Interim Solutions Showcase – June 2020

Welcome to our Interim Solutions Showcase for June.

Over the last few years I have been lucky enough to interview a wide range of senior leaders, from all sorts of backgrounds. Many have faced difficult challenges – some have overcome them, others have had to “learn from experience”.

I thought you might like to find out more about Graeme Cook, a wise and genial Group HR Director…

In the latest in my series of interviews with senior business leaders, I am exploring how “culture” works across a multinational organisation and how it has responded to the global pandemic…

Graeme Cook is the Group HR Director of Keller, the world’s largest geotechnical specialist contractor, specialising in ground engineering. It was established in 1860, has more than 10,000 employees, revenue in excess of £2bn and operates across more than 40 countries.

Graeme has a track record of delivery in blue-chip organisations, with extensive change management experience. He has lived and worked in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia for over 25 years.

Q   Graeme, you spent the first ten years of your working life working in Finance. What made you move into HR? Was it the right choice?

Like many graduating in the early 1990s, a Finance or Business degree seemed to be the right thing to study. I think I did reasonably okay as an accountant and global Oilfield technology firm Schlumberger seemed to keep advancing me to increasing levels of responsibility. Their talent development cycle operated around a concept of ‘borderless careers’ – they moved you geographically, through different product lines, and across functions in order to develop well-rounded general managers.

It was after my first assignment as an HR leader that I discovered my depth of enjoyment for this particular career path. Being commercial, very international, and having a knack for solving business performance issues through people seems to have stood me in good stead.

Q   What are the main challenges facing you in 2020 as Group HRD of a global company with over 10,000 staff? Are there times when you lose sleep?

COVID-19 aside (which has caused an impact for around a third of our global workforce in terms of furloughing or equivalent, reduced hours and pay etc.), the main thing to say about my role at Keller is how much of a privilege it is to be able to have it. It’s a company with outstanding people and a true ‘family’ culture that shines through every single day.

Having said this, the company has underperformed over recent years and we have had to drive a lot of change because of this. We have significantly restructured our APAC and North American divisions so far and I am really satisfied with the results we are now getting from this. There’s more we’re still working on and COVID-19 has accelerated some of our thinking. I am very confident we will come out of the other side of the pandemic a lot fitter and stronger.

Q   Keller has been around for a long time and has had many acquisitions over the years. Does it have one or many “cultures”? Is culture important?

We are a very devolved company as the construction sector that we serve is very local in nature. Having said this, the cultures within our three Divisions, 23 Business Units, and 200 Branches are almost identical. I would describe the general culture as having characteristics of ‘independence’, ‘can-do’, ‘loyal’, ‘caring’ and ‘fun’. As the custodian of Keller’s organisational culture, I can’t think of a better environment for me to try to further build from on behalf of our employees. Helping select the right person to hand this jewel over to at some point in the future will feel like a massive responsibility.

Q   I’ve known you for some years now and you are always really welcoming, giving your valuable time to enable understanding of your company and its challenges. Why aren’t more HRD’s like that?…

I think the short answer is that you make it this way, Richard. You are a really decent and professional person.

Having said this, my outlook has always been to see business as a series of partnerships. Within our society, there is an intrinsic acceptance of hierarchy and this is something that I’ve always resisted and tried to actively deconstruct where I can. I’ve worked for some great leaders over the years and the best ones have always been those that have created equality within their organisations. I try to do the same both inside and outside of the company. A great career should last a lifetime and I truly believe that we have an obligation to bring the best out of everyone we meet along the way.

Q   You have over 25 years of senior experience. What do you know now that would have been useful when you started out?

I think it’s actually closer to 30 years now – yikes! When I look back to the start of my career when I had early management responsibility for others, I seemed to think that I had an obligation to know all of the answers to every situation and be responsible for making all of the decisions on behalf of the team. This put a lot of self-pressure on myself and I realized that it was ineffective.

It was quite a few years later that I got some great advice from a brilliant leadership consultant called Oddi Aasheim. He encouraged me to refocus my energy and leadership style away from feeling responsible for ‘doing’ things towards ‘causing’ things to happen. This was a real breakthrough for me as I shifted my outlook towards creating the right environment for teams to thrive. This has worked particularly well for us at Keller and has meant that I get to enjoy the role I play in the team so much more.

Q   I understand that you were appointed as a Global Scot by the First Minister of Scotland in 2017 – what has this meant for you?

This means a huge amount to me, Richard. The First Minister has a cohort of business leaders that the Scottish Government and its agencies use in various guises to help inform policy and support the economic and societal aims of our country.

Anyone that knows me is aware that I spend a lot of my personal time and energy on these activities for the simple reason that I owe a lot to the nation that forged me as a person. The right to a free higher education is something that we cherish as a country. This right establishes confidence in young adults and provides access to opportunities that may not have been available.

This equality across a society helps break down hierarchies that in their own right can often be a hindrance to broader prosperity. A heavy answer, but I find this sense of purpose incredibly meaningful.

My sincere thanks to Graeme for sharing his thoughts.

As ever, our Showcase of excellent interim professionals can be viewed here. I would be very happy to introduce you to them, whenever the time is right.

Best wishes