David Hulsenbek - Chief Human Resources Officer at Salta Group

Human Resources
20 March, 2024

David Hulsenbek is Chief Human Resources Officer for Salta Group in Hilversum – a company that builds personalised, lifelong learning solutions for businesses and educational establishments.

Salta Group employs 3,000 professionals who work for over 30 renowned labels in the training and education industry. We caught up with David to ask who and what’s inspired him over his 26-year career – and what his vision is for the future of the HR function.

What excites you about working for Salta Group?

Even before I joined Salta Group, I was fascinated by the company because there’s simply no one else that does what we do – in either the Netherlands or, we think, in Europe. We have a mission of making lifelong learning possible for everyone. It is great to work with so many professionals who live and breathe this. I’ve worked in consulting and software organisations, but this is my first experience in a company where the marketing & sales team is also at the heart of the business. Next to our engaged education professionals, that is our ‘talent engine’ – the core of our service.

Of course, education is at the heart of our mission. Everyone in the business is passionate about lifelong learning and enabling more people to develop themselves regardless of their age, stage of life or occupation.

When you boil it down, though, to build the services we build and deliver them to the people who need them, we need the very best Sales and Marketing function, run by the very best people. That’s the sweet spot. In HR, it’s not about operations or payroll. The future health of the company rests on having the right talent in place, on great performance management, on succession planning and being transparent with people about their career opportunities.

It’s my job to make sure that our next leadership combines strongly supports and grows our view on lifelong learning and can take the company forward over the next five years – a task I never imagined I’d land on so soon after starting. It’s very exciting.

What’s the most rewarding and energising part of your role – at Salta Group or more generally?

I'm very curious by nature and I love being around people – connecting with them, finding out what makes them tick and supporting them through challenges or periods of change.

I’m a licenced lawyer by trade, and I sort of ‘rolled into’ the HR function when I was looking at the legal side of employee stock options for my graduation thesis and in doing the research met a lot of really nice and interesting people with ‘HR Director’ on their business card.

I think I would always have found this role one way or another, because it’s such a perfect fit for my personality. I love the way that you sit right at the heart of a company, whilst remaining somewhat on the outside – looking inwards. You know everyone and everything that’s going on, because people can be really frank and honest with you. What I like best is balancing all those things. Yes, you can pick sides, certain opinions or arguments – but it’s really about finding solutions and a way to make things work, no matter how that looks.

Sometimes you’ve got to be firm with people, sometimes you need to put an arm around their shoulder. Sometimes there’s really hardcore work to do with unions or councils. And often it’s about making sure people feel they belong – and letting them know how much they’re loved and valued in their roles and help them improve.

A lot of the time, I don’t think people quite realise how very connected they are to the organisation they work in. There’s the legal connection with your employment agreement of course – but more than that there’s the physical connection, the emotional and psychological connection – and beyond that, the aspirations you hold within your company.

A really good HR team understands how all this is constantly at play, for everyone. You have to make sure people are in the right positions where they can grow and flourish, and also be able to have those honest conversations when things aren’t working. I love that – it fits my personality so well. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.

Is there one leader or manager who stands out in your career – and what was it about their style that resonated with you?

Accenture was the place where I grew up professionally, so to speak – a bit of a ‘first love’ career-wise – because despite seeming tough and businesslike from the outside, it was people-first through and through. Their management was personable, which I’ve always really liked – and despite the enormous scale of the organisation, they really care about the individual and helping them grow in the direction they wanted to.

One of the execs back then ran the technology organisation for Europe. I worked closely with him for 8 years as a business partner, as his HR Manager and later as HR Director in the country that he works in. He was just himself, all day long – never playing a role, no ego, which I always admired and have since emulated.

One of the things he taught me was to never be afraid to say what you think – which sounds easy, but in practice it’s really not! Especially in situations where you don’t understand something and you need to ask questions. You have to trust your judgment and “not be afraid to be the idiot”, as I heard Simon Sinek put it the other day.

Another standout leader has to be the guy who kickstarted my career in 2001, when I was working as a recruiter in Amsterdam. At 27, I was hugely ambitious, and I’d set my sights on becoming a Recruitment Manager.

I went to the HR Director at the time and told him what I wanted – and he said, “That’s great, but you’re not ready for that yet”. I hardly had time to feel bruised by this knock-back before he came to me a few hours later, handed me his car keys and said, “We’re building a new company for Vivendi and Vodafone’s mobile Internet startup. I want you to be the lead recruiter. The team are waiting for you – drive over to their office, have a look and see if you want to do it.” This was a $500 million project, so I could hardly believe my ears. I accepted, of course, and over the next year, the role took me to Germany and then all over Europe – a fantastic adventure.

When I asked this manager why he’d trusted me with such a huge responsibility, he said something that’s always stayed with me: “Sometimes things are scary and new, but jumping and seeing what you discover is something that really suits you. You don’t think you can fly, but you’ve had wings for a long time already.”

Those words resonated at the time and they’ve stayed with me ever since. You only live once – so be authentic, never be afraid and just go for things.

Is there a particular quote or mantra that’s inspired you?

My absolute favourite is John Lennon’s “Life’s what happens to you when you're busy making other plans.” It says so much about the chaos in life – how it’s the small things happening around you – often completely outside your awareness – that you should be looking out for and learning from.

That’s why I don't really believe in 5-year career plans. Yeah, it’s admirable – but it’s much better to go with the flow, leave room for lessons and events you didn’t plan for and see where they take you.

What would you say are the key elements of really building a strong network – both internally and externally?

Again, I think it comes down to that personable approach – being really open and genuine with people. I was with a former colleague this morning, actually – one of the partners who I worked with in my previous role as an interim HR Manager. We really clicked at the time, and he updated me on the progress of one of our projects and gave me some lovely feedback.

We had that human connection which I think is so important in business. Sometimes you hold each other’s hands through the storm, sometimes you learn from one another. I just love when people leave their differences at the door and come together, help each other out, share knowledge and find each other's strengths and development points without ego. It’s so powerful.  When there are clear, shared goals in an internal network, when everyone is on board with the business’s strategy, that’s when progress picks up real pace and you start to see an impact.

It takes great communication, explaining your strategy and choices as a company – but if everyone knows what their organisation is about, they can run in the right direction without having to be told. It may feel like a bit of a cliché but it’s true. I still play football every Friday night and you see the same thing – when 11 guys are chasing a ball and one of them scores, everyone’s happy. Why is that? Because it’s fun – and because you did it together.

How is Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) impacting Salta Group as a business?

Sustainability is high on Salta’s agenda – and so it should be, for all businesses. I think everyone understands now how important it is that we take care of the planet better than we've done in past decades.

What I really like about the whole ESG approach is that (coming from the EU), it’s very structured – and it’s great that as a company, we’re able to do good in the world through more than just our business goals. The advantage of being a bit behind the curve in this area is that we’ve had a lot of players in the market that we can learn from and follow their lead. It’s also an area where people’s personal beliefs naturally produce a lot of energy and effort.

On the board, we’re using the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to help us drill down into the moral and ethical goals of our company. What do we want to contribute? What do we want our approach to be? You don’t find these discussions in most boardrooms, but this is something we have to do – not just because it’s a formal obligation but because we all have kids and because we want to feel proud of what we left behind, not guilty.

How do you see the HR function evolving in future?

If you look at the trends of the past 10-15 years, it’s clear that technology will play a larger role. New HR information systems are coming along all the time, each one better and easier to implement than the last, with new and improved functionality.   

At the same time, it’s a very fragmented landscape – so it's important not to overload people with too many different systems to manage. Ultimately, my vision would be for all these great tools to be sophisticated enough to handle all the exceptions you get in HR, so you can focus more on developing talent than on the complex legalisation of everything.

To take one example, I’ve just met with a colleague who’s relocating to the US for his wife’s job. We appreciate and value him, he wants to carry on working for Salta Group and we want to make that possible. But getting the fiscal and legal side of things straight is incredibly frustrating (and expensive!), to say the least! It shouldn’t be that difficult – there’s so much risk-averse thinking, and it’s hampering us.

Perhaps it’s a Nirvana mindset, but I believe HR should be all about talent.

If you know what you stand for as a company, if you know what kind of people you need, you get them on board and that marriage is strong, then you’re in a position where you can help them and they can help you. That’s when you see real impact, real growth and change for the better.

Thank you to David for speaking to Katie Insley, Associate Director in our Human Resources recruitment team in the Netherlands. 

Views and opinions contained within our Executive Interviews are those of the interviewee and not views shared by EMEA Recruitment.