What's the legacy of HR at Al-Futtaim?

Written by
Karam Filfilan

30 May 2018

30 May 2018 • by Karam Filfilan

John Harker has spent the past five years as group director of HR at Al-Futtaim. As he leaves the region, he reflects on HR transformation.

On why he chose to move to the UAE in 2012

I had spent 12 years in banking and finance, having joined Citi in 2000; at the time they were looking to create a global mega-bank. It was an interesting time, but then the global financial crisis hit and everything went into reverse, so I began thinking about what would come next.

A search firm I’d been using told me about a role in the UAE working for an organisation seeing rapid growth, but that was struggling to maintain its development due to not having enough talent. I met the vice-chairman (Omar Abdulla Al Futtaim) and was sold on his vision.

On his initial goals

I much prefer operating in a growth environment and, at the time, Al-Futtaim was experiencing 20% growth. The human capital agenda was a key business objective and the attractive thing to me was that there was very little in place beyond the basics of payroll, hiring and a recently set up shared services function.

The starting point was getting buy-in from the various group business heads. So, we surveyed them to identify the priorities for the group as a whole. From this we agreed the top six priorities to work on, which were around creating a pipeline of leadership talent, improving development programmes and reassessing our hiring and onboarding processes.

We put together project teams drawn from HR and the various businesses, who created task teams and project charters until we had a whole governance framework around how we would drive these projects through the business.

This framework – called Talent for Growth – allowed us to demonstrate how all the elements of the talent strategy tied together and evolved as we grew.

On developing leaders from within

When I joined, our internal hiring made up just 12% of our recruitment. Internal applicants had to pitch against at least two external applicants for roles, and there was a salary cap on promoting existing staff, while new employees could be paid any amount.

That was not sustainable and added enormous costs to the business, so we had to change. We introduced a comprehensive leadership development programme that has had 1,600 employees attend over a two-year period, raising the bar of what we expect from our leaders.

This, combined with developing our employee value proposition through asking our people about our brand, has meant that our internal hiring ratio has doubled to 25% in the past five years. 

How has national hiring changed?

We re-engineered Al-Futtaim’s graduate programme two years ago to make sure it focused on all nationalities, as we believe Emiratis develop at a much quicker pace when they learn with other nationalities.

Part of our sell is ‘join an international company and learn from 100 different nationalities’, so it was important we reflected that in our development programmes. As a result, I feel the quality of our talent is much higher.

Don’t get me wrong – our numbers aren’t where we want to be yet (Al-Futtaim has approximately 700 Emiratis in its businesses), but we are regarded as one of the better employers in the private sector.

As a private business, competing with the public sector is difficult, particularly when it comes to worklife balance, salaries and retention schemes. I think the government has realised this and is partnering more with private organisations to encourage local hiring. The message now is “you are helping the economy by joining the private sector”, so things will become easier over time. 

On changing perceptions of HR

I think that there has been a substantial change in the maturity of the function during my time, probably aided by the pressure on being able to hire talent. People have been forced to become a little more sophisticated in how they source and hire and management expects more from the function.

As the economy has tightened, HR has had to become smarter in how it looks at efficiencies and processes. Initially, it was about getting people through the door, but over the last couple of  years, it has become more about processes. I think this will be good for the region, because we know we’re operating in a protected environment. However, that may not last forever, so many leaders are thinking about their business model and developing their own brands, rather than relying on being from the UAE.

What have you learned from your time in the region?

It’s always important to understand the context of the organisation in which you are working. Take the time to really understand what makes it tick from both a business and cultural context.

As an expat coming into the region, it’s vital to understand how to develop relationships with locals and establish trust so you have the permission to do the things you want to do. This was particularly true for me at Al-Futtaim, which is run and managed by a local family. Try to co-create as far as possible and you’ll get better traction.

What does the future of work look like in the region?

As the millennial generation takes on a bigger demographic, we need to think about how they will impact ways of working. The Middle East is still very formal about how we think about working arrangements and I think there is an in-built resistance to flexible working.

This will need to change if we are to attract the best millennials into our organisations. If your underlying DNA is about “can I really trust this person?”, your systems will reflect that. So, changing that trust issue and truly believing that it doesn’t matter where people are sitting when they do their job will take some time.