Getting strategic at Al-Futtaim: John Harker, group director of HR marketing and travel

Written by
Changeboard Team

09 Jun 2017

09 Jun 2017 • by Changeboard Team

Company history

As you travel across the region, you’ll no doubt see Al Futtaim brands in their abundance. Established in the 1930s as a trading business, Al Futtaim now operates through more than 65 companies across sectors including automotive, retail, electronics, engineering and technologies, finance, real estate and service.

And with in excess of 40,000 employees across the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Syria, Singapore and Europe, there’s a big challenge to engage, develop and retain the workforce. 

John Harker joined Al Futtaim in May 2012, as Group Director of Human Resources, Marketing and Travel. Having been with the organization almost two years, what are his main challenges and how does he intend to position HR to help the group achieve its ambitious growth targets?

How is HR perceived in the Middle East?

In general, HR in the Middle East is regarded as being very involved in basic HR administration and operations. Human capital as a discipline is not fully evolved in the region and the expectations of an HR function are not in line with what you would expect from a strategic partnership. HR is rapidly changing and is forced to evolve in to a human capital function from a strategic perspective, primarily due to scarcity of talent. 

Business leaders in the Middle East are beginning to better understand the link between talent management and business success and recognise HR’s potential role in unlocking the discretionary effort of employees as a source of competitive advantage. As HR is charged with developing and organising ‘human capital’ through the ways in which talent is recruited, developed and managed, the function is starting to be noticed as the key to this. 

Employee engagement is becoming recognised as an important factor in delivering effective services, many more Middle East based organisations are seeing the link between well-organised and well-managed teams and business success.

What are the main challenges you face as HRD?

When I arrived at Al-Futtaim in May 2012, the Vice Chairman presented me with a challenge:  to help create an HR organization that can help the group achieve its ambitious growth targets.

I found that HR did not have a great reputation internally and we needed to improve our reputation by positioning HR’s role as a strategic support partner to every leader, at every level, to deliver on a common human capital agenda. 

The challenge was compounded because the company was growing fast and so filling seats with the right people was an imperative. An over emphasis on hiring external talent was a costly drain on the organization. A more balanced approach was needed. From a people perspective, our primary focus had to be repositioning ourselves to maximize the opportunities open to us.  

How do the HR challenges in the UAE differ to those in the rest of the region?

In an economic hub such as the UAE with many global businesses using either Abu Dhabi or Dubai as their regional headquarters, HR seems to be ahead when it comes to HR practices. The challenges lie in talent scarcity in this region and specifically in the UAE where most of these headquartered companies are competing for the same talent. 

How do you make your Al-Futtaim attractive?

As the market is becoming more competitive for talented people we asked group directors and HR seniors: “What should we focus on to ensure we have the right people in the right place, at the right time and engaged to deliver the Al-Futtaim strategy?”.  

Together with business leaders, we developed a Talent for Growth strategy and at the core of this agenda lies our talent brand. Talent Brand (termed Employee Value Proposition in some HR circles) is at the core of our Talent for Growth agenda and where it all begins. 

To determine our attributes we held a workshop for employees with a broad range of tenure, age, culture, profession etc.  We used the feedback to identify four attributes of Al-Futtaim group that determined why people joined us and why they are likely to remain. This formed the basis around which we have developed our Talent for Growth strategy. 

What success rate have you had with these programmes (any demonstrable ROI, targets being met etc) and what lessons have you learnt along the way?

The Al-Futtaim Talent for Growth strategy is having measurable effects. By comparison with the previous year:

  • Employee turnover is down
  • Feedback from employees about their career has improved and
  • Internal mobility – transfers and promotions – is up

We are also seeing that managers and employees in the business are responding to HR in a new way. We are hearing comments about the value HR is bringing to their business. Executives are noting that HR is working directly and visibly to support the business’s goals. In short, the reputation of the HR function is on the right track.

We’ve learnt that the success in the Talent for Growth strategy lies in its development; a collaborative process that has involved thousands of employees across the business. Al-Futtaim employees own this change agenda, it’s understandable to them, proactive, it engages them and it delivers what the business is asking. 

How do you see HR changing across the region?

The role of the HR function in designing and delivering talent is crucial. In short, we needed to improve the reputation of HR by positioning its role as a strategic partner to every leader at every level to deliver on a common human capital agenda.

What’s your advice to other HR directors/leaders to help them become a strategic player in their organisation?

Engage with your businesses. Develop a strategy in partnership with your employees to ensure they own the agenda; it should be understandable to them, proactive and deliver what the business is asking. Be available to support them on their journey and develop tools they can own, be their support partner on route to their success.