Having just transitioned to his new role as Asia CEO at Damco, Thomas Knudsen – the former Asia Pacific CEO of Maersk Line – speaks with Akankasha Dewan on the demands of the job and how HR professionals can develop their own leadership skills.
You’ve been CEO for the Asia Pacific region at Maersk for about four years. How would you summarise your experiences?
I’ve been abroad for more than 22 years with the Maersk Group so this is one of many international assignments and it has certainly helped in reaffirming my excitement about working in an international environment.
I thoroughly enjoy my engagement with people from different cultures, particularly in Asia, and this feeling that we’re going towards a better future is exciting. People are getting wealthier, jobs are being created and things are generally going towards a positive direction.
Within Maersk Line, the challenge was a move from being an international company to a global company, which was exciting. We spent a lot of resources in building a local pipeline of talent in countries within the region and moving away from mainly relying on expats for the top level jobs. That has been the most exciting part of my journey for the past two years.
How do you think the HR function can become more strategic and be a better business partner?
I think it is a question of being in the business. Be out meeting with people, see if you can get in front of customers, meet with suppliers. It is about really sensing and feeling the business. Also have conversations with people about the business, not only about HR-related subjects. You need to passionately want to know what’s going on in the business; this is the first and foremost step.
What is your overall view of HR as a business function?
I think it is essential, and I’ll give you one example why. Three years ago, Maersk Line was losing significant amounts of money every day. We had the same hardware as we have today, we had the same external environment. Two years later, we are making a 9% return on investment on our capital, but we are doing things differently with our people.
For me, the employees are by far the most important lever for financial performance which you can find, and HR is an important enabler of that.
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