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Q&A with Ramesh Ganeshan, Agility

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Making leadership development everybody’s business

The logistics industry may not be the first choice for today’s talent, but Agility is looking to change that perception through an intense focus on providing accelerated leadership development opportunities, affirms Ramesh Ganeshan, VP of HR for Asia Pacific, in an interview with Aditi Sharma Kalra.

Vital stats: Based in Singapore, Ramesh Ganeshan leads HR for more than 7,500 employees in 23 countries for Agility. He has more than 20 years of functional experience across industries, including experience in managing start-ups and transformation. He is currently focused on developing Agility’s APAC talent to build a sustainable leadership pipeline.

Q. Tell us about your decade-long journey with Agility.

It has been fascinating and rewarding. For the first four years, I was managing HR in India, where we have about 21 cities to cover.

Then I got an opportunity to be part of our global transformation project which gave me international exposure and an opportunity to interact with and manage people from different cultures. More importantly, I got an opportunity to look at complex business processes we wanted to transform.

Thereafter, I got the opportunity for this role in Asia Pacific, which is the largest region in the Agility network, with 7,500 employees in 23 countries.

Today, Agility has become a core part of my professional life. I feel extremely valued, recognised and well-informed. Very few organisations can offer this kind of experience and exposure.

Q. Does that come from HR being an important part of the business here?

I am proud to say that Agility continues to expand; we are making tangible gains in our business performance with clear strategy.

Our HR philosophy is the set of values, behaviours and practices wherein our global and regional leadership has a significant influence.

Our focus is on developing organisational capabilities to support growth and execution of strategy. The key initiatives are talent management and leadership development that will create measurable and tangible business impact.

The key drivers behind the work I do are very clear – the business is always first. I involve business leaders in the planning process, which helps to ensure business alignmen, and as a result of that, buy-in and support. HR in Agility has evolved from operation-based to development-based processes.

However, our strategies incorporate both operational measures to manage the function, and strategic people measures to support business decisions.

Q. Is the HR function now grounded in data and analytics?

Yes, we have stabilised this to a great extent, and taken it forward to the developmental stream. Today, we proactively present data and analytics to front line leaders to influence business decisions.

We are focusing on building core competence in execution and that’s how the Agility Way X-Factor programme was born, to improve business performance through structured and innovative processes for excellence in leadership, branch management, sales, etc.

The key drivers behind the work I do are very clear – the business is always first.

Q. Moving from India to a global project, and then a regional role, what people challenges did you observe?

There were similarities and differences. Moving from India to Singapore, taking higher responsibilities. But across geographies, there are certain commonalties within Agility’s culture which brings us together.

In that way, my transition hasn’t been a challenge, having seen the same energy, passion and strong sense of personal service. Personal service is, in fact, one of our core values.

Since this industry is a good combination of strategy and legwork, we percolate the spirit of entrepreneurship down to each branch. This also comes from an amount of flexibility – we are very adaptive, we twist and tweak and customise our solutions.

Our business leaders also have a huge appetite for risk in the emerging markets, which most of our competitors do not.

There is a difference between both regions from the standpoint of general culture and size, however the business culture is quite similar.

The labour laws are different, however, and managing the function for 23 countries has taught me the importance of a local HR team.

Q. One belief about this industry is that it is perhaps not as attractive to talent as high-tech or engineering. Do you find that a challenge?

You are right, the perception about the logistics industry is that it is less flamboyant compared to retail, FMCG, banking and others. There are several approaches to correct the perception.

For instance, by providing awareness of the profession, career opportunities and competitive compensation, and to articulate that the industry is as successful as other industries offering international exposure, and that it is the backbone of every business as it impacts the P&L.

We can also clear the notion that the profession is only technical, and show talent that the industry leverages heavily on technology and innovation.

It also invests time and effort to develop future leaders. We do encounter challenges at times in finding the right talent for certain levels and domains. However, we mitigate that by leveraging training.

Q. What kind of roles do you traditionally recruit for?

Recruitment happens in different spheres depending on our business solutions.

Freight forwarding is one of our core business portfolios that includes moving cargo internationally through different modes of transport. It is very strategic as one needs to be aware of international trade and geographic dynamics to enable custom solutions to the customer for safe and on-time delivery.

Third party logistics deals with state-of-the-art storage and distribution solutions, so we need people with a sense of swiftness and discipline.

So we do need people across fields – sales, technology, operations, ground staff, finance and strategic roles.

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Q. Do you find the right kind of talent for both roles in Asia Pacific?

Asia Pacific has a large talent pool of professionals and fresh graduates and we have never faced any challenges. We chose Singapore as our regional HQ in 2011 because of its strategic position and its accessibility to customers and field offices.

Moreover, it offers excellent connectivity and an open business environment. Apart from that, there are more tertiary institutions now offering courses related to supply chain management, logistics, distributions, etc.

The Singapore government, under the Workforce Development Agency (WDA), helps companies to develop their employees’ job skills and we truly appreciate being here.

Hong Kong is also a transhipment hub so again not much challenges from a logistics view. When we do face challenges, we move people internally, by leveraging our L&D domain.

Malaysia, on the other hand, is one of our growing countries. There, we do face some challenges, in terms of finding senior-level strategic resources.

Q. What kind of training programmes do you have for all roles?

Our training and development is not run-of-the-mill, as we invest heavily on areas that have a direct impact on our business. For example, the three types of X factors programmes – leadership development, sales and branch manager excellence.

That’s a pragmatic approach of learning and development towards business.

Q. How do you track how well these programmes are doing?

We launched them a year ago and are evaluating the tangible impact they are bringing to the table. Although they were pilot programmes, there are good indications.

However, we look at them as long-term investments in order to really have an impact on the business.

Our training and development is not run-of-the-mill, as we invest heavily on areas that have a direct impact on our business.

Q. Can you give an example of the indicators to use to measure value?

For the leadership development programme, the leadership pipeline is our primary indicator – how healthy it is in terms of people ready to take on the next-level role, how many have taken over higher responsibilities already, and the retention of high-potential leaders.

For the branch manager programme, there are four pillars that make up the P&L – commercial, operations, financial, and people.

Each one has its areas of impact, for example, how many high-potential talent are retained, how healthy our account receivables are, and how swift and error-free our operations are proceeding.

Q. You instituted the CEO talent circle (CTC) recently – tell us more about it.

Compared to most other regions, APAC is where all the action is and it will remain a growth engine of global GDP for the coming few years. Having said that, the leadership gap in the region is a reality and it may impact business growth if measures are not taken on time.

The CEO talent circle is a regional leadership development programme for high-potential leaders wherein the three objectives are to build a healthy leadership pipeline by supporting succession planning process; retain our up and coming management talent by giving them wider and deeper exposure; and demonstrate the value of cultivating in-house talent.

The model is based on the well-known 70/20/10 process, but the beauty lies in how we execute it. The old school of thought is to put participants through a workshop, but today the dynamics have changed.

Live stretch assignments, learning through experience and mentoring are pivotal to our model.

Apart from their day job, participants work on an assignment in a business segment they have never handled, and in a different geography. These stretch assignments are real business assignments which have a direct impact on our P&L.

We are in the second batch after the first batch graduated earlier this year post a one-year programme. The success ratio has been impressive, as 70% of our 2014 batch has taken higher responsibilities within 12 months of graduation.

This programme clearly demonstrates that leaders create more leaders. It was conceptualised in-house, under the executive sponsorship of the Asia Pacific CEO who interacts with each participant.

Each participant is mentored by an APAC board member, reflecting that leadership development is everybody’s business.

At Agility, we consider leadership development one of our key sustainable competitive advantages and the CTC is now being replicated in other regions.

Q. How do you identify the batch of high-potentials in the first place?

The identification process is simple yet effective. It starts with the country HR and CEO nominating employees based on pre defined criteria. All the nominations are then analysed by an exclusive and deep discussion in the APAC board meeting.

Sufficient time is dedicated to understanding each high potential leader and considering them against the list of criteria that include, living the Agility values, promotability, aspirations and mobility, to select the final participants for the programme.

Each participant is mentored by an APAC board member, reflecting that leadership development is everybody’s business.

Q. What was the initial reaction from the management team about this?

With any new HR process, my strategy is to engage the business leaders through how it will impact the business in the future. Even in this case, my strategy was to engage the business leaders, and give them a pragmatic overview of how it will impact the business in the present and future state.

I was fortunate to be well supported by my regional CEO and the APAC management board. I feel very proud this programme is now benchmarked in other regions of Agility.

Q. Now that it is well underway, what kind of support does HR provide?

In light of today’s economic volatility and uncertainty every aspect of our business is being re-examined for its value in creating and sustaining profitable growth.

In order to add significant value to the business, HR is supporting and enabling the execution of business strategy through building organisational capability.

We’re also using technology to relieve our staff from doing more routine HR work so they can focus on building capabilities.

Q. You are clearly passionate about the quality of leadership in Asia. But do you see enough of us taking up regional or global roles at organisations?

There is no dearth of talent in Asia, but there are some obstacles that prevent them from taking over a global or regional leader position, in my view.

Most multinational companies select Asian talent who closely match their criteria, perspective and leadership behaviours per Western views.

Also, cultural impact cannot be underestimated as a barrier to developing global leaders, especially in the Asian context. We Asians must be comfortable dealing with complexity, openness, adaptability, learning agility and cultural awareness.

Therefore, awareness of intercultural nuances should be an integral part of learning and development of a global workforce to help an aspiring leader identify blind spots and weaknesses.

Confidence is another dimension. Potential Asian leaders must be provided with wide and strategic exposure to understand the complexity of business, people and geographies to deal with it great confidence.

I am very glad that our CTC programme addresses all these issues to develop future business leaders.

We Asians must be comfortable dealing with complexity, openness, adaptability, learning agility and cultural awareness.

Q. Much of the plans we have talked about are for the white-collar workforce. How do you keep your blue-collar workforce equally engaged?

Agility has a global policy of fair labour practices applicable to all employees regardless of their employment nature – contractual, temporary or permanent. The core focus is to ensure all workers are treated fairly and with respect in every country of operations.

Our policy addresses forced labour, discrimination, harassment, child labour, working hours and wages, ethical recruitment, and more.

HR Masterclass Series: We're going virtual! New courses, new formats!
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