Caroline Brent, Senior Vice President at the Future Talent Council, recently spoke with Hans C. Werner, Head of Group Human Resources at Swisscom, a leading telecommunications and IT company headquartered near Berne, Switzerland, about his efforts in leading a major transformation in leadership philosophy and approach in Swisscom’s human resources function. Here is a transcript of that interview.
“We will never be quick enough if we go back to the command and control hierarchical leadership approach.”
Brent: Can you describe what you see as the basis of effective leadership for the future?
Werner: The topic of effective leadership is not new. There have always been discussions about what styles of leadership lead to better results, but at Swisscom we are experiencing a real shift toward empowered leadership. Why is this? It is because speed in our dynamic business environment is king. We need to deliver our products and services more rapidly every year, and we need to adapt to changes in quick succession. The pace of change demands that individuals lead and make decisions themselves. We will never be quick enough if we go back to the command and control hierarchical leadership approach. This applies for absolutely all disciplines and for all levels in any business or institution.
– In addition, employees want to see their influence on the business or institution they work for. They want to create and see their impact grow along with improving their employer’s success. If they don’t see this happening, we will never keep the talent we need to deliver top quality at the required pace. A successful leader needs to be a “servant” leader. To be a servant leader, your critical task is to give your talent the tools and room to grow.
How is the “servant leadership” philosophy supported at Swisscom?
– The entire leadership team at Swisscom agreed on three decisive priorities to drive the company’s transformation for the future:
- Client orientation
– We have decided to handle our transformation through servant leadership via our people, i.e. driven by our employees. We have chosen this approach because we believe it will: Increase the speed of implementation, make best use of scarce skills by allowing people to show what they can do and by avoiding telling them what to do – and allow next generations to create a company environment they love to work in.
HR is setting the standard on servant leadership. How do you implement the philosophy while transforming your own function, HR, at Swisscom?
– HR, as with any part of the organization, must deliver its products and services more quickly than ever before with fewer people. This applies for standard processes like the reimbursement of expenses as well as specialized tasks like an engagement survey or performance management tools. And we need to “sell” these solutions within Swisscom, meaning our products and services must meet the requirements of leaders and employees. This is not different from any other function.
– To accomplish these goals, we initiated a business transformation at HR. We wanted to show that HR could be a trend setter — not an early adopter — as well as innovative and entrepreneurial. We could easily have created an HR project team and thought through new HR models and structures, or we could have engaged a group of consultants to help us design the new HR delivery model.
– Instead, we decided on an entirely different approach. We started by asking for volunteers from within the HR organization who would like to work on a new HR delivery model. We asked them to define what they expected from a state-of-the-art HR delivery model and to suggest how we could best deliver it. We want HR to be seen as the champion and expert in cultural transformation. I believe this will be one of the critical skills in the future.
“A successful leader needs to be a ‘servant leader’. To be a servant leader, your critical task is to give your talent the tools and room to grow.”
What kind of working approach did you employ?
– We used an “application market place” approach and asked who wanted to contribute to the design of the new HR organization. We were really surprised at the number of colleagues who wanted to advise how HR could become more agile and effective.
And what was the outcome of the approach?
– The teams developed a new HR delivery model. They divided the HR function in two parts. The first part contains standard processes, often administrative, like salary or recruiting; things employees expect from HR. It is also the part, where we focus on HR self-services to empower managers and employees, because HR cannot add value to these tasks.
– The second part represents the more specialized side of HR; consulting, talent attraction, succession planning or people development, etc. Here the team developed an “agile” setting, bringing together HR consultants and HR specialists in squads and chapters. Instead of an organization where HR business partners are dedicated to a line manager and his business unit, and then function as kind of interface among managers, employees and HR, they now form HR squads. These are complemented by HR specialists who used to work on specialized teams like people development, transformation consulting, recruiting and so on to build HR chapters. Chapters and squads together form the HR business circle.
– In my view, this will both save resources and increase efficiency. No more silo working, but true teamwork in a supporting culture where a person needs to be a true team member, helping others where needed across many HR areas. Employees will need to develop new skills to support these squads. The challenge is to be faster and state of the art with less resources.
– The members of the chapters will agree among themselves on how to continually develop their discipline. How this will work exactly is still to be explored, but a rotating responsibility or chair role could be considered. We are currently working on how to handle different compensation levels associated with a rotating chair or role to manage an upgrade in skills. There is still work to be done.
– This is an entirely new approach to both HR and organizational design. We let our own people tell us how they wanted us to deliver it. In my opinion, this is true servant leadership.
What was the reaction amongst leadership, within the HR team and the broader organization to your servant leadership approach and this new structure?
– These are two different topics. Servant leadership means a different approach to leading people. This concerns all leaders in our organization, but since most leaders understand the challenges ahead of us, we are well supported by our business leaders in this new approach.
– As I mentioned before, in HR, we want to be thought of as leaders on new ways of bringing people together to create added value for our customers. Therefore, we are well-supported by our business leaders in our new approach. Of course, for those working in HR, it is a time of change, not only in what they may be doing on a day-to-day basis, but also in how things are done. It will not be possible to sit still; you will need to continually learn. This will be harder for some than for others. We are excited about what we are doing. In the broader business, people are excited about both — what we are doing and how we are doing it. We truly believe it is a competitive edge for our business.
What advice would you give to anybody considering a servant leadership way of working in their organization? What will success look like for you?
– In my opinion trust is critical. Our way of working is different and involves a big change for everybody. To keep our talents and to be effective, it is critical that we trust. By this I mean trust your people to guide you to good solutions. Your people are more powerful than you ever thought. Give them the chance to show it. We are beginning our journey. You need strong culture.
– If this is a success, people in our business will say that HR is key to master the challenges ahead. Employees will say how much they love growing and we will be a talent target and a desired employer.