How often do you get the chance build a brand culture from the ground up, especially when that brand is splitting from an Aussie icon? It’s a tough job, but HR Director Janine Frew from Scentre Group reveals how she honours the legacy of Westfield while creating a company culture that’s all their own.
In the heart of Sydney, the Sydney Tower looms 300 metres above the central business district like a beacon. From a board room at Scentre Group, you can see the iconic structure close up: the thick metal cables that anchor the tower stretch taut to the golden turret above, with the bright red Westfield name emblazoned around it.
The relatively new offspring of the retail property developer, Scentre Group split from the international business in 2014 and now has sole responsibility for operations and management of the Australia and New Zealand side of the business.
For HR Director Janine Frew, the tower is a physical reminder of the Westfield legacy and a spur to create something new and unique in the people strategy for Scentre Group.
Before taking on her current role, Frew worked her way up at Westfield Australia to become director of HR in 2012, during which time she saw the property developer expand and consolidate in national and international markets.
All in the family
Westfield is an Australian institution dating back to 1959, which means any related company has a big legacy to live up to. Although Scentre Group retains the Westfield branding, that’s the extent of the relationship. The Australia/New Zealand business is expected to step out of the shadow of big brother and forge its own character. This presented Frew and her colleagues with a rare opportunity
to build a brand and culture from the ground up – and is one reason she was attracted to the role.
“We wanted to retain what was best about Westfield, but we also recognised that we needed to form our own identity, to not be seen as the leftover rump of the organisation.”
Nevertheless, a few key Westfield values were carved out as ‘must haves’. One was building a self-sustaining organisation.
“We focus on sustainability across the business – people, social, environmental – and our strategies are aligned to those. I want to future-proof the organisation from a talent perspective.”
First and foremost, that means looking inside the organisation.
“We really pride ourselves on being able to fill roles from within and create our pipeline of talent,” Frew says. “We’ve been able to do that simply through the experiences we provide our employees. Everyone has a development plan.”
Twice a year, Frew leads people planning forums to identify high-potential employees for bespoke development programs. The company has invested heavily in leadership training and advancing and mentoring employees through the ranks. Frew is hesitant to call Scentre Group a ‘training organisation’, though.
“It’s no longer a career ladder – it’s a career matrix in terms of adding capability and breadth to an employee’s skill set,” Frew says. “The fast-moving nature of business means roles are always changing, and we can’t focus on one job role or title anymore.”
The strategy has paid off. The average tenure for an executive is 15 years, and the average length of service for all other roles is seven. This contributes to an extremely low turnover rate – below 10 per cent, says Frew.
But the biggest encouragement for this approach comes from an employee engagement score that hovers around 80 per cent, nearly triple the average Australian organisation.
Frew isn’t content with this however, and has launched the company’s first in-depth survey to measure everything from engagement to inclusion and diversity, alignment to core values, ability to absorb and respond to change and more.
“Our vision is that by 2018, we are seen as the place where talent can thrive,” she says.
Whole self, best self
One key point of focus for Scentre Group is inclusion and diversity. “We knew we wanted to create a culture that is representative of the communities we serve,” Frew says. “Previously, inclusion and diversity was focused on things like gender from a compliance perspective.”
But now the company has added an all-roles-flex policy – something that Westfield didn’t pay much attention to, says Frew. The intention is that this will translate into better work-life balance for all staff and be an enabler to unlock the full potential of employees.
The implementation of this policy, coupled with a progressive parental leave policy, were two symbolic statements in the company’s formative months, signalling to employees that Scentre Group was embarking on a serious cultural journey.
To help identify other areas of change, the HR team conducted surveys across the corporate office and in retail centres to see what mattered to their people. Three themes emerged: mental health, LGBTIQ community issues and domestic violence.
“Inclusion and diversity is a strategic initiative that has to be championed by an organisaton’s leaders and supported by employee groups,” says Frew. They seem to be making headway: Scentre Group CEO Peter Allen was an AHRI Awards finalist for CEO of the Year in 2015 on the back of these initiatives. This year, the company has submitted a candidate for an AHRI Inclusion and Diversity Award as well.
Along with executive sponsors for each initiative, the company invites employees to identify corporate or social issues they would like to solve. The Scentre Group LGBTIQ ally program is led by COO Greg Miles, and an employee domestic violence council has developed a statement of intent and policy.
“Those forums are very powerful,” Frew says. “They practically do the job for us … We try to make it easy for people who are committed to something to get involved.”
Part of company strategy, she adds, is to get employees to question why things are done the way they are and whether they could be improved. CEO challenges help to crowdsource ideas, teams have toolkits for managers to initiate discussions about things that aren’t working, and individuals are given access to resources so they can explore solutions.
“We’re fortunate our senior leaders believe that these initiatives make a difference,” says Frew. “Eighty per cent of what we do is transformational work, and only 20 per cent is transactional. The conversations we are having today are vastly different to those we were having prior to the establishment of Scentre Group.”
Empowering and developing Scentre Group’s executive leaders and managers means Frew and her HR team are a lean machine, with a ratio of one person per 200 or so employees. That’s a team of about 12 for a company comprised of 2700 workers.
Establishing Scentre Group as a stand-alone organisation has been challenging and liberating at the same time.
“We made a conscious decision in the creation of Scentre Group to take our time establishing the brand and culture. It has been a case of forging a path that feels right for our people, our retailers, our investors … right for our communities by talking, testing and really listening to what mattered most to our stakeholders. We didn’t have all the answers on day one and we were OK with that.”
In fact, aside from a new logo and business card, it was a blank canvas. But rather than being solely focussed on shareholder value, Frew says Scentre Group wanted people to find real meaning in their work.
“Our purpose became about creating extraordinary places and connecting and enriching communities, and it’s that which shapes an individual’s efforts and focus,” says Frew. Awards structures were changed to reflect this. Employees were asked to identify the teams they contribute to most, and 50 per cent of financial incentives come from how well they play with those teams.
“It all feeds into the idea that we are one team, one business – a concept that might sound clichéd, but coming from a culture that had encouraged high levels of internal competition, it unleashed an entirely new state of mind for our people,” she says.
Frew says she has learnt that “change management is an oxymoron – you can’t closely manage change.” Rather than having to hold employees by the hand, she says “our people just embraced it.” To reinforce the new identity, employees were asked to contribute a story of what the company meant to them – in photos, written accounts, customer feedback and mementos.
“Some of the stories that came back were so powerful, and it gave us confidence that people were connected with us.”
The anthology has been digitised and placed on the company’s employee portal, which is fully interactive. Clicking on one story, it’s about a senior executive who took flex leave for the first time; another is about how retail centres donate unused space to community groups who need it for events and meetings.
“Connecting with people and communicating our purpose is a critical human resources function,” Frew says. “If we get that culture right, we get the whole business right.”