HR without borders: engaging a global workforce
by Regine Buettner, Global Head of HR, DHL Express
Regine Buettner, Global Head of HR, DHL Express
Imagine for a minute that you are attending the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics in 2016. You're stood in a packed Olympic Stadium with around 90,000 people from just about every other country in the world. Apart from soaking up the atmosphere and feeling that you're part of history in the making, the main task that lies ahead of you involves coaching a group of athletes with diverse backgrounds and talents and helping them to realize their own potential.
Now what if I told you that this isn't the unique, once-every-four-years-experience you might think it is? In actual fact, it's not entirely dissimilar to working in human resources at DHL Express every day. Granted, there aren't quite so many pyrotechnics, although we do ship hazardous goods. And your achievements aren't being beamed to a worldwide audience of billions, although you are playing a behind-the-scenes role supporting trade flows to billions of end customers around the world.
What makes HR at DHL Express truly unique is that your task is to energize and bring out the best in a workforce of about 90,000 -the capacity of the Olympic Stadium - from over 220 countries and territories worldwide. That's more countries than will participate in the Olympics, more than the UN operates in and certainly more than many other companies are present in - even those who describe themselves as 'multinational'. This truly global network poses a major strategic question to the HR function: how do you foster a common organizational culture that motivates and brings out the best in everyone across such a broad, diverse workforce, whilst making sure everyone is having a best day, every day?
This question has been particularly crucial to DHL over the last 5-6 years, for a number of reasons. First of all, our business model and service offering - where customers rely on the same high quality of service and uniform international shipping processes wherever they interact with our company anywhere in the world - means that we have to establish a 'network mentality' throughout the organization, where every individual feels equally accountable for service and performance. Secondly, a loss-making performance prior to 2009 meant that we have had to undertake a major transformation process, restructuring some domestic businesses and refocusing on international express delivery. Getting our employees behind this process was critical to turning around the company's fortunes.
In February 2016, we were recognized by Top Employers Institute as a Global Top Employer for the second year running. We were the only company to receive Top Employer recognition in all regions of the world - across 43 countries in total. We believe that our experience in cultivating a strong, global organizational culture that delivers winning performance (and a profitable business) can offer insights that would be useful to HR specialists working in an international company or small- and mid-sized businesses that are considering international expansion as their next strategic step. Here are some of the approaches that have been central to our success:
Be rigid on standards but flexible on execution. Global standards, managed from the center, are important, because they ensure that your quality standards meet an agreed benchmark. At the same time, allowing your local team the flexibility to adapt to local practices and norms, while remaining true to the 'spirit of the law', will empower them (which is in itself a motivator) to perform to the best of their potential.
Focus your training and development programs on engagement. In 2010, at a challenging time for our business, we invested millions to launch a single training and development platform program - Certified International Specialist (CIS) - for our whole organization, translating the materials into over 42 languages and training our managers (including the global board) as facilitators to deliver the program to all staff worldwide. The reason? Training and development activities are the perfect, logical forum to engage your staff and generate a common understanding of what you want to achieve. And your management are best placed to communicate and demonstrate the values that should define your culture. CIS remains the main source of training for our organization today and has supported a 16 percentage point increase in engagement measured through our employee survey over the last five years.
Localize as much as possible, while internationalizing your best talent. In most businesses, local teams are going to have unrivalled market knowledge and insights into the culture. They know best how to navigate challenges on behalf of customers. At the same time, exposing your best specialists to different cultures both shapes them for leadership in the future and helps your local teams to increase their expertise. Our Made in Africa program is a prime example of this approach. We want to identify the best talent in Africa (a market where the search for logistics talent is still a challenge) and to ensure that we carefully develop it through exposure to different management roles within the continent, supported also by international executives working in the region. The very best will then go on to manage beyond Africa, bringing their proven, distinctly African skillset to our global organization.
Replace "carrot and stick" with "carrot cake and pogo stick". We have combined a rigorous performance process that sets challenging targets and reviews competences and achievements objectively against agreed global standards (a pogo stick that launches their careers) with 'sweet treats' that recognize great performance. From "As One Appreciation Weeks," where our top managers show appreciation for the workforce with small gestures such as buying pizza or taking the team to the cinema to spectacular Employee of the Year events where we bring our top achievers together for a huge celebration in exotic locations around the world, we make recognition a central and binding theme of our global culture.
Use cultural diversity to your advantage. When you provide global express business to the world, you need to understand the diverse needs of global customers. To better meet their needs, you need a workforce that reflects your customers. Different perspectives and cultural norms can be a fantastic source of ideas and process improvement. By developing an open culture with feedback mechanisms and best practice sharing, where front-line employees in even the most remote locations know that their opinion will be listened to, you can both enable and develop your business, while providing motivation for individuals who want to contribute beyond their job description.
When it comes to HR, drawing on what your employees have in common - that is, professional values, priorities and focus - while embracing their differences will help to engage your international workforce, develop a winning culture and ensure you're on the podium of attractive employers.