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Janine Milne

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Talent Spot: Eivind Slaaen, Hilti’s head of people and culture development


For Eivind Slaaen, head of people and culture development at Hilti, creating the right company environment is imperative.

But the irony is that, although developing culture is at heart of what his department does, such activity is considered a line management issue rather than an HR one.
“I have HR colleagues who struggle with that because they say ‘this is a beautiful HR initiative and we don’t get credit for it!’” jokes Slaaen.

Rather more seriously, however, he acknowledges that the most successful of these kinds of scheme are the ones that are embedded into the organisation’s corporate DNA rather than being foisted on it by HR.

But even though Slaaen joined Hilti, a major supplier of fastening and demolition systems to the construction industry, straight from university, it took him a good few years before he decided to specialise in HR.

Indeed, his career may well have taken a very different turn altogether if it hadn’t been for a holiday to Austria and Switzerland.
Although Slaaen had been all set to join his father’s jewellery business back home in Norway, standing in the middle of a Swiss university town and seeing cows in the meadows and impressive snow-capped mountains behind, the idea of studying in the country suddenly started appealing far more.

He couldn’t get the idea of out of his head and, only two weeks after coming back from vacation, he announced that he would be leaving at the end of the year in order to study in Switzerland.

Slaaen took a general degree specialising in finance, “not because I was particularly interested in finance, but because if you’re ever going to learn it, do it early, as it’s not the kind of stuff you start reading in your spare time. So that was a very rational choice,” he remembers.
Culture vulture
What lit the HR touch paper after joining Hilti, however, was the appointment of a new boss in charge of HR, finance and IT. He recognised that certain elements of the company culture needed changing and asked Slaaen to come up with some ideas. “That was the first touch point for me,” he says.

Impressed with Slaaen’s suggestions, the boss pointed out that he might do well to specialise in HR. But then, Slaaen says, he simply got on with the job and “forgot about it”.

Management positions in Liechtenstein and the US followed as did a move to Sweden. It was 1999 and the Swedish and Danish offices were being combined in a process that involved a lot of restructuring.
By that time, Slaaen was himself in charge of finance, IT and HR, but he finally decided that he wanted to focus on the latter as he felt that the discipline offered plenty of opportunities to make a real difference.

As a result, today he runs Hilti’s people and culture development department, which involves both developing HR strategy and building up the company culture on a global level.

But in reality, the firm has been providing cultural training to its staff since 1985 following on from two major events. In the first instance, the founder brought in outsiders to set up an executive board as a way of trying to secure the organisation’s long-term future.

But instead of strengthening it, the move generated a lot of political wrangling as the outsiders set themselves up to take over. From that point on, it was decided that people would only be promoted to the executive board from within the company in order to ensure that they had time to adapt and absorb its culture and values.

The second occurrence related to crises both within the global construction industry a few years later and within the organisation itself. Due to the creation of little ‘kingdoms’, it was decided that a common culture had to be introduced around the world.

So what this means today is that, when a culture-related topic is identified as important, it is addressed at both the global and vertical level.

Learning and development
Slaaen explains: “Most companies would run programmes for top management worldwide. But what we do is take an approach where we start with the executive board and they are our guinea pigs, and then, once they are through that, the programme is rolled out to their direct reports.”

In other words, each manager goes through the training process twice: firstly as a participant and, secondly, as a trainer. There are 70 facilitators to help out, with 60% undertaking the role full time in order to support the company’s 21,000 employees around the world.

It is a huge commitment, costing 10 million Swiss francs every year and taking up a total of about 30,000 working days. “We firmly believe that this is one of our success criteria. Everyone talks about ‘people are the most important asset’, but if you mean that, you have to formally address it,” Slaaen believes.
But he also reckons that a key element of the success of the initiative is that top managers buy into it and believe in it, which means that they allocate personal time to it.
“If I go with my team to give two-and-half days training, for half a day and an evening, my boss will join us. If you’re a general manager, you spend 10 or 20 days a year doing these things and executive directors spend 10 days – and that can be all over the world,” Slaaen says.

To illustrate his point, he uses the analogy of a Formula One pit stop – and the idea that it is necessary to slow down in order to speed up again – in order to explain how the approach works.

“The race is won in the pit stop, not on the track. If you try to do more and more, or run faster and faster, then your relationships won’t work and you will run out of steam,” Slaaen explains.

But the company’s leadership model is essentially very simple, he points out. If you take the time to develop people, then the outcome will be great results, particularly if each individual’s performance targets are linked to business targets.

But technology also helps the process, Slaaen says, indicating that Hilti has been a customer of SuccessFactors, which was acquired by SAP earlier this year, since April 2008.

Keep it simple
“It allows you to re-communicate your processes,” he explains. “It also creates a transparency which is always painful because you had all these people who claimed they were doing stuff. And then you look at what’s available in the system and it’s not there and then you get the excuses.”

But the system is useful above all because it ensures a kind of accountability among everyone, including the HR function, that was not available before.

“When I came into HR, we basically only had people who had grown up in the HR department. They might be very good professionals, but they didn’t have a clue about the business and the business felt like they had no clue,” Slaaen says. “I think acceptance of you is much greater when you’ve been ‘on the other side’.”

But the traffic is not just one-way. People working in other parts of the company also frequently have insufficient experience of other departments too. As a result, over the last few years, it has become more common for line-of-business workers to be seconded into HR, before moving back out into other departments.

But there are also a lot of opportunities for HR personnel to undertake international travel and be seen elsewhere in the business rather than simply stay at headquarters.

Slaaen explains the rationale: “There’s a danger otherwise that you sit in your ivory tower in Liechtenstein and get too idealistic about how things should be. Where we have done a good job is where we have kept the teams very pragmatic.”
In the late 1990s, for example, Hilti designed a classic competency model. “On paper, it was fantastic,” Slaaen says. “The problem was that it was useless because without a dictionary you couldn’t use it – and who uses a dictionary or a manual? It was never top of people’s minds.”

Therefore, the idea was thrown out and a simpler model introduced that was based on just six competencies that everyone could understand and apply easily to their own jobs.

“That’s the type of thing that gains us credibility in the organisation – pragmatic, simple stuff. Keep it simple and not try to be sophisticated for the sake of it,” Slaaen concludes.

And finally….

Who do you admire most and why?
I admire people who dedicate themselves to improving the lives of those who need it most.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I was about to take a new job and had heard only bad things about the future boss from my predecessor. I started to believe them and talked about my future boss in the same negative way at home.
But my wife asked me if I had ever met him. When I told her ‘no’, she said: “How stupid can you be to judge a person before you’ve even met them?” I’ve never done it again.

What’s your most hated buzzword?

‘Quality time’. There’s no such thing as quality time. It’s an expression used by managers to justify how they live their lives, looking at it from their own perspective and not that of their partner or children.

How do you relax?

By drinking espresso and reading a newspaper or book.

2 Responses

  1. HR Profession and Accountability

    Great story.

    So you stumbled into HR because your boss pointed the direction. And, from your own success story, you are now saying HR should be staffed by non HR profesionals because they don’t understand the business needs in order to contribute effectively. And, in your experience, Finance make better HR. 

    BTW, do you think there is room for a HR person take the same route to becoming the Head of HR, FINANCE and IT. No, I don’t think so because you need to be "Profesionally Qualified" to do Finance and Technically sound to make good in IT.

    This is the problem with the HR job universally, including in my country. Despie the rhetorics, HR person has to  demonstrate his/her "credibility" before getting invited to sit at the table. This is the leadership mentally permeating in most orgainsational culture, inlcuding PLCs. The top leadership engage in high flying strategic language but don’t have a clue as to what goes into building trust and managing performance to deliver bottomline results. Yet, these are the same who talk of "inclusiveness and employee Engagement".  

    IMHO, the challenge of turning around a culture lies not with mastering the business needs – it’s not rocket science. Rather it’s about getting the top leadership to first ‘believing" that the current culture sucks and something seriously and drastically must change in the way they are leading the organisation. 

    You said, "people would only be promoted to the executive board from within the company in order to ensure that they had time to adapt and absorb its culture and values."

    That took great wisdom and courage. I tell you that is one of the top most item of any HR wishlist. The other would be to hold every manager accountable for being a trainer – not on technical but on conceptual and people management skills. I have tried to crusude this but failed. Is it me or the fact the people on the top are not just ready for change. 

    You must read the book by Prof Bob Garret, "the fish Rots from the Head". And, he elevates the failure of accountability for strategy, system and culture right up to the Boardroom level. 

    Your succees stories and intiatives came through, not because "HR had someone from the other side" but because you had a dynamic and courageous leader(s) at the top who realised and adapted fast enough to see that change in the culture was inevitable. He had the wisdom to realise that culture eats strategy for breakfast.  In other companies, the top is/are still in deep sleep awaiting the world outside to change to suit to their "my way or high way" style. If strategy is top line accountability, well so is culture.  

    I envy your position and success. So, congratulations and good luck.  

    But, it’s sad to think of where HR is heading. It still remains as the only job of "if you can’t fit anywhere, join HR" and still strugglng to become a "profession".      


  2. Brilliant

    — Bola Owoade

    I love this article and the bit that really gets me is keeping things simple. How I wish HR did more of that. Sometimes we are more interested in the latest fad than supporting people. And the competency thing, if people don’t understand it, they won’t use it.




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