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Putting people first

Published on Friday, 02 Aug 2013
Arlene Stokes, head of people for AEM at Standard Life, says the company sees every new hire as a potential future leader.
Photo: Gary Mak

Standard Life’s new HK hub is keen to hire and develop 40 new staff

Standard Life is establishing a regional hub in Hong Kong and is currently recruiting for over 40 vacancies in nearly every function, including IT, marketing, business development and risk.

Arlene Stokes, head of people for Asia and emerging markets (AEM) at Standard Life, says all vacant positions are critical, but the most urgent requirements are in the IT and change areas.

“Our focus at the moment is really around building a ‘people team’ to support the growth of the business, particularly around infrastructure and technology in the immediate short term,” says Stokes, who moved from the UK to Hong Kong this April to take part in the restructuring. “We’re also focusing on resourcing, because we have a large number of vacancies to fill.”

The local awareness of Standard Life’s employer brand may, at present, be lower than the companies with which it is competing for talent, but it is a challenge the Edinburgh-based firm can overcome, Stokes believes.

“When people learn more about us, their perception definitely changes. We are 188 years ‘young’ and there’s a lot of heritage with that,” she says.

One trait the firm looks for in candidates is the ability to challenge in a positive manner. “At Standard Life Group, we do not just accept something because we are told. We are willing to challenge whoever it is if we have an idea, suggestion or alternative viewpoint. It’s a fundamental part of our leadership framework. We call it courageous leadership and it’s saying what has to be said and putting out your opinions,” Stokes says.

The group also focuses on a candidate’s commercial qualities. “Our strategy is very clear. We increase our revenue, we maximise our assets, we lower our costs and we increase profits. What can we do in our day-to-day job to keep contributing to that?” Stokes says.

The company has set up a dedicated resourcing site – www.thewayforward.hk – to help raise brand awareness and attract applications. Current employees from different international backgrounds are profiled on the site, with information on what brought them to the company, what keeps them there, what’s being done for their development, and their advice for job-hunters.

The responsibilities of the people team are to encourage every employee to have an individual development plan and a clear career objective. This enables the company to understand their aspirations and know the best way to support them.

Such support may mean different things to different people. It could be in the form of an executive business school programme, mentorship by a senior leader, a training programme, a new role, or an overseas assignment. All staff have access to an online e-learning platform with a comprehensive range of courses and programmes.

Under Standard Life’s talent-management framework, high-potential employees undergo different sorts of targeted development. Anyone who takes part in one of the framework’s two programmes – which have won awards for the company in the UK – has the potential to become a future director.

“It’s a great investment. We have people from Hong Kong and Dubai who are part of these programmes. We see every hiring as an opportunity to potentially hire our future leader,” Stokes says.

The new regional structure has also opened up opportunities for existing employees. When Christine So joined Standard Life as a people officer three years ago, the company only had about 70 employees. It now has over 140. So proudly claims that she knows everyone and everyone knows her. “I get a sense of a big family with all the employees here,” she says.

So’s developing role also requires her to support HR functions in Singapore and Dubai. “We still have a lot to agree on to make sure there is alignment for all the people processes, but I really think this is a good and very challenging opportunity for my personal and career development,” she says.

So studied hotel and tourism management and loves the atmosphere in the hotel industry, but she believes she has found her true calling in HR at Standard Life. Being part of a small HR team gives her the opportunity to be immersed in all HR functions and have greater involvement with senior executives.

One thing So really likes about the culture at Standard Life is that she has never had to bite her tongue. “The company really encourages staff to give their opinions in many ways,” she says. “If employees don’t feel comfortable talking in front of other people, they can still express themselves by e-mail, through the suggestion box or by telling their line manager. We also have quarterly staff meetings, a monthly internal bulletin board and other different channels to share our ideas,” So says.

Stokes agrees that attitudes at the company are very open. “We have a small team-based culture where you can go to the CEO’s office if you have a comment you want to make to him. He’s very open to that. It’s a unique offer and that’s what we hope to get across to candidates. You come to join a small business, but you’re part of a very established and secure global organisation.”

Though she didn’t come through the two-year rotational graduate programme, So’s hands-on experience is deemed to have adequately prepared her for her new role. Since Standard Life is a large international organisation – it is an FTSE 100 company with over 8,500 employees across the globe – So is also confident of being able to leverage the resources of the whole group to learn as much as she can.

“Christine understands everything about what the people function does,” Stokes says. “Her understanding of our processes, data and how we do things are really useful to have quality conversations about performance, talent and reward.”

So may even visit Edinburgh one day. “That would be real sign of success,” Stokes says. “We have a number of people who have spent time in Edinburgh for meetings. Our group people director, Sandy Begbie, is very keen to see international movement within the people function. It’s one of those functions where you can do that quite easily.”

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