On his one-hour commute home each weekday, Monsanto Australia managing director Daniel Kruithoff spends most of the time on his hands-free phone. More often than not, the person on the other end of the line is Julia Bailey, Monsanto’s human resources lead for Australia and New Zealand. That’s on top of several face-to-face conversations during the day and a one-hour formal meeting every Monday morning.
“I sit right outside Dan’s office and I’m in there more than I’m at my own desk,” says Bailey, who joined the agricultural giant’s Melbourne office in 2012. “We work through business issues in consultation all the time. I’m not just in there when things go wrong. People are always on the agenda.”
Kruithoff says the relationship is open and collaborative, with plenty of debate and testing of each other’s thinking. “HR is a critical part of our leadership team, strategy development and decision-making,” he says.
One of the biggest people challenges for the duo is making sure Monsanto’s 75 employees in Australia and New Zealand consider the regional and global dynamics of their roles in a company that employs 22,000 people in 66 countries. “Having our people look beyond national boundaries to understand they are part of something bigger is really important,” says Bailey. She notes that the company’s matrix structure helps. It means that an employee’s direct manager may be based overseas (she and Kruithoff report to Singapore-based executives).
But perhaps the toughest challenge the duo face is managing the effect on staff of Monsanto regularly appearing on ‘world’s most hated companies’ lists. The backlash against genetically modified crops – often grown from Monsanto seeds – and concerns about potential carcinogens in its flagship herbicide, Roundup, drew tens of thousands of protesters around the world to the third annual March Against Monsanto in May.
Sometimes the anti-Monsanto message can be quite personal. Bailey says on one occassion, a staff member wearing a Monsanto work shirt was subjected to some unfriendly name calling at a local supermarket by another customer.
“It happens rarely, but if our employees are confronted about where they work we take it seriously, we will debrief with them on the event, offer EAP and ensure they know their wellbeing is paramount.
“More broadly, we make sure our employees are well equipped to deal with these situations if they arise through information sessions and briefings, training and online resources,” Bailey says.
The solution, says Kruithoff, is to ensure staff share corporate’s vision to help double food production for a global population of nine billion by 2050. “Part of the ongoing evolution of global agriculture is that we have less land to produce more food and we need to do it sustainably,” he says. “This challenge will only get harder and it isn’t just one strategy that will help farmers achieve that. We need to work together across all areas to deliver sustainable solutions that help make farmers more productive, including biotechnology, genetics, precision agriculture, data and biologicals.”
He says HR has a crucial task in this, to inspire that sense of purpose. “It’s the role of HR to convey that notion – that we all have a part to play in a bigger picture, and this is how you can contribute.”
Also important, says Bailey, is to make sure employees hear good news stories highlighting work they and Monsanto do. For example, Kruithoff says Monsanto’s insect-resistant, genetically modified cotton has revolutionised the Australian cotton industry, allowing it to use 55 per cent less insecticide and 40 per cent less water.
“We understand that we are polarising, but we choose to focus on the positive work our people do day in, day out,” says Bailey, adding that she has never had a staff member leave because of Monsanto’s reputation.
Bailey has experienced quite a change from her previous HR role at global greeting card company Hallmark. That was a well-loved and respected brand. “I went from one of the least controversial to one of the most controversial businesses in the world,” she says.
Diversity is where Monsanto wins bouquets rather than brickbats. DiversityInc magazine ranks it in the top 50 companies globally. “We don’t treat diversity and inclusion as an isolated program or initiative,” says Kruithoff. “We see there are three key dimensions – the tone set from the top, making it a key part of doing business, and sustaining it over time.”
The Australian office has 17 different nationalities, and 51 per cent of its workforce and 60 per cent of its leadership group are female. Bailey says a key Monsanto tenet is that it should reflect the diversity of its global customers by hiring people with a variety of experiences, opinions and backgrounds. “Innovation can come from anyone, anywhere. We have to have managers who live and breathe this inclusive philosophy.”
Taking the pulse
On employee engagement and productivity, Monsanto conducts a quarterly pulse survey and a biannual engagement survey. These have showed that staff are very well engaged with the company’s vision, but more work needs to be done to make sure direct line managers listen and show they care about their staff’s career development. “The number one thing is your direct people manager and how they communicate with you,” says Kruithoff. “I give an hour each week to all my direct reports.”
Bailey says she connects with staff formally and informally, including undertaking a Kenexa survey and an AON Hewitt best employer nomination this year. From these, she prepares in-depth analytics as part of the engagement plan. Monsanto is presently focusing on four areas: leadership, care and concern for employees, learning and development, and streamlining work processes.
Use of analytics is one of five core competencies Monsanto sets for its HR executives globally. The others are technical expertise, business acumen, change champion and consultation. “We’ve moved from a largely reactive HR function to using analytics as a tool to be predictive, which informs strategy and helps provide direction cross-functionally,” says Bailey.
Her advice to anyone aspiring to an HR job in a company as large as Monsanto is to be passionate about the industry they work in. “We talk about a sense of purpose, and I certainly get out of bed in the morning to work towards the solutions that will help solve one of the biggest humanitarian challenges facing us today. It helps you be resilient because you are driven by something more altruistic.”
This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the October 2015 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘Seeds to sow’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.