TEAM:ING with the CEO

by 24 Feb 2009

The labour market upheaval has turned the spotlight on HR, but ING head Harry Stout has long been aware of the importance of having his HR team as close allies. Sarah O’Carroll reports

Human resources is at the centre of a whirlwind of eco nomic change. Its role within organisations is evolv ing to that of change agents and advisory staff to CEOs. And as more inclement conditions blow in, that role is increasingly being recognised as a critical part of any company’s survival guide.

And one person who knows this all too well is the CEO of ING, Harry Stout.

The winner of the CEO HR Champion award at the recent HR awards doesn’t just talk the talk when it comes to HR, he walks the walk. Stout believes HR will be even more instrumental in 2009 in driving his company through any looming economic challenges.

Stout joined ING Australia in April last year and brought with him his ideas from his experience as senior executive in the ING wealth management business in Philadelphia, US. Stout quickly adapted what he sees as critical people initiatives and incorporated them into the Australian team.

And that’s when Harry met Sally. The CEO called on his executive director of people and performance, Sally Kincaid, to be a key player in helping him drive the business forward and implement new people initiatives to directly align them with the overall objectives of the business. What was formed was a winning CEO/HR working relationship.

Kincaid says the CEO makes things happen. He is the type of CEO, she says, that many HR teams would like to work with, one who not only talks about the importance of HR and people strategies in driving the business for ward, but who works closely with the HR team to set up initiatives that are effective and create genuine results.

The Orange Team

One of the toughest things about being a CEO is that nobody talks to you says Stout. Therefore, when sitting in the top office it can be difficult to get genuine feedback about what is happening on the ground level, how is the business going, and what the problems may be.

“Feedback is the food of champions” says Stout. “What I try to do is put in place feedback loops with the employees.”

One such loop is what is called “The Orange Team”, which was set up with the aim of delivering information straight from employee to CEO. Rotating on a six-monthly basis, a team of 20 employees from all levels of the organ isation meets with the CEO every four weeks to discuss the business as a whole and relay any problems or ideas.

“I can directly get their perspectives on how we are doing as a business and how we’re working together to get things done.”

Getting feedback is one thing, but actioning it is another. According to Kincaid and organisational development man ager Victoria Doherty, Stout responds to feedback, drives the implementation of people initiatives and holds the HR team accountable for that implementation.

“Because he wants action, he expects us in HR to deliver,” says Doherty. “He is by no means a softie and the great thing is we’re held accountable then for these people initiatives we put forward.”

By actioning the feedback from employees, Stout and his team have built high levels of trust which, according to the CEO, is critical for survival – because what often follows trust is loyalty.

“In a difficult world today, particularly in Australia, some semblance of loyalty that helps you in terms of improving your performance is very important,” says Stout. “In many corporations today, uncertainty and drama zap about 60 per cent of your productivity so what I try to do is, by clear com munication and clear direction-setting, take a lot of that out.”

Encouraging diversity is integral to high performance, and Stout has encouraged the HR team to lead diversity programs such as one for high-performance women and the Gala program for gay and lesbian workers.

“It’s really an inclusive culture, he has really driven some of these programs so that people feel, no matter who they are, that they can come to work, are welcomed and they don’t have to hide anything about who they are,” says Doherty. “You can then play your A game because you are not worried about what any body thinks.”

Business outlook

2009 looks uncertain for many companies but, with a broad diversified business model and strong people within the company, Stout is confident ING can tackle the chal lenges that lie ahead. Keeping people focused on serving the customer is paramount.

“Keeping everyone focused on the day-to-day basics of the business amidst this crazy economic world that we face is very important in delivering the value that the com pany creates,” says Stout.

“For ING I think we will have a reasonable year in 2009, I think we have a broad diversified business model and, as a result, some of our businesses will do well and some will come under pressure,” he says.

“The wealth business overall will be under pressure for 2009, and I think superannuation’s a business that people need to continue, to save for retirement and maybe increase their contributions to make up for what has happened in the overall market. We must make sure people understand the investment options that are available to them and what they can do to secure their futures.”

Stout says that improving your talent management, expanding it and building extra resources is critical at a time such as this.

“I don’t think enough senior leaders in business do enough here and I think it’s important to walk the talk.”

Sally Kinclaid - executive director of people & performance

A key tool for Kinclaid in getting CEO and management buy-in has been the implementation of a monthly senior leadership working group solely dedicated to HR and people issues. This has enabled her to discuss topics such as succession planning and talent management with all leaders from all departments prior to their regular board meetings.

"Executive board meetings are often for rubber-stamping, signing off, approval and away you go," says Kinclaid.

"HR might only have 10 minutes at the table. However, with the working group, which is highly sanctioned by Harry, I have the luxury of my colleagues being focused on my stuff for the length of that meeting. We can have a proper meaningful debate discussion about a particular issue. It's very much a 'nuts and bolts' session."