Andrew Ng, HR director at Sanofi, shares his views on why HR doesn’t need to rely on others to help it do its job better, and why it needs to focus on how it can add value to the management agenda instead.
Tell us a bit about your experience leading the HR function at Sanofi.
I have worked in several industries in various local and regional roles, and this is my first working experience in a pharmaceutical and healthcare industry. Sanofi, specifically, is one of the world’s leading healthcare companies, with a business presence in more than 100 countries and total headcount of 110,000 employees worldwide.
I lead the full spectrum of the HR function in Sanofi Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. In these markets, we are more of a sales and marketing organisation, as opposed to our branches in other countries which house mainly R&D and manufacturing facilities. For those countries under my care, 75% of the employees are in sales and marketing roles.
In an organisation where the majority of the employees are under sales and marketing functions, a different dynamic comes into play as far as the workforce and its needs and challenges are concerned.
How is that dynamic different?
Working in this industry has been a great new learning experience for me. For instance, people are moving around mostly within the same industry. So sometimes we don’t have to conduct employment reference checks for new employees, we can simply ask employees in our office who have come from the same organisation (as the new employee). So even though the industry is big, people know each other pretty well.
Were you always interested in pursuing HR as a profession?
It was a pretty conscious decision. My interest in human resources management developed when I was in university and I did my final year thesis related to industrial disputes.
In those days, HR was mainly an administrative, operational and a policing role, dependent on a lot of manual paperwork. My first job title was actually a “personnel executive”.
So, how do you think the HR function has evolved, and where is it headed?
HR has been expected to support the business in recruiting, developing and retaining talent within the organisation. While all these three components are still relevant, we need to be innovative and be aware of the changes of the organisation’s needs and the environment we are operating in. This requires us to review the HR service delivery model that best suits the organisation and which provides the right solutions.
Another critical element to add is employee engagement. This is about engaging employees not only on a head-to-head basis, but also on a heart-to-heart level. Understanding the demographic of our organisation both in terms of its gender mix as well as the different generation needs will have an impact in our design of people policies as well as our rewards and recognition mechanisms. In engaging employees, the competencies of people managers have increasingly become more important, particularly their coaching skills.
In attracting and retaining talent, there are also times where we bring jobs to talent, instead of purely bringing talent to jobs. So there are times where we are fine-tuning our role to fit into the competencies of that specific talent.
“We can always request for HR to have a seat at the table, but if we don’t understand how we can support the business, we’ll have a seat without a strong voice.”
In the past 10 years, the topic of talent development has gained priority due to the shrinking pool of available talent. Multinational organisations are encouraging employees to take charge of their learning and development. Learning is a continuous process and a self-initiated process, with employees taking ownership of their learning in line with their individual development plans.
Individually, I always believed that anything that we initiate has to create value to the people and organisation. So value creation and value-adding is a key thing that I have also prioritised.
How can HR as a function add more value to the business?
While HR has to be a strategic adviser as well as the enabler, we have to first ask ourselves what we can bring to the executive table.
To do this, HR has to understand the business dynamics, the external business environment, the business challenges and the future strategies. Then we have to ask ourselves, “how do we align our HR goals with the business goals, and proactively engage the business leaders in formulating our HR solutions?”
Whenever people discuss ways to help HR perform its role better, I always adopt a different perspective and instead focus on how HR could add value to the management agenda. We can always request for senior HR executives to have a seat at the table, but if we don’t understand how HR can support the business, we’ll have a seat without a strong voice.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
My passion lies in human capital development. I would like to leave my legacy behind in any organisation which I work for in the future. Not just in terms of systems and processes, but also in terms of the right structure to support the business and how we are able to develop people and push them and see how that benefits the organisation.
Presently, this includes a couple of HR initiatives which we are putting in place, particularly with regards to learning and development, employee wellness and C&B. I always think C&B is a core area, and this is a topic which is very close to our people. It goes beyond payroll and administrative services, where pay philosophy, remuneration designs, rewards and recognition mechanisms are essential ingredients to promote the culture of pay for performance.
What improvements would you recommend to the way the HR function is run today?
I often see there is a tendency in some of the HR practitioners to follow structures, systems and work processes. I think that while that is good, we have to realise that all these structures are providing a framework as to how we work. However, we should not be too rigid about them and instead be able to exercise a certain degree of flexibility with regards to this framework.
The new generation of workforce, including Millennials, is also very different in terms of the way they work and interact in the work environment, and this also impacts the way we lead them. What HR can do to improve this is to ensure constant communication between employees and their line managers.
Training can also be given to the line managers on how they can lead the team in a collaborative manner and coach them through a consultative approach. The issue of how people view organisational support has also been becoming increasingly important – especially at different stages of their work life.