In this article, Emma Richardson, Director of HR Consultancy Services at Lewis Silkin LLP, reflects upon the challenges presented by an increasingly globalised world of work, citing her own experiences.

The increasingly globalised world of work is a significant driver influencing the role and shape of the HR profession.  Continuing growth in organisational restructuring and outsourcing means senior HR professionals are often being given an international remit to meet business needs.    

In this article I reflect on the challenges this presents and I experienced, but also the exciting opportunities for HR professionals tasked with implementing change management across national boundaries. 

The challenge

I spent 3 wonderful years in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, setting up the HR function and being part of a wider leadership team for a global off-shored centre for one of the Big4 professional services firms.

I arrived on 31 May and started the following day with a new boss and a leadership team of six, some of whom had worked together before, but I was the one who had not been involved in the months and months of planning. We had one month until the new legal entity would be finalised and 850 employees to be on-boarded, with an interim HR team (most of whom had not worked in HR) and no people strategy to mark out our direction let alone how we would do it. This would be a vertical, rocket-propelled learning curve of finding my professional and personal feet, with the monsoon season days away, my shipped possessions weeks away and my comfortable English summer a life time away.

The vision for the HR function and the wider company was to create best-in-class policies and procedures, aligned to the global organisation, and to be an employer of choice, with competitive benefits and great retention rates.  I had to convert the interim HR team to a personally selected permanent team, who had the skills and competencies I was broadly looking for, but more importantly came with the right attitude.  There was going to be a lot of change ahead and I needed agile minds to come with me on this journey.  I had two years to complete the vision and find my successor, preferably from within the HR team I was about to start building.   

To quote Stephen Covey – I had to “live, love, laugh and leave a legacy”. 

Quick wins

I collaborated with the permanent members of staff I had recruited to devise a three year plan to deliver our vision.  This was already a change of leadership style - involving the team in creating strategy was an alien concept.  We then had to prioritise.  Everything needed doing, but I knew we had to win over the trust of our new employees quickly, so priority one was getting the payroll right.  We had inherited a number of disgruntled employees who had become used to an error ridden payroll and we needed to change that.  Everything else that was wrong could wait.  Next we had to fundamentally change our outlook on the recruitment process, the technology supporting it and the target numbers.  When I joined we struggled to recruit more than 15 people a month.  When I left our busy recruitment season saw 450 new recruits on-boarded in two months.  It wasn’t just down to the recruitment process - it was educating leaders on the lead times for effective recruitment and resource planning six months in advance.   

When our new entry level recruits joined, we had a week long on-boarding programme and we buddied up new recruits weeks before starting.  These two factors reduced no shows and drop outs in week one by 80%.   

Most middle class Indian families instill great academic discipline.  It was typical to see an entry level employee with a degree, masters and MBA, but no hands on office experience.  The focus and encouragement from home was get the exams, then you can work.  This resulted in very poor office and team skills – nearly everyone answered the phone with a short sharp “bolo” – ‘tell me’.  We created a programme with 15 minute training sessions, desk drops, marketing materials and mystery calling.  Anyone (client and non-client facing) who answered the phone with “Good morning, <insert name>, how can I help you" was rewarded with a bar of chocolate.  How competitive the teams became in building their chocolate stash and proudly displaying it on their desks!  

We introduced cultural awareness workshops for our teams in India and we shared much of the content with our internal clients in various jurisdictions across the globe, to increase mutual understanding. Our starting point was what are the cultural identifiers and norms for a particular country, and whilst there were always exceptions to the rule, it opened eyes to the differences. Until then the local team had thought a) everyone was like them or b) everyone was different, but homogeneously so (i.e. the US had the same culture as in the UK, Australia, NZ, Poland etc). There were etiquette lessons, the art of dinner conversation (and what you really shouldn't discuss - the number of times I was asked why I wasn't married...), the ridiculous array of knives and forks you might be presented with in a restaurant and yes, to eat at 8pm in London, might be quite usual. Whereas in India, the pre-dinner drinks and nibbles might extend to way past 11pm, before dinner was eventually served and then everyone would leave almost immediately to go on to the next party - to attend 2 or 3 events on a Saturday was considered quite normal.

We ran workshops so that the leadership team understood both the process and emotions that underpinned change – Our Iceberg is Melting (John Kotter & Holger Rathgeber), became the text of choice.  Simple messages, great analogies, in an easy to digest format; when all of us were working at such a frenetic pace. 

We introduced an executive coaching programme to our Leadership Team and top talent in year 2.  This was a game changer.  Coaching techniques cascaded through the organisation - our inherited command and control ethos was being broken down. 

Essential skills 

I worked long hours 6 days a week for the first 6 months to get a team together and get us focused on delivering our 3 year plan. Suffice to say, I had always considered myself to be a hard worker, but I found resilience and determination, energy and drive way beyond levels I had previously operated to.  As an ex-pat who has worked in a developing country I would say you need vision, tenacity and courage, knowing when to challenge for change and when to be more patient. 

At work, I had to deal with another kind of transformation - me adapting to my new life and encouraging others to change to have a more global outlook.  For me to remember that my way was not necessarily the best way, but to also encourage change in those who had been used to a command and control culture. Introducing the concept that as an HR team you can brainstorm, you can disagree with the HRD (me) and come up with alternative solutions. These were all new approaches for my newly resourced HR function. It would of course come back and bite me, for when I wanted to drive through change, we inevitably had to gain buy in, whereas only months before, the team would have willingly followed my leadership, with no resistance. I could only smile, when a member of the team tentatively challenged my thinking on how we might implement a new performance management process, this turned into a massive grin, when they came up with an alternative solution! This was indeed progress. 

So what makes one ex-pat come away from a secondment having loved every fun filled, chaotic and challenging moment and another quite simply be begging to leave the moment they arrive? For me it is down to attitude; the art of observing and listening before jumping in, participating - say yes to the sari wearing, celebrating every religious festival with gusto and sharing some UK traditions too, getting involved (in a local charity, which I am still connected to today) and being a great role model. Having the self-confidence to respectfully challenge the status quo, building confidence in those around you and way before 'Frozen' entered our consciousness to simply 'let it go'. I quickly learned not to sweat the small stuff, to create a fuss only when it really mattered which wasn't always the big things; I became a stickler for zero tolerance to typos, poor time keeping and extolling the virtues of being able to deliver a project on time. All skills that I generally thought got you ahead in our organisation. But I also fought hard to bring awareness of what life was like in India for our colleagues in the West. For example in the West, perhaps a commuting time was 40 minutes, in the comfort of an air-conditioned car, listening to streamed music, whereas locally a journey time of 2 hours in each direction was the norm, in a bus that battled pot holes the size of golf course bunkers, in searing heat and would be soaked to the skin during the 1 minute walk from bus stop to front door.

Final reflections

On leaving I looked back on so many achievements – a new HR Director in place in month 21, a new centre opened (project managed by me) in Bangalore in month 31 and a completely new collaborative culture, more closely aligned to the global organisation.  Striking the right balance between global versus local/ embedding a corporate culture across territories whilst taking account of local needs and customs isn’t easy but will be increasingly necessary for HR professionals to meet this challenge in the future.

 By Emma Richardson, Director of HR Consultancy Services, Lewis Silkin LLP


Do you have a view to share on any of the issues raised in this article? What do you think the challenges of an increasingly globalised world are?  Leave your comments in the box below.

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