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Q&A with Joydeep Bose, Olam International



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Joydeep Bose, president and global head, human resources at Olam International reveals the three tenets of culture which have played the biggest role in developing senior leaders.

VITAL STATS: Joydeep Bose is responsible for providing leadership to the human resources function globally across more than 26,300 employees in 70 countries. He has more than 25 years’ experience in the human resources field across industries such as chemical processing, telecom, information technology and supply chain management.

How has HR function in Olam changed over time?

The journey can be described as one of change and growth. In the time that I’ve joined, Olam has grown from a private startup to a publicly listed company on the main board of the Singapore Exchange.

Through our initial public offering, we secured a strong capital base that we leveraged to embark on a period of expansion. Our growth was mainly organic in the initial stages, involving us starting business on our own. More recently, over the past 5-6 years, our approach has shifted more towards acquisitions.

From a more personal and HR perspective, I oversaw the formation of the group HR function during my time at Olam – we didn’t have a dedicated HR function prior to that.

Our focus today at HR is on working shoulder to shoulder with business heads and the leadership team and in making HR a key intrinsic part of our business.

As our company has grown, HR has become more deeply involved in supporting our business units and the organisation on a day-to-day basis so as to meet their growth requirements. We address issues about our talent pool that may come in the way of them meeting their business goals. At the end of the day, the leadership has given HR the responsibility to manage the talent-related risks of our business and we take ownership and will be accountable for this.

At the same time, with guidance from our CEO and the leadership team, we are focusing on how we want to shape the organisation going forward – from a cultural perspective as well as in ensuring we have a set of lasting shared values and vision for the company.

How would you summarise this culture at Olam?

Our culture is fundamental to our success.It is not a soft, touchy-feely matter but rather a very hard part of our business. We realised early on in our journey that our unique culture was what has driven and will continue to drive our business growth, allowing us to gain a competitive advantage in a crowded marketplace.

This unique culture included firstly, being very entrepreneurial; secondly, demonstrating a high level of stretch and ambition; and thirdly, ensuring every individual in the company takes strong ownership in their work.

These three key constituents of our culture, which we intuitively arrived on and have now internalised, have underpinned our success so far and we believe this very same culture will lead us to greater heights moving forward.

How do you manage the cultural displacement which occurs when you acquire new firms? 

In looking at any transaction or acquisition, we evaluate the culture of the company as well as looking at the economics of the deal. This is because the business has realised that our culture is the one thing that has allowed and will continue to allow Olam to succeed.

We have always been clear that we will not enter a joint venture or transaction where we do not have control over influencing the entity’s culture. Whenever we acquire a company, we hold a culture audit.

While we understand that economic priorities can take precedence, we have been fairly diligent in looking into the culture of companies that we have invested in. One other thing we have realised is that if the leadership has a clear vision about the type of culture they want to build, then it is easier for new employees to adapt.

The three tenets of our culture, as shared above, are not constraining but are liberating for employees.

We have seen that if we can provide an enabling environment for employees where they can think out of the box, take judicious risks, make mistakes and learn from them, have a growth mindset and take ownership and accountability for the outcomes, they will inevitably become engaged with the organisation and meet our expectations.

In fact, many employees from our acquired assets are now leaders of our businesses today at Olam–they are key elements of our talent pool.

We have seen them make the same desired behavioural shifts in terms of embracing our culture as we hope to see in our new employees.

We have always been clear that we will not enter a joint venture or transaction where we do not have control over influencing the entity’s culture.

Similarly, considering your company is so diverse and large, how do you align the culture across the entire organisation?

As a global business spread across 70 countries and operating in 44 businesses with a huge amount of diversity in the organisation, we recognise that the only way we can move forward together as one team is by having a strong unifying culture and vision.

We have a clear vision of what we want to be, and that is to be the most valuable and diversified, agri-business globally. This is extremely well received and believed in by the entire organisation.

We also ensure that any employee in the company, whether they are from Colombia or Singapore, should have a similar experience working in the organisation.

One way in which we ensure this is through our signature processes that cut across all parts of the organisation. These signature processes are high-impact initiatives that differentiate us from our competitors.

For example, we have a signature process called Core Process, where all new employees who join at a certain level or above will come together within his or her first six months to have a four-day training session with our CEO. In these sessions, new employees go through very rigorous training with our CEO, who will take them through the business, what the future holds for the business and Olam’s values and culture. We have close to a dozen such signature processes to build a shared experience – and these apply to various aspects of our business.

Speaking about leaders, Olam is known for its leadership development and has been hailed for its leadership development initiatives by firms such as Fortune. What’s your take to developing leaders effectively in the company?

There is a clear expectation in what we mean by leadership. Leadership for us embodies the three major elements of our culture I spoke about earlier. When we assess an employee’s leadership ability, we look at whether he or she is risk-taking, entrepreneurial, and has an ownership mindset in taking accountability for outcomes.

In our industry, you get buffeted by environment and external challenges outside your control. It is important for our leaders to take accountability and deliver regardless of what is happening around them. For instance, we can’t accept a leader saying he or she was unable to meet a target because the budget was cut.

With that in mind, we create an environment for employees who possess these elements of our culture to blossom and succeed in our company. When we hire employees, we look for fit and aptitude for these values. Some people prefer working in a more structured environment, but we aren’t operating in such an environment, so we’re a little more careful in hiring them.

What we also offer is very empowering roles. We give employees responsibilities typically earlier than at other organisations – such as in defining their impact terms, financial budget terms and decision-making terms.

Because of this, our roles are very high-impact ones. We find that the roles our employees play are the one key factor that keeps them engaged. We believe that because of the jobs we provide our employees, our organisation is a factory for building leaders as we really hone your leadership skills.

We also support our leaders throughout their career journey. We have a very strong mentoring and coaching culture in the organisation.

Staff are trained to coach, mentor and have constant communication and coaching sessions with their managers and managers’ managers. In this way they receive feedback and can reflect on what went well, and what did not, drawing on the strengths and experiences of others.

Can you name any structured leadership development programmes?

While we do have leadership programmes that apply across the five bands of employees in our organisation, we believe firmly in the saying that 80% of leadership development happens when you actually practice leadership, when you are put in tough situations.

Another 15% of leadership development happens with the helping hands of seniors and managers – we have employee socialisation very often where we collaborate and get together to learn from each other’s experiences. Lastly, we think just 5% of leadership development is achieved through classroom-based sessions.

So for us, basically, leadership happens on the ground and by doing things rather than being trained in a classroom.

We have to move away from the thinking that training programmes help leaders significantly – they don’t help build leaders. Rather, you have to have an organisation that allows professionals to go through the grind to become leaders. Tough situations build leaders.

We obviously don’t force or recreate tough situations, but the roles that we are able to give employees create the challenging situations that they have to adapt to. When you go through these situations for a few years, you automatically develop the ability to lead in a volatile world.

We have to move away from the thinking that training programmes help leaders significantly – they don’t help build leaders.

Indeed, you also mentioned such type of roles also aid in boosting employee engagement in the company – an aspect which the recent SHRi awards lauded you for in the awards this year. What is your view of employee engagement in Olam?

For us, employee engagement is extremely critical because Olam depends on the discretionary efforts of our staff.

We cannot standardise every activity across the company because we have a huge presence in emerging markets and are in a business where a lot is dependent on nature or circumstance. Therefore, we need people on the ground who can apply their minds and make discretionary calls. You can only do this if you are fully engaged with the organisation.

If you are only semi-engaged, and your superior wants you to take a decision in favour of the organisation, you won’t be able to due to the amount of risk involved.

The way we drive engagement is by making our organisation very accessible and open. We eliminate bureaucracy and hierarchy very aggressively where possible. It is an expectation that has been pushed downwards from our CEO and the leadership team,where an employee can meet with anyone in the organisation – regardless of seniority.

Ideas are also welcome, always. We allow people to ideate and pursue their ideas while providing them organisational support to bring their idea to pass. That also helps drive engagement in the organisation.

We are proud that our attrition rate is low despite the fact that a lot of our people are operating from very difficult locations around the world.

How do you measure your engagement rates?

We measure engagement rates every two years. Right now this is at 77% – it was 84% previously. We believe it has dropped in these last three years as we have grown a lot through acquisitions. We need to do a bit more work on the teams we have acquired from other organisations and help them reach similar levels of engagement we have in Olam.

Another reason for this drop in engagement is that the commodity industry has been buffeted by strong head winds in the last three years. Our efforts are ongoing however, and we hope to address this decisively, sooner rather than later.

How do you plan to boost engagement among your employees?

We have revamped our performance management framework recently and did away with performance ratings entirely, so that staff conversations can happen without any element of fear or anxiety.

Today, we have in place a system called ASPIRE,which is geared towards putting the employee as the chief beneficiary of the performance management process – not the organisation or his or her boss. ASPIRE aligns across the organisation our approach to feedback on performance, personal development and career progress.

The ASPIRE process responds to three key questions for employees. Firstly, am I doing a job that is meaningful? Secondly, how am I currently performing in my role and what can I do to improve? Thirdly, what does the future hold for me in the company?

The process begins with discussions at the beginning of the year between the individual and the manager on the meaning of the individual’s role. Each business unit’s leaders would also highlight their goals and targets to their teams at the start of the year. Throughout the rest of the year, we will have regular conversations on the progress towards their targets. These conversations are open and candid since there is no fear or anxiety over ratings, and we track these conversations to better address employee concerns and get feedback.

This system has been in place for a year and a half, and we believe it will help our employees engage more with the company in the future.

Photography: Elliot Lee, Nikon Ambassador (Singapore)

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