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Q&A with Ilja Rijnen, Edrington

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Raising a toast to organisational purpose

Ilja Rijnen, regional HR director Asia Pacific and India, Edrington

VITAL STATS: Ilja Rijnen joined Edrington in September 2015 as HR director for the region as part of the Asia Pacific and India leadership team and reports to the group HR director. He functionally heads up HR in the region and works closely with the senior leadership teams to build a strong people culture and enhanced capability.

What made you join Edrington in 2015? 

Edrington is the parent company of some of the world’s best known premium spirits: The Macallan, Highland Park single malt Scotch whiskies, The Famous Grouse and many more.

After developing a new global strategy, Edrington was introducing a global HR agenda and was looking for someone to join its regional office in Singapore to facilitate the integration of five operating companies.

From a professional standpoint, the role appealed to me immediately – mainly because of the firm’s unique ownership structure that led it to place social responsibility at its core.

Coming from a large publicly-listed MNC, I was intrigued by a company that donates a considerable portion of profits to good causes in the markets where it operates. These are chosen by staff and employees are truly encouraged to become more involved in their communities.

How would you summarise Edrington’s HR agenda?

Edrington’s HR agenda, be it rewards or development, is tailored at people being able to take ownership, give visibility to our strategy, and inspire others to work with a purpose.

HR in Edrington is currently helping to transform the organisation, providing insights on how it can meet its objectives in terms of rewards, talent, organisational engagement and development. It is becoming an integrated performance partner locally, regionally and globally.

We have a global HR agenda, which is all about how you can proactively drive change and continuity around the organisation – having succession in place, being able to move with the trends in the market etc. Asia, for us, is a fast-growing and important market.

With that in mind, we invest a lot in this region. We also invest in a lot of people through our development programmes – both functional and leadership.

In a fast-changing and aggressive business environment, we take a long-term view of our people. We invest a lot in the capability of our people, in our leadership and talent programmes.

Could you cite any specific examples of such talent programmes?

For instance, in November last year, we launched a global learning academy, with Asia Pacific as the pilot region.

We launched this after months of involving our senior executives and employees to really understand what the organisation’s status and needs were.

We have combined these insights with a best in class online tool, as well as a global mentoring programme.

Our 70-20-10 approach to learning isn’t revolutionary, but where we really stand out as an organisation is the fact that we have combined a global learning concept with local input.

This means that we are launching regionally relevant articles, languages and our own employee area at the centre of the academy – this shows both in how information is tailored to the individual user, as well as the fact that we have many employees whose role and career stories are featured online.

Edrington’s HR agenda, be it rewards or development, is tailored at people being able to take ownership, give visibility to our strategy, and inspire others to work with a purpose.

Our roll out and follow-up has been rigorous: as a first step we took all leaders and managers through a full academy course, followed by monthly plans for all employees in each country in APAC.

The uptake of our learning culture so far has been a real success. In order to increase the connection between learning and individual performance and growth we have started with region-wide quarterly performance and talent committees.

A committee is made up of the managing director, and his leadership team – the HR, finance, marketing, sales directors etc. We review all our employees and we focus both on our confidence in everyone’s short-term performance as well as strategic talent planning to deliver our strategy.

This is interesting, because traditionally HR is found to be at the forefront of such performance reviews, and the process is entirely HR-driven. But in Edrington, all functions are leading the process. Why is this so?

HR should actually be not just a business partner, but a performance partner.

In the end, I think HR is the function that has the biggest responsibility to ensure that the business is delivering its performance in a great way. That means, involving your people, inspiring your people, and making sure they are aware of the company’s purpose and their own purpose in the firm.

My view of HR is that it should operate very close with the business.

We have a HR team of 10 people, of which five are HR managers. Each business unit has one individual HR manager. Each of these HR managers sit with their respective leadership teams in their monthly leadership meetings.

The whole point of doing this is to ensure HR isn’t at the end of the proverbial chain but at the start of it, when commercial decisions are being made. This will help HR to think what those decisions will mean for our talent or reward strategy and the impact they will have.

In Edrington, I want our HR teams to deeply understand what the business is about, to be able to challenge the business leaders in their thinking about what the business is going to be in five years, and what are the people drivers we need in our business to get there.

The real value of HR and the future of HR is to become a strong business partner strategically, on the performance of the company. I want the business to understand HR’s plan and own it.

In the future, I think the business will take on more and more of HR’s core tasks, supported by technology. HR, on the other hand, will increasingly be part of the leadership team and challenge it based on great insights on what is required for the business to succeed and to continue through its people.

And how have reward strategies changed over time?

I think rewards can be the single biggest driver of engagement in any organisation.

In Edrington, previously, rewards strategy was drafted locally. At the moment, it is aligned regionally, and we also have a global rewards strategy, and we are also making our rewards more transparent.

That doesn’t mean sharing everyone’s salary details, but that does involve an alignment across salary levels of roles, based on their role sizes, functions and markets where they operate.

In the end, I think HR is the function that has the biggest responsibility to ensure that the business is delivering its performance in a great way.

This alignment needs to be transparent, fair, and it allows employees to gain insight into which roles they want to next grow into in order to get their desired level of rewards. These could be upward moves or lateral, or even regional or global.

I think as an organisation you should have the transparency to journey together with your employees. The first step to doing so is that your HR team and line managers should have an understanding of the size of employees’ roles, how they can reward them, and how they can grow them within a specific budget.

If done in a transparent and fair way, rewards can help employees understand how organisations make decisions, and help in their employee value propositions.

Could you summarise the basic tenets of your employee value proposition?

We have a great work environment, in which we work with great products. We have great engagement plans that go further than just an activity.

Our activities have purpose in it. We have a caring environment, where we also involve family and friends of our staff.

In fact, part of the purpose of the organisation is “Giving More”, We give back to the communities in which we work and, as Edrington has grown globally, it has extended the principle of donating a share of the company’s profits within its international markets.

In 2014/15, charities across the world received donations valued at £1.55 million from Edrington, including £550,000 in donations in this region. This is on top of the £18.2 million that The Robertson Trust donated to charities in Scotland.

Charitable giving at Edrington is about getting involved, and for this we organise numerous initiatives. In addition to several charity sales, we recently completed a 450km fund-raising bike ride from Kuala-Lumpur to Singapore, which saw the participation of many colleagues and the entire leadership team.

Through this initiative, we donated over S$100,000 to Child at Street 11, a non-profit organisation dedicated to helping low income families provide early years education for their children.

In everything we do, we are connected with charitable giving.

Giving back to our communities is, in fact, part of our DNA and in our engagement plans. There is always a purpose behind everything that we do, and that is a magnet to keep our employees in the company.

In essence, we are a very trustworthy, authentic organisation that really values people and the communities in which we operate.

What impact do all these initiatives have on your engagement rates?

Across our local companies in Asia, we have a high engagement rate. We conduct an engagement survey and it has told us that the most valued engagement initiatives we have is our investment in development of our talent, and the fact that we have an open-door policy.

This also comes across in our recruitment. We’ve got a good structure in place when it comes to hiring. All our roles will be posted internally at least, and so there is complete transparency.

One of the exciting things we are launching this year is our global graduate programme which we’re launching here in December, and we have just kicked off an internship programme in which we have partnered with the five main universities in Singapore.

In 2014/15, charities across the world received donations valued at £1.55 million from Edrington, including £550,000 in donations in this region.

At the moment, we are also building a stronger social media presence. That attracts people to your organisation. People already find their ways well to our brands, we use this attraction also to trigger them to consider us as a prospective employer, being attractive for a lot more than  our brands.

How do you measure the performance of your people?

We have launched a global business strategy last year in May, and off the back of that we’ve had a new HR strategy launch in June last year.

What has happened since is that this strategy has been translated not only to regional, functional and local level, and also bottom-up from the employees back to the strategy. Each employee had sessions with the leadership team in order to start understanding his or her unique contribution to the business.

The point of doing this is to ensure we don’t cascade our business objectives down to the employees. Rather, we give our people an overview of our strategy of the region, and people start understanding and taking ownership of what they’re uniquely contributing to the strategy.

For instance, the people that report to me are not just assigned a number of goals set by me, and my role is not just a summation of their roles.

We really try to get ownership from the individual, on how they’re going to deliver on our strategy. That means everyone has three to five unique objectives in delivering this strategy. These are reviewed on a quarterly basis for every individual, in which we decide how confident we are that this person will deliver on their objectives in the next 3-5 months.

These review communities also look at the key capabilities and drivers required to reach the business’ goals in the next five years or so, and craft the multi-year talent plans on that basis.

It’s kind of a gap analysis year by year, making sure your whole HR plan is aligned to make sure you get the right organisational structure to lead it to success – including promotions of people.

Speaking of the future, what’s the approach you take to ensure your leadership pipelines are full to lead the organisation in the future?

If you think about the landscape we operate in, with around 90% of our competitors also operating in Singapore and our other main markets in the region, we are all competing for the same talent.

Because the business that we have here today won’t be the same five years down the line, to ensure we remain at the forefront, we begin by identifying the critical capabilities needed to lead this business in the future.

We also regularly review our engagement plans, to ensure our organisation is irresistible and engaging for our people – like a magnet. We are not listed on the stock market, so we can make long-term plans. That enables our people to trust us, they like to grow in the organisation.

We also identify what is unique in our business, which is the set-up of our business. We give people the opportunity to be very entrepreneurial in their role. We allow freedom and growth in the jobs we offer.

Can you give an example of such freedom in roles?

This organisation has approximately 315 people working for it. What we have increasingly seen is that we used to have quite a large expat community, but nowadays we have more locals rather than expats. We allow talent-moves based on employee preferences and of course on the needs of the business.

And because ours is a small organisation, we shift our focus to growing people within roles. For instance, within marketing, someone can go from being a marketing executive to being a brand ambassador. We can offer people roles that become bigger as they gain experience and strength in their functional areas. What we are introducing at the moment is more transparency around our roles and our rewards.

We acknowledge that we need to invest more in developing local leaders. There is room for improvement when it comes to leadership skills – especially with regards to communication skills, and how leaders engage, connect and inspire people around them.

What this means, is that we look at the relative size of a particular employee’s role, and his or her career development chart. When you’re in a smaller company, my current role may be in HR, but I might move tomorrow to do a commercial role, for instance. So we allow such movement across roles.

We don’t do this on an ad-hoc basis, and it’s not just talk. Everyone has their electronic performance and development document online. Everyone has their objectives and development stages listed there. We really partner with people for the future.

Do you have any initiatives in place for the development of your staff?

When it comes to leadership development, we have the Edrington Leadership Programme (ELP) for senior leaders and Emerging Talent Programme (ETP), which is for emerging talent.

Our other development initiative revolves around overcoming a challenge.

Regionally, around two-thirds of the people in our business currently don’t speak English. So what I’m focusing on is regional and local talent programmes – so looking at basic line manager skills to ensure you have good leadership skills, and also looking at successors and developing them.

We also look at developing at technical skills and commercial skills of our employees.

We acknowledge that we need to invest more in developing local leaders. There is room for improvement when it comes to leadership skills – especially with regards to communication skills, and how leaders engage, connect and inspire people around them.

But we don’t want a perfect leader, we want one with a high sense of integrity and one who trusts his or her people and has a genuine purpose.

If leaders are authentic, know what drives and stops them, understand how they are connected to the organisation and can inspire and coach others around them, then their employees with automatically gravitate towards them. It creates the irresistible organisation that I want to build with my team everyday.

Art Direction: Shahrom Kamarulzaman; Photography: Elliot Lee, Nikon Ambassador (Singapore)

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