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Q&A with Jeff Lam, talent development director, Starbucks

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Growing your people to match the business

Key information: Jeff Lam started his career in investment banking. In search of a more fulfilling career, he made the switch to a more people-focused environment working in the fields of organisation and leadership development, talent management and employee engagement. Now, he puts his love of people as well as numbers to good use as the talent development director at Starbucks Asia Pacific.

Q You have an interesting background. Can you talk a bit about the switch you made and what kind of unique insights your background has given you for the HR industry?

Deep inside me, I’m still a financial analyst. I love numbers and so I started my career in investment banking. I moved to a consulting role when I realised the trading floor wasn’t an environment where I could be at my best. But when I found that that wasn’t where my passion was either, I took some time to re-evaluate and spent six months working in an orphanage in Madagascar.

Having rethought the purpose of my life and what kind of company I really wanted to work for, I made the switch to HR, working as an internal consultant driving change management at Cathay Pacific. Because of my background, I took a very analytical approach to change, based on data and analysis. I came to realise, however, that I was only focusing on rational aspects of change, without considering the emotional component.

So I made the switch to talent management and took a very different approach. I asked myself, “How can I help leaders want to initiate change themselves? How can I speak to their heart?” That solidified my shift from an analytical to a very people-focused role.

To be successful as a HR business partner you need to love the business and know it inside out. One advantage of my background is that I love business and numbers, which gives me context to offer solutions based on genuine business insights.

Q How would you describe the Starbucks business environment in general?

As a business, we operate in a very dynamic environment because we depend on the customers’ discretionary spending. Customers’ constant expectations for new and innovative products require us to be very agile as an organisation. We’re constantly challenging ourselves to innovate to provide a unique Starbucks experience to our customers, and what we’re seeing is that despite changing consumer behaviour, we are doing very well at building our brand, particularly in Asia.

People spend more time shopping online, which could have a direct implication on retail. But rather than seeing a slowdown, Starbucks continues to accelerate its growth. Right now we have over 7,000 stores in the China and Asia Pacific region, a number built up over the course of 21 years. Now, we’re expecting to double that number in the next five years.

Q What role does HR play in ensuring Starbucks continues to meet the demands of such a dynamic environment?

As an organisation with high aspirations, we have to stay agile to respond to changing market needs. One of the things that enables us to do that is operating in a flat, non-hierarchical structure. This allows us to evolve quickly and adapt to any business climate.

Our partners are another key factor, since the organisation can only evolve as fast as the people. In the long run, you can’t have the company strategy change faster than the growth of its people. That’s why two years ago, we changed our performance and development approach to better enable our partners to grow and develop as the company continues to evolve.

In the long run, you can’t have the company strategy change faster than the growth of its people.

Additionally, for us to respond to the dynamic business needs, we also have to be more agile in our goal setting. A lot can change in the retail world over three months, hence, we’re advocating for partners to have a quarterly catch-up with their managers to discuss goals, among other things.

Q You said Starbucks changed its performance and development approach. Can you elaborate?

It’s an approach that works without ratings. We replaced a scheduled rating with an ongoing dialogue. This really goes hand in hand with our open culture in which we encourage partners to have one-on-one meetings with managers or leaders.

The quarterly catch-up is part of the approach, and in addition, most partners will have weekly or biweekly meetings with their managers to discuss any business-related topics, issues or ideas as soon as possible.

The new approach enables managers to align on priorities with partners, easily share feedback and help leaders recognise excellence within the company.

Q Some might say we already have too many meetings, how would you respond to that?

I think it’s about the quality of the meeting. It’s also about the duration. If you are having a one-on-one, it doesn’t have to be a prolonged meeting. But it should really focus on the work someone’s doing and the support they need from their manager.

I do believe Starbucks is quite unique in having many one-on-ones, and I see that for us they are very effective in ensuring alignment and supporting the partners’ development. Combined with the quarterly, more formal check-in, they help drive the business forward.

Q You’ve moved away from ratings completely, but there are studies that suggest ratings actually help motivate people.

I’ve also heard people say they love ratings because they tell them where they stand. But that makes me wonder whether they’re having the right coaching conversation with their managers – are they receiving the right feedback?

Overall, I wouldn’t say a no-ratings approach is for everyone. There are companies that need that structure. But for a company like us, having a rigid process doesn’t seem to fit into our culture, as we want to emphasise the ongoing conversations with partners.

Q Looking into the future, what kind of changes do you foresee in the talent management landscape?

Rather than something new, I would say we will want to go back to the basics. The practice of talent management started to gain traction about two decades ago when McKinsey researchers declared that a “war for talent” was underway, and in the beginning we tried to build a lot of processes and systems around it. But now, after a number of years, we find that they are not really driving what we need.

So we’re already starting to see a trend of companies taking away the processes and bringing the focus back to the conversations. Because the core is really about having that conversation about talent development, sharing feedback and helping partners grow.

The core is really about having that conversation about talent development, sharing feedback and helping partners grow.

Q Yet, technology keeps moving forward and many companies are investing in new HR tech aimed at improving talent management. That doesn’t sound like going back to basics.

I’m not saying that digitalisation isn’t important, because from an employee experience perspective, if I get easier access to my information and feedback, that’s very helpful. But digital systems and processes can’t replace real-life conversations and human interaction. They have to go hand in hand.

Q Speaking of the employee experience, the Starbucks brand is known all over the world – partly for its working culture. What would you say are the main pillars of that culture?

To give you one everyday example of what makes the Starbucks culture such a powerful one, our more than 330,000 people globally are called “partners” – not employees – because there is a foundational belief in shared success. That small, but very important distinction is symbolic of Starbucks’ values.

Additionally, I see three main cultural traits of Starbucks’ partners. First, in Starbucks, to lead is to serve. The concept of “servant leadership” is lived by partners at all levels and embraced by our leaders. In my role, I experience on a daily basis that our leaders aim to serve by listening and caring for our partners.

When I bring up the topic of partners, whether it’s about talent management or other aspects, from the very top of the organisation there is an appetite to hear more. As a HR professional, there’s nothing more encouraging than knowing that people are at the top of the strategic agenda.

A second pillar is transparency. We believe that for leaders to earn trust from partners, they have to be authentic and transparent, and stay true to having a two-way dialogue. As a result, partners throughout the organisation have a voice with leadership.

The third is about diversity and inclusion. I recall at the Talent Management conference organised by Human Resources I shared a story about our Signing Store in Malaysia, the first such Starbucks store worldwide to be operated by deaf partners. Stories like these exemplify that we want to create an inclusive environment with opportunities for all.

Q That almost sounds like a people over profit philosophy.

Part of our mission statement is that we are “performance-driven through the lens of humanity”. We aspire to be a different kind of company – and so we believe we can do both. We have a responsibility to elevate our partners, customers, suppliers and neighbours to create positive change, while delivering an exceptional financial performance.

I’m proud to work for a company that has such a culture of innovation throughout the organisation, from the customer experience to employee benefits. Our values are evident in our long history of industry-leading employee benefits. For example, in April we established a new precedent in China with a fully sponsored critical illness insurance plan for more than 10,000 parents of our partners. The policy honours family values deeply-rooted in the Chinese culture, and represents our responsibility as a company.

Art direction and photography: Evisu Yip

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