Our Executive Interviews feature top leaders from across the disciplines that we specialise in, sharing their career advice and experience with candidates seeking success in those sectors.
Véronique Frasnetti has held many different positions with increasing seniority at B. Braun, which is a major company in over 60 countries. She is currently the Vice President of Strategic Purchasing in the Hospital Care Division.
As you’ve been with B. Braun since 2004, how does the company retain high potential employees?
If you show willingness to develop yourself, B. Braun will support you. We have all sorts of internal training. For example, if you would like to be a project manager, we have very good internal training in which you will also get useful tools. Afterwards, you could be running a project beside your activities. There are also chances to learn languages - there is big support to have trainings in general.
Time is flying when you are within B. Braun, because you have so many opportunities to grow both professionally and personally. This is the way they retain talent.
B. Braun has also the advantage of being a big company, with 66,000 employees approximately in 64 countries; there are a lot of possibilities. Perhaps it is more complicated in a very small company.
How did you plan your career?
Originally, I was in cocoa trading. This is what I always wanted to do when I was younger. I enjoyed it a lot, but with family, I decided I wanted to separate from working with stock exchange. It’s very exciting, but it is so exciting that you think, how can I manage to have kids and such a job alongside?
Therefore, I decided to go into Procurement, because it’s very close. However, in a different manner, you do not have all that stress of working with the stock exchanges being totally dependant on what happens there and being bound by the opening hours (that can be during your night, depending on the timezone) - you can better plan your time and organization. Consequently, I left trading and went into Procurement, where I could still use my negotiation and commercial skills. Then I did work for some companies in Procurement, until I found B. Braun, where I thought, this is the place.
The best way of developing your career is to be in a company which also wants to develop itself, to be state-of-the-art, to go for new things. This is what I could find here, so I have stayed working there ever since!
What advice would you give to leaders who are managing large acquisitions and integrations?
I would say not to underestimate the integration phase. I have seen, in certain companies, that after a few months, everybody thinks that the acquired company is integrated just because the purchase is completed. This can cause problems.
It is very important that, when you acquire a company and want to onboard it properly into your system, you harmonise the processes at first. This step will take a certain time, but represents a chance for both entities.
There is also the need to carefully consider the people aspect, as the employees of the acquired company are usually quite afraid, because, when you hear about an acquisition, you say, wow, is my job going to be there still or not? So, reassure your people! This is very important, because - when you acquire a company - beside the products and customers, you also acquire the knowledge of the people, and you don’t want to lose this at all.
I can say that, very happily, we acquired a company three years ago and all went well. We are working really nicely together. But you need to take time to integrate them; this way, everything turns out much better than if you tried to let them swim - especially when you come into a big group like B. Braun. So, I would say the integration part is as important as the due diligence and acquisition part.
Can you define Procurement best practice?
I would say best practice is to have a state-of-the-art and transparent set of processes, which is adapted to your company size, industry sector, strategy... because these parameters also have a very big importance on what you shall do or not, meaning not every state-of-the-art activity is suitable for your company.
You shall of course look at the level of maturity of your organisation. I assume you know the maturity curve, in which you see all levels, from solely transactional actions for Procurement, up to vertical integration. You really need to understand where you are, so you can grab the right set of tools you need. This is something that I would recommend. As well, you should concentrate on planning a proper strategy.
A lot of people are talking about source to contract now, which is of course important, but before the source to contract, you should plan your strategy. Before buying something, you should be sure you’re buying exactly what the company needs, the most suitable product/service in the right quality, from the suppliers you want to grow with the aim to support your company objectives, future plans.
You need to have a Procurement strategy aligned to the company strategy and with the major stakeholders, which will be accepted and followed throughout the company, since not only Procurement is following the Procurement strategy, but the entire company, as well.
In the medical industry, it’s very important that you plan far ahead, so this is something which should be looked at, coupled with supplier development. Beside source to contract, you need to monitor, develop, maybe phase out, some suppliers.
Has your approach to Procurement best practice evolved since the COVID-19 pandemic?
Definitely. It has brought everything upside down. Now, geo-political monitoring is a must. It started with COVID, followed by the Russia/Ukraine conflict. Our environment is permanently challenged. If you do not follow what is happening, then you’re too late - you can only react, but not mitigate.
Therefore, best practice is now a deeper risk monitoring, being proactive and not reactive. Before, of course, that was always something that was looked at, but not life, rather on regular set time. In the past, there were force majeure sometimes, but - since COVID - some are notified almost every week and now, with the energy situation, in addition there are increased fears of bankruptcy.
Understanding your supply chain is getting even more important. In the past, it was almost a given that, when something was ordered, you would get it, perhaps there was a small delay, a slight price increase or something, but it would be available. Since COVID, the way we are working totally changed, some prices sky-rocketed by 500%-plus and availability, as well as transportation, became a hassle. We needed and still need to find ad-hoc solutions.
Is it possible in this current environment to innovate with suppliers virtually when you can’t see them face-to-face?
COVID made us change our way of doing work. Before, people would meet face-to-face a lot. Suddenly, we could not anymore, so another way of working had to be started. Thanks to the available software, we could switch to virtual contacts quite easily, since they are really user friendly; you can talk to an almost unlimited number of participants, share documents, and it’s fully reliable in terms of functionality and quality. If we had faced the same situation five or six years ago, that would have been an even bigger disaster.
We even started new actions, which we could not do before. As an example, we facilitated virtual sustainability meetings with suppliers, having 50-plus people together on the line that were based in various continents. Allowing everybody to have the same information level and benefiting from many inputs. Such meetings would not have been feasible face-to-face, as it would have been too time consuming and cost a fortune in travel. In this sense, the complicated situation made us progress faster.
Of course, there is a moment when you need to sit together. If our supplier really wants to understand some specific needs, for example, they need to see our lines, our products, and we also need to see their production equipment, to exchange, because - at the end - both entities have knowledge they can share. But we were surprised about the big portion that can be done online, which we would not expect before.
I would even say, in some cases, innovation comes easier to us now that we can have more participants online than in a regular meeting face-to-face. The information flow is much faster, likewise the following actions. I really think this new aspect is making our life much easier.
Is there a myth about your profession that you want to debunk?
The biggest one I see is: Procurement is all about price negotiation. Of course, price negotiation is part of it, but it is not all. Firstly, you must have the correct product in terms of quality, at the right place, in the right quantity, at the right time, and at the best possible price. The price comes at the end, because, as an example, if you go for a cheap product that is of poor quality, it might end up in a disaster.
There are a lot more tasks you need to do beside negotiating; a very important one is innovation gathering. Procurement is also about bringing innovation into your company, acting as incoming channel. Procurement is like the eye of the company to the outside, to the beginning of the chain really - the opposite of our salespeople. We are the ones who see external innovation first; we need to monitor this. If we see interesting innovation, we shall take that into the company to the relevant department/person.
Everybody is now concentrating on sustainability. This includes, of course, the actions that you will undertake in the company, such as energy saving, to be green, but it’s also the material you will be buying, trying to go for sustainable materials. Like I said before, we are somehow the eyes of the company into the supply market and - like for innovation - this applies to sustainability.
Also, Procurement is about monitoring the suppliers and the number of them. You don’t need to have thousands of suppliers, which in fact is too often the case. What is important is to have a few (sufficient) reliable suppliers or fewer suppliers that can cover a bigger part of your needs to allow a win-win situation. There, also, it’s not about negotiating prices only; it’s about understanding the capabilities of the supplier, their strategy, the level of risk, versus our needs to see if and where it can match.
It’s also about choosing the supplier you want to grow, the one you want to phase out, and the one you will keep as such, because they don’t have more capabilities, for example, but you still need them for an essential range of products.
When you have a crisis, like we had for the past two years already, if Procurement is not working adequately, meaning having the proper agreements in place and a good relationship with the strategic suppliers, good enough that you can be prioritised when necessary, you might end up in important supply issues.
What does diversity mean to you?
Diversity is a very important topic that is being spoken about a lot currently. In our company, we recently had some diversity meetings, where people could exchange their view on what we should do.
Of course, there is gender, there is religion, but I would say it goes much beyond that; it’s also about personality, way of acting. If you compare people from certain regions to other regions, or even one person to another one, they are different. This is already diversity, and this represents an asset if you can have a mix of various personalities.
I strongly believe that the future is with inclusion, clearly, but in a broad way, going as far as how the people are, how they apprehend to work, to risk, everything, because all that is bringing more value and balance into your teams.
When hiring people, why not have a CV without gender, without nationality and without age? Focusing on the personality beside the pure work aspects. Diversity is also, for example, on age. Younger and older people don’t exactly do things the same way, but they can both be an asset and benefit from each other.
It would be good if we could look at the profiles based on what they achieved, the knowledge they bring and their personality, instead of the gender and so on… We should get rid of that, I would say, and concentrate more on what the person can bring to the company.
How does cultural awareness impact business relationships?
I think it helps a lot. If you speak the language, of course, you’re going to be closer to that person than if you don’t speak the language, but this is not the only way to get close to somebody, or to have a smooth and harmonious business relationship.
In some regions, if you don’t have dinner or lunch, there is no way of talking successfully about business, because for certain people it is very important that you sit together, talk about different subjects, have some small talk, eat something, drink a glass of wine, before talking business. If you don’t know this or just skip it, you will not start in a good atmosphere. You should consider these specific aspects and adapt, like the other party will try to adapt, as well. I think it’s very important.
You could be hurting people, just because you have no idea about their culture. And I would recommend to any person being in contact on the purchasing side or on the sales side to prepare themselves by gathering information about the cultural aspects.
An example, in Japan, if you give someone a business card, you need to hold it with two hands; if you don’t, it’s disrespectful.
We need to create that climate of trust and collaboration with our suppliers/partners to allow successful business relationships, which can be greatly facilitated by having cultural awareness.
Views and opinions contained within our Executive Interviews are those of the interviewee and not views shared by EMEA Recruitment.
Marie-Sophie Morel is the Procure to Pay Process Lead at ABB in Zurich. She has been with the organization for over six years, having previously spent more than 16 years at Xerox, in business transformation roles.
You have achieved Lean Six Sigma Black Belt certification. How do you feel this has impacted your day-to-day work and career?
It had a significant impact, and allowed me to increase my productivity and implement sustainable changes.
Lean Six Sigma is one of many methodologies helping to understand if a given task provides value to the company. It was an eye-opener for me to say there are some tasks I am requested to do that don't bring any value and that is it my responsibility to raise it. This was a radical productivity increase.
When we come across something broken, instead of spending a little time understanding the trigger, we often put in a fix. This was my second eye-opener; by looking at the root cause, we can understand what is triggering the problem, solve it and it becomes a sustainable change.
Was it your choice to originally do the training? Was it something you identified that you wanted to do for yourself or was it the organization you were with at the time?
I had a clever boss at that time who realized that it could be something good for me.
I had just come back from maternity leave. My daughter was six-months-old. For six months, I spent one week in the US, three weeks in Switzerland. It wasn’t easy to manage, but one of the best decisions in my career.
Your roles over recent years have had a strong focus on change management. What are the key factors to allow you to be successful in these roles?
You cannot implement a change against the organization.
The whole challenge and magic rely on bringing people with you. It requires a lot of respect for colleagues impacted by the change. When people are pushing back, they have a good reason. It’s my responsibility to understand and manage what is triggering their reaction.
Designing the solution with the people impacted by change is equally important. It provides them an opportunity to share their challenges upfront and influence the end-solution.
I could imagine, the larger the organization, the harder it is to manage those relationships?
At the end, you're always interacting with small teams and human beings. I wouldn't say the size of the organization matters, but rather its culture. Every organization has its own culture. As a change agent, it's fundamental to align to it, because the culture triggers the ways of working.
I once received the same transformation mandate from two compagnies with very different cultures – one very top down, and the other bottom up. The scope was similar. However, the end solutions were completely different. Both were assessed as a success. It's all about listening to the organization, to the culture, to the people impacted and designing a solution for them. Then, the change implemented will be sustainable.
Do you feel, as a woman, that you have encountered additional barriers in your career development? What advice would you give to other women aspiring to be where you are?
I have had the chance to work for global companies. Before ABB, I worked for a company which was quite advanced on this topic, and had a woman CEO that was putting in a lot of effort and was an early adopter. ABB is also committed to equality, diversity and inclusion, including gender diversity. I think it’s fair to say that, in general, there is still a way to go to achieve full and genuine equality in the workplace.
My advice is to work on yourself, because that's also some of the bias. Say to ourselves, “Can I do it?”, “Is it really for me to do it?”. These questions are very valuable questions around work-life balance.
When my kids were two, four and six, I got a promotion for a global position located in London. The job needed me to be in the UK from Monday to Friday, coming back at weekends. I asked myself, “Can I manage being away now?” My answer was, “No”.
But that shouldn't be a woman’s decision only; any human being with kids should ask: Does it really make sense for me to be away from Monday to Friday when I have three kids of this age? I can’t answer for everyone, but for me the answer was clear.
Stakeholder management is an important aspect of your role. What do you feel are the key aspects for building trust and relationships?
There are no magic rules.
It's important to understand what is important for your stakeholders. Expect them to come with new ideas and listen to them. Try to understand their personality and build your communication accordingly. Keep in mind that it takes time, and it is well-invested time.
Finally, it’s important to agree on a common definition of success.
How would you describe your people management style and what do you do to get the best out of your team?
Diversity drives success. During recruitment, I always try to get people as diverse as possible, from a skillset, background, personality, country, gender, etc. point of view, which requires a good understanding of my own strengths. The worst would be a team of clones.
Let me give you an example: I am fundamentally positive, but I know that it’s important to have some more negative people in the team. They will be the ones looking at risk.
Collaboration drives results. I expect everybody in the team to have an open way of working and develop an end-to-end approach. In a Procure to Pay environment, it means that Finance may work on Procurement-related topics and Procurement may actively contribute to Finance optimization.
What do you feel is the most rewarding part of your role?
Large transformations have a significant impact on employees. It is when employees collaborate and build a better future together. It becomes even more rewarding when the organization proactively embraces the change.
That's what gives me the energy to push for this solution; when people come back with positive feedback saying, yes, we want to be part of the game.
What have been the major highlights of your career to date?
There are a lot of small moments where you feel connected to people, you see somebody struggling, reluctant to embrace change and then suddenly that changes! The most important thing is the people I'm working with and how I bring them together.
When I see signs that it works, it's much more rewarding.
We’ve already touched on how important role models have been a little bit earlier. Are there any particular people that you would highlight as being your key role models?
If I need to highlight one person in terms of a normal role model, it's Anne Mulcahy, CEO of Xerox when I was working there. She came once to Switzerland and I was really impressed with her ability to listen and take care.
At that time, I was doing Marketing and Communications, and I was managing her schedule for the two days she was in Switzerland. I always had the feeling I was the most important person to her. She had this ability to make people feel important and to listen. An exceptional woman!
It sounds like she's had a huge impact on your approach, as well?
That's the power of a great leader. I was one of thousands of employees in that organization, but through communication and the way she interacted with us, she helped me become a better contributor to the organization. That's something I always keep in mind, that she was really a great woman.
Views and opinions contained within our Executive Interviews are those of the interviewee and not views shared by EMEA Recruitment.
Romain Taffouraud is the Managing Director of Sun Chemical in Geneva, Switzerland. He was previously a CFO at Sensient Technologies Corporation and Plant finance Director at Procter & Gamble, where he spent almost 13 years. Romain was also the President of Versoix Athletics, the second largest club in Geneva.
How do you feel your passion for sports - athletics and the running club - helps you be a better leader?
There are numerous similarities between sport and business management. Firstly, being good at sport – which, for me, means having fun and reaching my own targets - does not happen from one day to another. It means training, practising, and having a certain rigor during the exercise. This is the same at work, where day after day, I try to show the pace and provide the right example to my teams.
Secondly, when you practise for several years, you feel the need for change, for new training exercises, and for new challenges. Again, this is the same at work, where you need to find new ways of running your business in order to be even more successful year after year.
Also, creating and developing a club or an association gives you a different purpose and use of your leadership skills. After a few years, the association I created with a friend now has more than 130 members that requires us to design and propose the right offer (training sessions) to targeted clients (passionate runners) that you first recruit and then try to retain.
What are the current recruitment challenges that you face?
As far as recruitment is concerned, our organisation currently faces two types of challenges. First of all, Switzerland is a very particular market with a structurally low unemployment rate. It reached its lowest level in 20 years, at 2.2%, by the end of 2022. We are therefore now below the famous frictional unemployment and close to a kind of shortage.
This is even more true for certain types of profiles that are difficult to find in the market – mostly resources with one or two experiences, mobile, dynamic, and qualified in specific areas or skills (soft or hard). These profiles are rare to find in the market currently.
The second challenge is a relatively new one coming from new behaviours adopted by our more junior employees. There is a strong request for higher flexibility in what employers can offer and the way we design our future roles. In absence of adjustment, these employees - which are also generally more agile in the job market - do not hesitate to switch employer whenever the opportunity arises.
What does your organisation do to drive its sustainability agenda?
The first critical step for our organisation was to know where we were in terms of sustainability. That means, to design an effective action plan, we first need to understand the global footprint of the organisation.
I am currently located in a production and R&D [research and development] site. So, the application field is huge and exciting. We have been tracking our precise utilities consumption and can easily identify the drivers of it, from our production site/headquarters to our portfolio of products.
Then, the role of engineers is to change the way we operate, find alternatives to the less green raw materials, move to faster production time, reduce utilities consumption via lean production and concentrated production, etc.
The first actions and results are low hanging fruits - switching lights, lowering the heating systems - which are easy to implement. Whereas, reformulating old products and convincing customers to move to greener alternatives takes much more time. In that process, it is important not to be a standalone actor, but benefit from the support of a whole organisation. From that perspective, the DIC Way promoted by our company is a great foundation, internally and externally.
But there is still one positive thing about the current utilities crisis and the related price increase: it gives an additional financial incentive to all sustainability projects. For instance, whereas moving to solar energy was hard to justify so far, with current market prices, payout is only in three to five years!
What advice would you offer to someone moving to Switzerland?
Moving to Switzerland is relatively comparable to moving to any other foreign location. Meaning, although you might believe the language(s), the culture, the habits are close to yours, you should still make the effort to understand and integrate them.
As in any other change, try to understand what makes Switzerland so different and why it has been stable for decades.
What is a memorable moment from your career and why?
It may sound paradoxical, but the months I had (and we all had) to overcome during the pandemic were probably the most exciting and challenging ones. I am convinced the accumulation of so many crises in such a short period of time will not happen again soon - at least, I hope!
The challenges were mostly of two types. Firstly, on the human side, COVID-19 created a new environment, which we were obviously not prepared to face or handle. In March/April 2020, the questions to answer were as simple as: What do we do? Should we shut down the production site or keep it running to serve our customers? Where is the right balance between protecting our people and protecting our business?
With my team, I had to invent the local customized answer to the daily problems over several weeks; I must have spent about 80% of my time on people and organisation management - for an ex-CFO, quite a challenge!
On top of that, after a few months of business euphoria, unexpected business complexity was added to the health situation – raw materials pricing and availability became an issue, transportation costs skyrocketed, utilities costs exploded…
In that context, as a business leader, you have to innovate, think one step ahead and out of the box to find solutions others will not even have imagined. Sometimes, you win.
What is your favourite business motto and why?
Several years ago, I found the following quote written on the wall of my English production manager’s office: “I never lose. I either win or learn.” Since then, I keep leveraging these words from Nelson Mandela.
In our current world, where failure is an issue and hardly forgiven, this is a very positive way to turn (bad) experiences into something positive and insightful for the future.
For the younger generation also, turning all trials into a new learning experience is critical. I do not necessarily believe, however, as the great Taoist Lao Tzu said: “Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor,” but there is a whole literature on the virtues of failure for those interested.
What is the secret to building a strong network?
First of all, I am not sure there is one secret to build a network, because each network is linked to your personality, your history, your experience, your background and so on. But, I will offer two bits of advice.
Firstly, you should not activate or try to build your network when you need it – meaning, when you need it, it’s actually too late. I learnt that, because I decided to use my network after 13 years in P&G, where you are just living in a kind of bubble.
So, my first advice is, as soon as you start your working experience, try to keep your connections. Be interactive, try to get the best out of the people you can connect with, and be open and transparent with people. It should not, however, be something you are forcing yourself to do - and don’t make anything artificial.
Secondly, networking comes from two sides – meaning, you will leverage it when you need it, but please also ensure you are openly available to people and to young students when they need something. You should not only look up, but also look down.
If you believe first that you won’t get anything from a connection, it’s wrong; you always get something from the people you mix with. For instance, a new student will teach you and give you some advice on how the new graduates behave and what they think. This will bring you onto something you can learn, and you can replicate in your next recruitment, for instance.
Having moved from Finance to General Management, who are now the main stakeholders that you deal with internally? How have they changed?
The main change while moving into General Management is that you will have to deal with a vast majority of stakeholders - actually all available stakeholders within the company. Whereas, in the past, as a Finance Manager, you are mostly dealing with a limited number of people.
This means you have to interact with different people that you were not particularly familiar with in the past - obviously with HR, with recruitment, but also I’m thinking about Health and Safety and about Purchasing - so there are quite a lot of different stakeholders you have to manage.
You need to know what their constraints are, what they are thinking, what their ways of doing business are, that kind of complexity. Because, from one day to another, you are expected to know what they have to do, to know how to behave, and what their strategy and plans are. You must support these people, to show them that you are supportive and can be seen as a leader. Also, as a manager, you have to understand what they are doing.
Those are the kind of challenges I experienced at the beginning, when moving to this General Management role.
Was there a learning curve when you first started?
Definitely. Coming from Finance, you have a certain proximity with some departments and some stakeholders. I was quite used to dealing with management or top management, for instance, doing the reporting; external partners were also relatively easy for me, as well as salespeople.
Prediction and Supply Chain were tough areas, as they are very specific, highly qualified people. Yes, you have to build proximity, closeness with these people, try to understand what they are doing, how they are thinking, just to make sure you understand what they are doing and what their constraints are, and really being very humble at the beginning.
I was not afraid to say, “Sorry guys, I don’t understand” or, “I don’t know what you are doing or what your constraints are, just tell me. I will be able to help you, I will support you, but just explain what you are doing and what the context is, so that we can build something together.”
Views and opinions contained within our Executive Interviews are those of the interviewee and not views shared by EMEA Recruitment.
Thomas Mulder is the Executive Director HR, Internal Comms and Workplace at VodafoneZiggo in the Netherlands. He has been with Vodafone for over 11 years, having previously been HR Director of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg at Accenture.
How can leaders create diverse teams?
It starts with being aware of unconscious bias, and we call that conscious inclusion. People need to really understand the opportunity that diverse teams bring in comparison with more heterogenic, homogeneous teams. So, there is self-awareness and conscious inclusion.
I think the second point is that you need to give the topic priority. Working on diversity is a long-term thing, so you can always start tomorrow instead of today. You need to make sure that you raise it on the priority list, and you can do that by attaching clear objectives of what you want to achieve.
The third point is to create a culture around inclusivity and diversity. You need to focus in your internal communication on diversity, on role models, on the behaviour that you would like to see. If you do these three things in parallel - make sure that you develop the capabilities needed amongst your leaders to shape and lead diverse teams, set a clear ambition level and target, and create a positive internal buzz around this to make people aware and to really highlight what you want your culture to be - then I think you can create diverse teams within your organisation.
What would you say excites you about working for VodafoneZiggo?
From an HR perspective, on the one hand, we invest billions in spectrum, in our network, in technology, where we get a return only in years' time, so we have to have a very long-term focus.
But, on the other hand, the competition in telco salesforce for all different segments - fixed technology, mobile technology, we’ve got big IT infrastructure and team, we’ve got technicians on the road with national coverage and customer care.
If you think about all of this and think about the diversity, that is super fascinating to lead and to manage - especially because nothing in this organisation works in isolation. We have to do everything end-to-end, and that is always super interesting, of course.
The third thing for me is just the sheer importance that we have in society. If you think about our network, if we have an outage, the nation comes to a standstill. But also, if you think about innovation that’s happening in society - also the way we have to deal with challenges like climate change, for instance - we are privileged to be able to play a vital role in that and that is what makes it very attractive to work for this company.
What changes have you seen to the employment market in the Netherlands over the years and what in your opinion have been the main drivers for these changes?
A couple of things. We, of course, are dealing with an ageing population in the Netherlands. The way I sometimes put it, now and in the years to come, every month, a covert of people retire that is the size of VodafoneZiggo. That means that the labour market is getting increasingly tight.
Within that, we don’t see the massive resignation wave that we have seen in other Anglo-Saxon markets, so that means that the number of people who are actively in the market looking for another role is very small. That means that, if you want to be able to attract talent, you have to be super quick and laser-focused.
Therefore, in the Netherlands, we are attracting more talent from abroad and I’m also glad to see more international talent joining VodafoneZiggo. As an organisation, you need to make sure that you are able to tap into that international pool of talent, because, if you only limit yourself to the Dutch labour market, that could easily be too small.
Finally, if you think about the digital transformation that our society is in at the moment, there is a massive demand for new skills and capabilities, and just pulling on the new joiners on the labour market, the digital natives, is not enough. I think that the companies that offer development opportunities to people are the winners.
If you could go back and give your younger self some career advice, what would it be?
From the age of 17, I thought, let’s start my career in HR, because that’s an opportunity to see how an organisation works from the inside, and you get to see every aspect of it quite quickly. Then, let’s see where it ends, and that’s still my strategy now, 20 years later.
I think the only career advice that I would give myself if I were able to do it again is to enjoy the moment more. I’ve always been driving things forward, always been focused on the next thing with my team, the next thing with my business, and my people agenda, instead of just sometimes letting it go and enjoy the moment that you are in.
I think generally this is also career advice that I would give to a lot of people. The fear of missing out is also a big driver for career decisions these days and that’s actually a negative career consideration. Valuing more what you have, thinking more carefully about the perspectives that you may have may also reduces the risk that you take the wrong decision, just because you are anxious that you are missing out on something in the short-term.
How did you plan out your career development?
I actually did not really plan it out. It started with this ambition to start my career in HR and then I focused more on my own development. I think that’s more important than planning your career, because when it comes to career moves, you are not in charge with that; it’s about being at the right place, at the right time, being able to make a move and not necessarily about being only the best candidate.
A lot comes down to luck when it comes to developing your career. So, it’s better to then focus on the things that you can influence, and that is your own development; making sure that you’re open to feedback, that you know you can grow personally and professionally. For instance, I think I’ve done two things: I’ve always developed myself as a generalist in business with an executive MBA, with executive programmes at London Business School, and also Singularity University, to develop myself more as a generalist, rather than a particular HR specialist.
The second thing is that I think I have taken a risk a number of times in my career. I tend to focus on the grey areas. A lot of things are black and white in this world; they are clear, they are chartered, people know what is expected and what you need to do, but there are also areas in the business where it’s grey, where it’s not clear, because it’s new, unchartered, people really don’t know what the expectations are.
This is when you can shape your own agenda and position yourself as a leader in a different way, in an authentic way, and that offers you more career development, steeper learning curves, than in a world that is black and white. There are also risks attached to those grey areas, and I think, a couple of times in my career, I have consciously taken the risk and that is really accelerated my personal development.
I was the HR Director for Accenture for the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg on a good career trek. I had programmed to become a senior executive, when I was offered to join Vodafone. However, Vodafone did not have a job for me, they just said, why don’t you come, it’s going to be fun? I decided to quit my job at Accenture; I had a team with lots of momentum, uncertainty about the next step, and basically moved my family to London in a new environment, not having a clue about what I was going to be doing there. I think that is an example of such a risk.
After an introduction into the company, I then got a phone call to do the due diligence on a global telco in 35 countries - I did have experience with integration, but not with due diligence. I would say that is an example of taking a risk in a grey area, where you then get these opportunities to accelerate your personal development.
What is the most surprising thing that has happened in your career?
I have never really felt that something came as a real surprise. What I would have never expected at the start of my career is that I would have moved abroad and to multiple countries. I think I never anticipated that; it really happened in the moment and turned out to be a very good thing, I have to say.
How will digital transformation change the role of HR, in your opinion?
If you think about digital transformation, a lot of things in society, and in organisations, corporates, need to change. It’s the organisation that needs to become more agile, more centred around technology and data. The second is that you need different skills and capabilities in a digital world. The third thing is a different style of leadership - much more focused on coaching, holding people to account, rather than command and control, for instance, but also much more focused on an external radar, instead of internal best practice, so those leadership shifts.
Then, there is a culture of collaboration amongst people who master different capabilities, different profiles. All of these things – organisational development, capability development, leadership development and culture development – are the fundamental tasks and responsibilities of HR. HR needs to set itself up for success to shape a digital transformation. Not just to be a partner in the process to become a digital organisation, but to shape what that looks like and then help to transform the organisation to become digital. I’ve seen that happen in a number of companies and I think that will ultimately change the role HR has in a company.
There is another reason this will accelerate – the crisis we had with COVID, but also now wellbeing and wage inflation. The cost of human capital is increasing. All these things together are part of the biggest challenges that companies are facing nowadays. HR is right at the centre of these challenges, and better able than anyone in the company to come up with solutions and deliver those. So, that is also what I think will drive transformation in HR.
Thank you to Thomas for speaking to Alison Whiten, Associate Consultant in our HR recruitment team in the Netherlands.
Frans Kools is since February 2022 the Group HR Director | CHRO at Barentz International in Amsterdam. He previously spent ten years at Staples Solutions, where he was the Group HR Director for EMEA.
How do you create diverse teams?
You hope that organisations grow and, with growing, you have lots of opportunities to hire the right talent for the envisioned change. Then, in an organic way you can achieve diversity within your team and your organisation.
It’s always an accelerated growth, which gave me the lucky opportunity to add diversity; and we all understand the importance of having an inclusive and diverse team.
Having diverse teams means that you can create critical mass. With critical mass, innovations comes along and you are able to look from different perspectives at a situation or challenge.
It’s not a difficult discussion why it’s important - I think we all know why it is important, it’s more about how to get diverse teams organized as you simply don’t dismiss people to replace them for the sake of diversity.
Find your opportunities and ensure that the stakeholders in your organisation are on the same page, and make it happen.
What different challenges have you faced with recruitment before and after COVID?
Before COVID, we (@Staples) had like many our challenges in finding the right digital talent. What you did see those days in every organisation, every sector and every industry is that they were developing with an emphasis on digitalisation, but the number of people who had the right digital talent was not covering the need of the market. In Europe, you saw concentrations of digital talent in e.g. Amsterdam, London and also Berlin. So, it also depended on where your business was located.
Also the costs of labour influenced our recruitment strategy and forced us to recruit smarter. All in all enough reasons to open HUB’s to help us to hire the required talent at a cost we could afford. That is why we opened e.g. a HUB for Information Technology in Gdansk and a Creative Studio in Lisbon.
Covid changed hiring, because we have proven our capability to work hybrid and not necessarily be in the office five days a week. I think everyone will remember the managers that required you to keep the seat warm; some colleagues possibly need to be controlled, but most of us not.
Yes, it can be needed to keep the seat warm when you work at a cash desk in a store to serve customers, but office positions normally don’t require that. The capability to work partly from home and partly in the office, has given us opportunities to hire now employees who’re living further away and were previously not interested to work for you due to the 5 days of commuting. Now they can work part of the week from home they’re interested, so with that your pool of candidates enlarged.
When you are capable as an organisation to manage your workforce based on output and not just on instruction and control, then COVID has brought you recruitment opportunities.
What does your current organisation, Barentz, do to drive its sustainability agenda?
Barentz is the Global Life Science and Specialty Performance Ingredients Distributor specialising in Human Nutrition, Pharmaceuticals, Personal Care, Performance Materials and Animal Nutrition, creating unique synergies across all fields of expertise.
At Barentz, we acknowledge our responsibility to contribute to a more sustainable world. We have developed a Global ESG organization to champion sustainability initiatives.
Our responsible sourcing policy seeks to ensure ethical practices in our supply chain, reduce environmental impact, and support workers and growing communities. These values include how we work with our suppliers across our supply chain.
In our role as distributor, we have always had a strong focus on long-term relationships with suppliers as well as with customers. An important part of our role in the supply chain is that we continuously monitor global developments that could pose a threat to these relationships. More importantly, we look at opportunities that could improve our partnerships.
So we develop strong partnerships, deliver ingredients and customized solutions for a more sustainable world. As the leading ingredient distributor at the very heart of life science, we know that ecosystem’s long-term prosperity is ultimately our own. That’s why at Barentz, we’re in the business of creating better solutions that enable sustained success for our customers and communities, our principles, people and ultimately the planet. And so, empowered by principles of knowledge, entrepreneurship, and partnership, we’re persistently conquering old challenges while unearthing entirely new opportunities. This continuous pursuit of better is what Barentz was founded on seven decades ago, and it’s what continues to be the key ingredients shaping our future success.
What changes have you seen in the employment market in the past five years?
The biggest change I experienced is the infrastructure needed to ensure a better work-life balance, which was already in progress but further forced to by COVID. What you see is that COVID really made a change enabling a new balance in work and personal life – which doesn’t necessarily mean that people were going to work less. I see that it has increased productivity; employees have been much more efficient, however not necessarily more effective. It reminds me to what happened when the iPad came on the market in 2010, and when we decided to provide one to each employee. The productivity increased tremendously as employees were using the iPad on the couch at night to answer their e-mail. The iPad was for me personally the first big gamechanger to better manage my work life balance.
I also see discussions popping up that people should be at work again for five days a week. We should not forget that about half of the workforce in Western Europe is not working in an office, but in e.g. a warehouse, production facility, store, schools, hospitals, etc. and simply can not work remotely due to a nature of their job. For those people who do have the opportunity - and if you have it organised in a good way - it certainly will have a positive effect on the output. Hybrid working is by the way not just related to working from home, it’s also about managing your workforce based on output. It’s about freedom when and where to get the work done and not per se to work from 9 to 5.
I think this is currently the biggest shift in the employment market in how we organise labour and why employees choose for one company versus the other.
You are currently shaping the HR function at Barentz to facilitate the accelerated growth, could you share an insight into this process?
Barentz has experienced an accelerated growth in the last two to three years, in this period we have been growing from appr. €800 million to appr. €2.5 billion.
Barentz currently employs 2.500+ employees in 90+ companies in 70+ countries and on 4 continents. There are larger and smaller companies and different divisional concentrations per continent which impacts the way how to organise HR locally, regionally and globally.
The operational HR, so contracting and payrolling, has always been organised locally and I support this set up based on the size of the average company and the variety in local rules and regulation.
What’s more important is that we’re aligned in the way we think, in terms of purpose and values and make sure that we hire new people who are a fit for purpose to strengthen our DNA.
We have a low natural attrition rate and attract those employees who’re driven by knowledge and entrepreneurship. We like our employees to develop their knowledge, think out of the box and constantly look for new formulated solutions for our principals and customers. We have a high percentage of employees that work for our companies for 10+ years. New companies are joining us through our M&A activities, because they feel comfortable with our family principles, because they trust our company to be a perfect fit for their future purpose. Through our partnerships we make more happen.
So, how will we build HR further? HR supports regionally the HR agenda for the respective region, which is different per region as one region is more established than the other. We facilitate all those different companies by a good philosophy on personal development, and make sure that people across the organisation will become able to better network, making use of the relations and knowledge we have within our organisation. We have therefore introduced the Barentz Academy, a new learning and development platform developed by Cornerstone, to support our philosophy on Performance Management, Succession Planning and Learning which will be - by the end of this year - implemented in all our 70+ countries. The Barentz Academy, where all the knowledge can be found stands for who Barentz is. This continuous pursuit knowledge is what Barentz was founded on seven decades ago, and it’s what continues to be the key ingredients shaping our future success. This is a good example of how we build HR.
How would you prioritise your work and social life and ensure that your wellbeing is still intact?
I believe HR is my second nature. Each day feels like a Saturday for me, as I love my job and want to be the best HR professional I can be. I love to be surrounded by people who are likeminded.
You can say I have two families; one I’m really married to and the other one I’m professionally married to. For me, my HR team is kind of like a family. My partner is an HR professional, and my eldest daughter is a recent HR graduate, so you can guess what the topics are when we’re having dinner.
What advice would you give to someone who is starting their career within HR?
Please start in HR-administration, in HR operations as a generalist. Most HR graduates want to start as an HR advisor or as a HR business partner; I can understand that they have that ambition, but it’s important to first make some miles in the HR back office, the HR operations which I see as a roundabout where all effects of the HR centres of expertise come together and become visible. A great place to learn and see what HR can do to an organization and what comes along with it. You see and can learn from the issues that are caused by maybe not good HR business partnering, wrong hires or not well thought restructuring. You learn best when you learn on mistakes. When you know how not to do something, you know how to do it right.
It also gives you the time to understand where you fit best. Give it time - on average, we work for 40-50 years, so don’t rush - look around, be open to learn and develop to become the best HR professional. You can have an opinion, but also make sure you listen to others and keep your eyes and ears open.
What interesting books or podcasts are you currently reading or listening to?
I want to share my most favourite one, which I believe I have read maybe ten times. It’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People from Stephen Covey. When you have studied HR, it should be on your list.
Now, I am listeing to an audiobook called Growing the Elephant by Chris Altizer. I met Chris during one of the think-thank sessions with David Ulrich in London where we discussed the future of the HR Business Partner model. Chris used to be the Senior Vice President, Human Resources for Pfizer. Today he’s giving lectures at Florida International University.
He actually discusses the inclusion and diversity subject in different ways; you cannot change a culture that easily, as it takes time. He gives some great advice in his book. You have to take advantage of the opportunities; he shares some good examples of how it can work and how we can deal with it. I would say it’s one that I would advise everyone to read. To summarise what the book is about, I would call it the DNA transformation.
In your opinion, how will HR evolve in the next five years?
We are discussing constantly how HR is developing and what HR is going to look like, and how we organise it with business partners, centres of expertise and with operations.
Of course, the administration part is developing through digitalisation, but it is becoming more and more important how we acquire talent. I think it is important that we hire people that are really a fit for purpose. The attention on good talent acquisition, as well as the profession, is key. I would say that we were always looking to complement the hard part of HR and I do see there is a growing need for a better-balanced work life.
We need to be more creative about what the purpose of the organisation is and what kind of people will be needed. The need to make sure that your proposition is clear, your team is fit for purpose, and that you know what exactly is a good fit, and hire the right people that can add the value needed.
Make sure that you engage with the people in your organisation and you not only say what your values are, but that you breathe and live them. Ensure the programmes you provide are able to engage your staff and make them feel comfortable. That also means that you have to look at wellbeing. HR is going more and more in that direction.
Thank you to Frans for speaking to Alison Whiten, Associate Consultant in our HR recruitment team in the Netherlands.
Gwen Burbidge is the CHRO at WeTransfer in Amsterdam. She started her Human Resources career as an intern at Organon over 20 years ago. Gwen has extensive experience in different industries, including healthcare, scientific publishing, and the IT and tech sector, which took her to WeTransfer in 2019.
What are the recruitment challenges that you face at the moment at WeTransfer?
The main challenge we're facing is the constant flux that we're experiencing - from going fully remote and starting to build out your remote workforce, to a period where people are a little bit more willing or maybe even needing to have social interactions and wanting to come back to the office more.
At WeTransfer, we work with an Employer of Record solution for some of our international hires, through a company called Deel, to help us employ people in other countries - opposed to the countries we have entities in - to really make use of the remote work opportunities. But it's complex to hire in multiple countries, so it’s important to investigate your options well.
Even if you have a partner like Deel, which takes away the burden of having having to research everything yourself and design the right contracts with all the right specifications for that specific country, and making sure we pay all of our social taxes and normal taxes, income taxes, and everything you need to do, it's still challenging.
We have noticed changes in the tech recruitment market; we see so many tech companies struggling to either find funding or running out of funding that they need to downsize their workforce. We often see these companies being open about it and sharing the details of their employees to help them secure new jobs.
Profitable companies, like WeTransfer, are therefore in a better place with regards to being able to attract, still scarce, tech talent, so we are able to focus more on our hubs in the UK, the Netherlands and the USA. We are able to provide visas for the Netherlands and will provide relocation assistance.
WeTransfer has a hybrid approach to work. You do not have to come to the office, but if you do like to come, you are more than welcome.
How do you feel the workplace will have changed as we emerge from the global pandemic?
That's also very much in line with what we just discussed. I think, at WeTransfer, we were struggling before the pandemic with remote work. We were in a constant debate whether we were remote-friendly, or remote-first, or remote at all.
There were different parts of our business that used different definitions for remote work, as well. Our Engineering team was not remote-first, but was definitely remote-friendly. Our Creative team was not remote at all; everybody needed to be in the office to make use of each other's creativity and the tools we have available.
What the fully remote period has taught us is that we really need to be thoughtful, and make sure we don't underestimate and under-utilise our remote talent, because - every time you set up a meeting that is not remote-friendly - you're losing out, because you won't get as much input from your remote team as you could.
The reason why you hired remote people is often because they are very specifically skilled. So, it's a double negative if you hire these rare specialists, but then you don't set up your meetings or your teams in a way that they can excel. That is something that we've learned, and now we need to persevere our learning and not fall back into our old habits.
I go to the office maybe two or three times a week and it is such a nice energy; it is so nice to not have to talk to people on the screen.
There was some research recently which said that 82% of employees feel they are more productive at home, whereas 87% of managers think people are more productive in the office. So, I do wonder: are managers not productive when working from home?
In your opinion, what changes have you seen to the employment market in the Netherlands?
I'm not super familiar with the employment market in the Netherlands, because most of the people that we hire have an international background.
What I've seen overall in the employment market is that there is a real desire to work for companies that make an impact and want to do good in whatever way, shape or form.
For example, we have a position open for an Executive Assistant for our CEO and CFO. I think, because we're B Corp, and because we do wonderful creative work and want to support the creative industry and creators and creatives, we had 250 applications in two days, which is mind-blowing. Luckily, I don't have to review all the CVs, but I was looking at the first 12 that were selected by our recruiter, and they were all amazing CVs. Many of them referenced the B Corp.
The first reason why they want to work with us - the engineers, designers and the creatives - is because of our products. They love the product, they love the creativity, they love the work that we do with artists, so that's number one, and then our people. After that, it's really B Corp and wanting to do the right thing.
Of course, there's so many things we can still improve on, but having that focus and being vocal about it helps people discover our organisation. Being vocal is always scary, because once you’re vocal about it, you will be scrutinised every step of the way. Our employees are also super critical on everything that we do as a business. This keeps all of us on our toes and gives us some unique advantage over other employers.
What is a memorable moment from your career and why?
I think my most memorable moment was in my previous role. I was VP People Services for a US healthcare company called DaVita, and we ran dialysis clinics in different countries. I was responsible for Europe and the Middle East. My region included Poland, Portugal, Germany, and the head office in the Netherlands - all in all, an organisation of around 600 people.
I thought, this is a nice comfortable step back into being part of a team again, which I really missed, having been a freelancer for six-and-a-half years when my kids were small.
I think it was two months after I joined when my boss called me and said, you need to go and buy in Abaya. I didn’t even know what an Abaya was. He said, you need to get a visa and go to Saudi Arabia, as we had just won a massive tender there to build around 26 clinics and treat 5,000 patients from scratch.
There was absolutely nothing there. There were zero people. There was one person, actually, a Country Manager, and that was it. And it was like, okay, you need to go over there, find out what we need from a people perspective, and sort it out.
That journey for me lasted about four years. In that time, we hired 800 people, and we built 23 clinics. But, what was memorable about it, is that Saudi Arabia is a country you've never experienced before and probably never will. It's not very friendly to foreign workers and it's not known for being very friendly to women, so I was very nervous about going.
To find our healthcare workers, we had to travel to India, the Philippines, Jordan and Egypt, and many other countries to recruit nurses and doctors. For me, this was such a learning experience. For example, the healthcare workers from the Philippines are extremely well-educated, knowledgeable and simply amazing at what they do; it is a way of life for them to go to another country, earn enough to repay their student loans and save to be able to buy a house back home. They know this choice will make them only see their children once a year for their holidays.
Mind blowing to me, so I found it really hard, and I was ready to say, we're not doing this, we're not hiring anybody with kids. However, my colleague said, if we hired them, we can take care of them in the way that is best for them, so let's make sure they have the best experience, because - if we don't hire them - somebody else will and they will go, because they have all these financial obligations.
It was super tough, and I learned so much about myself and about my values. I learned how to build a community within the walls of our clinics, where women could manage Saudi men, which was unthinkable outside of the walls of our clinics.
I interviewed all the doctors myself when we started, because I wanted to be absolutely sure they would be open to having a female boss. I interviewed maybe 50 doctors, maybe more, from different countries.
For example, if they would not turn on their screen when interviewing with me, that was a clear signal. I would ask them questions, I would do little case studies, asking them about a nurse that would come up to them and challenge their decision on a prescription for a certain patient, and how they would respond to that. Very simple questions, I think, but very revealing.
This method obviously is not 100% waterproof, but it starts with being very intentional about your recruitment and not taking any chances. If you see an orange flag, just do not hire.
How do you feel a job seeker can stand out in the current market?
That’s a very tough question, to be honest, because - if you think about a job seeker - I immediately go to a CV and those kinds of things. In the olden days, when I started my career, you still needed to write a motivation letter; that is almost never the case anymore.
Sometimes, you do have to fill in a couple of questions, which I think is really helpful, because it gives you insights into the motivation, passion, drive and the energy that somebody brings, and that is really what makes me hire people.
I know my Head of Recruitment does not like me saying that, because we need to look at skills and competencies, and that's also very true. I also feel that, with the right curiosity and willingness, there's so much you can learn. You don't need to have done everything on the list.
I can struggle with CVs that have one year here, and then six months here… I know I shouldn’t look at that too hard - especially if they have worked at start-ups - as that is sometimes start-up life.
Start-ups are not always successful and then you need to move on. But, for me, it’s really important that somebody - at least once in their career - has gone through all the difficulties; making certain decisions and then having to deal with the outcomes of these decisions, by going through a couple of cycles and knowing that things change, and you have to adapt to that change.
Sticking it out for a little while is something that is important to me; it doesn’t necessarily need to be in the workspace, but somewhere. That, for me, shows some commitment and also some perseverance.
Who is the most inspiring person in business for you and why?
That is such a tough question, so I'm going to cop out of it a little bit. My answer is all the emerging social impact entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs that are really setting up their business, like Toms shoes, where you buy a pair of shoes and then a pair of shoes is given to someone else. Or CTalents, who work hard to make sure we don’t miss out on the talent out there with hearing or visual limitations, but plenty of other skills to compensate.
There’re so many initiatives and there're so many really motivated, clever and dedicated people out there. I find it really hard to name one.
My last question: how will digital transformation change the role of HR?
I think it already has. We were talking about this not too long ago, when we were looking at the strategy of WeTransfer and how that then influences the HR strategy. There's a clear need for us to become more data-driven. Everybody says that, but what does that mean? What are you going to do with the data and how are you going to interpret it? What decision can you make based on data and what decisions do you have to be a little bit careful with? So, what we said was, we want to be data informed and human-driven.
What I've seen in some of the larger organisations is a tendency to really focus on data and then forgetting about the human aspect. A lot of the new systems allow managers to be much more hands-on and do many of the tasks that originally were part of the HR tasks. In a lot of ways, that is really good, because I think you have the closest relationship with your manager. So, the more equipped and the more informed they are, the better they are able to help you, and to assist you, and help you grow and thrive.
The HR team can then take a step back and look at the wider trends affecting the organisation, so I think that's the good part of the digitalisation. We just have to be thoughtful, that being data-driven does not replace the human connection.
I think digital transformation has changed HR for the better; there is more autonomy and support for people managers, and I think employees also enjoy being able to do a lot of the things themselves, and having the tools and access to the tools to organise their work, and organise their benefits, or organise other parts.
Overall, I think it’s been good. We just have to be careful about humans becoming statistics.
Thank you to Gwen for speaking to Melissa Adey, Senior Consultant in our HR recruitment team in the Netherlands.