Building a Noble culture

by 11 Dec 2007

In just 20 years Noble Group has grown from a small supplier of raw materials to one of the worlds largest global supply chain managers. Noble Group attributes much of this success to a talented workforce and a unique culture. Sarah O Carroll speaks with Lelia Konyn, group human resources director for Noble, about the driving forces behind Nobles success

Three years ago Lelia Konyn joined Noble Group as group human resources director. With 9,000 employees across more than 40 countries, the task of building a global HR function that would help Noble to continue to grow and expand was an exciting challenge for Konyn.

“It has been a huge, exciting opportunity to work with a company that was growing very fast, that had some very talented, well-travelled, smart people and quite a unique culture. The challenge was that I had to quickly deliver quite a lot in terms of HR infrastructure, in terms of practices, policies, contracts and the like,” she says.

Founded in 1987 by CEO Richard Elman, Noble grew from a small supplier of basic industrial raw materials to a global supply chain leader with revenues of almost US$14 billion ($15.8 billion) in 2006. One of the first things Konyn had to do in 2004 was to stand back and assess the factors that were driving Noble’s success and how could she contribute to this success.

Nurturing the corporate culture

Nurturing a unique corporate culture is the cornerstone of Noble’s HR function, according to Konyn. Noble recognises its people as its greatest assets, and according to Konyn, the company practises what it preaches.

“Corporate culture is often dismissed as one of those fluffy things that a company has and it’s just somewhere there in the background. Actually at Noble we take the culture very seriously, because culture is an important factor affecting the mindset of people and therefore affecting the ability to deliver the strategies to deliver the company’s business objectives. Culture is also the common denominator among all our people across the 43 countries in which we operate,” she says.

An entrepreneurial culture and a flat organisational structure where bureaucracy is discouraged are central to Noble’s culture. This also helps to facilitate a ‘hands-on’ style of operating, and Konyn says the simple philosophy of well-informed decisions executed in a timely manner is important to the company.

This culture is nurtured through various different initiatives according to Konyn. These include teambuilding events, induction sessions for new employees, Noble World, the Noble quarterly newsletter, and in 2005 Noble introduced a program called Noble Ambassadors. This program gave mid-level employees the opportunity to meet face-to-face with the executive board in Hong Kong, the CEO, the COO and the vice-chairman.

The program aims to recognise, inform and foster proven talent at a more experienced level. It allows employees to get a big-picture feel for the group and to learn how various business activities and functions fit together. The program also helps participants get to know one another, share information and understand the Noble culture. Konyn says it helps bridge the distance between management and employees, in turn encouraging ideas and individualism.

Building respect

Respect is another important part of Noble’s ethos. “It sounds quite trivial but we believe in respect for employees. It’s something that happens with everyone in Noble – that you’re respectful and you behave in a certain way, not just to your superiors,”she says.

“You’re expected to respect everybody in the company because that’s the only way you gain respect back from other people. So that’s something that again a lot of companies have in their values, but many times there is a gap between what people say and what people actually do.”

Attracting and retaining talent

Noble’s growth has been tightly connected with its ability to attract and retain the best talent available, Konyn says. “We have created a talent pipeline necessary to achieve our growth plans by consistently attracting top professionals, and also by developing talent from within. We’re very strong believers in talent. We understand that it is people who have brought the company to where it is today. People will be the ones who will make the company double in size, top line and bottom line. There’s no doubt about that. Therefore people management and talent management are crucial and central to what we do. So we have many different initiatives to deal with that,” she says.

One such initiative is the International Trainee Program. The program was conceptualised to recruit and develop young talented people who are keen and bright, who have commercial acumen and who want to travel. It is a one-year long program which starts with an intensive week at Hong Kong headquarters where they are given an introduction of the Noble business worldwide, directly from global division heads and from the executive board.

This is followed by two six-month rotations in different parts of the world and in different parts of the business. If everything goes well at the end of the year, the trainee is offered a full-time position in one of Noble’s business divisions.

The Noble-INSEAD program is another such initiative. INSEAD is one of the world’s foremost business schools, and helped Noble create a specific program for preparing managers for positions at the top. The program consists of three modules taught in three weeks at three locations: Singapore, Fontainebleau in France and Hong Kong. The modules are at two month intervals from each other and focus on corporate finance, strategy and leadership, Konyn says.

Improving communication

Noble also encourages a culture of communication and inclusion. Lunch & Learn is a business information-sharing session in which division leaders informally discuss what their business is all about during lunch breaks (consisting of pizzas and soft drinks). They have been highly successful and are popular among staff, according to Konyn.

In 2006, Lunch & Learn initiatives were expanded to offices outside Hong Kong, where they were first launched. Stamford, USA and Lausanne, Switzerland were the first to get on board, followed by Singapore. Topics covered include cocoa, coffee, cotton, risk management, structured finance, treasury, chartering and international tax.

Another program is Open House, an informal communication session hosted by the CEO, COO and vice-chairman in which senior leaders talk about the group’s strategy and direction, and answer employees’ questions about new or ongoing projects and other big picture issues. Open House also began at head office in Hong Kong and in 2006 it expanded to offices in Asia, Europe, North America and South America through video link.

The CEO/HR relationship

In order for Noble’s HR department to successfully continue to develop global initiatives, nurture talent and improve the culture, a meaningful relationship with the CEO is vital, according to Konyn.

“I can’t stress how important it is that HR deals directly with or reports directly to the CEO of the company and/or the executive board, depending on how the company is structured. In any company the HR function should report to the CEO and the executive board of the company, because this is where strategy is made and this is where the direction of the company is set. Once the strategy is set, then that defines the organisational structure. That in turn defines the HR practices in the company,” she says.

“If the HR function reports to the CFO, I just don’t see the same benefit or the same level of ability to contribute in the same way. At Noble we wouldn’t have achieved in three years what we have achieved if we didn’t have the full support of the CEO and the executive board. There is absolutely no way that we could have done so much without their support.”

Konyn has enjoyed the task of building Noble’s HR global function, and looks forward to further growth and development. “Somebody asked me about it earlier this week. I said I’ve never worked so hard in my life and I’ve always applied myself to the jobs I did, but it’s extremely exciting. It’s challenging, it’s very stimulating and it’s really, I believe, quite a unique company.”

About Lelia Konyn

Lelia Konyn is the group human resources director of Noble and holds degrees in international relations and East Asian studies from the HebrewUniversity in Jerusalem, Israel. She has 16 years' experience in Asia-Pacific, with the last 11 years being in recruitment and HR management roles. She started her career in business with the Eisenberg Group, trading and developing sourcing capabilities, and has worked in the Middle East, Europe and Mainland China. Following her move into human resources she worked for Merrill Lynch, Pacific NetMarkets and Links. She speaks six languages including Mandarin. Konyn joined Noble in October 2004.