Freddie Chow, chief talent officer, Asia Pacific, Sanofi reveals the strategies his team employs to make sure the firm’s talent is equipped to perform optimally amidst a climate of change.

VITAL STATS: Freddie Chow is the chief talent officer, Asia Pacific for Sanofi. He has more than 20 years’ experience in human resource management and 23 years working in the Sanofi Group. Prior to this appointment, Chow was the vice president, human resources for Sanofi Asia/China. His early career years were in the field of purchasing and materials management.

You’ve been the CTO at Sanofi for over a year now. What’s the best part of the role?

The role has been carved out quite uniquely for me, because it allows me to focus on and work with the senior leaders of the organisation. What I do is to look after the top 50 leaders within Asia Pacific. In general, I focus on their career plan, their career aspirations, their development plan. Quite a few of these leaders are expats, so most do move on after their assignments. So I analyse where they want to go, and how to help them achieve the next stage of their career plan. I am also involved in succession planning – i.e., identifying the next leader to replace them after they move.

I enjoy the engagement with these senior leaders. They do share a lot of experiences with me, and we exchange a lot of our experiences.

For any CTOs who want to start a strong relationship with their CEOS – what tips would you have for them to work together?

I think the key thing is really understanding where the company’s future lies, and what are its future needs. It’s about understanding the aspirations and ambitions of the business. Talent is key in order to help the business grow – so if you know where the business direction is, then obviously you’ll be able to speak the language of the CEO. This helps us to carve the talent gaps we have and plan succession planning in order to ensure we have the right people at the right place to support the growth of the business.

Have you ever encountered any challenges in working with leaders of other divisions?

The challenge of this role is that you deal with multiple stakeholders, and hence, their needs are pretty different. You often have to work people with their own biasness – who judge and wish to work with talent based on whether they are familiar with them, rather than consider talent potential objectively. The challenge for me really is to sell and hire the type of talent that I think really belongs to the organisation and who is really able support the growth of the company.

The challenge for me really is to sell and hire the type of talent that I think really belongs to the organisation and who is really able support the growth of the company

Simultaneously, I need  o convince our existing employees to consider working with this new talent. It’s always about balancing the leader’s need and the organisation’s need.

You’ve been with Sanofi since 1992. In this period, how have you seen HR evolve over the years?

The key thing about HR in the past and HR today is that in the past, HR used to be quite transactional, and people used to look at it from an operational point of view. Today, HR is becoming more and more strategic. Today, it also partners with the business, collaborates transversely, and importantly, functions on a shared service centre model. This makes it play a very key role in developing and encouraging the future of organisation.

What is Sanofi’s HR team currently working on?

Talent management is a key area, but more importantly, we are putting in place a company system which we are working on with, called Workday. This is being done to make sure we are able capture all the employee information within one system. Sanofi actually has a slightly complicated business structure as we run different business activities. We are today trying to become One Sanofi – and to do that we need one standard system to combine all business information together. This system will capture all aspects of talent management – their appraisals, performance management etc.

What are the biggest challenges Sanofi’s HR team is encountering currently?

I won’t say we’re dealing with challenges. They are more like opportunities for us to improve further. This is mainly in 2 areas. One is in business acumen – and the other is in business partnering. These 2 are interrelated.

In order to be a good business partner, you have got to know the business. And I find typically the HR community – when you talk about business acumen – there is a lack of understanding of financial information. In other words, how does the P&L look, or how do the financial ratios work?

This is something we need to build on. And this can be done by maintaining budget reviews, being involved in business discussions and just check with the CFO – that’s where you can get opportunities for improvement.

What do you do to overcome talent shortage in your industry?

I think the war for talent exists, especially in this Asian market. If you look at the emerging markets in Asia – they are very different from the West, where they are more matured.

Here, the business leaders are still looking for an opportunity for growth, so all the investments are coming in this region. This means there will be a big war for talent, and hence you have to attract the best people to come and join you, but similarly – every organisation around you is doing the same.

So how do you solve this situation?

I think there are a number of things we need to do in terms of overcoming talent shortage. One is to continuously scout for talent – this means you don’t wait until you need to fill a vacancy. You should continuously engage with external candidates, know the kind of external talent landscape and know what people are looking for.

You should continuously engage with external candidates, know the kind of external talent landscape and know what people are looking for.

You should also know what your competitors doing, how they are growing the business and where they are attracting their talent from.

I think it’s also important to build a solid employer brand. This is done through campus talks, getting people to visit the company. I think you have to sell to your talent, the vision of your company to enable them to believe what the company can achieve and led them to think it is an employer of choice.

So how then is the HR function in Sanofi becoming more predictive, and looking out for talent in advance, as opposed to being reactive?

I think the key thing which we’re talking about today is workplace planning. So while the business has a long-range plan for about 5 years, HR has to do the same. What is the HR human capital 5 year plan? With the plan you’re able to forecast your talent capability that you need, the number of talent that you wish to hire etc. So you start to build your forecasting plan. Once you have that, then you can go out to scan the market and do the talent scouting. Then you can map out who the available talent are in the market. Don’t wait until the day you can hire. Instead, you can start engaging them on the spot. As part of my role, I work with some of the head hunters. They introduce me to candidates even though I have no role for them at the present. I have coffee or lunch with them. So i am like an internal and external head hunter. Internally, I also scan for talent within the organisation.

Sanofi is a large company with over 100,000 employees. If we talk about talent, we have enough talent across the organisation. So my job is to hunt them out, be able to meet and talk to them, and discover what they really want to do. And when the time comes, we can plan if we can scout for people internally or externally.

So does Sanofi’s HR have a long-term talent plan in place for achieving the company’s business goals?

We are currently working on that. Today, what we are very good with is coming up with a business plan. We are now trying to integrate the business plan with the human capital plan so that we know if we need to grow the business by this percentage , where we can get the talent we need, and how we are going to build a talent pool. This is part of the plan to build a talent population.

You mentioned employer branding is one of the techniques you’re using to overcome the war on talent. So what are you doing to build a good employer brand?

If you look at Sanofi, we have evolved originally from a purely pharmaceutical company, which is very much a prescription company. We were dealing more with prescription drugs. Later, as we became a diversified healthcare company, we started having diversified businesses. So now we have businesses in animal health, consumer healthcare etc. So now we are very diverse. In terms of employer branding, the good thing is that we’re able to attract talent from different industries. In the past, we were only able to scout for talent only within the pharmaceutical industry. Today we’re able to scan across multiple industries, such as the FMCG industry etc. It gives us a broader range of attracting talent in the organisation.

Sanofi has, in August last year, shifted towards a state-of-the-art office space where employees would, for the first time, work side by side with their colleagues in an open-concept environment. Plus, there’s free seating for all.

What was the philosophy behind this change in office space?

In the Singapore office in South Beach Tower, we have three floors that consist of the sales affiliates and a regional platform for a number of different business activities. A majority of the employees belong to regional teams and they travel around 50% of the time. In terms of space utilisation, this allows better use of the floor area in an open office than having many closed offices, especially when people travel. Also, we wanted to create the One Sanofi family and having open offices improves the interaction and collaboration of employees.

This open office is designed based on an Activity Based workplace concept. It means employees can decide where they sit based on their job activities they are doing at a particular point in time. There are also collaborating work stations, and 60 meeting rooms, if anyone needs to have an innovative brainstorming discussions with the team.

Were employees receptive to this new change in office structure?

In the beginning, there was a lot of resistance, as people found the change to be quite drastic, since it involved losing their personal office or space. They asked questions such as whether they would have to come in to the office early to find a seat, or whether it will be too noisy. They inquired about how they were going to make calls without having desks to place their telephones on,

So how did you overcome all this resistance?

We finally appointed a change consultant who helped us manage the resistance. We identified change ambassadors across different teams and they held regular engagement meetings to update people on the progress, create activities to build awareness of the new office, organise visits to other offices that have open office concepts, create a mock-up office to test the new systems like Lync Communicator, meeting room booking, ask for feedback and address concerns.

This started to change the mindset of the people and by the time we moved, people loved the new office and their resistance and concerns were gone.

Any changes to your engagement rates/ staff morale due to this open-concept floor plan?

We did not carry a formal survey but through our townhall meeting in the first month, we received very positive feedback and staff morale in the company is certainly at a high.

Communication is the key to reducing anxiety and stress of employees. We need to allow employees to ask questions and clarify situations.

Research has shown that one of the biggest stress-inducing factors for staff at work today is when they are unsure about the way the company is going to run, when they are uncertain about change.  

To avoid this, how does the company handle changes made to any HR policy on a general level?

Any changes made on HR policy are raised up in the management meeting first, to seek the management approval or endorsement. Depending on the extent of the change, communication to all employees are made through Line Managers, before reaching out to all employees. Different communication channels are used, such as emails, webcast, townhall meetings, managers’ briefing. Communication is the key to reducing anxiety and stress of employees. We need to allow employees to ask questions and clarify situations.

With this open office concept in place, how do you think this has changed the way leaders and staff work in the company today?

Today, leaders are sitting and working with junior staff in the same room. They are talking to each other and interacting with each other much more. The hierarchy has started to break down as people are free to move around. They are also able to interact with people across different business activities.

This has really changed the whole culture of collaboration, engagement and interaction in the company.

Speaking of leaders, what leadership development policies do you have in place to ensure that senior professionals in the company have the skills they need?

Our people and leadership development policy identifies leadership development needs. It also entails designing global leadership programmes and runs them for leaders. For example, we recognise that communication skills are very important for leaders and we run a programme called IMPACT. The aim of the programme is to inspire teams and cascade strategic messages to increase engagement and motivation. This corporate programme is conducted for the top 300 leaders in Sanofi and today we are also cascading it to other levels in the organisation.

How do you track how well your employees are performing?

First of all, we do have a performance management system that starts with the employee and manager agreeing on the priorities for the year. The employees’ objectives are measured on the “what” and the “how” at the end of the year and feedback is given by the manager.

And what initiatives do you have in place to engage employees?

Sanofi conducts engagement survey called PULSE, usually once every two years to measure employee engagement. In Singapore, we have a quarterly townhall, and the business leaders of each business activity will share their business goals and provide an update of their business performance. We have a Recreation Club, formed by employees who organise employee events to engage employees and create the One Sanofi family. Events like the annual D&D, CNY lunch, and group runs and gym memberships are organised for employees.

How important is teamwork within the company? What policies does Sanofi have in place to ensure there is smooth collaboration between virtual teams among its staff – especially considering it has operations in more than 100 countries?

Teamwork is very important in Sanofi, as we are a matrix organisation and most of us have more than one reporting boss. To ensure a smooth collaboration between individuals and teams, one of our competencies that we are measured on in our performance appraisal is ‘transversal collaboration’. We also have a corporate global leadership programme called INFLUENCE that trains employees on working with multi-stakeholders and achieving a win-win outcome.

Clearly, Sanofi’s HR team plays a significant role in ensuring the company operates smoothly and achieves its business goals. What is the one element of your HR team which you are most proud of, and which you think is the biggest strength of Sanofi’s HR team?

I think we are an organisation that has changed a lot, which has transformed a lot and has gone through a lot of integrations. And that is exactly what our HR team is good in – taking a lead in our change transformation agenda. This has become a very critical competency for us. We have always said that to really survive in Sanofi – you must be prepared to accept change and be prepared to deal with it.

How do you think HR is different in different countries?

I think it is very different, because if we take China, for example. China is a big emerging market, it is still growing, but it is also a very complex organistion. China itself is more than one country – it is like a continent. So if you look at people in the North, South, East and West, the culture is very different. So when you look at people in this type of context, you have to be very agile in knowing their needs and what they wish to achieve.