Bethel Nwaneri, head of HR at GE Africa, speaks on the importance of effective HR management to business growth and best practices companies can adopt to combat talent flight, in this interview with BusinessDay’s Josephine Okojie.
GE Africa recently hosted a roundtable session with HR directors across industries. Kindly share insights from the event and explain the importance to Nigeria and Africa?
The principal focus of the round table session was to bring together expert HR practitioners from leading firms to connect, share insights and best practices as well as co-create solutions for some of our common HR and employee-based topics. During the round table session, retention and engagement were the most dominant topics among companies and people, and perhaps more broadly, how to reposition in a post covid world which brought a lot of changes as well as how to retain people who have reshaped their values, interests and what they look for in an employer of choice. Organisations have experienced different challenges depending on the type of business, the longevity of operations, the skill set of the team, the leadership bench, and the talent they attract therefore there is no one-size-fits-all. This was an opportunity for us as HR practitioners to share best practices and learn from one another and accept that these challenges are not black and white and therefore there is no single way of solving them. Africa is a highly populated continent and there is such a vast richness of talent in a lot of countries, and therefore a lot to offer to the global economy. Some of the trends and changes that have happened here have a broad impact on the world’s economy and vice versa.
Employees are the foundation of organizations and play critical roles in ensuring successful business operations. Please expatiate on the importance of effective HR management to business growth?
Strategic employee management is very critical in a business’s operations, growth, and daily operations for it to stay important commercially. When I think of employee engagement, I tend to look at it holistically from an “entry to exit” perspective and within this journey, there are critical moments and events that matter in an employee’s life cycle like the initial onboarding on day one, promotions, role changes and different events. These events drive how people show up in the office daily to be able to deliver for the business according to their organisation’s plan. Therefore, as a company, understanding how to maximise these life moments that matter to the employee is important. As an HR function, multiple levers can drive business growth for example, organisation design, making sure the company has the right structure to be able to drive local decision-making, empowerment, and flow of information can determine how successful you are as a business. Secondly, your talent acquisition strategy, which means understanding the landscape of the market and where you are to find a critical skill set depending on the unique business priorities you might have.
In your opinion, do you think Nigeria is on the right track in terms of HR practices and policies when compared to global standards?
HR practice is not one-size-fits-all and different organisations have different work cultures, in terms of how they think of effective people leadership, the delegation of authority, and talent engagement and there are a lot of companies doing a fantastic job in this regard. Primarily in the technology sector, this is easy since it is a newer industry and there are many young companies and smaller entities that work on project-based assignments, therefore making it easier for them to adapt and be flexible but also adopt world-class standards. On the other hand, for multinational companies, it could be a little more challenging for them to adhere to global standards given the historic nature and legacy of operating in Nigeria for years, especially within the industrial and manufacturing spaces. However, given that Nigeria is a melting pot that has talents that have been exposed to global standards they are usually able to do a mix of global and local standards “glocal” for an optimised experience. One of the conflicting realities in organisations that we talked about is workplace relationships and how to talk to your subordinates and embrace a culture of difference without compromising equality. Another example was of a company that is doing quite well in their workspace using several ways like games and entertainment centres to cater to employees’ needs for a more amenable work environment. This allows more employee engagement informally. Therefore, this shows that we have a mix of different organisation cultures in Nigeria, and this is very good.
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Nigeria is being challenged with an increasing rate of brain drain across industries. What best practices can companies adopt to combat talent flight and aid retention?
As practitioners, the consensus that we arrived at is that people are not leaving organisations for better pay but they are leaving Nigeria as a whole for a better holistic life experience i.e., day-to-day conditions. What is consistent is that people are looking for a better meaning to life – better healthcare, transport systems, education system for themselves and their families, safety, and security among others. Secondly, there is no one solution to solve this dilemma. Most companies are anchoring towards the purpose statement of what they are doing as a mechanism and tool for people to stay. Thirdly, companies are adapting flexibility around where and how people work and therefore making it easier for the employee. Lastly, organisations are investing in pipelines. Some companies are looking for junior talent to bring into the company to solve the potential brain drain which is happening globally and not only in Nigeria.
What creative strategies does GE Africa employ to ensure the development and implementation of efficient HR policies that support talent retention within the company?
First, we have a long-standing culture of creating opportunities to listen to the voice of the employee through various forums. This allows them to share their feedback and insights and in return, we listen to what the people have to say whether it is qualitative or quantitative. Secondly, we participate in a lot of engagements externally from interviews, surveys, and external round tables to check if we are in line with the market or not. Being a multinational organisation, we look for companies that we lose talent to or hire from and do some benchmarking.
Thirdly, we also do internal benchmarking against other markets which is helpful to ensure that we are balancing the global and local dynamics as we think about some of the challenges and realities on the ground. We also use our annual and biannual culture survey which gives us an estimate of how the employees feel about the organisation on several perimeters, which is usually on an average of 25 questions. We take employee feedback and depending on the output or matrix that is below the threshold, we do a problem-solving or root cause analysis to deeply understand the issues or the root cause. This results in several corrective actions to ensure that some of our solutions are anchored toward problem-solving. Lastly, learning and development. We have moved towards self-directive learning due to covid which is identifying virtual opportunities for people to learn outside of their area of domain. GE has been engaged in these opportunities with partnerships like LinkedIn Learning as well as partnering with external organisations such as Mequilibrium.
As organizations re-adjust to a new normal, we have seen the rise of ‘Flexiwork’ and its impact on performance management. How can companies reflect the new trends in work cultures and adopt its practice whilst ensuring business development?
The big takeaway from our conversation is anchoring employee priorities on performance, and companies that have done a good job of identifying very specific KPIs and how to manage performance for individuals have been able to transition to flexiwork very seamlessly. The companies that have done well in this shift are companies that had a culture of transparency, openness, and communication, thus allowing feedback between the employer and employee. At GE we have defined transparency as one of our key leadership behaviours.
As an expert, what advice would you offer smaller enterprises on efficient investments concerning talent growth and pipeline development?
One key advantage of a small or medium-sized organisation is the ability to be nimble and adapt quickly to changing trends. During the session, we discussed investing in and building out the middle management layer of the organisation and not just limiting leadership development to the top tier of the organisation. This includes equipping them with leadership skills training and the ability to manage people and talent in a volatile and ever-changing environment. In summary, do not limit the focus on the top management and rather expand it also to middle management. Secondly, it is very important to invest in talent for the future. At GE we have several programs, for example, the Early Career Graduate Internship Program (ECGIP) where we bring in young people that are a couple of years from school and give them robust assignments to enable them to grow and develop in their careers. Usually, most of these talented people end up becoming experts in their fields and future leaders. While this is more of a longer-term investment today, the long-term benefits will eventually come and are usually more sustainable.