Faces of HR

HR’s Thoughts on Balancing Company Culture and National Culture

Sandra was an HR Works Podcast 5-Minute Friday guest, listen to that here.

“Culture” is a word that, in the world of HR, means company culture. But sometimes, a nation’s, a region’s, or an ethnicity’s culture becomes an important part of how HR maintains its company culture. Today’s “Faces of HR” guest has traveled all over the world and managed HR for global organizations. Her perspective offers some very interesting insights.

Meet Sandra Hannon, global head of Human Resources at Solve.Care.

How’s everything going?

We’re good. We have had quite a busy time recently. We had, like everybody else, a kind of unusual 2020, but I think we came out OK. The moment 2020 started to kick in with all of its teeth, we gathered everybody together and said, “Listen, this is going to take at least a year. This time next year, we will still be in this situation.” So, we got a plan together and got the troops together, and managed to navigate it fairly well. We have quite a lot of Millennials and quite a lot of the Zoom generation on our team, and they’re very into feedback and sticking close and coming into the middle to talk about what they want from the organization and the other way around. I’m very satisfied with how we managed to get through it all.

I’m glad to hear that. How did you find yourself working in an HR role in the first place?

I rolled into HR by accident. First of all, I’m Irish living abroad, so I needed to find an organization that I could work with that actually spoke English, and a friend put me into contact with an organization in the town in Holland that I was living in. I went there to meet with an English guy and fairly immediately clicked with him. I was working for him on a project basis, but he said to me, “You know something? You’d be good at HR. You’re kind of no-nonsense but good with people. Why wouldn’t you explore that now?” I said, “OK. Yeah, sure.” I started to explore and did a couple of qualifications, and from one thing came the other, and as my role started to expand and I started to see the full extent of what HR actually could do for the organization, I became an HR addict.

Then I went on to gather my diplomas and degrees and so forth and so forth. I think the basis really is passion and seeing what people can actually mean for an organization if we harness this correctly. I’ve never looked back, to be perfectly honest. It’s been good for me, partly because I like change. I like change, I like challenge, and I like having to go to weird places and get weird stuff done. The organization I worked for at the time was international—very international actually. I spent a lot of time traveling in the Far East, in India, in Indonesia, and in the Americas, literally rolling out change or rolling back change. For example, being sent out to Ho Chi Minh for 3 weeks to do a job was absolutely the kind of thing that I love to do.

I gather the old air miles and have a wonderful time in the meantime. That’s really about rolling with the blows and getting stuff done and coming back home and doing the job. So, moving to Kiev after my previous job was a natural progression, in terms of being an entirely different thing now instead of running HR in a larger organization where you’re one of many. I’m here at the center rolling out something that needs to be able to be scaled in time and where I’m much closer to operational HR. It combines two of my great interests: real people and the global chapter where we’re looking to find people in the farthest corners of the world with a particular skill set and then bring them into the center to work for us or now remotely. I’m a happy accident, and I’m still in contact with the guy who put me onto my HR career. Once a year, we meet together, and we laugh about the good old days. I’m very happy with my own career progression now.

I spent some time in Amsterdam just about 2 years ago. I just absolutely loved it there. My wife and my daughter and I went out there. It’s just such a great place; the energy there is just really refreshing. I guess this is kind of a two-pronged question: Have you found that, as you’ve worked in the HR role globally, there are certain things that are sort of the same across the globe? Do the same HR concepts work everywhere, or is that not the case at all?

No. I think there is a general theme to what people want. In my experience, they want to be treated like individuals, and they want to be treated with respect and kindness. I’ve worked with HR now in a number of countries and geographic regions, and I think people want to have some kind of meaning to what they’re doing in general. For me, that’s a reason for a career switch, and I’m not the only person. Today, I had three or four interviews with technological architects, and they are all looking for the same thing. They’re well-paid, but the job just doesn’t do it for them.

I find meaning working in something like we are where we’re changing the face of health care forever or disrupting it entirely because everybody has someone who’s been in the healthcare system, right? You have, I have, your mom, my mom. We can all see that we didn’t have a choice; health care was done to us, and this is what we are looking to change.

What I see here with the young people, even at the most difficult times of the organization, is that they believe in what we’re doing, and they’re sticking with it. So, to your question “Are there common concepts?”—yes. I think we’re human beings no matter what, no matter what color or creed we are. Meaning in life, being treated with respect and being able to provide for our families are basic needs for all of us.

Of course, there are nuances, right? There are different things in different areas that we might do differently. For example, in the Far East, they will give feedback but probably more in a group. In Holland, they want to give you their feedback, and you are going to get it. So, there are nuances, but I think regardless of that, people at the core are human beings with those needs.

One of the things that’s interesting about corporate culture and company culture, at least here in the States, is what a continuous and ongoing challenge it is across one country, and then when you’re talking about a global organization like yours, you’re talking about the intersection of company culture with real culture. What has that experience been like for you? What have the challenges been?

There are always two tastes in that. When you’re rolling out something globally, it has to tick a couple of general boxes, but we also still have to look to what the local needs might be. For example, today, we were talking about which national holidays we should celebrate as an entire team. It’s practically impossible because there is no one holiday, except Christmas. But some of them are definitely more pertinent, like Diwali in India is simply one we cannot overlook. It’s about the balance between what we need as an organization but not ticking the boxes for everybody to the point where it tastes like nothing at the end of the day.

I asked the local team what would be meaningful for them. What would really do it for you if we celebrated this, that, or the other? At my previous company, we had a conversation about one of the local feasts during which it’s traditional to give a small amount of money to a particular group in that particular country. Some were saying, “Oh, would we do this? And what will it do to our revenue and our turnover?” I said, “Oh, really? Please. For poor people. Come on, guys. Get over yourselves.” That was kind of the small shift in looking at global and then being human enough to look at local. You have to get the balance right, and you can only do that right if you listen to the local people and try to include that as much as you can. I don’t believe in one size fitting all. I think we should have as little of that as possible, but sometimes, you have no other way. Again, it’s getting the balance right.

It’s a tricky one, I imagine. It reminds me of how when I grew up, there was a somewhat large Jewish population in my school—large enough that we got a number of Jewish holidays off. Then, when I went to another school, they didn’t do that because there were only a few Jewish kids. It kind of blew my mind a little bit. I asked myself, why not for these kids? It’s just one of those things that didn’t make sense to do if there were only two kids who were going to have the day off. The easier way was just to give that discretion to the parents of those kids if they wanted to pull them for those days.

I was talking to my son about this last week. He is 18 and just going to university, and I’m just fascinated to see the different things I have noticed with him. I think it’s the same with the other kids who come to our house at that age; they don’t see color, creed, or religion in the way we did, for example. They couldn’t care less. And anyway, they’re not always even really seeing them. They’re on their video games, and they’re just talking to anybody on the planet—black, white, or navy blue, he doesn’t care. As long as they’re good gamers, he’ll be connecting with them. I think that is something we’re going to see a lot more of. We’ve got 67% of the Zoom generation here, and they’re quite good with interaction, but actually, it’s all about the social media they can have in their hands.

As employers, as well, we have to look to what those particular generations were like. Not that we’re going to stop everything just to cater to their needs, but when the balance of the organization is 67% that way inclined, we have to see what we can do to get the best out of them. They want to work remotely. They were the first and noisiest group here saying “Let us work remotely.” They’ve been great at it, and they can work pretty much anywhere—Bondi Beach, you name it, and they’ll deliver as long as we’re very, very clear about what we want them to do. They’re also the first ones in the door looking for their salary raises, and if they don’t like the comp, they’re out of here, pronto. It’s a different discussion we’re having, and the population here morphs into old, new, and everything in between. That’s been quite a fascinating thing for us to uncover, as well.

Concerning that, the pressures are just so different now. I’m an elder Millennial, and we were severely misunderstood for a long time. All I heard was, “Ah, Millennials. They want to move quickly through the ranks, and they care more about their responsibilities than their money, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” That’s complete nonsense. Nearly all of us have student debt; we need the money, and that’s why we want to move through the ranks. You can’t rely on good annual pay raises anymore. And, in a world where your skills can go obsolete in 6 months in some cases, you can’t stay in a place if it’s not challenging you and if it’s not giving you new skills.

Yes. Absolutely. And in some ways, I see the Zoomer generation as a bit like the Baby Boomers in a sense. We’re like, “Hell is in for me. It’s my job.” The stuff that they’re into. I look at my son, and from a very early age, he was wheeling and dealing and getting his money in crypto. They’re very casual about all this new stuff, and to them, it’s not a challenge anymore. We see it in the business here where they’ll turn their hand to pretty much anything, and they can. They thrive with their iPhones® and their hands.

I think that’s really interesting to see that emerging. Then, you have to kind of roll with it instead of, as you say, being resistant and thinking, “Look at these little jump-ups and upstarts who are looking for all the cash.” The context here and the kids in my age now will have seen parents being employed, deployed, and derecruited at will. They know the loyalty is in short supply, and they’re not going to waste their time looking for it either.

Absolutely. Yeah. It’s one of those things in the mafia movies when the guy’s about to kill the other guy, and he goes, “This is just business. You understand.” And at work, the bottom line is that that’s true. It’s just business. Your companies didn’t know who you were or care about you before you started working for them. And when you’re gone, they might get wistful every once in a while, but it all moves on. So why should we be any different as employees?

Absolutely. If you look at what I see emerging around me and what these people can offer in terms of skills, we’ve had a couple of challenges for the coming year, especially when COVID kicked in. “Where is everybody? Is everybody OK? And are they doing what they need to be?” For us, it’s really all about “OK. He’s young. He might’ve gone here, there, everywhere.” So that was one of our first challenges. Find everybody, and make intensive and frequent contact with them. Then, going forward, it’s about “OK. Well, which project are they on? Do they have someone looking after them? Could they be used for this skill?” We see all these interchangeable projects up and coming that people are being signed to or pulled from in relation to their skill sets.

We’re bringing people from all over the world to fill gaps, and they will then scale up and scale down as the project needs. That’s something we’re having to find out. We’ve pivoted our performance management now from the once-a-year thing or to hit and miss to stop, start, and continue to every 3 weeks. That means saying, “How are you doing? Do more of it. Do less of this.” Then, we do a quarterly review to make sure we’re able to pivot very quickly because one of the things I saw is that we need to be on point with our projects. They’re moving too quickly for us to plan 6 months ahead. We have one today, and we’ll have one in 2 weeks’ time. What skills do we need for that? Architect, right. Blockchain, out, in. As HR, we’re trying to gallop behind the technology team and be a part of them so that they’re able to deliver what they need to do and we’re able to keep the young guys in so that they’re constantly switching and adapting to the projects at hand.

Sometimes, we have to say, “Well listen, we can’t use your skillset, but go and get some experience here and there, and come back to us in a year, and we’ll see how we can use you best then.” That’s about building relationships. And while often, that means they won’t come back, that isn’t always the case. Today already, I’ve gone back to look up “who was that guy who did that project, and can we get him back in for a short-term project?” And most of these Millennials and the generation afterward—the Zoomies—are happy to come back. They like that short-term work to address the CV or to fix the gaps. And it makes us look good because they’re willing to come back and help us out with a particular project.

I understand completely. Here at the HR Daily Advisor, we used to plan things much farther out, and with few exceptions, the content would still be relevant a month or 2 later when we finally launched it. Now that doesn’t work anymore because the HR world changes constantly, quicker than ever before.

It does change quickly. I speak to HR directors, and we’re all looking ahead to the year to analyze what’s important. What are the newest trends? It’s all on its head. Everything we thought was important is gone out the window. And as I said, the first question was: “Where is everybody?” In fact, our need was so acute that we actually developed an app to be able to track them down. It asks, “Is everybody OK?” Literally, “How are you feeling today? Has anybody got COVID?” Because if they had COVID, we could not have them here. And there are a couple of key questions in there. “Are you OK? Are you working? Are you working from home? Do you have the connection and the processes and the stuff you need to be able to work?”

Even today I checked, and in general, 84% were fine. There were a couple of issues. Some people are sick. But at least then, I knew where everybody was. That app was such a success that we’re going to commercialize it now. But it’s all about keeping in touch with them. Then, of course, if something is flagged up, we can do something about it. There’s no point surveying and then hearing nothing more from the team. It’s touching base and checking in that really makes the difference.