Having embarked upon one of its biggest business transformations in 2018, following the acquisition of Monsanto, here's how Bayer has redefined its purpose, strategy and culture.

With a bronze win each for the two categories of Excellence in Digital Transformation and Excellence in Business Transformation at HR Excellence Awards 2020, Singapore, the Regional HR team, Crop Science Division for APAC, Bayer reveals its winning HR strategy to create empowered teams, provide immersive experiences and focus on collaboration.

Q What is your organisation’s winning HR strategy, and what are some milestones you’ve accomplished along this journey?

In 2018, Bayer embarked upon one of its biggest business transformations following the acquisition of Monsanto, solidifying its position as the world’s largest agriculture company, which really challenged us to redefine our purpose, strategy and culture. For APAC’s Crop Science business, this came with integrating a workforce across 18 countries including operating models serving our farmer customers (ranging from big landholding farmers in Australia holding >14,000ha of land to smallholder farmers with <1ha in India and Southeast Asia).

For us in HR, this meant we had to support our business vision with a compelling people strategy to enable this journey. We thus arrived at our people purpose of 'Enabling a Giant Start Up culture' that would balance the dimensions of stability of an established organisation & dynamism of a start-up mindset.

This helped us to create an environment of rapid learning & decision cycles and experimentation and helped us to have an agile mindset with enhanced preference of adaptability over procedures.

Our three people strategy pillars all point to this north star of building an aspirational workforce and culture for the region, to meet the challenges of work, workforce and workplace:

A few of the milestones achieved at the end of year one of this journey were:

  • Structured roadmap to build a diverse team with focus on gender, nationalities & generational mix;
  • Setting up digital foundational capabilities in our top ~200 leaders;
  • Lean team setup for experimentation, prototyping & funding ideas solving business critical problems;
  • Setting the foundation for inclusive leadership in our top >350 leaders;
  • Multi-pronged communication approach to connect & share which enabled the breaking down of perceived hierarchies.

How has this strategy helped you achieve your HR priorities, and what role has the leadership played in helping make this initiative a reality?

Our people strategy is acknowledged as a key enabler towards our aspired vision & purpose. Hence having a very simple 'what' (our people purpose of “Enabling a Giant Startup” culture ) supported by a clear 'how' (our people pillars) has allowed us take the message down to every one of the 4,500 employees in the region in a consistent and impactful way. This approach helped create momentum towards a shared understanding of what we want to achieve on the people front as the company transitions and meets the aspired growth targets.

Our business leaders led this journey from the front and acted as the ambassadors of the people strategy. This ensured that the people strategy was viewed as a business priority equally important to the business revenue targets and aspirations. Understandably, this drive set a very different tone on our people intent and priorities.

Overwhelming participation to different programmes bringing leadership closer to every employee helped build our intent of lean/flat structures and employees across levels feeling empowered to share and co-create.

Unexpected roadblocks are part and parcel of executing any initiative. What were some of the barriers that you and your team experienced while rolling this out, and how did you successfully get past them?

Our people strategy is built on the fundamental requirement that one needs to learn, unlearn and relearn consistently. Like any other established company, we had built specialised processes over time and this helped us to outperform our competitors and drew the best talent. This paradigm worked well for many years but was challenged by sudden introduction of disruptive technology in our business, democratisation of data, new war for talent, importance of value protection became as important as value creation.

To overcome these challenges, we had to change our approach to make decisions and solve problems – this change of mindset to become more agile and valuing adaptability over process has been a journey.

Change in mindset is a multi-step process and takes a lot of dedication and efforts from the every quarter of the organisation. It’s not easy to make people believe that the competition in this field might not come from the current players but from companies we may not have even heard of, or don’t anticipate. Hence, it’s important for us to unlearn a lot of fixed ideas and approaches to business and people processes with an iterative mindset. This by far, has been our toughest challenge, and an area of constant reinforcement.

One of the approaches we have used to instil this thought process is not to use traditional approaches for talent development. A few examples of our success on this front whilst our journey continues:

  • Using lean team methodologies where small, empowered teams come together for accelerated decision making. This is to ensure we unlearn aspects of hierarchy and promote decision making throughout the organisation;
  • Focus on projects and immersive experiences vs. trainings as the key mode of learning. We are promoting diverse teams to come together for every project which enables us to integrate elements of inclusivity and cross-cultural collaboration as learnings with these endeavours;
  • Thinking of new approaches on collaboration with players outside of agriculture and building talent alliances to develop outside in perspectives (which is very important for idea generation). This is one area where we would like to focus more on in the near future.

As evidenced by the win, this initiative clearly delivered some amazing results. What was your gameplan for measuring ROI? What are some proud achievements you can share with us on this front?

Success & impact of any people strategy can be measured by just three key indicators: business growth, attrition and engagement scores. Whilst we may have access to additional data and metrics as descriptive indicators, these three main metrics give you an indication of whether you are heading on the right path.

One would assume, that in proceeding with such a merger and integration, results on these key metrics would be low, particularly in times of transformation. However, for us, our engagement index has been constantly above 80% over the last 12 months, our attrition <6% across the region, and, our business growth has been in double digits. This has us convinced that we are absolutely heading in the right direction of our journey.

What’s your secret to gaining stakeholder buy-in for your business and digital transformation? What are the three key messages that every HR leader must communicate to their management peers in speaking their language?

As mentioned above, we want to be a 'Giant Start Up' and that’s our aspiration. Hence, our ask to leaders and employees is to emulate this aspiration in their everyday behaviour and mindset.

If our aspiration is to serve the millions of farmers in APAC, we can’t do this manually. It has to come with a significant investment in our digital capabilities and doing things differently to stay relevant. This aspiration is what has our stakeholders and employees buy into our vison and our people strategy.

We would like every leader to reinforce:

  • We all need to be comfortable to learn, unlearn, experiment, take risks and tolerate ambiguity;
  • We need to be tolerant to failures as we innovate, but we should have no tolerance for incompetence;
  • All employees are empowered to be leaders irrespective of hierarchies to bring their best self to work.

Photo / 123RF

Read more interviews on why organisations have won trophies for their HR practices - head over to our Winning Secrets' section! 

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