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How to build a successful regional HR team

regional HR teamAs part of the Best of HR Project I recently had a very inspiring conversation with the regional HR manager (CEE) of a big international company, who told me about his experience of building a highly effective regional HR team. I am happy to share his story with you here.


When I received the regional HR manager’s position…

I was promoted into the regional HR manager’s position almost two years ago. These two years have been hard, but we have managed to build a regional HR team which is not only performing outstandingly, but is also fun to work in. I am sure it is possible to push a team to exceptional performance by putting a lot of pressure on them, but in the long run that isn’t sustainable. Instead, I wanted to create a culture of trust and openness.

Two years ago the situation was challenging in many ways:

  • Like all regional managers, I had to build a team of people who live and work in different countries, most of them never having met each other.
  • In our company the regional manager is traditionally not given huge formal power in the matrix. It is always the local country manager who has more authority; the regional manager is only a “dotted line”. I had to choose my leadership methods accordingly.
  • Another challenge was that the regional CEO regarded the HR function less as a business partner but more as an operational support department. It took some time and a lot of hard work and effective communication for me personally and my team collectively to earn the regional CEO’s trust.
  • In my team of HR managers there were a few colleagues who were not fit for their position, either because of a lack of skills or because they didn’t have the required attitude towards the actual business environment and the challenges it poses.
  • These “problematic colleagues” also found it difficult to accept that their new boss was previously one of their peers. This also put me in a more difficult position.


How did I build a successful team?

  • Have the right people on board. It is crucial for a high performing team that people have the right attitude and skills. Otherwise you simply can’t expect to be successful. Out of the six HR managers in my team I needed to replace two in the first year. Of course it didn’t happen straightaway. We gave them a fair chance first, but when things didn’t improve there was no point hesitating further. These staff replacements couldn’t have been done without the full support of the local CEO. With the benefit of hindsight, we made the right decision in both cases.
  • Sometimes attitude trumps experience. We decided to appoint new HR managers who had the right attitude but relatively little professional experience. Again time has shown us that we made the right decision, as these colleagues are doing really well in their new positions. In some cases motivation and attitude is clearly more important than many years of experience. Of course, this couldn’t have happened in all five countries I am responsible for: you can’t have a regional team full of inexperienced HR managers. However, it was worth taking the risk with only these two positions, especially that both new managers have a very strong professional team behind them.
  • Responsiveness. Having the right people on board doesn’t make them directly into a successful team. It took time to build the culture of trust, openness and reliability within the team. I put a lot of emphasis on responsiveness: I find that it is a key element in any virtual community where people don’t meet face-to-face. I try to be very responsive and I expect the same from each HR manager. In a virtual environment you have to compensate for the physical distance, you have to be even more responsive, because you won’t bump into each other at the cafeteria.
  • React within 1 hour. I made it clear to all my team members that I expect them to answer each other’s calls or e-mails within a day. If they don’t have the answer ready, we should confirm receipt of the request and the expected answer date, thereby limiting the uncertainty created by the lack of face-to-face communication. And of course I stick to this rule, too.
  • No taboo. We have no taboo topics in the team. Even if somebody is looking for a new job, it can be openly discussed with me.
  • Feedback culture. I always ask for feedback and try to learn from it. Now it has become so natural for us to give each other feedback that after filling in the anonymous employee satisfaction survey, some of my team members called me to tell me what scores they had given me and why. They didn’t need the anonymity; they were happy to share their opinion directly.
  • Small gestures. I believe in small gestures. They really make a difference. For example, one colleague wanted to improve his English. There is cost-freeze in our company now, so we couldn’t pay for his lessons, but we suggested he had his lessons in the office during working hours. He really appreciated the opportunity.
  • At our meetings a web camera is compulsory. I told my team members that if somebody doesn’t have a camera, I am happy to buy one, but we must be able to see each other during conference calls. This makes a huge difference! Now nobody types e-mails or works on other things during meetings. Meetings have become very effective since we introduced the web cameras.
  • Motivate the Y generation. My team is full of young, Y generation managers. When they get their new position, visibility and fast development are very important to them. My experience is that it is crucial for the Y generation that there is always a new learning opportunity. Once routine has set in and they can’t find a new learning opportunity, they are more likely to leave the company. Thus, I always provide them with new challenges. For example, every year everybody in my team gets to manage a big regional HR project. This way they can show themselves at the regional level while trying something new, and they get the chance to develop themselves more quickly.
  • Empowerment is difficult. It has to be said that this kind of empowerment is not always easy for me. I find it difficult to give up control. But in a way it is good practice for me, too. I am learning to let go.
  • Quarterly award. As another way to motivate and recognise good performance, I introduced a quarterly award in my team. It is always given to somebody who has shown excellent performance. The award doesn’t involve any money or gifts, “only” a certificate and official recognition in the company newsletter. However, it has still became so successful that other business areas have introduced it for themselves. It is important that we shouldn’t try to be politically correct when decided who to honour, like “last quarter it went to Romania, so this quarter it has to be another country.” It should only depend on individual performance, otherwise it would lose its motivational value.
  • Know the business. I make sure that my HR managers have a good understanding of the business itself. We always invite someone from one of the other business areas to our regular monthly regional call. They talk about how their business is going and what dilemmas they are experiencing at the moment. This allows us to understand them better and become real business partners. In my view, there is no point in offering fancy HR programmes for the sake of trendiness. We have to work out what really helps the business.