Helen Bradley: “A service company’s value comes exclusively from its people. HR strategy must be adjusted accordingly”

The Executive Vice President of Human Resources and Corporate Social Responsibility at Bureau Veritas talks to us about engaging millennial employees and how to handle digitalization, sustainability and diversity.

Posted Monday, March 22nd 2021
Helen Bradley: “A service company’s value comes exclusively from its people. HR strategy must be adjusted accordingly”

Leaders League: You’ve spoken elsewhere about Bureau Veritas’s need to engage with its largely millennial workforce, especially in terms of self-development. What have you done to foster what you have called a “learning culture” for the company’s employees?

Helen Bradley: At Bureau Veritas, we have invested in digital learning: we have an online learning platform that is open to all, and are mobile-responsive to ensure a seamless experience even when our people are not at their desks. We have also launched a digital social media platform where our people can post information, best practices and questions. This helps to create a connected organization rather than one that is too formal or hierarchical.

My challenge is to understand how this new generation learns and engages with content, yet understand that different generations may prefer more traditional methods such as classroom learning.

We are also looking for ways to skip hierarchy and give younger generations the opportunity to shape the future of Bureau Veritas. When creating our next Strategic Plan, we used our millennials to explore new horizons over the next 20 years. This community of 30 young talents was extremely insightful and creative when it came to the future. It was also the mirror for our top management on the next mega trends and how millennials see the world evolving over the next few decades.

In parallel, each year we set ourselves a target in terms of learning hours for our employees. Our ambition is to move to 35 hours per employee in the next five years. We plan to increase our level of investment in this field while ensuring that our various types of expertise are in line with our business strategy. For instance, we need to reinforce our technical knowledge in some new markets such as electrical charging stations and offshore wind farms.

Our activity is also becoming increasingly crucial for the functioning of the economy. As a consequence, our visibility is increasing and the topics we address are now on the top of board members’ and C-suite executives’ minds. We therefore also need to ensure our sales force is able to interact with this new audience and support our clients.

On top of this, in 2020, we invested in training our 7,000+ leaders to develop their leadership skills. All that has been done remotely.

 

What other changes have you brought and/or implemented since joining the company in 2018?

One of my first projects when I joined Bureau Veritas was to reshape our people strategy and align with our business needs. As part of this, we built our Employee Value Proposition. At Bureau Veritas, we recruit around 12,000 people per year, so our EVP was essential to our talent attraction strategy.

Another important point is that we are a very acquisitive company. We’ve completed more than 30 deals in the past five years, and we are a decentralized company present in more than 100 countries. So we need a culture that binds us together: our set of values is a strong basis to develop our common culture. We therefore refreshed and relaunched our values in 2019.

We also started a more structured way of listening to our people, thanks to our “BVocal” engagement survey which we have put in place in 2019 and are progressively rolling out for all our people.

As a Business to Business to Society Company, CSR topics are well embedded in the service we deliver to our clients: reducing risks in terms of safety, security, quality, health and environmental protection. Today, our CSR approach as a company is starting to be embedded in our internal culture; bringing it to life for our people, giving them a sense of pride and the sense that they can contribute to the society.

 

How has Bureau Veritas handled the challenges posed by the pandemic?

Our number one priority during this pandemic has been to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our people. This has guided our action throughout the past 12 months.

Next, it has been key for our people in the field to ensure the safety of our clients’ people.

Bureau Veritas is a global company. Under such circumstances, you need to “set course and get out of the way” – i.e. give clear directives and then empower our people locally to make sure things are on track. Yes, there is governance needed, but with a light touch, not a heavy hand. This is clearly the new way to lead, especially in a decentralized global company like ours.

The pandemic significantly accelerated the visibility of our crucial role in society, putting all the services we can deliver to companies and governments in the spotlight. For example: the launch of V-Trace, a solution that ensures the traceability and reliability of Covid-19 vaccine logistics chains. Internally, people are so proud that their company is involved in what is today the planet’s number one challenge. So even through the situation has been challenging for all of us, being committed to a purpose and engaged in what we do has made a real difference.

 

You are responsible for health and safety, among other things. Has the normalization of working from home made your role easier here? Or has it posed unexpected challenges?

Actually, at Bureau Veritas, only 20% of our workforce has the privilege – and the pain! – of working from home. A large majority of our employees are either working in our labs or at our clients’ sites.

Safety is our number one priority at Bureau Veritas. In Asia, as early as February 2020, we started updating our safety and hygiene protocol in our labs, and ensuring that our people in the field got equipped with the appropriate PPE.

This pandemic has created a huge mental load: you need to be careful to protect yourself and others against the virus as well as being extremely careful while working for the client, whether on a ship, on a construction site, driving your car, or manipulating hazardous products in a testing lab.

In addition to this, we took the impact of lockdowns on our teams’ mental health very seriously. We have developed relaxation and meditation modules, and we have opened an emergency helpline for psychological distress.

The last 12 months have been busy in terms of health, safety and wellbeing at Bureau Veritas.

 

You’ve worked across numerous different industry sectors. Are there any challenges of managing personnel that are particular to your business?

In a service company like Bureau Veritas, you have to understand that the company’s value creation comes exclusively from its people. You need to adjust your HR strategy and priorities accordingly.

In the end, a human being is human being. We all want to work in a company that values our commitment, in which we can contribute to a higher purpose, which is in line with our deep aspirations.

So, you have to find the secret recipe for your company, for your industry to make sure you can attract, engage and grow your people. This is about having a clear purpose and mission, fostering a unique joined-up culture and training and developing talent.

At Bureau Veritas, one ingredient of the secret recipe lies in nurturing humble and ambitious behavior: two of our four core values.

 

How, specifically, is Bureau Veritas adapting to the twin goals of digitalization and sustainability?

Regarding digitalization, we have a two-pronged approach.

Firstly, we have a tech-driven approach – how we leverage new technologies to perform our TIC [testing, inspection and certification] services better. “Better” can mean either improving our own efficiency or differentiating ourselves from the competition by providing more value to clients through remote inspections, smart sensors or blockchain, for example.

Secondly, we support our clients in their own digital transformation. Just as we are their trusted partner for their physical assets and processes, we want to be their trusted partner for their digital assets and digital processes.

At Bureau Veritas, internally, we have invested massively over the past five years to implement and deploy state-of-the-art digital tools across our network – a digital workplace, HR systems, financial systems and a CRM [customer relationship management] system, to name but a few. This has been crucial in our ability to continue to work together throughout the multiple lockdown periods.

Sustainability has a special place at Bureau Veritas. For the past 200 years we have been dedicated to quality, health, safety and environmental protection. This is what we sell to our clients. The sustainability factor is the core element in our strategic plan with two complementary approaches. Internally, we aim to become the CSR benchmark in the TIC industry. In 2020 we received several honors for our performance and commitment in the CSR field. This is the proof of our commitment to shaping a better world through a better workplace, a better environment and better business practices.

Externally, we see that there is increasing belief from investors, employees, clients and citizens that ESG indicators provide unique insights into long-term risks and opportunities that might not be captured by traditional financial indicators. In short, today a company is not only valued in terms of its financial performance but also in terms of its contribution to better world.

The lack of reliable sustainability indicators is a real challenge, which creates opportunities for independent third parties like Bureau Veritas. Our job is to help companies give credibility to their CSR approaches and provide the proof that their commitments in terms of environmental and social impacts are backed up by facts and actions. Ultimately, we help them protect their brand.

 

What is Bureau Veritas doing to encourage diversity and inclusion (D&I)?

One of my first priorities was to accelerate the work Bureau Veritas was already doing on gender equality. The proportion of female leaders has increased from 12% five years ago to 20% today; we have a target of 35% by 2025.

Our executive committee is already balanced between women and men. There are four women including myself, with an even split between operations and support functions.

We have also worked on a gender equality approach to compensation, and have launched several initiatives to encourage mentoring of women. We are also preparing the next generation of female (and male!) executive committee members. Our efforts have been recognized in the WeQual awards, in which we had two finalists and one winner.

Our D&I focus extends past gender: we also focus on disability and ensuring a blend of generations in our workforce. At Bureau Veritas, we are proud to say that we employ five generations of people. Our challenge and focus is to ensure that each generation nourishes and helps the others – for example, with reverse mentoring on digital.

D&I is included in our CSR policy and as such has been included in our reward systems. Our 150 top leaders are now incentivized to do even better here.