Ann Marr, VP, Global Human Resources, World Wide Technology, shares a checklist for HR leaders, including being proactive to employees’ expectations, and having the habit of always improving.
Q What are the biggest lessons you have learned on your way up and across the career ladder?
Being one of 13 kids, embarking on a human resources career was inevitable. I was always communicating and doing my part in creating a pleasant environment for that many people from a young age.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt in my career is to never be afraid to take risks. Prior to joining WWT 22 years ago, I was working in human resources for one of the largest car rental companies in the US. Upon meeting the founders of WWT (Dave Steward and Jim Kavanaugh) and hearing their vision for the company, I knew I wanted to be part of such a team, despite it being a start-up then.
Rather than being fearful that I was inheriting a single part-time HR employee and a non-existent HR policy, I saw it as an opportunity to create a culture of inclusion and collaboration from ground up. Growing up, I saw the value of functional teams first hand especially having to cook for my large family and the many guests who would join us for dinner. The good food and energy I experienced defined me as a person, and I wouldn’t have been able to cultivate the award-winning, family culture WWT has today if I didn’t take risks. Always be brave and bold.
Q What are some leadership best practices that have proved evergreen?
The best HR leaders are those who recognise the impact culture has on an organisation’s success and overall health. After all, employees are an organisation’s greatest asset, and they are more likely to give their utmost best at work when feeling included, empowered and positive. With offices all over the world, WWT’s strength comes from its diverse, international workforce.
The first step in creating a good culture, and in turn a great workplace, is to lay the necessary foundations, such as core values. WWT’s core values, THE PATH, are at the centre of all we do at the company and it helps employees understand exactly the kind of culture that we strive for.
The first step in creating a good culture, and in turn a great workplace, is to lay the necessary foundations, such as core values.
Next, HR leaders must understand that maintaining a good culture is a job for every employee. As such, efforts must be made to educate employees about the role they play in being custodians of culture and how it benefits the company. WWT achieves this by organising global cultural awareness and diversity and inclusion initiatives for all employees across its offices worldwide. Sustaining a culture is especially important when organisations grow rapidly and expand aboard. During grow periods, new employees must understand the culture already in place and take ownership in order to reinforce it.
Lastly, think long term. It takes time for a culture to be established and to see results. HR leaders must create one that is sustainable in the long run. Employees are attracted to cultures that they can believe in and understand how it impacts their lives. Changing a culture too frequently will not only leave employees confused but also unsettle them in their belief in the company. This could lead to employee turnover.
Q Given how rampantly leadership is being disrupted, how have you seen the needs from HR leaders change in recent years?
The role of HR has become more complex than ever.
From an operations point of view, technology has freed HR leaders from administrative tasks to focus their energies on higher-value work such as employee engagement and culture strengthening. To achieve success, HR leaders are expected to be data-savvy to make better, informed decisions and leverage predictive analytics to assess everything from recruitment, employee retention to HR initiatives. At a time when the global talent race is accelerating rapidly, such technology will be a key factor in differentiating the best from the rest.
With employees providing organisations their competitive advantage, HR leaders are also expected to be more proactive and more flexible and responsive to employees’ expectations. As part of this, there is a need to proactively understand the needs, aspirations and motivations of their employees, and find ways to ensure they are happy, while at the same time, constantly integrating a diverse, multi-generational workforce that is driving business outcomes. For some organisations, such an important, value-adding role has given HR leaders a seat at the C-suite table.
With employees providing organisations their competitive advantage, HR leaders are also expected to be more proactive and more flexible and responsive to employees’ expectations.
In a sense, HR leaders are also expected to take a leaf out of their marketing peer’s book to create effective employer brand messaging. Such messaging is what convinces prospects to pick your organisation over competitors and can also be used as reminders to current employees about the company’s culture.
Q In this backdrop, what does the mindset of a good leader look like to you?
The mindset of a good leader is one who understands the responsibilities that come with such a position, along with the habit of always improving.
Back in 2007, WWT was affected by the subprime mortgage crisis in the US. As the HR leader of the company, it was my responsibility to minimize the impact of this economic downturn for the company, and this was achieved by freezing hiring and pay raises for a year. However with that, not a single employee was laid off, and we even ramped up training for our staff so that when the economy came back, the company would be able to hit the ground running right away. A great leader is one who deeply cares for their employees and does everything in his or her power to look after them. Looking back, I’m very relieved to know I didn’t need to layoff anyone during such a challenging time.
In a world that’s only going to get increasingly competitive, HR leaders must never rest on their laurels, and they must constantly ask themselves how are they adding value to the business or how can they add even more? The best organisations are those that attract and retain the best employees, and HR leaders are the main drivers in achieving such goals.
In a world that’s only going to get increasingly competitive, HR leaders must never rest on their laurels, and they must constantly ask themselves how are they adding value to the business or how can they add even more?
One method to inculcate mindset into employees is by investing in leadership initiatives and programs. Organisations with international presence must be mindful about local nuances and rely on local leaders to customise employee training programs, but at the same time, ensure these programs contain the leadership philosophies of the company.
This interview was published in Human Resources Online’s January-February 2020 edition of the Singapore magazine and will soon be published in the Q1 edition of the Malaysia magazine.
Photo / provided