intimate knowledge of the business. And the last thing I would want in my career is predictability.