Managing change in business is never easy, whether you’re a CEO, director or middle manager. So where do you start when you’ve been in the role a matter of months, your business was formed just a year ago and combines some of the best-loved brands in the UK, Turkey and America? This is the challenge facing Erica Coletta, CHRO at confectionery manufacturer pladis, which merged brands such as McVitie’s, Godiva Chocolatiers and Ulker under the ownership of Turkish giant Yildiz Holding in January 2016.
In place since September, and with responsibility for overseeing the integration of 26,000 employees and creating a global culture that takes account of local sensibilities, Coletta is navigating her way through the challenge.
“It’s been exciting and four months feel like nine,” she says. “It’s rare to have an opportunity to bring all my experiences together in a way that’s going to have real impact, although my family complain about how little they see me.”
The HR function is a passion for Coletta. Her early career was in law, then sales, before she made an active choice to move into HR in 2001 as a policy and diversity manager at Shell. She held roles at the BOC Group, Unilever and Godiva Chocolatiers before pladis CEO Cem Karakas head-hunted her for the CHRO role, with a mandate to drive transformation strategy.
Setting early priorities
Coletta’s early priorities have been threefold: creating a culture; building talent with the right traits; and uniting the company.
“Our cultural framework (see below) has been a key pillar. It’s about common purpose and values in bringing the company together. The alignment of our executive leadership behind this has been fundamental,” says Coletta.
A major part of her strategy has been to improve dialogue between departments and encourage feedback from employees on the company’s vision. She has introduced a shadow board of employees who sit alongside the executive steering committee, comprising long-standing employees, future leaders and people from different sectors. This provides perspectives on strategies and “gives an insight into what our people are thinking”.
pladis encourages managers to nominate employees for the shadow board, stressing that they’re looking for opinion makers. “They are the hearts and minds of 26,000 people,” says Coletta.
Second, as a self-confessed ‘big believer in inter-generational dialogue’, Coletta has introduced a reverse mentoring scheme, where young talent shadow senior executives (including Coletta) over six months, providing new perspectives in return for experience. She acknowledges that this programme is just as helpful to senior executives as to junior employees, putting in place checks to make sure the ideas they come up with work for the benefit of the wider employee base.
From a technological point of view, Coletta aims to take Ideastar – an app used by the Turkish branch of the organisation that allows employees to share ideas for new products, marketing and innovation – across the global business, to encourage employees to own the business and become involved in its development.
Improving collaboration, feedback and interaction is vital to bringing the businesses together, insists Coletta.
“It’s all well and good developing leadership models, cultural traits and saying you want to be agile. But, if you don’t have the feedback loops to check if it’s working, it becomes meaningless,” she says.
Not everything on pladis’ transformation agenda is about assimilation and merging ideas. Coletta highlights the value of individuality and the need to respect the cultures of the organisations coming together, understanding the resonance each brand has in its own region.
“It’s difficult for global companies to get it right,” she admits. You’re always trying to balance common standards with global freedom. What things do you have to be respectful about from a cultural standpoint? You have to leverage pride rather than stifle it or try to provide a one-size fits all answer,” she adds.
The key to managing this delicate balance is building trust, she argues.
“Early in my career, while studying at the London School of Economics, I had to write an essay on trust. At the time, I couldn’t understand why it was such a big deal,” she says.
“Now, I realise that so much comes down to trust. If organisations are capable of building trust, embodied by their leaders and processes, they will improve.”
For Coletta, there has never been a better time for HR to assert its authority. As the world of work is disrupted by technology, market trends and geo-political forces, she believes the function is uniquely placed to build trust and resilience – but only if it has the confidence to lead.
“This is a time for HR to make a big difference. Businesses are craving innovative ways of driving the people agenda, interesting ways of managing talent and improving collaboration in the workplace. The space is there to be taken.”