5 conversations, 5 minutes each, 5 times a year: How SABIC is ensuring employees and leaders are constantly aligned

5 conversations, 5 minutes each, 5 times a year: How SABIC is ensuring employees and leaders are constantly aligned

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This programme is an important component of SABIC Leadership Way, the company's flexible leadership model created by HR, which encourages positive leadership behaviour, says Mohammed Al-Nafea, GM of HR, MEAF & Asia, SABIC.

Since its formation by the Saudi Arabia Royal Decree in 1976, Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), a petrochemicals company, has come a long, long way. And Mohammed Al-Nafea, GM of HR, MEAF (Middle East/Africa) & Asia, SABIC with over 30 years of experience in diverse roles in the organisation - from spearheading the workforce planning and performance & rewards functions, to establishing the global mobility programmes, to leading business partnering in the MEA region - has seen it all.

He shares with Human Resources Online's Lester Tan that, looking back, SABIC has had "significant growth" in its 50 countries of operations - covering Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, India, and the Philippines - much of which can proudly be attributed to its drive to accelerate the organisation’s growth and differentiation and realise its ambitions, to the tapping of the enormous potential of Asia. This is why, Al-Nafea mentions, SABIC formed two Asia hubs in 2019. "In order to deliver the strategic objectives, this transformation process further reiterated the need of a more focused local leadership and talent building strategy with clear roles and responsibilities for better analytics and decision making to seize market opportunities," he explains.

To help fulfil this mission, Al-Nafea highlights the organisation has adopted the global strategic HR business partnering model - which helps drive talent development with business and function leaders. "To help shape the company’s future, we have a SABIC Young Leadership Council (SYLC), for instance. Launched in 2019, the SYLC is a platform for our young talents to interact with our executive leadership. SYLC’s focus areas – the future of the workplace, cultivating a global company, competitiveness, and future capabilities – fit into existing initiatives and help shape our strategy and future business decisions," he says.

These are a few examples that Al-Nafea humbly says he has had the privilege of being part of, dubbing them as part of the organisation’s "transformational journey". He adds that this seemingly unending career has offered him the chance to work alongside different talented individuals from various teams, and that these experiences have helped him understand the business more to better conceptualise the thought process for enhancing SABIC’s strong and high-performing organisational culture by hiring highly capable individuals, or creating high quality employee experiences so SABIC can be the preferred choice for top talent who can drive business growth.

What's even more humbling is, Al-Nafea recognises the work is not done - not yet, at least.

"As we embrace and enter a new phase of rapid growth, it is all the more crucial that my team and I weigh in on enabling capability and capacity development in Asia and MEAF regions," he tells us.

Read on for the interview.

Q HR leader Josh Bersin shared 15 trends that will shape the workforce in 2022. Based on your expertise and experience, Al-Nafea, how much has the workforce changed? Especially in the MEAF & Asia region. Which trend is most relevant today? Why?

The pandemic has accelerated the cycle of change and redefined the future of work. The macro environmental factors in which an organisation has to manage with, is getting more complex. In order to thrive and succeed, organisations have to be agile and not be limited by boundaries. It means having less constraining reporting lines in the organisation structure and less confining job descriptions.

I firmly believe that learning, skills, and career pathways will become business-critical and are relevant for today, tomorrow and the future. The skills that will be needed in five years’ time from now will be very different. This also suggests that some roles in the future will be obsolete or redundant and new roles will emerge.

Employers must ensure that their workforce is constantly upskilled as per business needs and employees embrace lifelong learning.

In SABIC, we have a robust learning management system (LMS) that aims to foster lifelong learning through over 51,000 virtual courses easily accessible and joint social learning groups to aid employee development and nurture a more competitive talent pool. Since its launch, the company has increased its e-learning hours in the region by close to 60%.

Furthermore, the trend of a hybrid work is the most obvious, perhaps, and is still evolving. However, it may not be a long-term solution when it comes to addressing the constant volatile shifts in the business landscape as we have seen with the pandemic. As such, it is imperative that both employees and employers learn to adapt and ensure that they stay relevant in the long run regardless the obstacles faced in the future.

Q How importantly must businesses, including SABIC, adapt to the trends, and stay relevant in today’s modern market? Can you share three recommendations that can help your peers meet those trends?

Staying relevant and being able to adapt should always be top of mind for all businesses. Businesses should never miss out on their strategy planning and re-addressing their decision-making process to keep up with competition – from new market trends, unforeseeable impact, business and people needs. As the old saying goes, change is the only constant.

Here are my three recommendations:

  1. Have a strong pulse on the changing employee expectations and preferences so you can deliver a high-quality employee experience;
  2. Invest in improving your HR technology infrastructure, and
  3. Invest in developing the HR team’s capabilities to drive the change the business needs them to.

Another trend that I foresee catching up in future is that with the advancement of technology, more roles will become location neutral. We continuously see more jobs being performed from anywhere in the world, barring those with legal or tax restrictions.

Q SABIC has been busy these months with, for instance, its partnership with the Higher Institute of Plastic Fabrication (HIPF), and its completion of breast cancer screening project for women. These have contributed to its recognition as a top employer in the region for the ninth time. This is only possible when a leadership-led culture is present. Can you share with us: How did the organisation build this culture where responsible, empathetic, and giving projects are supported?

As business needs evolve, SABIC’s HR leaders redefine their leadership culture to align with new internal and external challenges. In response to an increasingly dynamic business environment, we realised a need to unify and modernise our leadership culture to move away from one that focused on traditional and process-driven competency models to one that would focus on shaping balanced, transformational leaders.

At SABIC, we focus on the 'SABIC Leadership Way' (SLW) of expectations and emphasis on supporting communities we operate in. SLW lays the foundation of our culture and how we do things in SABIC.

To nurture global business leaders with the right skills and mindsets, SABIC’s HR leaders created SLW, a flexible leadership model. SABIC’s SLW model is recognised by global research and advisory firm, Gartner in 2021, as best practice for other businesses to adopt. SABIC’s SLW model provides leaders with strategic insights into leadership culture, by encouraging positive leadership behaviour, and helping individuals to grow and adapt as business contexts change, especially through the COVID-19 pandemic. The SLW model is also used to attract talent, engage employees and drive better industry recognition.

Additionally, we have implemented other programmes and initiatives in the region to enhance SABIC’s people leadership culture such as the following:

  • Talk5 – 'Let’s Explore What Matters' initiative aims to encourage continuous dialogues (five conversations, five minutes each, five times a year) between employees and leaders to explore what matters to the individuals and to the organisation. It is key to driving performance and career for our employees. Performance & career topics have always been a priority for our employees and the organisation.

  • Asia Leaders Accelerate Programme (ALAP) has become our flagship programme to drive leadership development and inculcate the right growth mindset in Asia region. With the objective to improve leadership competencies impacted by business transformation, this two-year programme is designed in two parts. The first part comprises five different modules spanning across six months, while the second part focuses on leading and participating in action learning projects, which deliver business impacts, over the remaining one-and-a-half years. With the programme, we were able to create a platform to enables cross-function communications and collaborations.

  • Improving empowerment and agility in Asia has been a top focus in last two years. We started by simplifying business processes which were bureaucratic or time consuming per the feedback of our employees. And now in the second phase we are addressing the mindsets & behaviours impeding empowerment & agility while also creating systems to drive continuous improvement approach. This will not only strengthen our company culture aligned with our core values, but also improve our responsiveness to our customers.

In the new norm, leaders will need to be equipped with the right skills and people mindset to grow their people and care for their needs as employee well-being has become one of the top priorities for global companies across the world.

At SABIC, we have rolled out new employee wellbeing initiatives including the 'Employee Assistance Programme' (EAP) with professional resources, talks by external experts and series of wellness activities to help our people maintain a healthy mind.

Q SABIC’s leadership culture doesn’t only look at the external, but also the internal environment. It has a commitment to all employees – that compensation, career, and community (workplace) matters here. Al-Nafea, can you share how SABIC, and its leaders are walking the talk in those areas?

Our senior leaders demonstrate deep commitment towards the SLW guiding principles – our values: inspire, engage, create, and deliver. These are core values that SABIC truly believes will create a dynamic and inclusive leadership culture that develops the right talent for the right challenges.

Through the SLW guiding principles, our leaders seek to 'Be the Impact' for our people, by mentoring and inspiring them to unlock their full potential. They are committed to four different principles:

  1. Be a talent champion: Regular two-way conversations to mentor, encourage and inspire the people around them to help them reach their full potential. Then putting that talent into the right teams to address every challenge.
  2. Be a collaboration partner: To listen and take the time to consider what colleagues or customers are saying. Build and maintain long-term relationships through trust and respect. Cooperate by defining common goals through partnerships which lead to shared success.
  3. Be an innovation pioneer: Drive an innovative mindset to prepare now for challenges in the future.
  4. Be an excellence driver: Take responsibility to drive change and continuous improvement.

During the start of introducing the SLW model in 2017, our leaders had taken the initiative to conduct SLW workshops with their teams to raise awareness and educate employees on these desired mindsets and behaviours. Also, at various engagement sessions and team meetings, leaders took the opportunity to exchange their experiences and learnings with their people to inspire and constantly learn from one another.

Moreover, SABIC understands that each individuals’ needs, and priorities are unique and might change over the course of the year. In line with this as part of our employee value proposition, the launch of our flexible benefits system empowers employees to make their own medical, healthcare and lifestyle choices. The programme aims to provide a diversified range of benefits to fit each individuals’ requirements, enabling them to have peace of mind for themselves and their families. In addition, the programme reaffirms SABIC’s longstanding commitment in supporting its people for a better tomorrow.

Q What benefits/results have you seen from consciously tackling those areas in the organisation?

We strive to lead the chemical industry by attracting, developing, and retaining the best talent, and our human resources model encourages continuous learning, open dialogue, and career development. The three core pillars of our model - strategic business partnerships, operations, and specialised communities of expertise - help us leverage best practices to elevate the SABIC employee experience.

Today, SABIC has seen a more engaged and collaborative workforce that embraces diversity and inclusion. We launched SABIC Leadership Way 2.0 in 2020 to foster a sustainable corporate culture and inculcate in our leaders the values of acting with integrity, being responsible and accountable, and supporting and developing emerging leaders. The heart of this model, 'Be the Impact', was particularly resonant in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the people of SABIC demonstrated strength and positivity in our workplace, our communities, and the world.

In 2020, SLW’s ambassador networks conducted 89 mid-management workshops, with a total of 2,363 participants. SABIC’s Leadership Impact Summit went virtual as an interactive, four-day event spanning six time zones with a focus on personal growth and professional leadership.

Furthermore, all of SABIC's professional population, including executives, participated in a globally defined and managed performance annual review, receiving a performance rating which includes assessment of employees’ adoption of SLW and follow-up discussion. In 2020, we completed our global rollout of Talk5, which mandates at least five conversations between managers and employees annually.

Q What are some challenges you foresee happening in the coming months with regard to employee management?

Rather than having a reactive approach towards problems, SABIC works closely with our leaders to ensure that problems are mitigated, and solutions are in place should they happen.

We believe that there is a need to always be transparent and keep constant communication and dialogues with our employees, keeping them abreast with what is happening within the company.

SABIC’s new human resources platform, ONE HR, streamlines our HR processes, putting employee recruitment, onboarding, learning, compensation, performance & goals, succession & development, and core competencies into one integrated system. On this platform, SABIC has introduced a 'New Hire Experience' portal that ensures our organisational values do not get diluted especially for new joiners and young employees. The portal carries the required resources and channels which complement their onboarding process, ability to understand their roles, and how they can contribute effectively.

Q Noting that SABIC has several offices around the globe, including in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and others in APAC, what is the one consistent talent management strategy it is utilising to manage talents of different demographics, and culture – while ensuring both organisation and talent are on the same page?

Our strategy is that all employees are ensured that they will have access to meaningful development opportunities per their career interests. This includes talent sharing and talent movement across teams and roles.

For example, to encourage the growth mindset of our employees, SABIC’s 'Project Endeavour' initiative provides extensive on-the-job development opportunities for participating employees who express interest to work on a spectrum of business projects sponsored by our senior leaders - in accordance with their performance, strengths, career interests and passions. The initiative has been well received by employees as it provides rich opportunities for cross-functional collaboration, networking, exposure and new learning to build their capabilities. First introduced in the region in 2020, the programme also effectively creates a win-win for business leaders seeking fresh insights and talent spotting from a larger pool of employees across Asia Pacific.

Another example is the 'Job Rotation' programme, which provides opportunities to all employees of all levels. This programme takes into consideration of our talent fungibility for career advancement, in order to address the evolving business needs and changing roles requirements. This means our employees’ competencies and skillsets are always current and fit today’s demands for future solutions.

Q How important it is to have such an approach? How are you looking to improve it in the coming months to meet the needs of the ever-changing talent, and market, landscape?

Having such an approach is key as we strive to build a supportive and nurturing work environment that enables our dynamic and talented team to succeed. We’ve always believed that it takes special people to make a difference. They need ingenuity, brilliance and the freedom to turn their ideas into reality.

Only by providing meaningful development opportunities for employees and equipping them with the right tools to grow, can our business continue to thrive and deliver on its growth trajectory.

At SABIC, we are acutely aware of the continued short and potential longer-term disruptions to the workforce, and are always looking to improve the way we work. Our HR strategy has evolved to ensure the uninterrupted development of our people through a mindset shift towards pivoting from reliance on face-to-face meetings to more effective virtual engagements, and a range of new learning & development platforms.

As we are living in a technology-led climate, SABIC’s Asia Pacific HR team spearheaded the roll-out of key initiatives to ensure all our employees had the right resources at their fingertips, wherever their location. This included automating HR administrative processes, increasing employee touchpoints virtually, and providing ongoing learning & growth opportunities for individuals. 

The introduction of Amber, an AI chatbot, ensured connectivity and enhanced employee engagement, and has been well received, with a high employee engagement rate of over 80% in the Asia Pacific region. The chatbot reaches out to employees periodically to ask them for feedback about their experiences working in SABIC. In addition, this chatbot is used as a two-way communication tool with SABIC recognising the importance of maintaining employee mental health and wellbeing amidst the ongoing pandemic.

Complementing Amber, the 'SABIC & You' (SAY) online platform was launched in Asia Pacific in June 2021. Employees can raise HR queries and submit their feedback and suggestions directly through a streamlined and user-friendly interface. Since its launch, there has been a substantive increase of over 800% in employee queries, which have helped further communication and connection across SABIC’s diverse talent pool in the region. Collectively, these integrated initiatives are aimed at creating a positive, responsive and holistic employee experience which support employees in a meaningful way. 

Q One of the projects you’ve been involved in is around automation. Talk us through SABIC HR’s automation journey – how you started it, were there any low-hanging fruit you attempted first, and where you stand now on the usage of technology.

Our goal has always been to enhance our HR processes' efficiency and provide self-service solutions to our employees.

With the help of machine learning and artificial intelligence, the team has seen gradual advancement from managing time-consuming manual processes that are risk-prone to identifying potential areas for automation, reducing the need for human intervention. The process-driven approach allows us to redirect our time to focus on both people and business growth with relevant business facing processes and deductive analytics bots for better-informed decision making.

Q Before we conclude the interview, we’d like to ask – Al-Nafea, if you get to meet a HR genie, what’s the one wish you’d like to make that can help the lives of all HR professionals across the world better? 

My one wish would be to help all HR professionals develop advanced HR analytics capabilities and have access to advanced analytics tools overnight. This will enhance work efficiency within the HR department manifold and significantly improve effectiveness of our people-related decision making.

Read also: How to build a company that employees want to be a part of

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Follow us on Telegram and on Instagram @humanresourcesonline for all the latest HR and manpower news from around the region!

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