A business background will help an HR professional to make quicker decisions as he is able to anticipate what is going on
Olivier Blum joined Schneider Electric in 1993 and began his career as a Marketing Engineer. He was appointed Executive Vice President of the Retail Division Globally in 2012. Since September 2014, he has been a member of the Executive Committee at Schneider Electric. People Matters caught up with him on his visit to India. In this interview, he talks about the changing role of HR, how diversity can be a paradigm shift and how to build a talent pipeline.
With over 22 years of working in Schneider, you have now transitioned from a business role to the HR role. How does that help? What is the ideal mix?
Wherever you are in the world today, be it in India or outside, the world is moving at a fast pace. From a cycle of 3-5 years of change, we have reached a stage where something is changing every three months. A business background helps you to make quicker decisions, as you are able to anticipate what is going on. It helps you to stick to your company priorities and adjust all your people-based decisions to this environment. I attribute my background for providing me with the right skills and tools for my role in HR. There is no good or bad solution for HR. I am not saying that we should have only business people coming to HR. Instead, an ideal competitive blend for HR would be a mix of true HR professionals and people from business functions.
What is the outlook for HR this year?
Globally, the biggest focus for HR will be to prepare the workforce for tomorrow with a very strong focus on leadership pipeline and diversity across the organization. For Schneider, as we have 42 per cent of our business in new economies, we are looking to build a pipeline of regional leaders while increasing gender diversity across the organization.
How are the multiple generations in the workforce changing the dynamics of the workplace?
One of the biggest examples of this change is the digital experience that a company gives to its employees. When you look at the evolution of digital technology in the last 10 years, it has impacted a number of businesses and everyone at home as well. The new generations will not accept a digital experience at work, which is different from what they have at home, as employees want to access the same data and information through mobiles, apps or other means. As global companies, we really need to expand the range of digital experiences for our employees. Our new employees are far more driven and looking for a more transparent, diverse and accessible leadership. They do not like the old traditional models of the pyramid or leadership. I think this new generation mix is a good push for the companies to make changes as well.
What are the challenges companies are facing on diversity?
Diversity is the biggest and most difficult transformation for companies worldwide. People do not like to work with people who are different from them. And it starts from there: Men like to work with men, Indians like to work with Indians and even people from Delhi like to work with people from the same city. It is basic human nature. Even when people reach out to leadership positions, they like to reach out to people like themselves, with the same language, origin and dialect as it feels easier.
However, diversity is necessary as it brings innovation, is more disruptive and brings balance. Hence, diversity is a very hard transformation as it goes against the basic human nature. The younger generation loves diverse companies as they are far more attractive and innovative. At Schneider, this is a big focus for company sponsors and since it is a big part of the business we give targets to make it happen.
In the last 21 years, both our current CEO and previous CEOs have stressed upon the need for diversity. We encourage confrontation and value differences. There are a lot of questions about gender diversity, but that is just one element of diversity. Looking at geographic diversity in Schneider, 35 per cent of our top 500 leaders come from new economies. Ten years ago, this figure was 5 per cent. Hence, on purpose, we have created the energy to identify, attract and develop people from new economies as we look to expand in India and China. We are probably the only MNC to have their global CEO based in Asia as well.
What strategies are you using at Schneider to make your workplace a cohesive environment?
We are using our young employees for almost everything we do. About 10-15 years ago, companies were using only the top leadership to decide the future of the company, but this trend is now changing. For example, when I work on the Employee Digital experience, I do it with young people and not with people who have 20-25 years of experience. Senior employees have other things that they do well, but understanding how digital affects daily life is not their cup of tea. So you need to be far more inclusive with the younger generation in the way you prepare your strategy for the future. In the traditional model, normally it takes a person 15-20 years of experience to start contributing to business strategy. On that front, we are clearly changing the way we do business. We are successful at Schneider because our leaders are true HR leaders. Everything that we do is better because our leaders spend a big part of their agenda on the people aspect. We fight more for the people than the customer at times.
What do you look for when you are hiring people? What is your advice to other HR managers?
We look for people who match our culture and value system at Schneider. We have defined a vision on what we expect from our leaders. When I interview people at senior levels, I share a document that talks about our culture and vision. It is only when we feel they are the right fit that we hire them. Our leaders have to embrace diversity as part of the culture and that is single-line criteria. My advice to HR professionals is to care for their people and take a genuine interest in them. The biggest capability I look at when hiring HR people is if they have a genuine interest in the people in their own environment. This quality forms the basis of exceptional performance in the future.