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Suite Talk: Why Crestron's APAC CEO thinks HR should be "in the field"

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Stuart Craig, CEO - Asia Pacific, Crestron Electronics, talks about his leadership style, how to get staff to speak up and share ideas, and why HR should be in the field instead of behind their desks.

Q I understand you joined Crestron in 2013. What drew you to Crestron?

I set up distribution in Australia for Crestron in 2005 and I started working for Crestron directly in 2013.

What drove me to this company is that despite being big and a market leader, it’s still nimble. In the technology space, being nimble is a key asset. It is a privately owned company with very little bureaucracy and for a one and half billion-dollar company, that's quite an achievement.I really loved the whole feel of the company and that's why I got involved.

Q What has been your most memorable moment with the organisation?

There are actually two moments.

One would be when we did a lot of work in Macau about three or four years ago. It was a region where we didn't really have a lot of personnel and we won one of the biggest projects Crestron has ever had. It was a very hands-on project working with a number of large hotel casinos over there. In a very short amount of time, we had to build an office there and hire people at a time where it was tough to do so in Macau. It was really time when we had to bring in people from different countries while hiring locals. We really put together a fantastic team and those big casino jobs were being done under a very tight timeline. You have to be very hands on. I've never seen teamwork and a culture like it people worked long hours and were totally dedicated. We really started from nothing so it was a real highlight.

The second one was when we decided to move from distribution to a direct model here in Asia Pacific and that started a whole series of events for the next couple of years which really was very rewarding and a great experience.

Q How would you describe your leadership style?

I'm known to be quite decisive but I also like to get people's input. I like to tell people to work like it's their own business. I like everyone to have accountability and responsibility and I like them to use their instincts.

I feel everybody needs a framework and are after given a job description, as most people want that and of course we provide that,but I like people to think outside of that I really like people to feel comfortable about trying different things to test themselves out and come through with different ideas.

In Asia Pacific, which makes up about a third of the globe, you don't want people to keep coming back to seek approval all the time. They're much better thinking "if this were my money this is how I would build the business". I think out of that you get the best people.

Q People in Asia tend to be more soft spoken. So how do you get them to speak up and share their ideas?

APAC has a lot of different cultures. Managing people in Australia and New Zealand is totally different than managing the other different parts of Asia.

In the other parts of Asia, I think people are very respectful, hierarchy matters, they're more formal, they're certainly committed. In Australia and New Zealand are committed as well but it's a more casual interaction.

In Asia to get innovation and get people to run with their instincts, I think you have to spend a lot of time face to face time to get their trust. You have to try and break down those barriers over food and drinks, and just show people that they can start to do some of these things and have their own footprint.

When we decided to go directly in this region a couple of years ago, we really wanted to embark on this culture of innovation as not just a term but something we really lived.

Some of the most interesting and best ideas came out of Asia. We said, "if this was your business and we're starting from scratch, when you're in Hong Kong or Singapore, what would you do?" From that we came up with some fantastic ideas.

For example, we have this thing called CresTV to communicate across the globe. It is usually difficult to do as you lose that one on one and direct relationship with a lot of people, so we came up with this idea that came from Asia to make CresTV. Instead of me writing memos and emails, every month we film and broadcast a TV show to all our staff and they can see how the leadership team interact in a fun way. It also lets them learn about the company and what's happening in other parts of Asia Pacific.

Another innovative thing that came out of Asia was CresQuiz (Crestron Quiz). Someone in Hong Kong came up with it because getting new staff up and running is very difficult in a short amount of time especially when it comes to product knowledge since there are many languages in the region. CresQuiz is an online portal where people get quizzed every month and if they don't know all the answers, they get mentored by someone.

Q You played a huge role in expanding Crestron’s footprint across APAC, as well as achieved record growth levels in Australia and New Zealand. How do you keep employees engaged through such rapid growth?

I think when you expand that much, what really comes out of it is opportunity. As a company, you get really excited telling people of your results, but also need to think about what it means for the people driving those results. We have great HR team in Singapore and we really go out of our way to make sure everyone understands what the opportunities are for them and what's the next step.

Q What is your view of HR as a business function and how closely do you work with your HR head?

Hiring somebody in HR is in line with how you run the business. In my mind, there are two sides to HR. There's an administrative and legal function - which is extremely important and protects employees and the business. But, I like HR as front line; the person I hired is the HR director for Crestron likes to meet customers he likes to go out with sales people and that's really why I hired him.

Ultimately, you can't make HR decisions in isolation, you have to understand our staff and the challenges they face, what their opportunities are, who our competitors are, who our customers are and what do they want. I think from that you get a much better HR department, they come back and give you a lot of real world input.

It's crucial to have a HR director who understands your business and people. In our case what's really holding us back from growing again next year is not market, but lack of finding the right people. So our HR department's focus for the next six months is branding and trying to get awareness of who is Crestron and why you want to work for this great company and really trying to attract the right people. Without a good campaign around that, we're going to struggle, so we're very dependent on our HR team.

Q Beyond attracting the right people, how do you think the HR function can better contribute to the business?

The more our HR team is in the field and not behind their desks, the more they are out there with people from the business and the more time they spend with our customers to understand them, the better they will be for us. That way, they will become an integral part of our strategic plan and how we do business every day. They will know what type of person will do really well in Singapore and what type of person will really connect with those particular customers.

Q Do you think a HR head can be CEO someday? If your HR head had to take over your position tomorrow, do you think they would be successful and why?

Yes of course they could. Traditionally, most CEOs come from a sales background or finance background. But it comes down to the individual person. For me, I don't see why they couldn't because I treat them as the front-line part of the business.

Is it more about the person or more about the role? So, if you've got the right person who's been sitting in executive meetings and learning and exploring other divisions, it's very possible. Of course, they would have to grow their business knowledge, but the way I view HR and the way I try to mold them, it is possible.

Q If not this career, what alternative career path might you have chosen?

I would've loved to be a film director. But, coming from Sydney, it would have been a very challenging career.

Later, I fell in love with technology business. I decided I really love working with people, managing people, being a leader, and building businesses more than anything. So, I'm sure I still made the right choice.

Part of that is because there's that creative element. I think people forget that CEOs do actually have a very creative element - it's not as dry as people might see. Everything is about people and there's a lot of relationship you have to work with. There's also a lot of creativity between marketing and sales strategy.

I think that creative side of me was why I was interested in film directing, but I certainly feel there's a lot of creativity in this role.

Q Could you give me an example about how you put the creativity to use in this role?

When we put together our headcount, sales, and marketing plans for the next financial year which starts in July, those three things have to be aligned and it's up to me to come with ideas that group has not thought of. To do that you really need to think outside of the square and challenge people.

I think ultimately, people are normally quite comfortable with thinking about incremental changes. People are comfortable in a conservative way and usually repeat similar strategies as the past years. As CEO I think you need to challenge that and ask "what if our business model changed?","what if our whole marketing direction changed?". For example, at the moment, we spend a lot our money in marketing to the channel but in the next year, we probably need to spend half of that money in educating end users about our technology and getting some lead generation and that becomes a very creative discussion.

Photo / provided

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