When a global company has a decentralised culture, it can be hard to persuade people to accept standardisation that is handed down from head office, even if it makes their work lives easier.
But rising to a challenge is something from which he has never shied away. Whatever the challenge may be, the simple principles of showing people respect and listening to what they have to say have stood him in good stead.
It was seeing first-hand the effect that communication – and miscommunication – could have on a business, however, which convinced Ferrie as an undergraduate that HR was the career for him. So after studying for a law degree, he took a postgraduate course in the closest thing he could find to HR at the time: labour regulations.
Ferrie landed his first job at the aluminium wire and cable manufacturer, which today is known as Rio Tinto. From 1985 to 1990, he was involved in training and development activities as well as dealing with the unions over legal matters.
From there, he moved back into the manufacturing sector, but US chemical firm DuPont had a very different business strategy to the average. It wanted to set up a green-field manufacturing site built on non-traditional manufacturing values and based on a non-hierarchical management structure.
The company also turned the recruitment process on its head too. Culture and values were prized much more highly than skills, which came as a surprise to many people.
Although a rigorous selection process was followed, the key idea was to hire people with the right attitude and train them up to gain the required skills.
Because the company, which makes specialist tubes for the oil and gas industry, had a more traditional manufacturing set-up, Ferrie once more found himself negotiating with unions and having to communicate tough decisions such as closing plants.
Another aim was to ensure that the department reflected the global nature of the firm’s business. As part of this shift, Ferrie was promoted in 2008 from his role as head of HR at one of Vallourec’s companies to assume the newly-created position of worldwide employee relations coordinator.
The idea was to establish how things were being done in each territory and to share best practice across the firm. In technology terms, however, some countries already had their own software in place, while others were still on trusty old Excel.
“Usually, HR IS projects are never-ending projects because of the size, magnitude and complexity – and the different country perspectives,” he points out. “It was a challenge and we were hesitating between let’s do it in three years and let’s do it in six months. And then the decision came, let’s do it in five months!”
It was a tight deadline, but they made it. “The reason we made it is that, by making the deadline short, people were focused. It means we had to simplify and find quick wins and easy things to set up so we could deliver something,” Ferrie explains. “The more time you take, the more you expose yourself to new issues and to change. In the end, it was a good thing to do – but not always fun!”
But the secret to delivering any HR project on time – as with so many things – is to communicate what you’re doing effectively, Ferrie believes. Do that well and everything else should – in theory – fall into place.
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