Profile: Global player - Michael Vavakis at Hewlett-Packard

by HCA22 Jul 2009

Michael Vavakis, Hewlett Packard's Asia-Pacific HR Vice President, has been with the company for over 18 years but he says it feels far from being a long stretch. In fact, he's operated in a number of roles during that timeframe and it's the variety that keeps his enthusiasm high.

"In HP I've primarily undertaken HR roles, but I've had a couple of stints outside of HR in a PR/communications capacity and also a time when I was involved in sales operations," he says. "I've also held jobs here in Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, and 13 years in US. Every two or three years I've moved into a different job or function and that variety has led me to stay with HP."

Global mobility is ingrained in the HP culture. The massive worldwide workforce of 321,000 has the ability and opportunity to move around the world into different business functions and different roles. It was the company's graduate program that set Vavakis on his career trajectory. After he graduated from university with an accounting and economics degree, he subsequently worked as a financial analyst for several years. However, he opted to join HP via its graduate program, and the aim of that program is to expose grads to as much of the business as possible - even if there is no direct correlation with their qualifications.

"For example, you might be an engineering grad but you spend time in HR or marketing," Vavakis explains. "It's a great way to ground their experience over the first few years. That happened to me - I came into an HR and a communications role in the first three years, and after three years I got to move to the US and stayed there for 13 years. That's the DNA of the company, giving people exposure and experience to different environments."

Broad responsibilities
In his current role Vavakis has a range of high-end responsibilities, but possibly the key area is to help drive the business strategy across each of HP's three different businesses. These business units are not like product lines but rather distinct businesses. These include: the imaging and printing group; and the personal systems group (everything from handheld devices to PCs); a technology solutions group, which is the traditional HP offering and revolves around IT solutions and consulting. The recent acquisition of EDS also forms a significant outsourcing arm for the technology solutions group.

"Each of these units is very different. How you sell a PC and the markets you go to and what sort of resellers you use, is very different to what you do in the tech services group where you're selling to larger business customers. The HR implications are also very different. In the PC business you would be driving high volume people that are selling out in the different geographies in Asia. In China, for example, we've got a strategy that takes us away from selling in Beijing and Shanghai and into places in the middle of China that most people don't know about but may have populations of 30 million people," Vavakis says.

Vavakis' next level of responsibility encompasses all the HR-specific elements - making sure the company has a quality staffing engine, ensuring the reward & recognition programs are based on the company philosophy (pay for performance), and then the major issues of people development, talent management and employee engagement.

"To get specific on talent management we drive a lot of rigour around moving people into different roles and providing them different experiences; we carefully manage the top talent in the organisation and make sure we've got the right strategy to keep those people. We also aim to create a strong performance culture where at the lower end if people are not performing we move them out of the company or into different jobs where their skillsets may sit more effectively," he says.

Cross-cultural management
Vavakis notes that although the HP culture is strong enough to carry through to all business units, the more interesting challenge is the sheer scope of having such a geographically dispersed workforce. HR's Asia-Pacific market alone covers 20 countries, from Japan to New Zealand, from Pakistan to the Philippines - and this presents unique cultural awareness issues.

"The way you implement things from one country to the next can be slightly different. For example, how you do things in Japan will be slightly different to how you do things in Australia. You must respect the culture and ensure you understand cultural nuances. It doesn't mean you move away from what the objective is; it just means the way you get to that objective may be slightly different," he says.

"It's about listening and understanding but also not necessarily taking your finger off the accountability button. Sometimes culture will be a barrier to get things done, and you have to understand enough to still make people accountable so they execute and do everything they need to, but you also need to do it in a respectful way."

HR at the top
HP has made huge investments in the Asia-Pacific region over the last four years - the workforce has almost doubled in that time - and this growth has only been possible with HR operating at the most strategic level. Hence, Vavakis and his team have put in place rigorous processes to view the workforce from a strategic standpoint.

"We plan what the workforce will look like over three-year timeframes. We don't just say 'we need to hire X many people'; we look at what's the right location for our workers; what's the mix of contractor verses permanent; what sort of skills are needed. That has been a way for HR to get away from just executing HR programs, and really work with the business as they do their business planning," he says.

"Ultimately this means HR is very involved in what happens in business decision-making, and the process and the execution that comes from the planning. That's a key accomplishment for us. We've built into our financials internally a measure to assess the cost of the workforce we put in place as a result of those plans. It puts rigour into not just the planning exercise but also demonstrates the impact on our financials as well."

Leadership development
Another key focus for Vavakis and his team is leadership development. The premise that HP works toward is that the most effective way to train new leaders is to have existing leaders teaching future leaders. A 2008 program called Leading for Results involved all of the management team, starting with the executive counsel at global level, cascading down through the company and communicating what the business strategy is, as well as what the company wanted to do in terms of treating, rewarding and managing its people. It outlined what was expected around the performance culture, and how leaders personally could best manage and drive people forward through change.

"We deliberately used a cascading approach so that leaders teach other leaders and it goes all the way down the organisation," says Vavakis. "We also have key talent programs, which are run every year across the region. These look at the top talent emerging talent who we think are the next generation of leaders. We couple them up with senior leaders, and then we give them actual projects to work on. It's good to give them the theory around leadership but in reality if we get them working on true business problems, and have them working with senior leaders, it's the best way to improve their leadership skills."

HR priorities
Like all global organisations operating in uncertain economic times, Hewlett Packard is ensuring it has the right cost structure in place and is keeping a close eye on economic trends. The integration with EDS also continues, and HR will continue to play a crucial role in ensuring the two organisations are aligned for future success.

"There are many aspects of the EDS integration. One aspect is the technical side - how do we harmonise benefits, how do we bring people onboard, how do we make sure all the legal and tax aspects of merging the two companies together work. Then there's the culture component. We have two distinct cultures coming together and we're highlighting what the differences are and taking the best elements out of both. There's an element of organisational effectiveness and transparency that comes into play as well," Vavakis explains.

Outside of the integration there is plenty to keep the HR team busy, from driving the focus on talent management and leadership development, to moving the transactional aspects of HR into automated formats or to BPO arrangements.

With expansion into new markets and workforce growth expected to continue, the HP HR will need to keep track of a rapidly changing organisation. "This expansion naturally brings with it a whole lot of HR implications including making sure we've got the right staffing processes, the right onboarding processes, and keeping that talent and driving that talent to grow with the business and keep HP the number one IT company in the world," Vavakis concludes.

In his own words...
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced in your career?
Integrations are always tough. We've been through several but two recent ones have been challenging - the integration with EDS and a few years ago the merger with Compaq. There's so much work that comes out of doing the technical aspects of integration - the tax, legal, HR implications - but there's a softer side that is sometimes forgotten and that's the cultural assimilation of two entities. It's easy for people to fall into the 'us' and 'them' mentality and that's not good for business. The challenges have been really getting people beyond that and getting the leadership teams to understand the cultural aspect is just as important as the technical side.

It can be basic stuff - it can go down to how people prefer to communicate, is it email or voicemail? Such a simple thing that you wouldn't think about in normal environments but it can create a huge disconnect.

Also, the immense growth in HP over the last four years is an ongoing challenge. Each business unit needs to get the best people in the shortest timeframe possible. The balance of getting these people in with the quality we need is tough - but you don't want it to be a trade-off.

What do you consider to be your biggest career achievement so far?
There was a time when I stepped out of HR and into a sales operational role. In that role we were forming a new organisation for the top corporate accounts in HP - the top 100 customers. We were almost starting from scratch: we had to hire the people who would be account managers; determine how to measure and reward them; and decide on how we needed to operate in terms of our go-to market strategy. Building the structure and processes around it was probably one of my biggest accomplishments.

The second one is the growth of the region in terms of the employee base and the fact we've been able to engage people well and have good business results despite the economic climate. We've seen a downturn but not to the extent we've seen in some of our competitors.

Where do you see HR as a profession heading?
I see moving administrative work out as being important. At HP, HR is expected to not just deliver HR priorities but also be part of the business decision-making process. Sometimes people in HR say they need to understand the business - I don't think that's good enough. They need to be confident enough to understand P&L and how HR decisions and implications can impact P&L. Then they need to be able to participate in business planning and decisions, and then of course deliver all the HR programs.