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Q&A with Nestlé: Uzma Qaiser Butt

Vital stats: Uzma Qaiser Butt was appointed the human resources director at Nestlé Malaysia and Singapore at the start of this year. She was previously the company’s HR business partner for Africa, Oceania and Asia, and has been with Nestlé since 2002.

Can you share the HR strategy within Nestlé?

It’s really broken up into three parts. The first is leadership – what we have recognised is that we’re in a very highly competitive environment. Nestlé has been a very successful company in Malaysia and we’ve been here for 102 years now, and this means we know at present we are in the hearts and minds of every Malaysian. But the competitive landscape is no longer what it used to be and we can’t take our market leadership for granted in any way.

Before we talk about the other two parts of your strategy, how has Nestlé ensured leadership stays high on the agenda?

Because it’s people leadership that’s really going to make a difference in a competitive environment, we have designed a leadership programme that we’re running with the Melbourne Business School for the top 300 managers in the company in Malaysia and Singapore. We’re working on a programme that’s going to last five months, and the idea is looking at how we can work with our leaders to ensure it’s people leadership that’s going to help us in the competitive environment.

You’re also redesigning the management training programme this year. What changes will be made?

We’ve had a management trainee programme in this market since 1988, and now we’re just redesigning some of its parameters for 2015. Last year we took in 45 trainees and this year we’re taking in about 35. We’re looking at redesigning our entry criteria and making it a little tougher because management trainees are the pipeline of our leadership.

If you look at our leadership team at the moment, approximately half of them joined the company as management trainees. I myself did in 2001 in Pakistan. Most of the senior leadership in Nestlé have somehow joined us as management trainees, so this is an integral part of the Nestlé leadership development. We start really young.

What are you looking at?

Fundamentally, it’s the entry criteria which is going to focus a lot more on analytical skills, and understanding what their learning capacity is and how easily they can get on the learning curve. We are going to be looking for quantitative skills and culture fit so that will be through observations of group work.

So, what’s your second HR priority?

It’s to recognise and understand that a lot of our young talent would like to have an international experience in the early days of their career. Nestlé is a truly global company and that means there’s always an opportunity for our staff to hop into another country and learn and contribute something to the markets they’re in.

What we’ve started as of this year is an internal competition. We set up criteria and at the end of the year, we decide on the top five individual performers in our market who will have a guaranteed international assignment the following year. This could be anywhere from three months to three years, and we could place our employees anywhere in the world. We have a commitment from our colleagues in Europe and America to make sure our Malaysian talent gets this exposure, which is exciting for us.

And what is the third area?

Recognising that we are also a world-leading nutritional and health and wellness company, and if our product portfolio is more and more about understanding the needs of the consumer and around health and wellness and nutrition, we want to represent that same mindset inside the company.

Uzma Qaiser Butt, HR director Nestle Malaysia and Singapore


How is that culture of health and wellness carried out within the company?

We have started a market health strategy, where we have internal trainings, and a change of menus in the canteen of our sites to make sure employees are aware of how they should manage their personal health. This has probably been around for about a year, and it’s also a global initiative we’re excited to be a part of, seeing how we’re in Asia and facing a future where our health is going to be more and more important. It’s being responsible as a company because if we’re representing ourselves outside as a leading health and nutrition company, we certainly want to be that on the inside as well.

What’s the response been to that?

It’s been positive. We have people who join free fitness classes in the head office, and we have safety talks, which is an integral part of our culture. We’re working towards what we call a zero-harm work environment. That means we are conscious of our movement, of how we walk, of whether we text on the phone while we’re walking, and of holding the handrails. We encourage our employees to use the staircase, so we also have nutritional information available on our stairwell walls which tell them how many calories they’re burning. It’s all very much in line with what Nestlé’s always been, which is to find ways to increase the quality of lives of people around us. And there’s an appreciation of that, without a doubt.

Have these efforts affected the bottom line?

Employees who are emotionally affiliated – not only with where they work, but also who they work with – understand the purpose of the organisation, and that emotional affiliation goes a long way. It’s part of an honest relationship; it’s what we call emotional capital. When companies have employees who have high emotional capital, there will be productivity, and you get people who will go the extra mile without being asked.

Last year, Nestlé received an award for being the number one preferred employer within the FMCG sector. Can you share what that means for the company?

That’s a matter of great pride for us. What’s critically important about receiving awards like that is we’re making an implicit promise, and we need to keep that promise on the inside. If our external perception with students who are starting out their career is that this is the best place to go, we’re very proud of that. We understand it’s happening because of our brand, and people know and love our brand, especially in Malaysia. We must keep the promise on the inside.

What is the promise on the inside?

The promise is real responsibility from day one; working in a really complex environment and having somebody to support you through the process, while allowing you the space to search for what you want.

Management trainees and younger employees are what we call “soul searchers”. They’re searching for what fits for them and what’s right for them, and this is something we really understand. The first few years for a management trainee are a time of confusion and ambiguity, but that’s fine with us. We have faith in people growing, and finding their way through confusion, and we want to help them along the way.

How has this new generation of workers impacted the culture?

If you look at the employee generations, 51% of our staff have been with us for less than five years. That’s quite a significant number because when you look at the need for people to understand the culture, and the ways of working, we have quite the responsibility to train up these new people. Most of the 51% are certainly Gen Y – in fact, 39% of our management staff in Malaysia are Gen Y and 10% are Gen X.

We’re beginning to get a lot of requests from managers in the business in terms of trying to understand Gen Y and how they need to be managed, but the approach we want to take is the generations need to have an understanding of each other. Gen Y is not necessarily exempt from trying to understand how Gen X or baby boomers work, because everyone has to work together. We haven’t necessarily launched any training, but it’s an issue we’re absolutely aware of.

It’s interesting because when people talk about Gen Y, it’s often about how people have to adapt to the younger staff.

It’s a conversation that has to happen both ways. We can’t stereotype them, we can’t treat them like aliens – they are human beings, just with a different set of expectations, as once upon a time Gen X was. About 20 years ago, people were wondering how to deal with Gen X. And guess what? The world didn’t fall apart.

We have faith in people growing, and finding their way through confusion, and we want to help them along the way.
Uzma Qaiser Butt, HR director Nestlé Malaysia and Singapore

For companies seeing an influx of Gen Y employees, what’s the best advice you would give them?

First of all, seek to understand. It’s very hard to suspend judgment; when we meet people, we walk in with a lot of stereotypes and unconscious bias in our heads. The first thing we should do is, on an individual face-to-face basis, seek to understand. I think that’s a human principle and not just a corporate principle. When there is behaviour you don’t understand, the first thing you must assume is that it’s reasonable behaviour and there’s a reason why this person is behaving that way. It’s much easier to dismiss and mock people than it’s to seek to understand them.

In your previous role within Nestlé, you were a project co-ordinator who reported to the head of HR for Zone AOA (Africa, Oceania and Asia). What was your biggest learning point from having to work across 18 markets?

The first thing that does strike you is how the socio-economic culture of a country will affect the social and people issues inside a company. Looking at the economic landscape of the country can give you a fair idea of the sorts of issues which are represented inside it. We have some countries with loose legal landscapes and some with tighter ones, and all that certainly determines the HR agenda.

How does it affect the HR agenda?

It’s affected by the talent, laws and opportunities in the country. That’s quite striking. But you also see similarities across the market.

How so?

Gen Y is a global issue and everyone is struggling with the same questions. Other similarities which were nice to see was how common Nestlé’s language is globally. We’ve been around for 148 years, and have developed a common vocabulary.

Could you share examples of that?

It’s really around talking about our values, which are the same across the world. We talk about being a company that thinks long-term, and time and time again you’ll come across people in the organisation who are not thinking about what’s going to happen tomorrow, but about what’s going to happen in five or 10 years. This is a principle that is present in our company from Australia to Kenya.

With technology and all its advances, has it been easier to keep HR strategies consistent across a large region?

Technology allows the dissemination of information instantly, and in that sense no one can say they don’t have access to the right information. Technology has truly allowed access to information in a way we’ve never seen before. Your ability to prioritise becomes very critical now, especially in the presence of a lot of information.

On the one hand, technology has helped us create and share consistent policies, but it’s also challenged our ability to prioritise and see what is right for each market. Technology can help with decision making, but you have to choose which decisions you want to make.

How do the leadership programmes at Nestlé tie in with succession planning?

We do succession planning across the market, but specifically focused on what we call key positions. These are positions within the company – at any level – which should never be left vacant.

At the end of the day, your top talent are the ones who will give you a competitive edge, so don’t give up on their development.

So these are not necessarily senior positions?

Not at all. For instance, you can think about our roles in quality or engineering. Even if the roles are not senior, you cannot be without an engineer in the factory. We do succession planning throughout the organisation, and a lot at the management level, but we’ve also identified critical positions.

The senior leadership team speaks about the successors of these key positions at least twice a year to make sure they’re on the right path for development, so they will be ready to take on that position one day. That includes a number of things such as their leadership skills, their experience and their technical competencies. Are they technically able to do the job? What critical experiences have they had to help them better judge situations?

There are two parts to it: One is ensuring there is a pipeline, and ensuring what happens to the people in the pipeline. Are they getting the right exposure and training to get them ready? The horizon we look at is up to five years.

How do you then identify which positions are critical?

This is through conversations with senior leaders in the markets. We give them definitions and criteria to establish. One of the simplest questions to ask is, “If this job was vacant, what would happen to your operations? Would you be able to patch it up really quickly or would you have a serious gap?”

What advice would you give your peers when it comes to succession planning?

It needs to be consistent and persistent, and focusing absolutely on your talent without compromise. At the end of the day, your top talent are the ones who will give you a competitive edge, so don’t give up on their development.

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