Akankasha Dewan speaks with Dick Van Motman, chairman and CEO of Dentsu Aegis Network Southeast Asia, about his opinions of how HR leaders can better align the function’s aims and goals with the rest of the organisation.
How has your experience been with Dentsu Aegis Network so far?
The experience has been great. I was previously leading the team at DDB China Group. That was a pretty successful and enjoyable time. When Dentsu came knocking, it wasn’t anything I had considered before. Dentsu’s model is quite different than the rest of our industry. Our competitors are mainly decoupled organisations or decoupled media and digital companies so they are quite siloed.
Dentsu, however, runs a convergent model. And I think that model is very suitable for this day and age. This is mainly because technology has made it possible for you to be everywhere instantaneously. Therefore, integration and speed become important. And that’s the model they have built in Japan and in pockets in Asia and are trying to replicate it on a more global scale.
This is why I thought it was a very interesting role because it’s not just about playing a different game from an advertising point of view. It is also a transformational management job – helping a Japanese company go global.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
The fact that it’s about “shaping” on every level. When you work in the advertising or marketing industry it doesn’t matter what you did yesterday. It is always about topping that the next day – coming up with a new solution. So, technically every day the challenge and the frustration is the same – it is a blank sheet of paper, in terms of delivering the service to your client.
But because Dentsu is on its way to becoming a more dominant global player after establishing Dentsu Aegis Network outside of Japan, it is about helping shape a 113-year-old company with a very venerable reputation and track record that wants to do something new and innovative. That’s what I like most. By adding my dimension and vision to it, I am, up to a certain small level, able to shape it.
How would you define your leadership style?
Particularly in the service industry, which advertising is, you employ talent based on their capabilities and potential. So just identifying and hiring high potentials is not enough – it’s how you organise them. I think nowadays the way to do that is via culture and technology. Technology has a big role to play, which is why we’re so focused on creating our internal social operating platform that allows employees to connect with each other without necessarily having hierarchical bottlenecks.
It’s more about unleashing the talent rather than controlling the talent.
Can you elaborate on how you unleash the talent?
It’s all about how you bring them on board. What are the working environments where you can get the best out of them? That is the challenge in Asia, where you have slightly more shy cultures. The challenge lies in making sure people are willing to give their best and speak out.
It’s not just about saying it, it’s about doing it. For instance, when I visit an office, I hold a town hall meeting. I sit down with the staff and I share the state of the union with these individual offices. There’s nothing better than actually feeling the temperature, sniffing out an office and getting hands-on with the people. Now that our operation is starting to get bigger and bigger, it becomes more challenging to be everywhere all the time. But I do think it is important to get a finger on the pulse by visiting offices from time to time because nothing beats having your feet on the ground and seeing how an office works in different countries.
People are our business, and I view an agency as a football team. You’ve got to select the right people for the right position and then you’ve got to make them play a unique game.
What are some of the toughest decisions you’ve had to make as a boss, and what did you learn from them?
In hindsight – if I look at my last 25 years – the most important thing I’ve learnt is that you shouldn’t procrastinate when making tough decisions. Because when you do, you always realise you should have made them earlier.
I think that’s a big learning and that’s what I tell myself every time I need to make a big decision. A lot of big decisions have to do with changing people, and you realise later that a lot of people are aware that that decision needs to be made and are looking at you to make it. You should simply do what you feel is right, and do that sooner rather than later.
How do you motivate your staff when they’re stressed?
I’m a performance-driven person, but I do like to joke a little, and enjoy a bit of lightheartedness. I also keep an open-door policy as much as possible. Another thing which is underrated is that, like in society, you have influencers, transmitters and receivers. I think it is important to be aware which people are socially important in a company, which ones are the social connectors, and to be close to them so you get the information about what the mood is within the company, how certain people are doing, and then take up action if necessary.
I also give handwritten birthday notes to my first line of reports and key staff under them. I do think a personal touch is important. But the challenge in a role like this is you can’t be in touch with everyone, so knowing the transmitters and receivers is important in order to get the information from them.
What do you do to re-energise yourself?
I remind myself that stress is part and parcel of the job. I also have an informal network of friends and we come together once or twice every year and spend a long weekend and talk about each other’s businesses and what we go through. Industry forums help, too, and for a long time I employed a personal coach and spoke to him once a month.
Do you think HR leaders can make it to the CEO level?
I think certain HR people could definitely do that. It all depends whether you have bottom-line responsibility somewhere in your experience. To go purely from HR to a CEO without bottom-line experience is very hard. You need to be able to run the whole company.
But do you think the HR function is disconnected from the business?
If I had an HR lead who thought his function was disconnected from the business, then I would have to ask myself some questions. Because for me, HR is a very strategic part of the business. I like to call my functional leads my partners – such as my finance partner – and it is very important to look at these functions as partnerships. A partnership implies that knowledge needs to flow and it involves a healthy degree of sharing of business issues, as opposed to engaging with the person on his or her own area of expertise. I don’t think that gets the best out of everyone.
For me, my talent partner needs to know the business issues we’re struggling with, because only then can you put the talent part into perspective.
So it’s not about whether HR leaders could make it to CEO, but what kind of HR leaders could make it to that level. And those are mainly HR leaders who are firmly embedded within the business issues via their own function and are willing to go outside their area of expertise and take, for a period of time, a P&L responsibility.
How can HR become more strategic?
The interesting part about the digital world today is that technology is very quickly commoditised so it all comes down to your ideas and how quickly you do things. Speed and creativity become very important and those things come from people. Talent, and therefore HR, become very important in the context of building a culture and building a motivated company.
At Dentsu Aegis Network Southeast Asia, HR is all about people development. It is not about getting the people in, but about selecting the right people and making them work up.
What, in your opinion, is the future of HR?
People are our business, and I view an agency as a football team. You’ve got to select the right people for the right position and then you’ve got to make them play a unique game. But like every football club, you have transfer seasons. You need to grow talent from within, and therefore HR is at the centre of our company.
We need to make sure we never see the function purely from an admin point of view, but more as a talent management function which helps to build a culture, which helps in performance management and in collaboration. I see the talent management doing multiple things.