Having the right vision is key for HR leaders if they wish to take on more strategic roles. Akankasha Dewan talks to Martin Hayes, president of Bosch Southeast Asia, about his perspectives on developing the HR function.
How did you get to where you are today at Bosch?
Hard work, being at the right place at the right time, and being equipped with the right skill set has helped me get to where I am today. Mobility to take on various overseas assignments as well as the flexibility to adapt to changing environments also opened up many opportunities for me. Being an electrical engineer by trade, I spent my initial seven years at Bosch in Germany which gave me hands-on experience within a business division. My subsequent time at Bosch in the UK was exactly when Japanese automotive production facilities started to establish in the UK.
Then, my main responsibilities included establishing the sales team as well as relationship building with the Japanese manufacturers to drive sales of our technologies. This resulted in my move to Thailand where I set up and developed the sales of our automotive equipment to manufacturers in the region.
Managing the sales operations of Southeast Asia gave me the experience and knowledge of the region to take on my current role, where I oversee the overall Bosch business in the region.
How would you define your leadership style?
I am at the forefront of the action with my team. While I prefer democratic decision-making, the downside is that it may take too long to garner everyone’s input before a consensus is reached.
In such cases, an executive decision needs to be made, but I passionately and engagingly follow through to obtain the buy-in and support from my team and peers.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
Firstly, the diversity of my current role as president of Bosch’s business in Southeast Asia. The ASEAN community is made up of 10 member countries, with a kaleidoscope of cultures, with differing stages of economic growth and opportunities, and differing requirements.
I also work with a diverse range of people from different backgrounds, ages, and societies which can be challenging, but at the same time very exciting.
Bosch has been present in this region since the 1920s, and it is this heritage that has opened many opportunities for the organisation, such as the EU-ASEAN Business Council of which Bosch is a founding member. As an ambassador of a company that has products and solutions which span the automotive, energy, building, industrial and consumer sectors, I am responsible for the regional business growth of our diverse portfolio of solutions.
What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make as a boss, and what did you learn from it?
It has never been easy dealing with the exit of high calibre talent. With a fierce war for talent, it is inevitable and a shame when good talent leaves the organisation, taking away with them a wealth of skills, experience and knowledge developed and accumulated from their time with Bosch.
What is heartening to know is that we are developing our people with skills and experiences that are highly sought-after by other companies, including our rivals. We therefore need to continuously examine our policies and practices to remain competitive to not only attract, but more importantly, also retain talent.
Much like sales and account management, it is costlier to acquire new customers than to retain existing ones. We have to constantly engage our employees at all levels to remain grounded, with a variety of tools such as management-employee dialogues.
I am an advocate of employing tools that achieve a high level of interaction and participation from our employees, and I often remind my management team not to become distant with their own teams.
When you’re struggling with stress or a bad day, how do you unwind and re-energise yourself?
Exercising helps me to unwind and regain clarity; a jog at the Botanic Gardens usually does the trick. I used to get my hands dirty with DIY projects, but my travel schedule nowadays is proving difficult for me to start any project. Instead, I would rather dedicate my time outside of work to be with my family, like enjoying a trip together to the movies.
How do you engage and motivate staff when they are the ones struggling with work?
I take an approach of establishing an open dialogue to understand their problems and struggles. Being with Bosch for over 25 years allows me to empathise with almost every struggle that my staff face.
My experience also helps me to create a cauldron over them to shield them from external influences and pressures, so they may concentrate better on their tasks at hand. This is where I also give my staff some breathing space to take a step back to assess their struggles, and how to overcome them. Seeing the big picture allows one to see light at the end of the tunnel, and gives deeper meaning to the immediate challenge at hand.
However, the big picture may not be suited for everyone as it may leave some overwhelmed, to no fault or demerit of theirs. We are all, after all, wired differently. To this group, breaking the big picture down to achievable, foreseeable milestones would be necessary to get the point across. For me, understanding different personalities is key when communicating.
Do you think HR leaders could make it as a CEO?
In Bosch, being an HR leader does not necessarily mean being an HR professional by trade or training; we see individuals from other professions such as sales, controlling, engineering and law rising to the challenge. The success of our HR as a business function stems from this diversity of backgrounds and perspectives, coupled with other HR professionals by trade within the immediate and global community, to maintain check and balance.
CEO-level in terms of responsibilities and entrepreneurship could refer to a country general manager, country/regional president, or a director/president of a business division, and is not only restricted to being on the global board of management.
The opportunities for HR leaders to advance to this level exist within large MNCs, and we do have such examples within Bosch. This progression falls backs on the criteria that the individual possesses the necessary visionary, leadership, and entrepreneurial qualities, in addition to strong business acumen.
How can the HR function become more strategic, in your opinion?
I see the HR function as two-pronged. While it needs to maintain operational excellence, HR must also evolve beyond being transactional in nature. HR professionals need to possess strong business acumen to understand and meet the objectives of the company.
Only then can HR take on a strategic, consultative role in business planning, achieve greater value for the organisation, and establish itself as a trusted business partner. The challenge is these two areas are mutually exclusive in skill sets that should, as in our case, be separated into transactional specialists and strategic consultants.
HR practices and policies must take into account current business environments that the organisation operates in, which differ from country to country. As such, the one-size-fits-all model is irrelevant and fatal in today’s modern context. A company’s HR community must actively participate in best-practice sharing, while at the same time enabling the autonomy to adapt practices to suit local conditions.
What’s the best thing about HR in your organisation?
It would have to be our talent development practices. For example, our employees have the opportunity to take on overseas assignments to broaden their horizons and perspectives. There are also job rotation opportunities that span across functions and business divisions within Bosch, both locally and globally. Besides on-the-job trainings, each employee attends on average two training sessions per year. Our infrastructure takes a structured and systematic approach to performance review and career development, with a rigorous selection process for all development programmes.
At Bosch, our HR function is continuously evolving to meet the increasing demands of today’s workforce, including our practices, policies, and most importantly – our people.