The role of global HR director is the pinnacle of achievement for HR, but what does the job entail? Jane Lewis profiles four international HR directors about their typical working weeks
Vance Kearney, vice-president of HR Europe, Middle East and Africa, Oracle
As HR director for Oracle EMEA, Vance Kearney has responsibility for some 14,000 employees across 36 countries. But he combines this international position with that of heading HR in the UK – a dual role he considers important.
"You need to be in touch with the sharp end. I have regional HR directors, but they each have a country too. If you have to set policy, you should also have to implement it."
The set-up can result in difficult dilemmas, though. For example, Oracle UK spent some time developing a HR system, including telephone directory and CV searching capabilities. "We tried to take this customised system and implement it in 36 countries, but the development work was too much. So we took the decision to stop putting effort into our local system and put our resources into the international system."
That meant extra manual work for staff in the UK and understandably there was some concern about taking a seemingly retrograde step. But Kearney claims an important part of his function is in educating employees to understand they work in a global company. He says, "It was a case of saying, ‘Look guys, it’s great you have this customised system, but it isn’t helping our colleagues in the Middle East and Africa’."
At present, much of Kearney’s time is taken up with redefining international reporting structures and rolling out the latest version of Oracle’s HR system across the EMEA region. This is partly because the roll-out has forced the HR function to re-examine its business processes. "If we can successfully standardise our practices, then we can take them to the Internet. We are trying to harmonise job and compensation structures, although we tend to run benefits locally."
But this belies the complexity of an operation that has to take into account many local legal, cultural and language issues. Kearney himself speaks no other languages, "Like most English people, I’m useless. But then I’m making my career in a US multinational, not a German one."
The biggest daily headache, he contends, is having to deal with international time differences. "The UK working day is coming to an end as West Coast USA is waking up. So if you want to get things done in real time, you have to work evenings." If he needs to make a conference call with colleagues in the US and Asia Pacific the only available time is 10pm [GMT], which is 2pm US time and 4am in Asia Pacific.
Travel is clearly a large part of his job. Kearney acknowledges the impossibility of maintaining close contact with 36 individual operations, and says he tends to focus his efforts on regional headquarters. But he’s nonetheless usually on a plane somewhere at least once a week. "I was in Dublin last week, and the week before in Rome."
A seasoned international HR professional, Kearney previously put in stints at the Rolls-Royce Group and Standard Telephones and Cables (now Northern Telecom). What has been the main lesson learnt from working globally? "When you work in the UK you’ve got only one environment and you can pretty much instruct people what to do. That doesn’t work when you’re operating globally. You can’t impose a solution, you have to get fairly creative. You need strong, positive leadership to take people with you. You can’t do it with a stick. You’ve got to inspire people with a vision."
Russell Martin, European head of HR, Thomson Financial
Russell Martin got his first international assignment when he began his four-year stint as global HR head at Primark – a company specialising in providing financial information to markets across the world. However, he found his remit curtailed when Primark merged with the Canadian giant Thomson Financial in September.
In terms of the numbers of employees, this was an unsurprising development. Primark employed 3,500 employees at 60 offices worldwide; Thomson has about 12,000. Martin, who was head of HR at National Provincial before he joined Primark, plans to see through the merger in Europe before heading to pastures new in February.
He says his job has proved a useful personal learning curve. "As a company we work 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. The main thing I’ve learnt from working internationally is never to be surprised. There’s always something that’s going to come up – and it usually involves cultural issues rather than administrative ones such as local taxes. Cultural nuances are much more difficult to quantify and deal with intellectually."
His strategy has been to give local offices as much autonomy as possible within a cogent framework of company practice. "It is important that critical success factors, competencies and so on are uniform. People need to be treated in a consistent manner, but absolute figures might change according to local conditions."
Martin believes a real understanding of how the company operates in its different territories can be gleaned only by extensive travelling. "It’s amazing how much difference it makes to your understanding. I’ve been to India twice and just being able to touch the atmosphere and appreciate the physical reality of the office makes it easier to understand how people work."
A challenge he hasn’t had to deal with is how to operate in territories in which the normal business modus operandi would raise eyebrows in the West. "Because of the type of business we do, we tend to operate in mature markets, so I haven’t been involved in a situation where you have to give back-handers to government officials to massage a business."
Martin believes the role of the HR function has shifted significantly over the past few years: "You only have to look at the calibre of people in the marketplace. The profile of the whole profession has changed."
But he argues that HR will never achieve a truly credible status at the centre of global organisations unless it provides some solid methods for measuring people skills and their tangible impact on the financial health of companies. "HR needs the ability to benchmark itself. If we can come up with a credible means of doing that, the profession will go forward."
Ron Collard, global leader for people systems, PricewaterhouseCoopers
Ron Collard admits to a slightly schizophrenic existence. "I have a day job and night job. The day job is UK HR leader, the night job is global leader for our people systems implementation project."
This interesting division stems from PWC’s decision to abandon any overall global HR position in favour of splitting the function between the HR directors of individual country partnerships.
"We don’t have an all-round international role. We did have a global HR leader, but we dismantled it," says Collard. So while Collard is in charge of global systems, another country HR director handles worldwide recruitment.
Despite this relatively flexible structure, PWC retains a global outlook on core competencies and performance management, and there is a global framework in place to ensure they are consistent. This was critical in the aftermath of Price Waterhouse’s £8bn merger with Coopers & Lybrand, which created the largest accountancy practice in the world, with staff numbers running to 150,000.
However, the process of integration was not entirely smooth. Attempts to unify pay, benefits and performance management have been resisted in some Coopers & Lybrand outposts. This might account for the company’s determination to keep as much of the day-to-day HR operation as possible in the grasp of its country partnerships.
Nonetheless, the PeopleSoft system Collard is masterminding will clearly go some way towards knitting together disparate groups. But a softly-softly approach is still necessary. "We might decide to roll it out globally, but we still have to sell it into local countries. In a global project, the ‘tell’ approach doesn’t work. There are challenging questions about managing cultural differences and understanding decision-making processes."
The capacity for misunderstanding between different countries can be huge, he maintains, even when there are no clear language barriers. The cliché of the US and the UK being divided by a common language remains true.
Collard spends about 20 per cent of his time planning the international roll-out, with the remaining 80 per cent devoted to his HR role in the UK, where he is responsible for some 20,000 employees. The dominant issues here are the same as in other country partnerships: merging the two businesses, re-engineering processes and developing people strategies.
He faces further challenges too following PWC’s decision to spin off its consultancy business from its core accounting activities.
"Having put all that together, we’ve now got to start breaking it up," Collard says. But again the watchword is caution. Collard is keen to avoid the bitter wrangle that rival Andersen experienced when it split along similar lines. "We are doing an Andersen but, we hope, in a far friendlier way."
André van Heemstra, global head of HR, Unilever
Although he is ultimately responsible for about 300,000 employees worldwide, André van Heemstra is the first to admit that his main breadth of experience does not lie in HR. "I’m very new to it," he says. "I trained as a lawyer and worked first in marketing at Unilever, then in general management."
But these roles certainly deepened his understanding of how the company works as a global, yet local, organisation. "I’ve worked in Kenya, Turkey and Germany. My last job was as business group president for the East Asia and Pacific Group."
From an operational point of view, much of the daily running of the HR function in Unilever is handled by the managers at its 12 separate business groups, which have their own regional structure. "I’m not hierarchically responsible for the HR family throughout the concern," says van Heemstra. "We are a service department. Our customer is the line manager. We’re only there to see that the human asset is functioning properly." Nonetheless, he convenes quarterly meetings between the senior vice-presidents of the 12 business groups and the corporate HR group. A usual theme is discussions about organisational transformation.
In fact, van Heemstra views his overall remit very much as a "transformational" role. He claims the essence of people management is to keep pace with external change. "When we look at the behavioural and cultural aspects of our organisation, they can have a tremendous impact on business success. One has to be proactive and ahead of the game."
The issue preoccupying him most at present is the changing career perspective of the average employee. "There’s been a marked switch in what people perceive as quality of life. They want to find a more appropriate balance between their working and private lives."
He also notes that the rising generation of employees has a markedly different attitude to Unilever. "There’s a different perspective with regard to loyalty. We’re seeing people who are less loyal to the company and more loyal to how they build their own careers."
They expect to learn at Unilever, he says, but equally reserve the right to take these skills elsewhere. This kind of shift clearly necessitates a different approach to HR, and it has to be handled with sensitivity. In an ideal world, says van Heemstra, you want to encourage employees who leave to consider returning at a later stage with the skills they’ve learnt elsewhere.
Nonetheless, he stresses the importance of maintaining a definite Unilever culture across the world. "We work hard at this. It’s a set of universal values. Everyone who works for Unilever has to adhere to them."
His own routine runs to a fairly fixed schedule, alternating between the company’s two main headquarters. "My week starts in Rotterdam and mostly ends in London," he explains.
In recent weeks much of his time has been taken up fine-tuning the people aspect of Unilever’s merger with Best Foods – a deal that saw the addition of brands such as Knorr, Hellmann’s, Skippy and Mazola to the Unilever portfolio. Integrating this type of substantial operation within the existing Unilever framework calls for some juggling, despite van Heemstra’s insistence that there was a strong degree of synergy between the two. From a global perspective, he’s been involved in plotting the strategic aspects of the merger. "But I’ve also been involved in my capacity as a personnel director, overseeing the integration of the organisations, developing processes and designing remuneration packages."