Lion’s HR team reveal recipe for success

Amanda Woodard


written on June 10, 2016

Bob Barbour, People and Culture director at Lion, has 
either hired or promoted every single person in the senior management team.

Barbour, who joined the Australian food and beverage giant 24 years ago, is entitled to think he knows them all pretty well. And his longevity at Lion gives him a unique perspective on how the HR role has developed over time – and the increasing relevance it has in the success of the business.

Alongside Barbour is Insight, Strategy and Talent director Jane Hill, who, after 12 years with the company, also has a deep understanding of what makes Lion roar.

Research and analysis are fundamental to the way HR works these days. But a point of difference at Lion, they say, is the way Hill’s department acts like a market research team for HR, looking inside the business, breaking down the data and teasing out the insights – whether that’s from the twice-yearly engagement surveys or the culture survey, conducted every other year.
“We also look outside to see what’s going on in the world, the latest trends on positive organisation in the workplace, for example,” says Hill. “It lifts our heads up and makes us think about the bigger picture and the longer term, and how it connects into our own business strategy.”

How then do you take these findings “upstairs” and convince the CEO and the board that HR initiatives are worth funding?

“We are lucky to have had CEOs who are very accessible and one common trait they’ve shared is a love of learning,” says Hill.

“We will have regular conversations, telling them: ‘This is what we’re noticing; these are the challenges we are facing and this is the impact it’s having on the business. Here is some new research; and these are the capabilities we need to deliver the strategy. And these are the things we need to get better at’, says Barbour. “That’s always going to be tied up with commercial outcomes, so that they really understand the reason we are doing things – and it’s so that we can grow as a business sustainably.”

Being across the analytics and gaining the insights is core to raising the standards in the profession says Barbour. “You’ve got to have a really deep understanding of people and behaviour and AHRI’s agenda-setting on certification is the right direction for the profession to take he says. “Certification will mean that HR can demonstrate consistency in the skills and capabilities that bring value to their organisation,” agrees Hill.

Lion hears clearly, listens well

Barbour and Hill have witnessed important milestones at Lion, the biggest being the buyout by Japanese company Kirin in 2009. But more gradual developments have been just as impactful, such as perceptions around culture and wellbeing and how these fit into long-term sustainability from an HR perspective.

If he had to distil the rather nebulous term of sustainability into a single sentence, Barbour would say it is about “being responsive to change and open to ideas”.

“Too often companies fall into the trap of believing their own strategy; what they think is right versus really being open to new ideas and challenging their thinking – not really seeing the diversity of ideas that are out there. Or, they don’t create a climate where the truth exists. Or, people are encouraged to say what they think, but nobody listens.”

Barbour believes that HR has to take the lead in creating an environment where the business  “hears clearly, listens well and responds fast”.

Being really clear about your role, purpose and direction is also vital.  “But don’t hold on too tightly, because things will change,” he cautions. “If you hold on to one goal too tightly, it might not be the right thing anymore. So be willing to fundamentally challenge everything that you do, pretty regularly. That’s easy to say and really hard to do.”

Barbour has worked with four CEOs at Lion and says that new faces always help with renewal as, inevitably, they challenge everything they find. “That’s good because it makes you question whether things really work. For example, we had evolved our company values over time and they had probably become more complex than they needed to be. They were a bit ‘corporate speak’, so when our new CEO came in and began raising questions, we tweaked them and now they are in down-to-Earth language.”

Lion’s culture and evolution

Values aren’t just words pinned on a wall though, adds Hill, whose background was originally in marketing; they reflect the culture of an organisation.

“When I sit in interviews, culture always comes up as a big draw card for Lion,” says Hill. They both put this consistency down to authentic word of mouth about what it’s like to work at Lion, and customer loyalty to brands created and nurtured in Australia or New Zealand.

Interestingly, a re-examination of the culture at Lion has grown out of helping parent company, Kirin, adjust to operating outside of Japan.

“Japanese culture might work very well in Japan but it doesn’t work well everywhere else,” says Barbour. Kirin realised they needed to change their culture to adapt to local environments. “We have a long track record of success in this area but [guiding them] made us think long and hard about what works well in Australia.”

Some key points that came out of the self-examination was about levels of consciousness and making people aware of the behaviours that they demonstrate on a day-to-day basis.

“The first time I ever had a 360 degree feedback on behaviours would be late 1996, early 1997. It was surprising to learn about the extent to which we display reactive and defensive tendencies,” says Barbour.

Once people become aware that there are different ways of behaving and doing things and that people prefer to be asked [rather than told], then HR can help them with the skills and tools they need to modify their behaviour, says Hill.

Inevitably though motivation has to come from within, and that’s more likely to happen when employees feel a sense of purpose and a feeling of connectivity with what the organisation does.
“We hold leaders accountable for creating the right kind of culture in their team,” says Barbour. “It is so important to attract and retain good leaders, as we know from analysis that the number one driver around engagement, is leadership. So that I understand how my job contributes overall; I feel like I belong here; I know what success looks like.”

Barbour says that although culture is flavour of the month again in business discussion, he believes too many companies approach it in a haphazard way.

“You’ve got to go the full yard and figure out what culture looks like for your business and then measure it,” he says. Some companies measure it and then hope like hell it’s improved between one measurement and the next. That’s the most popular approach, he observes and one that he refers to as “a bit of luck, chance and magic strategy”.

The other is to measure culture pretty regularly, and investigate and analyse it to discover opportunities for improvement. Then put a plan together and track it just like any other business management discipline.

“Some things will work and some won’t, so keep doing the good ones and change the ones that fail, “ says Barbour.

Judgement on the run

The challenge in today’s fast-paced modern environment, where technology allows us to be interconnected all the time, is that we have to make judgments a lot more quickly than in the past, he says.

“Questions like: what is the right degree of consultation in communication? Too much and you never make any decisions or go anywhere. Too little and you get into decision-based change and nobody buys into it. Or you get the Goldilocks spot, that’s just right and achieves the constructive culture you’re looking for,” says Barbour.

In the clamour of a complex business world, one of the more subtle HR skills that Hill believes adds enormous value is to be very open to weak signals.

“What are you hearing out there? Then, how can we try some things without waiting for it to become a big tsunami? Experiment, see what happens if you can kind of nudge the system a bit. If you fail, it’s not a huge investment,” she says.

This is particularly relevant if you are a big business like Lion competing with lots of nimble craft brewers and other small entrepreneurs. “We need to move forward at pace, which is the hardest thing to do when you’re 7,000 people or so. It is about being very open to listening to those weak signals, making connections – and then trying something new.”

This article is an edited version. The original version appeared in the June 2016 issue of HRMonthly magazine as “Mane attraction.” AHRI members receive HRMonthly magazine 11 times a year. To learn more about membership options, click here

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3 thoughts on “Lion’s HR team reveal recipe for success

  1. Dear Amanda,
    Thank you so very much for putting down your thoughts and sharing the article.
    Not even for a moment I felt disconnected while reading the above. Importantly because it is the most practical sharing of your experience and the journey that you would have gone through has been pen down in the most honest way possible.
    Similar to yours is the journey that I am been sailing in now and working upon….

  2. Having worked for National foods before these henchmen of LION came and removed the opportunity to work, not sure where they get their culture claim from – suggest it’s a dark place

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