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Q&A with Maersk Line's Rupert Brown

Rupert Brown, head of HR, Asia Pacific at Maersk Line talks to Akankasha Dewan about the importance of upholding the company's long-standing culture and heritage, and how its HR division can prepare itself for the challenges ahead.

VITAL STATS: Rupert Brown leads the HR division at Maersk Line for the Asia Pacific region. He joined the company in September 2013, and has had 16 years of regional HR and business partner experience across Asia and Europe.

How would you describe working at Maersk Line?

It’s been just over one year and the experience has been fantastic, and I’ve really enjoyed it. My background is not within this industry. I come from a predominantly consumer goods background, coming previously from Procter & Gamble. I was familiar with Asia and regional HR roles, but I didn’t know this industry very well.

So what did you do to familiarise yourself with the industry and company?

In many ways, Maersk Line is to the shipping industry what P&G is to the consumer goods industry. They are both globally recognised, long-standing market leaders, with a strong reputation for developing talent in their industry.

What I did have to get used to was understanding what’s unique about the company, and some of it had to do with its heritage and its culture in Denmark. Maersk Line has a very unique culture, and while it was one of the things which attracted me to the company, it was also one of the things which I had to spend time on so I could better understand it.

So one of the first things I did was to put myself onto one of our container ships to go on a seven day voyage from Singapore to Hong Kong via China. Although I am responsible for shore based employees, I needed to see the industry first-hand to get a feel for it. And there’s no better way than to spend a week at sea on one of our vessels, understanding just exactly what the crew go through, and seeing the loading and unloading of containers up-close.

What are you currently working on?

Talent management is a central theme in my current role as the regional HR director. I shoulder a vast range of HR responsibilities - from working to develop our pipeline of future leaders to ensuring we have the systems and processes necessary to be hiring the right talents for the future.

In fact, just last week I was in Malaysia for this year’s batch of Maersk Line Graduate Programme (MLGP) trainees. We are in partnership with several universities globally that are strong in supply chain management for this programme. The first seminar was held at the Malaysia Institute of Supply Chain Innovation (MISI), which is part of the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Global SCALE Network. Other universities we are working with include Erasmus, Copenhagen Business School and University of Denver.

This is the first out of the four international seminars the trainees will get to participate in during their two year MLGP programme. They are all new hires and are masters degree holders with two years of work experience. But like me, they are not from the industry. So they go through two job rotations and four seminars to get some industry perspective. For this session in Malaysia, they also visited the Port Klang container terminal and our office in Kuala Lumpur. As well as immersing them in supply chain management theory, we also give them an accelerated on-boarding into Maersk company history and culture.

How would you define this culture at Maersk Line and how important is it to the company?

It takes time to really understand the finer nuances of culture, especially in a company with a long history such as ours. What I have seen so far is a strong yet humble organisation that really should feel proud about the role it has played at the heart of global trade expansion.

However, Maersk is not a company to rest on its laurels. We are always keeping one eye on the horizon and planning accordingly. This sense is equally strong with our crew members out at sea, who are always looking out for the quality of our vessels.

Within my first year, I have had a number of experiences where I felt that leaders where making values based decisions even when no one was watching. That, for me, is the definition of culture.

Moving forward, how do you maintain this culture at Maersk in the future?

Primarily through focusing constantly on our company values and having our management lead by example by living these values. We’re fortunate that in Maersk Line we have a very strong heritage, thanks to the long-standing traditions of the Møller family. Our values represent something that people can relate with, and they are unique. They include constant care, humbleness, uprightness, upholding the family name, and our people.

Using simple language when we talk about the values of the company and its culture is important, otherwise the message might get lost especially with the next generation. In recent years, we have launched an initiative called “cultural amplifiers” which is an overly to the values and talks about “focus, simplicity and teamwork”.

We had workshops to launch this to staff and also stories and internal articles on how our people globally exemplify these “cultural amplifiers” in their daily work.

And how does the HR function at Maersk support this strong culture?

HR is at the heart of many initiatives we are running in the company to help us evolve to changing market conditions. Historically, our company has grown rapidly through international expansion, opening up offices along all the important trade routes and locations around the world. In fact, just this year we opened up our very own agency in Myanmar. We’re now at the point where we operate just about everywhere and we have been in places such as Bangkok and Jakarta for around 60 years.

But looking ahead, the opportunity we have at hand now is to leverage this great scale we have by operating as one company, and developing the next generation of talents who can work collaboratively across regions and functions. In order to build a sustainable business in the long term, we need leaders who are collaborative as well as commercially minded and technically skilled.

How closely do you work with headquarters of these other regions? What’s the connect like?

I report to the regional CEO for Asia Pacific (Lars Mikael Jensen) and I have a dotted line to the chief HR officer in Copenhagen. In our HR division, we follow an Ulrich type model so we’ve got centres of expertise, as well as a shared service centre and business partners. The regional centres of expertise report to me, but of course they have strong dotted lines to their global counterparts.

This is important mainly because increasingly, we are working in a global, virtual world. I myself spend a lot of time with my peers, including HR directors from other regions, as well as the global heads of talent, learning and organisational development, and compensation and benefits to ensure we are sharing ideas, talents and staying aligned as one global organisation.

Through these interactions, have you ever noticed a difference in HR priorities and processes between this region and other parts of the world?

I think the focus on diverse talent development is very high on the HR agenda here in Asia. We as a company are very fortunate to be established in the region, so in some countries we’ve got home-grown talents from within the region leading those markets.

The challenge then is to keep this pipeline of diverse talents growing and also supplement with high potential or technical resources from elsewhere in the company. But historically, we grew like many other companies through exporting leadership talent from our head office in Denmark.

Maersk Line has, indeed, such a large workforce. With 25,000 land-based employees, and 7000 crew on sea. In such a case, how do you ensure roles and responsibilities of these employees are well structured, and how do you manage such a large global workforce?

There are a lot of things which we’re doing to ensure a consistent look and feel throughout our functions. It starts with having a vision for what the function does, and consistently doing that throughout all of its locations. So for HR, it is about having global policy and process and in supporting that, we’ve got consistent development programmes.

For example, if you take HR, our focus recently has been to pilot a programme where we develop talent-led business partners. It’s like a development centre for up and coming HR business partners globally, which focuses on the skills necessary to raise their level of contribution to the business. We’re doing similar things in sales,customer service and so on. We often take inspiration for these programmes externally, but then develop and lead them in-house.

Speaking of training leaders, do you have any leadership development programmes in place which ensure leaders have the necessary skills and knowledge required to lead the business keeping in mind the culture of the company?

I was fortunate recently to attend a programme called The Bridge. The name comes from the bridge of the ship, from where the captain and crew can see the horizon, plan and navigate the route. It is a programme designed for the top 300 leaders of the company. The aim is for them to be more aligned and trained to carry out the company strategy efficiently. They work together and understand the strategy behind the business and how it came to be what it is.

A substantial part of the programme is based on leadership development, including how to communicate as well as drive and lead change. So the programme is both developmental and is also focused on aligning with the cultural values of the company. I went for The Bridge programme in May this year and I really enjoyed it as it gave me a clearer understanding of why we are on the journey we are on.

What about training programmes for other employees throughout the organisation?

Once people are on-boarded and have the relevant knowledge, we believe in the 70:20:10 model of learning – so 70% of people’s development comes on the job, 20% from coaching/sparring and 10% from formal training. Whilst we do invest a lot of time and energy into talent management, employees still own their careers and you will see people who have had cross functional career paths across the Maersk Group.

When it comes to training itself, we have a number of programmes in the company to help people build their skills. A recent programme we just launched is focused on helping our leaders be teachers at the right time. We have developed six short programmes to support our performance management process which cover subjects like objective setting, giving feedback, having challenging conversations, career coaching etc.

But the key is that these are delivered in a short, engaging, 90 minute way by internal faculty. They are conducted at times when leaders need to be reminded about these issues the most. This is something we’re piloting right now, to see if it has any future application, but it looks pretty promising so far. The initial sessions have been well-received and people are very engaged compared to a traditional presentation or training session. But I think what really hit home for our employees was the snappy format we adopted. Rather than having to spend a day listening to a message that people have heard before, a short, sharp and timely reminder has a bigger impact on experienced managers.

We also have a newly launched Maersk Learning Library which we launched in September this year. It offers development tools for all employees globally. This is an online database with different developmental tools covering a wide range of different topics. It features videos, books, articles, and developmental roadmaps, covering topics such as leadership, developing and managing people, operations management, and change. Employees have a dialogue with their managers about their needs and what skills to develop, and can then use the materials in this online library.

What is the core philosophy behind your succession planning programme and how has it changed over time?

We look at performance and potential to identify talents. We spend a lot of time focusing on succession planning and really distilling what potential really means. A lot of time we focus on ‘potential for what’, and we remain very clear that we don’t want theoretical succession plans for jobs that we do not have. We want them based on critical positions we have in the company and on a definite time frame, so succession planning becomes an actionable plan and we can move people accordingly.

What I’ve seen in other companies is that you have a lot of ‘what would you do if…’ discussions. But when something actually happens, that discussion is a waste of time. So we’re getting much more specific about what this potential is actually for, and looking at the indicators of this potential.

And does such a philosophy work for all levels of talent in the organisation? What about when planning for mid-level managers to succeed senior roles?

The talent identification process and the philosophy is the same. If you’ve got a first level manager and you think they’ve got the potential to be promoted one level up within two years, you obviously see qualities such as leadership skills or maturity or passion, that you think might be applicable at a more senior level. Of course, the jumps between levels and the associated challenges and risks get larger as you go up the organisation. So you may be good at managing one country, but how about an entire region?

And what particular characteristics or traits do you look out for when identifying such high-potential leaders or talent?

A big focus of the company right now is not just looking at tangible results, but going beyond the ‘what’ to look at the ‘how’. It’s all about how you actually get your results, how you lead your team, and engage and inspire the organisation.

I think increasingly what we’re focusing on is the legacy you leave on afterwards. So it’s more about developing the talent to succeed yourself and leaving behind an organisation that is stronger than the one you found. Oftentimes companies just focus on the metrics on the scorecard. Performance is an important part, and the past is the best predictor of the future, but in Maersk Line we want to look at the ‘how’ along with the ‘what’ together. Because if we take people on a journey to get them to a bigger role, how they lead when they get there is also really important.

Transparency is important, but especially more so in big, global companies. How do you ensure this at Maersk Line? 

One of Maersk Line’s core values is ‘our employees’. We believe that by prioritising their needs and being open and transparent with them, we are building the right environment which will attract and retain our employees. We plan year-round activities that will support this core value, for example internal town-halls and annual employee engagement surveys.

There is a lot of transparency between senior management and the rest of the organisation, for example, on how the company is doing. In line with our company’s quarterly financial results, we also have a video and message by our global CEO on the intranet to which employees can pose questions and comments. In the regions and countries, regional CEOs and country managers share performance updates with employees through weekly emails, regular blog posts, town-halls, etc.

Also, how do you enhance teamwork in the organisation?

Multi-functional teams in each country are now meeting together on a weekly basis, to discuss on the priorities for the week. Increasingly, this is the way we do business – it is naturally multi-functional and transparent.

We also have annual global awards such as the Star Awards to recognise and celebrate the efforts and success of teams across functions and geographies, while at the same time recognising behaviour exhibiting our cultural amplifiers.

How do you facilitate a diverse-friendly environment at work?

I think we need to do more in this aspect, especially because our teams are getting more diverse, international and virtual. The nature of our business is that it is a globally networked business. If you go to our head office in Copenhagen, or here in Singapore, there are a lot of nationalities working together on complex global trades. So it is important that we are conscious of both the global nature of our business as well as the different needs of our diverse organisation so that we put together the strongest teams.

Putting together diverse teams is, admittedly, the easy part. But how do you establish diversity of thought in the organisation?

I think diversity is a belief – it’s a belief that the most diverse teams will generate the best business results, and that the best leaders love to lead and build diverse teams. Nothing brings this to life better than a leader who walks the talk on this.

How do you measure engagement? Any specific processes in place?

We have an employee engagement survey, which we run throughout the entire group. We’re actually really happy about the participation rate of these surveys. It’s about 90% -so nine out of 10 people participate in this survey. The idea of getting a collective view is an important thing, and our employees know we want them to be heard. Our engagement levels are pretty good too – around 75% at Maersk Line. This is good, but we want to be better.

We’re aware of certain areas we want to focus on. We’re working on getting a better understanding of how performance management works in order to secure the link between performance and pay. So one of the things we’ve done recently is to align ourselves along one global incentive plan, which include sales people and non-sales people. One of the things which was getting in the way of understanding this was how the formula worked, and the correlation between how I perform and how much variable pay I receive as a sales person. So it was a bit of a black box before, but being honest and transparent about how it works, and what works enables people to see the link between performance and pay.

Looking to the future, what do you think will be the biggest HR challenges that Maersk Line will be facing in the next 5-10 years?

I think the culture journey continues ahead of us. We are a successful, global organisation that has grown very rapidly. Our industry and our company are maturing. We’ve opened up agencies pretty much everywhere where it is possible to do so. Now, the focus is more on global systems and processes and on the collaboration skills needed from our leaders to run as one company. That’s going to be our challenge for the medium-term future, but I think it will be one at which we’re going to be very successful in overcoming.

And where does the future of HR, specifically, lie?

The centres of expertise will continue to develop interesting solutions. For me, though, the real crux of it is where the talent agenda and the HR business partners come together. Historically this has happened at more senior levels in the organisation but if we can drive passion and ownership for developing the right capabilities for the future into front line HR roles then HR will be making a massive business contribution.

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