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Charlie Duff

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Facing the challenge of business transformation – Societe Generale


Luz Helena Rojas is an elegant, vivacious woman who stepped before the SuccessConnect audience with a bold smile and a joke to open her presentation about how she has implemented a new HRIS to help achieve the key business aim of a global company in an extremely challenging atmosphere and sector: the French bank, Societe Generale, in the middle of a global recession. Why? Well, you may ask.

She loved her job at Schneider Energy. So why did she leave? She smiled, and said: “I give you two reasons. Firstly, the level of the people I met during interviews. You can see from the professionalism, so that was impressive. The second – well, it was a huge transformation. And to be there, working on this transformation, is such a challenge. A lot of adrenaline. I thought, well, let’s close your eyes, and jump. And I did.”

She’s no run-of-the-mill HR director – she’s had a stratospheric career, moving from her native Columbia to Brazil, then to Paris to direct first Columbian, then Latin American HR for French based Schneider energy. She then took roles in Paris for the same company before the ‘SG challenge‘ landed at her feet.

Societe Generale, like every company in the banking sector, had huge pressure to change in the middle of the banking crisis and she stepped in to take up the challenge. The crisis undeniably changed the whole sector and the bank had to accept that times had changed – and that Societe had to change with it.

Luz Helena explained that, hard for the group to accept as it was, it has had to admit that banking is now literally less profitable today. There is also a greater  focus on governance and ethics, and products need to be simpler – which looks less exciting and innovative. When it came to attracting people, it was hard to source the best talent from banks simply because of pay, which remains a clear driver for the sector.

As well as changing the business and the sector, it changed the way the bank managed its human capital.

Societe Generale is made up of different businesses in 83 countries. It varied wildly as to what kind of HR system they were working with but there was a need for a shared system which they could all have in common.

Naked ambition
The over-arching ambition of the group is to become ‘the’ relationship-focused bank.

Luz Helena explained the bank ran – and continues to run – on a ‘glo-cal’ system. She explained; “A global business but run on a local scale.” She continued: “We need to speak the same language. One of the key difficulties when you work in HR internationally is trying to have visibility to all your people around the world, so it helps when you have a common platform when you want to speak about HR processes, about talent retention.”

It was time to listen to the employees. In 2009 the first employer survey was launched. They discovered a lot about the leadership style. The organisation had a lot to do to improve the behaviours of the leadership and management.

Addressing the problem in managerial culture
The bank was a very result-orientated business which was good – but certain behaviours were not the right ones. How could it achieve sustainable growth, prepare for the future and work together? It wanted to embrace a more entrepreneurial spirit.

Luz Helena said: “Banks are usually rational, but we needed some emotion as well.“ It started to explore new ways of working which had previously been impossible.

This proved a big step forward for the HR department, as they highlighted how crucial people would be in the brand and image of the bank in its strategy. They focused on changing behaviour and performance management, as Luz Helena explained: “Relationships are built on people. It was crucial and they started with performance and behaviour. Yes, we want good results, but attention – we want good behaviour.”

She added: “We need to gain the trust again of clients. We are also customers of the financial sector, and part of a problem we don’t want to happen again.”

Getting sign off
“As with everything, you have to build a business case,” explain Luz Helena, matter-of-factly. She stresses that the idea was driven by and for HR. Figuring out what they needed, working with the IT department and going to market, she found that it was a good time for a system like this to be introduced.

A greater recognition of the role people – she describes people as a ‘huge, huge, huge factor’ – play and will play in the future of the business to achieve the aim of being the relationship focused bank meant that a ‘common platform’ fitted perfectly with the change the industry was undergoing.


HR was not at the heart of the system. Now it is, claims Luz Helena. Societe Generale, she explained, has always had real business people in HR; but they also need human resource experts to add value to the business and not just do the admin role. They introduced ‘HR business partner’ type roles to add more value.

SuccessFactors was handed a very exciting challenge to put across a clear HRIS strategy based on four pillars – clients, organisation, governance, innovation.

Challenge of change
Change management was a real hill to climb for the bank. Luz Helena said: “The problem is that they have an Excel sheet, which is working, and you have to say to them, amigo, no – Excel will not exist for this anymore.”

Innovation in this area was helped by SuccessFactors and Societe Generale has moved to the Cloud in the last three years. It is now able to run the performance management out to thousands of employees and talent management will follow.

The future?
Luz Helena admits there is an issue with diversity, and worries that they are missing the opportunities which diversity could bring. The only other thing is that banking is a very serious business. She mused: “We are not Google, but it would be nice to have fun!”

Overall, it has been a true HR driven project to bring efficiency, and Luz Helene wanted HR to contribute fully to the business. “It has been a success factor to ensure we get it,” quipped Luz Helena.

And for those of you who still thinks she’s mad to take it on, she adds: “As I told my boss – I don’t regret one second.”

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Charlie Duff


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