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An HR Pro Forges a Well-rounded Perspective

February 1, 1998
Related Topics: Expatriate Management, Global Outlook, Featured Article
Workforce interviewed Andy Johns, head of expatriate employment policy and services, about his range of experiences with Royal Dutch/Shell Group of Companies.

Q: When did you first decide to go into human resources?
A: I decided to go into HR and then failed to go into HR at first. I applied to Shell when I left the university. The company took no recruits into HR that year. So I joined Shell in chemicals marketing and worked the first 7 1/2 years [in that field].

Q: And you maintained your interest in human resources throughout that time?
A: Yes, I did. But not at the front of my mind. There was one particular interpersonal skills workshop I did that was designed to make me sit up and think about what I wanted to do, and it certainly had that effect. I moved into an employee relations job at the beginning of 1989.

Q: Is it typical of Shell to transfer people from other functions into HR?
A: It's quite common. Of the people I would regard as my peer group, a third or so have worked in other parts of the business.

Q: Is it Shell's philosophy to hire HR employees with experience outside HR?
A: It's partly a philosophy. People with high potential quite often are encouraged to take assignments in human resources. But normally that would be a two-way ticket rather than a one-way ticket. We want them to take their skills back into the business. The broader perspective they get from seeing things in human resources terms is something we regard as being a valuable part of their makeup as senior managers.

It's healthy to have been on the outside thinking, 'Blood HR!"

Q: Would you recommend to HR people that they consider a temporary position outside HR?
A: I think if you can get there, yes. It's more difficult to do in that direction because by and large there are specific technical skills you've got to employ. For example, you can't [switch] to being a seismologist because you haven't got a geology degree. So depending on the business, yes. And indeed some of our best and brightest in human resources have done business jobs. By and large you find that managers, and particularly technical managers, are quite narrowly focused. They want to get a certain thing done. And the job of human resources is often to say: "Hang on, have you thought of the implications for the wider system?" This is what makes us unpopular. So, if I put it at a baseline level: I think it's very healthy to have been on the outside looking in and thinking, "Bloody human resources!"

Q: When were you first sent on an international assignment?
A: I worked for Shell U.K. from 1972 to 1987 writing "fully mobile" on my annual appraisal. Then someone called my bluff. I was offered a job in Brunei (in the Asia Pacific region) just over 10 years ago. I'd been in personnel for seven or eight years by that time. I'm just coming to the end of my third assignment. Three years in Brunei, three years in Gabon (in West Africa) and four years in The Hague (in the Netherlands).

Q: How valuable has your personal experience as an assignee been to your work in IHR?
A: I would say very valuable in terms of understanding where other people are coming from. It's difficult to say: "You will pick up these skills." But I think when you're working as an expat, your levels of influence are in general far less than you want them to be, and they're far less than you've always been used to. It's this skill of influencing from positions of low power that's enhanced by working on an international assignment. [And this is an important skill] not so much because HR generally has low influence, but rather because it often has to exert its influence from positions and in situations where it has little or no overt power. Also, the exposure to different cultures, different ways of working, different ways of living and different priorities in life is something that will stand you in good stead in any human resources work.

Workforce, February 1998, Vol. 77, No. 2, p. 52.

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