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Case study: A high-performing company culture empowers big dreams at Lenovo

Case study: A high-performing company culture empowers big dreams at Lenovo

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On her recent visit to Hong Kong, Jeanne Bauer-Hamlett, Executive Director, Human Resources – Solutions & Services Group (SSG), Lenovo takes Tracy Chan through the company’s culture transformation journey.

Strong company culture can attract and retain top talent, which in turn helps build a strong organisation. This is easier said than done, but Lenovo has made its mark.

Starting as a small technology company in Beijing in 1984, Lenovo has now developed into a Fortune Global 500 multinational technology company, serving customers across 180 markets.

In line with the company's growth, Lenovo has made several pivotal acquisitions along its journey in order to expand its product portfolio and market presence, including IBM's Personal Computing (PC) Division in 2005 and Motorola Mobility in 2014.

With all these new businesses being added in, integrating diverse cultures from acquired companies into Lenovo's own corporate culture was one of the determinant factors to its success.

"If you look back to 2007, that was one of the pivotal moments in Lenovo's culture," shares Jeanne Bauer-Hamlett, Executive Director, Human Resources – Solutions & Services Group (SSG), Lenovo (pictured above), who first joined the company then, right after the acquisition of IBM’s PC division. "Lenovo was struggling at the beginning with its culture."

"Partly because it had the initial Lenovo legacy team in China. It had just acquired IBM's PC division. At the time, Bill Amelio was our CEO – he had come from Dell and brought in a lot of global talent from Dell, as well as their Dell culture,” she said. “The three [cultures] were very different."

And Bauer-Hamlett gives all the credit to Lenovo's Chairman at the time, Liu Chuanzhi, who recognised that the company had cultural challenges – not only in how the organisation works cohesively, but even across the leadership team.

Liu, therefore, came up with the four 'Ps', which have then grown into five: “We PLAN before we pledge; we PERFORM as we promise; we PRIORITISE the company first; we PRACTICE improving every day; and we PIONEER new ideas.”

“The first year was a big culture push around operational excellence and performance. Do what you say and own what you do. That set the tone for all the other cultural things that came,” explains Bauer-Hamlett. “The next year was continuous improvement. Look at what you did well, look at what you did poorly, and then fix the things that you need to, but keep the things that worked.”

Bauer-Hamlett describes these as the “precursors” and “foundation” for Lenovo's culture today, saying it was very important to have an anchor for all of the new businesses Lenovo acquired. After all, it is not possible to change culture overnight.

The company’s cultural values have since been evolving and now focus on teamwork, respect, entrepreneurship, innovation, and performance. While these are the common denominators, each business unit can have their own different spin. “At SSG, we love all of the cultural values, but we have to be strong in entrepreneurship, as we need that cultural value to accelerate our growth," says Bauer-Hamlett.

Building a culture where people want to stay and perform

Lenovo currently has three big business units - Intelligent Device Group (IDG), Infrastructure Solutions Group (ISG), and Solutions & Services Group (SSG) – Bauer-Hamlett supports the SSG.

“There is a side of the house with all the HR generalists and HR partners to support the business, and I am on that side. There are HR teams aligned with each of the business units. I give support to SSG’s leadership, management and employees from my team,” she explains. “There is also a geographic HR team, who we can reach out to for country-specific situations. We have a very connected partnership on all sides.”

To Bauer-Hamlett, an effective HR partner has to really understand the business, not only its strategy, but what it is today and what it will be tomorrow. “As I always tell Ken Wong, President of SSG, my job is to be three steps ahead of him, and I do get close,” she quips.

She believes a high-performing organisation needs a clear strategy, a culture where people want to stay and perform, and from an HR perspective, the HR platform to support employees.

The first thing is that leadership needs to have a strategic plan and be able to articulate what it takes to win and what that win looks like. That enables the whole organisation to build KPIs and other measures that keep everybody aligned.

The next thing is around culture. “I personally don't think you can have people working as hard as they can with their whole hearts to drive a business forward if you have a misalignment in your culture,” she says.

Then come the right programmes and policies to support and protect employees, and drive an inclusive organisation. If people are having issues, for example, they can comfortably raise that through the HR platform.

"As I always say, strategy, organisation, talent, culture, those are all the things that you need."

Over the last few years, Lenovo has been open about wanting a diverse workforce. While everyone has to align with the same cultural values, it also recognises that the different perspectives, views, and experiences brought in by employees can make the company stronger, and this is important on the product side too to reflect the diversity among its customers.

Apart from the establishment of a Product Diversity Office (PDO) on the product side, Lenovo has instituted specific employee resource groups for those with disabilities, veterans in the US, African Americans, Hispanics, Asian, youngsters, etc. It aims to create a culture that is inclusive to everyone, and give people an opportunity to be with others similar to them to look at Lenovo and recommend changes on how it can be better and more inclusive.

On the other hand, Lenovo also emphasises employee listening through an annual engagement survey called ‘Lenovo Listens’. “We ask our employees to tell us about their experience, what they think about the company, what they think we do well, where we can improve, and where their challenges are,” elaborates Bauer-Hamlett.

“We have asked many cultural questions: are we taking care of you from a wellness perspective? Are we meeting your career development goals? Are we doing the things around compensation that make you happy? Do we have the right business processes and tools?”

This approach has been well received by employees – proved by its high survey participation globally at 92-93%. “People participate in the survey because they know that leadership, senior leadership, and executive leadership, all the way up, take those results seriously and take action,” explains Bauer-Hamlett.

To provide all-rounded support, the company has also launched benefit initiatives globally that address different aspects – physical, mental and emotional.

Take development programmes as an example, Bauer-Hamlett shares they have launched a lot of learning curricula that encourages employees to take up technical certifications. “So, employees feel they are going to stay here for the long term because this is kind of the place where they want to work.”

Bauer-Hamlett reveals the whole goal of building a culture that Lenovo can be proud of is to retain employees. “We know there will always be attrition, but my goal, at least for SSG, is to be the business unit that has the lowest attrition in the company, then I can say people want to work for our team.”

Finding the right cultural fit

Bauer-Hamlett shares that SSG, established in April 2021, has been in a huge growth mode, having hired almost 2,000 since just 1 April 2022. It would have had the capacity to hire more had the talent market been more open. However, the talent shortage hit everybody and that was tough.

"There is always pressure for managers to hire and get somebody on board to work and do things. We try to make a strong effort to step back and say: Look, if we are not finding the right person, let's try with a different search agency, maybe move the job and put it someplace else, try different strategies, but at the end of the day, we will wait for the right person and it is hard," she stresses.

This is because when managers have made hires that don't fit well within their team, they have to take action and exit them, or the employee knows and exits. Then they have to start the process all over again, which doesn't serve anybody well. And she indicates that the cost of rehiring and the cost of attrition is the ROI on retention.

To find the right talent, Lenovo has always been open and honest with prospective employees about its employee value proposition, which is tied to its cultural values. If they are aligned with the employee value proposition, they will be aligned with the culture.

For every open position, it also makes sure to have a good job description. The managers know what they are looking for in terms of hard skills, technical skills, and even HR technical skills. For soft skills and experiences, Bauer-Hamlett says not only the hiring HR partner, but other HR partners and managers of specific businesses will be involved in the interview process.

"At the end of the day, managers are responsible for the culture of their team," she says. "We are the caretakers of making sure that we hire an alignment with our culture."

As a global company with diverse businesses, Bauer-Hamlett admits Lenovo is a little bit of a challenging place to come in and understand. “We do a great job at a corporate level for a new hire orientation to introduce them to Lenovo,” she says.

But in the SSG world, as the business keeps evolving and developing, it can change from quarter to quarter – not significantly, but enough to impact the new hires. Therefore, Bauer-Hamlett is building an SSG-level new hire orientation to make sure there is somebody to answer the new hires' questions and help them assimilate and ramp up in the organisation a little bit faster.

“Our managers are very busy. We want to take some of the work off of their backs. When their employees come in, they are oriented to where they are in SSG, how they are a part of the bigger Lenovo, and what resources are available to them, not just from an HR perspective, but other corporate opportunities. They are able to meet up with their manager and be productive a lot faster.”

Bauer-Hamlett indicates that SSG as a division is still in startup mode. Therefore, they are hiring very experienced people, and such talent may a different view than university hires, Millennials, or mid-career hires. "What we try to do is to make sure that we are offering something to everybody," she says.

Adapting to changes

While the pandemic has accelerated change across the world, people at Lenovo have always understood that change is constant.

But Lenovo doesn't drive change for change's sake, the team does so when they believe change can bring a positive impact on the business. They don't do significant organisation structure changes lightly, but they always look to make adjustments and continuous improvements. In fact, Bauer-Hamlett and the HR team support the organisation with change management, training and development, so people are comfortable with change.

“We even interview for this: Are you agile? Can you be adaptive? Are you comfortable working in ambiguity? Because at the end of the day, that is SSG and if you can't work in that type of environment, you are not going to be a fit in our culture,” she adds.

Bauer-Hamlett recognises that there will be employees on board who may not agree with the change. “If an employee is unhappy or doesn't want to make a change, we help them to facilitate that,” she says. “It is not that the employee failed or that we failed, it is just that the organisation has changed and we may no longer fit, whether it is a culture fit, or a job fit, or an organisation, or how they want to work. We try to manage both sides.”

For any HR professionals who want to drive a cultural or organisational transformation, Bauer-Hamlett reminds the most important thing is “there shouldn't be a rush”.

“Of course, you shouldn't let it linger either, but where possible, take the time to really understand and then move forward,” she affirms.

Drawing on her experience, Bauer-Hamlett highlights what to note for a transformation drive:

  • Equip your HR partners so they are prepared for the change,
  • Proceed very cautiously, understand what the culture is today, and understand how the changes may impact employees,
  • Understand the strategy, and then figure out how to leverage the existing culture and where to make changes to some of those pieces that may no longer fit the organisation,
  • Get out there and talk to the leaders and employees, be open to hearing what they say.

The other thing Bauer-Hamlett can't stress enough is being planful. “Because you can always make a mistake with a programme, or have the wrong KPIs and company plans, you can always make changes to and fix those things. But you can do irreparable harm with a change to your culture.”

Looking beyond

In SSG's evolution, Bauer-Hamlett says the first year was around organisational change and transformation. “The last year has been around looking at the organisation from a foundational perspective. Making sure we have the right job titles, consistent naming, better job descriptions, and very operational talent acquisition and compensation things to support the business,” she says.

For the coming year, she expects the focus to be on learning. “Understanding the skills that we have, the skills we are going to need in the future, deep diving into our key roles, and seeing if we are hiring the right people.”

While being good on the cultural aspect, Bauer-Hamlett thinks sometimes in transformation, it is also important to be careful that managers are not hiring what an organisation used to need, but hiring what it will need in the future. “We will need to help managers understand what Lenovo and SSG really need to focus on and raise the bar on all types of learning and orientation programmes – those are my big tasks,” she concludes.


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Image / Provided (featuring the interviewee)

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