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Q&A with Sara Roberts and Douglas Hamer, Citi Asia Pacific

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Why this Citi needed to go digital

Q&A with Sara Roberts, managing director, and head of talent and learning for Citi Asia Pacific; and Douglas Hamer, head of strategy and planning for talent and learning at Citi Asia Pacific

Vital Stats: Sara Roberts heads the talent and learning function for Citi in Asia Pacific focusing on senior leadership succession planning, development of the leadership pipeline, employee engagement and driving learning transformation.

Douglas Hamer covers 14 markets in Asia Pacific, where he is focused on talent and learning strategies and planning, HR transformation, and operational management of the function, comprising talent management, L&D, performance management, and diversity and inclusion.

Q How would you summarise Citi’s broad HR philosophy?

S: I would summarise it as progressive in terms of always looking at how we can improve what we deliver to our business with more of a focus on driving efficiencies through innovation. We have a firm view on being real strategic partners with the business. HR isn’t an adjunct function that reacts to the business – we sit at the top table with our business, whether that’s globally, regionally or locally –and that gives us the opportunity to directly engage in the overall operation of the business.

Q From a bird’s-eye perspective, what do you suggest would be HR’s biggest contribution?

S: At Citi, HR is strategically engaged with the business throughout the employee life cycle and that makes the function valued. From a learning point of view, the very exciting part of our journey is the way we look at different engagement propositions for our employees from productivity, skill re-profiling to retention strategies.

D: One of the things we’ve got much better at is rather than being reactive to the business demand, we are on the front foot and questioning the business and helping to shape the people practices. We are being a bit braver about our contribution, and recognising the value that we bring.

The significant piece is around our talent journey, in how we identify talent for succession planning. We have done a really nice job over the past several years in doing that in a methodical way – making sure we have the right people in the right roles, how to develop them, and move things around in a planned and organised way. Underneath that are things such as leadership programmes in which we’ve put some real rigour to developing our leaders and feeding into the talent pipeline.

Q Could you give examples of leadership development programmes you are particularly proud of?

S: If you roll the clock back 10 years, when you went to different parts of our organisation, you would see different ways in how we were developing leaders. Over the past five to 10 years, we have focused on a globally consistent curriculum as well as language, so that wherever you go, you speak the same “leadership” language.

The other thing I’m really proud of is the way our leaders teach leaders. We have seen how impactful it is when our leaders stand up and engage with leaders and people managers in the organisation. Because that’s the real sense of ownership – setting the tone, role modelling and leading from the top of the organisation.

D: I think that has been a huge advantage – we have identified the expectations we have of people and what makes them successful, and we are testing, recruiting and developing people against that standard. There is much more consistency end-to-end, and that has been a really positive step forward.

Q How involved is the HR division in engaging leaders – is there a structured programme?

D: Annually, we have a programme to be clearly aligned to one of the big strategic initiatives of the business, for example, in 2015, it was around ethics. This is a global programme where HR is the driver in engaging strategically with our leaders at the top of the organisation, making sure they are speaking the same language and championing the message.

Q How has corporate learning evolved at Citi – processes and technology?

S: There are two trends that have emerged over the past couple of years – one is around digital learning and technology, and the other is more about driving culture change in learning.

On the digital side of things, one very visible change is that in 2015, we recruited a global team of digital learning experts. We’d never had that in the organisation – a group within our learning organisation focused on digital learning innovation. And that’s been a significant difference for us.

D: Having brought in that team has really accelerated the pace of change, and it feels like in the next one or two years, we are going to drive a lot of the change in the learning space. We have put ourselves in a great place to accelerate beyond the competition – having gone from digital learning not being a strength to having some great folks in place who have the opportunity to embrace the future.

Q What are the tenets of digital learning you have introduced?

D: We are trying to drive a collaborative approach to learning – so it’s not just about the expertise the learning function brings, but to have a collaborative platform where people can share their experiences, and the informal learning they’ve had just by having a conversation or attending/ reading something. This goes beyond the traditional types of learning. The organisation has really embraced that with the launch of My Career – our online career resources platform.

S: We’ve taken some risks that allow us to be a little bit more edgy. In My Career, we are using gamification tools, which we have been doing in the recruiting space, but we haven’t been doing in the career development space. We have not done something like this before for a mass audience – all of our thousands of employees across the region have access to this collaborate site and resources. These resources have been really well received and we’ve had great feedback.

Q Can you summarise how the concept of My Career was executed?

S: What it fundamentally does is put employees in the driving seat of  their career. It allows access to career assessment tools – an opportunity to get feedback about themselves, so they can see where they are in their career journey. It gives access to internal and external materials such as research articles, online learning videos and personal career journeys of leaders across the region.

In terms of how we achieved that, it was through leadership sponsorship. My Career was sponsored by our regional CEO – it wasn’t just putting his name to the initiative, but really driving it in terms of his expectations and outcomes. That gave us the opportunity to make changes in how we engage with our employees.

The other thing we really enjoyed was that it was a multi-functional initiative. We worked with technology, corporate affairs and marketing.

D: Certainly, it’s the first time in the talent and learning space that we’ve done something of this scale that wasn’t just an HR-driven initiative. The business had a need and we responded in a crossfunctional way. That was a huge driver behind its success.

The leadership piece was so important. The regional CEO and his senior team really wanted to be ambassadors; they wanted to get their stories out there. That level of engagement and excitement at the top of the house filtered down, and worked really nicely for us.

Q Is My Career as an online portal?

S: Yes it is and that was important for us. One of the things we recognised is that we have no shortage of content – we needed a platform that enabled collaboration because we see this as changing the way we engage in learning and increasing positive outcomes. In helping our managers, it was important we had a platform that evolves organically and was easy to refresh content.

D: My Career is about being the primary communication channel that drives everything into one place. Create a single place to find all things talent, learning and performance-based – but in a way that’s fresh and engaging, and easy for people who don’t have huge amounts of time to access and respond. So it needed to be quick, easy and well-organised. That was a sticky piece.

The other piece is once we have done that, it needs to feel new and interesting to keep people coming back. We’ve got to think about how we can keep it refreshed, without it becoming a huge task to do that.

Q What were some of the biggest challenges you encountered when you launched this?

S: With the career assessment tools, we were using some external tools, so we had some understandably strict controls about firewall and access to personal information, and the requirements around security. It was about walking through the various steps, and perhaps it took a little bit more time than we expected. It required persistence and tenacity.

D: Symptomatic of that, we are a large organisation, sometimes we do get in our own way. It was about breaking down some of those barriers to get to where we needed to be.

But the great thing is that other than that, it was just very exciting. The only thing was the speed at which the expectation was there, and the speed at which we wanted to get there. With the CEO pushing for it, we had the pressure to deliver because people were excited about it.

S: What was also really good was the recognition that we needed to focus on quality, relevance and impact, so we were able to adjust our timelines to ensure we had a quality product.

D: I feel really good about it. That balance of speed and quality was really important. One of the great things we did was have a pilot, which was launched with a selective group of employees from which we got some rich feedback. This enabled us to get clear about where we wanted to focus when we launched.

Q Did you conduct any change management initiatives to encourage people to embrace digital learning?

S: There were a few components. One as we mentioned was sponsorship – the CEO and senior leaders giving their buy-in. The other component was around communication and engagement. We had to make sure that we were keeping our stakeholders, senior leaders, HR community and employees engaged in terms of adjusting their mindset and practices in terms of driving their professional and career development.

D: Another component was having champions on the ground. Working through a multi-country region, cultures and languages are different. It was about understanding local complexities such as language, messaging and inventory, and making sure these worked for our local partners. It required the balance of staying true to the principles of being able to flex and tweak things to make it work best in each of the locations, while providing our partners some broad principles.

Q What impact have you seen from this focus on digital learning on your employees – engagement rates, satisfaction scores?

D: It is a little early for that. We have an annual temperature check for the mood of employees and we’ve baked into that some questions specifically around the initiative. One of the drivers was to make sure people are having more robust conversations and a solid plan in place for their career. We’ve just completed our year-end performance cycle, so we will see if those plans are of quality.

What we do have is great numbers around traffic – the number of people who have accessed the site, are commenting and taking the various assessment tools. The level of engagement has been very high, with almost 200,000 hits to the site since the launch, and we have just refreshed the navigation of the site based on user feedback so we hope we can sustain that engagement. Some of the more qualitative measures will come a little later, as we only launched in April 2016.

Q What about numbers on the engagement – page views, traffic, etc?

D: Since the launch, we’ve seen well over a third of our population, approximately 26,000 employees, engaging with the site.

S: We found that access rates really go up when we put new career videos and stories on the site. People like reading stories about other people’s careers. When you read the debate and conversation, people get very inspired and it seems to have an impact on their own aspirations to go on and do different things.

Q How do you predict the future of HR within the banking industry?

S: It has to be aligned with the way the business is evolving. The key strategic drivers such as digitisation and globalisation drive the business, so they drive how we look at our own HR strategies. For example, robotics and the implication that will have on the way we engage with our employees.

D: Our ability to bring things together by standardising and streamlining has really worked. The digital piece is really a make or break – if we don’t get ahead of that as an organisation, and if we’re not a front player in that digital space, we’re going to find it very difficult to exist.

Art Direction: Shahrom Kamarulzaman; Photography: Elliot Lee, Nikon Ambassador (Singapore); Makeup & Hair: Michmakeover using Make Up For Ever & hair using Sebastian Professional.

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