Shifting gears to strategic workforce planning

Dr Ariane Reinhart, Member of the Executive Board, Human Relations and Director of Labour Relations, Sustainability at Continental AG talks to Aditi Sharma Kalra about implementing strategic workforce planning as a roadmap to business sustainability.

With around 244,000 employees worldwide in 61 countries and markets, Germany-based Continental has specialised in automotive manufacturing since 1871. Within Asia, the company is present in China, Singapore, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, India, Thailand and Malaysia; with more than 1,300 employees in Singapore.

In an exclusive interview during her recent visit to Singapore, Dr Ariane Reinhart, Member of the Executive Board, Human Relations and Director of Labour Relations, Sustainability, Continental AG, shares about the organisation’s unique strategic workforce planning approach, joined by locally based Angie Chua, HR Country Head for Singapore, Continental Automotive Singapore.

(Note: All responses are by Dr Ariane Reinhart (AR), unless marked AC for Angie Chua’s response)

Q What does HR mean to Continental?

For us, HR stands for human relations, not human resources, because we believe it is more about building and managing relationships. As HR professionals, we believe in being at eye level with the business. We are not just there as a support service, but as a support partner. We know the people, the organisation and how to develop them.

Being at eye level with the business also means having self-understanding to be involved very early in the product process. For inventions and new products, we get involved early on and ask questions about the future skills. This is like the holy grail – if you know how to identify skills that you will need in the next five years, it’s a real competitive advantage.

In the past few years, we have developed our two strategic pillars in HR – one, industrialised best fit; and two, enable transformation. If someone was to ask you, what is the biggest value-add that HR can bring to an organisation – industrialised best fit comes in here, that is, to have the right people at the right place with the right skills at the right time and the right quantity. If this is not the main added-value or driver of an organisation, it will not be successful.

Second, to enable transformation, you need to know what you need to do. So we asked ourselves four years ago, how many people we will need to recruit in the next few years. For this, the quality of the HR data is the backbone. Only once you have the data right, can you start with strategic workforce planning (SWP). If you were to ask companies, how many people they need and in which quality, most of them would not have the right answer. But we have been doing this for two-and-a-half years.

We are running the third round of SWP this year. We have 99% of our workforce in all the countries involved, making us one of the few companies who have a GPS for our HR measures of how many people we will need. We have a heatmap for every location, division and business unit, saying what kind of people we will need, and even the kind of people we will not need anymore, for example, upskilling the workforce affected by automation and digitalisation.

Q How did you get your own HR team to develop the skills to carry out this exercise?

The first thing is to have good knowledge about the business. We encourage cross-movers, we participate in the R&D round table, we ask questions of our expert colleagues on the impact the product might have. We also ensure it is the employee’s responsibility to secure their employability, not just of their manager and of the business. It is about developing a mindset of lifelong learning.

AC: In Singapore, the HRBPs are very involved in the business because that is key for them to be successful. They need to know the business they are supporting, and from there we talk about their involvement in strategic business projects which could be non-HR related.

Business acumen is the number one thing our HRBPs need to have. We cannot just be running day-to-day HR operations, we need to be trusted strategic partners.

AR: We also say we are trusted irritators. Because we ask questions which are, sometimes, not very comfortable. It is part of our job to get people out of their comfort zone in order to stretch and transform the organisation.

As HR professionals, we believe in being at eye level with the business.
- Dr Ariane Reinhart

Q You mentioned SWP was launched two-and-a-half years ago. How did you get the buy-in, time and resources from the rest of the business to embark on this journey?

When you have strategic initiatives from the HR side, you need to partner up. I had a chat with one of my board colleagues and told him the idea of resource management in a company had been haunting me. He agreed, saying that when we go to customers, they always ask if we have the right and enough people to do the project – thus, resource management is a key competitive advantage. So I decided to do an experiment in one business unit (BU) regarding SWP, with the support of the BU head. From there, it was an iterative process. We kept fine-tuning it along the way, and getting feedback from the business on whether it was really valuable.

Q How long did this experiment take?

This is the magic of Continental. We did an experiment, people were convinced, and then we rolled it out in half a year. After 12 months, we had the whole company worldwide signed up to this. Now that we are in the third year, it is not a strategic project anymore, it is part of our operations.

Q Rolling it out across the world, what was your experience tailoring it to the different geographies?

When you do something of this magnitude, you need to have a really good communication and engagement campaign. It is part of our culture to run bottom-up communication. We have an internal social media channel called ConNext. It has a large number of communities while every board member has a blog. We use this platform a lot to involve our people.

We are a value-based company with four key values: trust, for one another, freedom to act, and passion to win. And if you combine these four unique values, you really get big things done in a short time frame.

Q How do you ensure that everyone across Continental is on the same page with these values?

This was an initiative started by our CEO Elmar Degenhart in 2009 when he took over. He is a very values-driven person with a high level of integrity. For him, two or three pieces were really important. First, you have to lead by example from the top, starting with the CEO and the executive board.

Second, you have to have a good communication campaign that communicates the message creatively.

And third, every year we run a ‘BASICS live’ survey, where we ask our people about their engagement and how they feel about the values. Every year, we have done incredibly well on the parameters of, “Do people trust each other?” and “Do they embrace the values?”, getting over 80% scores even in times of transformation.

On the other hand, in such a big company, not everybody is leading by example. So we really have to invest more in leadership selection, training and coaching. The leaders have to be aware of why this is so important. Another thing to improve in times of transformation is communicating better to employees why we are going in one way over the other.

Sometimes, we also need to just celebrate our successes better. As a driven, engineered company, we sometimes forget to do that.

Q Angie, what was your experience in rolling out SWP for the Singapore operations?

AC: I targeted the three main BUs in Singapore, as a majority of the hiring comes from them. For these three BUs, we needed to be farsighted, so I engaged them individually, together with the HRBP, rather than having a big roll out.

Together, we planned out the projection of manpower and used the SWP to dive deep into future competencies. From the global side, I was provided the structure and process, and I only had to customise to local needs.

AR: One of the key drivers for SWP outside of Western Europe is employee retention. Our objective is to be much better than the market. For example, in Singapore the market attrition rate for engineers in high tech industries is 12% to 13%, and we are much below that at about 7% to 8%. Similarly, in China, the average is 14% while we are at 7%.

Q What are some of the ways that you attract engineers to join Continental?

The most important is the sense of doing – people seeing that they can make an impact. We don’t just make a claim that your ideas can shape the future; they truly can, particularly in Singapore, with the Smart Nation initiative, low emissions, and the affordable connectivity. In addition to making a difference, they need to have a perspective to growth.

For a company like ours, you can work across more than 50 countries, 25 business units and four divisions. We are a bit like the United Nations, in that we have over 70 nationalities, while in Singapore itself we have more than 20 nationalities.


We are a bit like the United Nations, in that we have over 70 nationalities, while in Singapore itself we have more than 20 nationalities.
- Angie Chua

Q This leads us to the employer branding strategy – what are some of the core elements of it?

Since we focus mainly on software experts, where we are competing with Silicon Valley majors, it is about our unique selling proposition. On the one hand we are very innovative, and on the other, we are very traditional in that we provide security and deep roots – almost like a 150-year-old start-up!

Q What helps to maintain that start-up culture?

First, it’s all about the values I shared earlier. Second, it’s about the diversity. We don’t have a diversity officer and I do not like the idea of it because it should be the self-understanding of every leader.

In Singapore, I’m particularly proud that we have more than 25% of female executives. But diversity is also about different thoughts, cultural backgrounds, and more. We believe that diversity is a catalyst to innovation.

To not only attract, but retain people, it’s about the future working environment, for example, flexibility. We are one of the few big companies in the world to introduce mobile working, part-time working and sabbaticals for every employee – not only white-collars or engineers, but also those on the shop floor.

We don’t want to have a two-class society. So while the shop-floor employees can’t take a tyre home or produce a part at home, it is a question of building that flexible mindset on the shop floor. For example, through different shift beginnings, job sharing, longer vacations, time accounts, and so on.

Q You mentioned diversity being a catalyst to innovation, and it so happens that there aren’t enough women engineers and software experts out there. Are you consciously doing anything about it?

We have a huge engineering hub in Bengaluru, where more than 30% of our engineers are women. But then we started losing them at their mid-end 20s, which is when they were getting married. With the flexibility that Continental offers, we were able to let them continue with their career, while carrying out their family duties and obligations.

When women make up 48% or more of the world’s population, it makes no economic sense if you don’t have enough women in the workforce. Best fit means “best” fit independent of any other details – be it gender, cultural background or sexual orientation.

To find this best fit, we have introduced diagnostic processes such as psychometric testing for the white-collar staff. Our vision is that in the future we don’t look at CVs anymore – we let people apply, without knowing their gender or any such consideration – and we simply let them do the intelligence and personality tests. After they pass this step we will look into them in greater detail. This will help ensure equal treatment and opportunity for everybody.

Q Do you set hard targets for the company in terms of diversity?

Yes, we have a target worldwide for the top executive level to get to 16% by 2020. We have to consider that in Germany just 11% of engineering students are women, so we are very fortunate for such talent in China, India and Singapore.

Q Coming back to the flexibility policy, you rolled it out globally in 2016 for all employees. How did you roll it out and ensure there is no misuse around it?

We had a worldwide engagement campaign, asking our people how they would like to work and what they aspired towards. Then over a couple of months, we had over 700,000 activities just on this topic - be it blogs, videos, and more. It was the most traffic we had over such a short time frame!

Of course, we had to intervene in cases of some leaders who had more of the old work concepts on their mind, which is always the case when you have as many employees as a small city. Among the 240,000 there will always be some who might misuse it, but the vast majority will not do it. So we can’t punish the other 99.9%. We are a very compliant organisation and invest a lot in such training and awareness.

Q Another thing that you’ve focused on is flat hierarchies. How does a 150-year-old company start to adopt lean management styles?

We have a very hands-on, down-to-earth culture. The top management and board are always approachable and are close to the people. People are not afraid to talk to them, have a laugh together. Particularly in HR, we are known to work hard but also play hard.

We also have a culture of constructive failure. If you are very innovative, then there are times you will fail - and we encourage people to fail fast and fail forward. We give them space to experiment.

Q What is the way forward on this journey for Continental?

We are the employer of choice for people who want to make a positive impact on society, those who follow the vision of a better world with no emissions, where mobility is affordable, and cities that they are proud to hand over to their children.

It might be cool to work for the companies in Silicon Valley, but if they work for a company like ours, which comes with a legacy, traditions, values, no hire-and-fire policy, it is a family feeling that gives security to your children. And finally, we believe we are the employer of choice for women.

Q Personally, as a HR leader what is the number one skill you want to learn for yourselves?

Continuous learning. I think curiosity is one of the most important characteristics. Be authentic. Don’t be afraid to stand up and be heard.

Read the March edition of Human Resources, Singapore: