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Q&A: Gaurav Sharma, HR director, bottling investment group, Coca-Cola

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It’s all about the culture

Overseeing a 1,500-strong workforce, Gaurav Sharma, human resources director, bottling investment group, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Coca-Cola, reveals HR’s role in the journey towards being a total beverage company. Jerene Ang reports.

Vital stats: As the human resources director for the bottling investment group for Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei, Gaurav Sharma is responsible for leading HR transformation to create a sustainable business in alignment with the global beverage company’s vision, mission, and values. Leading a team of 22 HR staff, he is responsible for managing various aspects of the function, including building talent and people capability, and enhancing employee engagement for 1,500 staff across Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei.


Q I understand Coca-Cola is transforming into a “total beverage company”. What is HR’s core role in the journey?

When we talk about a total beverage organisation, we refer not only to our product portfolio, but also to our culture wherein we want our teams to think outside the box, question the status quo and provide solutions rather than get stymied by problems. We are talking about a culture of innovation and letting people make decisions and take smart risks. Taking smart risks is essentially being courageous and looking at whatever information is available today and making a judgment call.

We also want people to feel like this is their own company – essentially, a strong culture of ownership which we have. It is also about having a culture of communication. Every town hall, every team discussion, we communicate all that happens in the organisation transparently. This is led from our CEO down to all our leaders. To make this stick, we have strong routines to follow up. Together, this helps employees be driven and remain on track towards our strategic priorities.

Essentially, we as a leadership team, sponsor an environment where we allow people to be courageous and take smart risks, be driven, be agile and to make a difference to our business and our community. Part of HR’s role in this is to help build the skills of the future and help ensure a good succession pipeline.

At Coca-Cola, we talk a lot about talent and succession. It is a leader’s job to help build succession for himself or herself. That’s essentially what we want to create here in this company. The moment we focus on succession for critical roles, we will realise how strong or poor the talent pipeline is. If it is strong, it is then about how to retain those individuals and set them up for success by providing them the right critical experience and coaching. If it is weak, then it’s about accelerating people faster through their experiences so there is strong leadership sustainability in this company.

Essentially, we as a leadership team, sponsor an environment where we allow people to be courageous and take smart risks, be driven, be agile and to make a difference to our business and our community.

One of the hallmarks of Coca-Cola is we really believe in developing talent from within. So much so that we have a metric in place that says 50% of all talent for executives and above roles should be from within. This allows us to have a good mix of fresh thinking and talent grown from within.

Currently, this metric is close to 60%, which means we have a strong talent and development platform to develop talent from within and ensure their success in future roles.

Q Speaking of development, what are some skills that are important today, but may be outdated in 10 years and vice versa?

I think the hard core technical skills which are connected with current tech and practices will always remain at high risk of obsolescence because disruptions and innovations will make current technical/ functional knowledge obsolete. For example, now we talk about digitisation and building apps, but soon these will get digitised – autonomously generated as long as we define the parameters.

The skills that will remain important are the soft skills, the behaviours and mindsets we possess. We will need individuals who are extremely agile, willing to learn, extremely driven, and always looking for solutions instead of focusing just on the problems. We are looking at individuals who are very strong in their ambitions, meaning they have an idea of an outcome they want to reach.

The world is changing from an input-led system to an outcome-led system. In the past, I used to come to the office at a particular time, work with my colleagues during office hours and that pretty much defined work life. Now, the outcome is more critical, instead of the time spent focusing on any of the business challenges. So I can be anywhere in the world, as long as I am able to access information, analyse data, collaborate with other team members, and ensure my contributions get us the objectives set. From an organisation’s point of view, this can be done remotely, on-site, through permanent employees or contract employees, on a project or day to day basis.

The entire work culture is changing now. We are moving from a workplace to a work-thing. Work is now a thing you do and add value wherever you are as opposed to a place where you go to contribute.

That said, people will still need to use technical skills; they will just have to continue to renew and reinvent themselves. Meaning, after 15 or 20 years, when you realise the skills you have are no longer relevant, you learn new ones. But, chances are you won’t need to wait until then, you will probably see the trends earlier.

Q In line with those changes, how is Coca-Cola approaching talent development?

We need to steep people in a strong learning and development culture. As a company, when we talk about growth, we talk about certain behaviours which keep our employees in good stead for many years to come. These behaviours are the growth behaviours I mentioned earlier – being driven, courageous, ambitious, agile and making a difference.

They have to be willing to bridge the gap between their current state and where they want to be in the future. These are the behaviours which help to instil a culture of ownership where our people are empowered to think, plan and execute solutions to ensure they achieve outcomes in an effective and most collaborative way.

We need to steep people in a strong learning and development culture. As a company, when we talk about growth, we talk about certain behaviours which keep our employees in good stead for many years to come.

Q Apart from the culture and behaviours, in terms of developing people, what are the initiatives Coca-Cola has in place?

We have multiple learning tracks – local, global, and signature. The local tracks are aimed at ensuring there are learning interventions for each and every individual in the organisation. These are grouped as per the front line employees, mid-level employees and senior employees.

For the global track, the initiatives are designed and run in partnership with our corporate team and we run these programmes locally. For example, there are programmes focused on our supervisors and young executives such as STEP; those focused on mid-level managers such as LEAP; and those focused on our top-tier such as Summit. The signature track will be programmes that we have crafted for a few individuals or a group of individuals aimed at specific outcomes. For example we run programmes for our female leaders called LIFT and AYBS to help augment gender diversity within our organisation.

For our future leaders’ development, learning needs are identified and to help them on their journey we plan specific signature programmes for them. We recently ran a programme to help accelerate the succession pipeline for our top 100 leaders called ATP. It also helps our future leaders to understand what is coming up in the future and what will be the optimum skill sets to take over those critical roles. During all our interventions we are providing them inputs which are future-focused.

Q How were these programmes launched and communicated to staff?

Every year, the HR team will partner the business leaders to identify specific development needs of their teams against “the learning continuum” (our learning road map). These needs tend to be very diverse and we collate these needs and establish programmes we want to run across the organisation. These programmes run across different levels – from entry-level, mid-level to senior-level. We also look at the skills we want employees at each of the leadership level in the organisation to possess.

For example, at the mid-level, we want an introduction to strategy and converting that into results for a team; at the senior level, we need strong appreciation and ability to coach and develop talent; and at the entry level, it’s about personal effectiveness, planning, and prioritisation.

Essentially, it goes from individual to team to enterprise. At the entry-level, we focus on the individual. Then, at the midlevel, we start focusing on the individual and the team. For the senior-level, it is about the individual and their team in the enterprise. That’s how the learning programmes are and that’s how we communicate it. After communicating it, we identify the individuals who have those needs, and once that is done, they go for the learning interventions and we track the return on investment.

Q When did you start implementing these programmes? And are they outsourced or built in-house?

We first ran the group of programmes in 2012 and we’ve been doing it regularly since then. As for outsourced versus in-house, it’s really a mix. When you talk about front line programmes, we harness internal expertise as we get our senior leaders to facilitate. For mid-level programmes, it’s a mix of internal and external facilitators – we are trying to keep it 50/50. We want our leaders to also take ownership of coaching and developing talent and the future leaders of our organisation.

For the top tier, facilitators are mostly external. We still have a good mix of internal networking, but a lot of that is externally focused because we want to get the subject matter experts from around the globe to provide some food for thought, interesting ideas and sparks during those sessions.

Q Development is very closely linked to performance management. What approach does Coca-Cola take when it comes to managing employee performance? And what is the reason behind such an approach?

In one part of the organisation, we’ve transitioned from annual appraisals to continuous feedback. At the bottling investment group, we have the same thinking. We ran a pilot for almost a year, starting in June last year. This helped us see the entire life cycle of the employee for a year. We have gotten very good input and feedback, and we are now working on how to create a system to help people do this continuous feedback across the organisation to build a culture of having those regular crucial conversations rather than being focused on ratings. We intend to get on this journey pretty soon.

We want to make it (continuous feedback) two-way dialogue. Apart from that, we are also decoupling the rewards and the ratings.

The approach we are looking at is more of a coaching and development rather than appraising. The reason being – when you talk about appraising, it is essentially looking at what is done in the past. Whereas, here in the organisation, we are talking about moving forward and being fast and agile – so if something doesn’t work, we take the learnings and move on quickly.

For performance appraisals, you are forcing people to play safe. That makes it hard to build for the future. To build for the future, you want people to move outside of their comfort zones. The way that will happen is when you appreciate and reward people for their thinking, as well as coach and guide them in the right direction.

Continuous feedback focuses on the discussion employees have with their leaders, the coaching they get and the development they get. But it is not only about the leader, we also want to build a loop where employees get feedback from their team about what’s working and what’s not working. We want to make it two-way dialogue. Apart from that, we are also decoupling the rewards and the ratings.

Q I understand that part of Coca-Cola’s vision is to be a great place to work where people are inspired to be the best they can be. What does that constitute?

No employee comes into the workplace thinking “today, I’ll have a lousy day”. They all come to work thinking, “today, I’ll do something really good”. They all want to contribute. As an organisation, we have to enable them, provide them the right direction, coaching, resources and plans. We have to engage them and provide them with a strong sense of belief in the organisation’s priorities. We have to make them feel this is a place where they can have friends and they can rely on the people around them, a place where they want to work and want to get their friends to come in and work.

I think that’s what Coca-Cola can promise. We have a very clear direction of where we want to head. The organisation is very clear about removing obstacles and providing resources to team members so they can work effectively. We are also extremely good at ensuring we are able to give people small reasons to celebrate, so they can think about their own personal achievements be it day to day or long term.

As for the part of ensuring how they can have friends in the organisation, it’s all about the culture. For example, many of us leaders regularly play sports together over the weekend. Even though it’s a weekend, we enjoy each other’s company and want to spend time with each other.

In a lot of organisations, what happens at the top level is exactly what gets replicated down the organisation. If at the top level, the employees work together, collaborate with each other, spend time outside the workplace and have a strong bond, that’s exactly what permeates downwards. That’s the culture which you create, that’s the culture that we want to create!

We have to make them feel this is a place where they can have friends and they can rely on the people around them, a place where they want to work and want to get their friends to come in and work.

Q Last, but not least, congratulations on being awarded the May Day award! What do you think led up to this?

We have been working very closely with the Food, Drinks & Allied Workers Union (FDAWU) and National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), we are part of the tripartite alliance and we were one of the first few signees who signed up for the tripartite standards on employment of term contract employees and the tripartite guidelines for fair employment practices.

In Singapore you have this very unusual labour movement whereby it’s tripartite. As an employer, we need to ensure we do what is required from our end so the duties of the employer are fulfilled and the rights of the employee are protected.

One example of how we did that was in 2015 when we had to make a very tough decision about closing our manufacturing facility in Singapore at Tuas. That would have impacted about 200 employees. We didn’t just think about those 200 employees, we thought about their families and what impact this would have.

We worked very closely with the FDAWU, NTUC, e2i, and Ministry of Manpower (MOM), and we ensured we had a very strong retrenchment package which included severance pay, reskilling and re-employment.

We worked with e2i to ensure we were able to reskill and retrain our people, putting in incentives for their training. We also got job fairs organised for them and all of those who wanted to go back to the workforce had employment opportunity choices.

We also ensured they had counselling support from experts. At such times, we know that people go through an emotional journey. We got experts from Raffles Counselling to come and train the HR team to support and provide counselling services to employees to help them understand what was going on and to support them to move ahead; and at the same time, continue to be ambassadors of Coca-Cola!

We did this in partnership with the tripartite partners – I think that’s the reason why, they appreciated the way we have collaborated and worked together with FDAWU, NTUC and MOM.

Gaurav Sharma, human resources director, bottling investment group, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Coca-Cola, receiving the Medal of Commendation at the May Day awards 2018.

Art Direction: Mohd Ashraf; Photography: Lee Guang Shun (Studio Three Sixteen) – www.studiothreesixteen.com

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