HR, red flags and why ‘eating strategy for breakfast’ doesn’t go far enough

Responsible for a global workforce in excess of 16,000, strewn across 190 different countries, Sabine Hansen Peck is Amadeus’ people & culture chief officer who also finds time to head up the travel tech firm’s global communications department as well as serve on the Amadeus Executive committee.

In short, Hansen-Peck is a big cheese who — with 20 years of management experience across many different industries, including technology, financial services, private equity, aviation and travel — has acquired an extraordinary wealth of knowledge and a unique vantage point of how our working lives have changed since the rise of the internet and the inevitable replacement of the boomer generation by those incorrigible youngsters the Millennials — sorry GenX-ers, there just wasn’t enough of us…

Sabine Hansen Peck

TD: So, Sabine, you have been taking part in a whistle-stop tour of Singapore, Manila and Bangkok, that’s a busy itinerary, what have you been doing here in Asia?

Sabine Hansen Peck (SHP): Ostensibly to visit one of our main offices, and to check out a new one in Manila. Singapore is a key outpost for us and is also where Amadeus’ global head of online businesses is based. Running the whole online world is, obviously, a very important position, and as she’s based in SG I hadn’t yet had a chance to get to know her properly. It’s great to meet with all the talent, especially here in Asia. If I look at the talent of the future, it’s here.

TD: Why do you say that?

SHP: Here we have a highly millennial population and we also have very digitally savvy employees, they’re on mobile, they’re online all the time and they are innovation-driven. They are also very open, in search of a meaningful purpose [in their careers} and when I speak to Millennials they want to make a difference.

Don’t get me wrong, I know this is true of the rest of the world, but here you have Millenials in such concentration — I think 57% of our employees are millennials. 30% of hires are under 25 years old. So you’ve got a massive input from this age group in Asia. And that’s really fascinating and stimulating for us.

Integration diligence

Amadeus; Manila

TD: You’ve also been in Manila to integrate two offices, Amadeus and Navitaire, into one place. What challenges have you encountered, in getting these two different organisations to work together efficiently?

SHP: Well, we bought Navitaire a few years back. And so overall, in terms of integration, we are doing fine. We have already seen, during the due diligence phase, whether there’s a cultural fit. And if there had been an issue at that point, we probably would have not bought the company

We have done due diligence [in the past] And then said, no, the culture is so different from the Amadeus culture that integration will not work.

TD: Hold on, let me get this straight — Amadeus is getting into the nitty-gritty of a buyout, it’s all going smoothly and then you come in to take a look at the companies culture and if you think something doesn’t mesh, you say “hold on this isn’t going to work”, and you stop the purchase?

SHP: Absolutely. The finance guys, look at the financials; the product guys look at what products are developed and the commercial guys do their thing and I look at the leadership team.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast, well I would add, for lunch and dinner too!”

I do site visits but even just through GlassDoor or social media, you can get a good feel for the culture of an organisation, and if the culture doesn’t fit, we will not do it.

There have been a couple of instances recently where we stopped in the pre-acquisition phase and said no, it doesn’t make sense. I think this is super important because the cultures can be so different. And further down the line, you might destroy a lot of value. Remember Peter Drucker [influential management consultant and author]? He was the guy who said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, well I would add, for lunch and dinner too!

SHP: As a company, we are very much thinking longterm. Part of which means, we are careful — but, when we do make an investment then we are fully committed. Also, we have 150 different nationalities working for us. So we have many, many different people from different walks of life. Something, incidentally, I find to be an enriching and positive environment to work in.

So if I walk into a potential acquisition target and I see it’s very short term. It’s only thinking on the numbers, with people being terrible with each other. Or maybe it’s just a monoculture — I think these all are red flags for us.

TD: Is this something where you’re actually physically in place and you’re absorbing what the feel is?

SHP: Yes you can definitely see it, some easily observable places to see the culture is in the reception cafeteria and washroom areas.

TD: You have a varied and well-storied career, how has HR developed as an industry in the last 10 years?

SHP: Hmm. I think it is, it has evolved quite a bit. I mean, in some areas, it is still personnel or payroll. But, mostly I think it has evolved to be about the actual human resource. After all, I think in the end, what makes a company successful is the people in the culture.

Today, you can copy everything in a split second, but what you can’t copy is people culture. I’m pretty sure you have a favourite coffee shop. And do you go there because of the coffee?

TD: Primarily coffee but I want it all Sabine, I want good coffee, interesting design and great staff with a friendly vibe.

SHP: Exactly. It’s the culture. There’s a product, another coffee shop could probably buy that same coffee, but it’s the people in the store which make us feel special. That’s what I believe is the key ingredient for companies also.

Special projects

TD: I hear that sustainability and the environment is rightly an issue that is important to you, how have you introduced this passion into Amadeus?

SHP: It started with the belief that a goal of plastic-free oceans can only be started with a plastic-free office, and that became a grassroots movement. Right?

So we had four different campaigns one month, the first focusing on how to be plastic-free — It was open to all our employees and over 6000 participated. The second was ‘Zero waste, then we had ‘Resource Wise’ and then ‘Green on Vacation.’

It was not just at work either, it also transported to our private lives, we had guys posting photos heading to the farmers market their kids with reusable cotton bags. We have run these campaigns over the last four months. Now, in September and October, we have given every employee one day off to volunteer. For example here in APAC, a lot of them concentrated on cleaning up beaches, cleaning up neighbourhoods.

TD: Do you have some people do this or people just like do you have to offer prizes or rewards?

SHP: No none all. Nor pressure from senior management. They’re [the staff] bringing so many ideas; it’s just amazing what is possible. We reduced plastic by a third in just the first couple of weeks.

TD: What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

SHP: Being able to make a difference in people’s lives, by creating a positive work atmosphere where people can grow and develop overall, I think that’s my job as a leader.

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