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Interview – A change partner transforming HR at ING

For this fifth interview of a transformation leader, I met with Karin Parmentier. Do not be fooled by her French-sounding surname she is a straight talking, to the point, Dutch woman who developed her HR transformation expertise with Deloitte, and now with her own company and partners, she is transforming HR roles and practices in large organisations such as ING.

Starting as a tax consultant, a keen learner, appreciated by her peers and bosses, Karin for the first part of her career was going with the flow of opportunities, becoming a manager and leading her first HR and finance transformation: from a decentralized organisation to a centralized one. 

“I just let things happen to me, with eagerness to learn. From a small accounting firm to Deloitte, evolving into management and ending up in HR.”

Deloitte was where she learned a lot and developed herself in various roles involving change. And with the different transformations she was involved with, she acquired a lot of experience in dealing with stakeholders and conflicting priorities. 

“I was there, with my feet in the mud, facing both my team, which I built, and with whom I became close, and we’re reshaping their jobs, their career and outlook. And on the other hand, I have my clients, internal clients, the business, which of course you need to take on the same journey if you are on a transformation. And then we have another stakeholder, finance, the CEO, the board, they have different targets in mind, that’s not all included in the Ulrich model [more about this later].”

She is passionate about transforming HR and leading them from an administrative, transactional and localised focus into a more upscale HR as a service provider at all levels. She did a lot of things, from setting up a shared service center, outsourcing activities, to becoming a trusted advisor to the COO and CFO on different levels. She also stepped into the world of diversity, and then inclusion.

After doing her MBA, she started to steer her own career, took a big leap and started her own business, leaving the safety of her Group HRD role at Deloitte. 

“I work with partners in networked organisation on the diversity part, and I advise companies on transformation, specifically HR transformation, that’s my role at ING, it’s a big transformation project.”

Indeed, the current transformation which she is working on at ING is a huge complex waved programme to transform the HR function by 2020. 

What struck me during my discussion with Karin was her head-on attitude, her  approach to transformation adoption at scale as well as her capacity to challenge the power-holders. This article is my take on Karin’s experience and perspective.

Disclaimer: the opinions and perspectives shared in this article are my own and that of the interviewee, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the interviewee’s previous employers or clients.

Facing transformation challenges head on

Discussing with Karin about her vision of transformation and what she enjoyed the most, she straight away answered that she loved challenges. She finds them motivating, stimulating and she finds pleasure in solving problems and overcoming difficulties with her team. Throughout the interview I could sense that she had a realistic and yet positive view of transformation, welcoming the obstacles as opportunities for discussion. It was so refreshing to meet someone who could hold comfortably the paradox of having a positive outlook to drive change whilst welcoming the setbacks, learning from them and pushing through.

“I enjoy the most when it seems like we are stuck, together with my team, I love working in teams, we  find a solution, to get us out of there.”

She shared several examples of challenging HR transformations in which with her team they had to find clever ways to ensure that whatever the new HR process was, it had to support the innovation strategy. One of which was the use of data analytics and a sourcing center to find the right candidate in the recruitment process, as one of the focus areas of the transformation. 

“Being able to support innovation by providing the right HR organisation. That’s what I love.” 

For another client (a small accounting firm), she helped them achieve a major change in just four months. Do not underestimate the difficulty of change even in smaller organisations. They knew with her team that it wasn’t going to be easy, but again, challenge seems to be her drive. 

“… that’s when I get home happy, with a big smile “yes we did it”, and celebrate with the team and go out for lunch and have a glass of wine.”

Now, it is not just about successfully solving a problem or overcoming resistance. Going through the obstacle is the painful yet necessary part. But Karin is not afraid of resistance, she even welcomes confrontation as part of the transformative journey. 

“I was in a local office and a GM said to me: ‘well, I can promise you one thing, we’re not going to do it’.” 

That doesn’t seem to unsettle Karin. Her first thought is “OK that’s interesting” and then she wonders what is behind the one-liner comment. This is very common at the beginning of any transformation, when leadership communication starts to announce the vision, when the way ahead is not clear enough yet, when some parts of the company “get it” and are already moving whilst others feel threatened. What Karin does and I believe it is key here, is starting conversations, not shying away from the heated discussions. 

“In a large scale programme, like [the one I’m currently working on at ] ING, it is highly complex, innovative and global. With 32 countries and a change that requires changes at all levels, from a business perspective and an HR one. That’s also the challenge that I love.”

Engaging the dialogue is actually critical at that stage to ensure that the blocages become visible and can hence be addressed. The alternative may be less painful in the short term (ignoring the complainers) but there is a hefty price to pay later on when implementation will start. As Karin puts it, this resistance is normal, it is one phase of the transformation process, after that you can focus on the “how do we do that?”

Now for some transformations, some difficult decisions have to be implemented. The kind of decisions that will trigger emotional responses, that will not make the message bearer popular. But Karin believes in a “no BS” approach, she prefers to communicate with transparency, even if it means facing tensed people.

“For HR sometimes it is a tough message, I’m also about open communication, being transparent, of what a change will bring. For instance, for HR, transforming into a new operating model with new roles and responsibilities, it is about elevating people but also letting people go. But for both you need a message. I believe in creating enhancing capabilities, no matter what the transformation is, talk about diversity, create first awareness then train people.”

I really appreciated Karin’s view which reminded me that she is Dutch, a straight talker, well intentioned, “cutting to the chase” kinda girl. So when the going gets tough, she doesn’t become a crazy scary dragon, she keeps this “leave no one behind” attitude and ensures everyone finds some positive outcome out of the transformation. She shared an example of HR transformation at Deloitte:

“I’m proud of the HR organisation at Deloitte, which is one of the most innnovative in the Netherlands. We can measure the impact of their transformation by the way they are perceived and asked to be guest speaker, to explain the model. That’s an achievement. With also a financial achievement, a cost reduction of 50% in 5 years. That’s a huge financial benefit. I’m proud that we were able to achieve a cost reduction and innovating HR practises the same time.”

If not everyone can be on board the transformation, be it for lack of skills, change in the strategic core competencies, cost reduction, streamlining operations, it is the role of the organisation to ensure that they stay employable.

“Even though we couldn’t fit them in the new organisation,  they were so well skilled that other organisations loved to have them, and take the benefits of their learnings.” 

Most of the challenges any transformation leader will face will be about people, resistance, fear, and scale. So I asked Karin about her “method” and she replied it is more an approach than a method.

Facilitating adoption

Karin’s approach is mainly focused on how she can facilitate the adoption of the transformation at scale. Since she is a good listener, she is able to consider several perspectives and creatively finds solutions to address stakeholders’concerns. Indeed, the feedback she got when she did a 360° analysis whilst doing her MBA was “she listens, with Karin it is not about her way or the highway”.

“I have an approach in mind but I adapt it to the local situation, it’s not a magical recipe, I take bits and pieces from everywhere, what I read, professors and take my experience into consideration at Deloitte on what works and what doesn’t, and “one-size-fits-all” doesn’t work.”

Adoption comes from how she uses her strategic empathy and capacity to consider all stakeholders, from her efforts to create a critical mass, using change ambassadors, and from starting with a minority of people who believe in the change and letting it grow to a critical mass. 

“I’m not a fan about the idea that change will come from a small project team, change should be owned by the ones who are in that business, or in that line of service or that organisation.”

In her approach, Karin uses some tools and frameworks such as the Ulrich model of HR transformation which has proved useful to her in helping HR move from an operational admin support service to a more strategic role in the business. Which reminds me of the article I wrote a while ago: “HR is powerless!” At last I see people working on enabling the full potential of HR, and getting them out of that pure admin box.

“Changing HR roles, it is about changing how you deliver your services, to whom, and your changing capabilities.”

Looking at the model Karin is using, I can see the link with what we do at Innovation Copilots. Indeed, it starts with a great question: “what is the Added Value of HR?”. In the many companies we work with, HR is not often very well considered, and the people in HR themselves are not aware of the value they could create for the business, so they stick with what they know and what the rest of the business thinks they should do. A bit like thinking a phone is just to make calls. We know better now because we all have smartphones but think back before 2007. So HR needs not only new skills (I’m addressing this to all business schools) but also new mindsets so they can take their rightful, meaningful and value-creating place in the business.  

“ For another client, … we are implementing that new service delivery model but also with a new system. Training is key, it’s part of the change. Helping people to navigate the system, to deal with a new kind of service delivery model… It will not fly if I just say ‘from now on you are a business partner’ (HRBP)”.

Karin has understood that to make a change stick, especially for new roles in the organisations, which require new understanding of value creation and new ways of interacting with the rest of the business, people need to be supported in their transition. 

“[Because they might think] ‘what does [HRBP] mean? What do I need to do? How will my job change from today to tomorrow? And I’m sorry I don’t know how to do that’.”

It is obvious that supporting change is about supporting people, not just because we want to appear nice, but because they will in turn support the collective transformation.The “do or die” approach might appear attractive to some, because it might indeed give some “quick wins”. However, the slower long term deep transformation of the business, and the enhancement of the organisation’s capability to transform is a far better and more sustainable ROI. As Karin says:

“I care for people, that’s why I’m in the people business. No one likes a failure, so we shouldn’t set them up to fail, we should set them up for success.” 

And to ensure things do happen on a larger time-scale, Karin makes the steps very tangible and is present during the implementation, ensuring the stakeholders are on-board, that they are aware of the gains and benefits, that they are convinced it will work. 

“HR transformation as an example, why do you want to transform HR? The HRD can share the vision, but the people around him need to execute on it.” 

Karin has a very hands-on approach and with local stakeholders works on the gap analysis which might differ from one country to another. With the various sub-cultures, Karin navigates the differences with an open mind whilst subtly nudging towards a more unified engagement.

“Transforming HR in a large organization such as ING is a journey. Having the business leaders on board and committed to the change is critical for success. They should sponsor the change. The creation of a companywide People Services organization, which takes care of all servicing to employees, has the aim to build a differentiating employee experience and serves a cost-efficiency aim.” 

“In my conversations with business leaders I listen to their expectations and try to map them to the future state. Comparing the introduction of employee and manager self service with the introduction of ATM’s and online banking.”

The subtle nudging and listening approach is key but very often requires an additional ingredient: “creating a sense of urgency”. We see that too, whether we work on the cultural or the business transformation with Philippe. Without an incentive to move, people are not motivated to change their habits, to get out of their comfort zone, to make an effort to learn something, to work in a different way or challenge their own beliefs about their customers… 

As much as I would like these cultural or business shifts to happen because we are attracted by improving ourselves, experience has shown me that we (human beings) respond better to fear. What I mean is that the energy that fear generates seems far greater for movement than the pleasure and joy seeking energy. So a sense of urgency through the realization that things need to change, without going to far as freezing people out of terror, can give a good boost of energy into the transformation. This is why Philippe’s kind of “slap in the face” approach (not literally) is very efficient, because a) it is based on observation of reality ; b) it is done with organisation’s interest at heart ; and c) it also stems from his best approximation of the future.

Karin, in a similar way, creates a sense of urgency by projecting the dream vision but also the nightmare one.

“…[I ask the leaders:] ‘So if you don’t succeed, what will happen then?’ And that’s the reality check. ‘If [the dream vision] doesn’t happen, what is the consequence?’ I strongly believe you need that sense of urgency. Because if you don’t have that sense of urgency and you cannot explain it [the vision], people will not move.” 

This daring, realistic and yet kind mindset of hers seems to allow her to input energy into the transformations she’s involved with but also to challenge and create a sense of urgency not only for employees but also for decision-makers, senior executives and board members. 

Challenging the board

Indeed, her challenging attitude is not limited to middle management, she’s gutsy enough to challenge up to the board level, by often asking the “why” questions and giving decision-makers a reality check. 

“The world is changing rapidly, more than we could ever imagine, so you cannot just stand still, you have to go with the change. I think it is interesting that some leaders think that the world will not change, [that they can] stand still, I am amazed.”

As she says, she is not a strategist herself, but her experience and skills give her a strong business perspective. What I find interesting is that whilst she works with visionaries, she doesn’t get carried away by the dream, or the power, she can bring it back down to earth and question the feasibility of it all. 

She shared with me that when she works on an HR transformation, leaders can be a bit fuzzy on what they really want to achieve, especially when talking about diversity. So she asks (and probably repeats):

“What do you want to achieve? What is your goal? Can you phrase your intention to me, in one or two sentences?”

And like me, she is very demanding with her clients. She will not do what I call the “puppet show”.  If for a transformation, the top-execs, the board, the decisons-makers, resource and power holders are not on-board, or are not sponsors of the change, she is willing to say “no”. And as she mentions this is especially true for diversity and inclusion subjects. Indeed, one of the challenges she is sometimes faced with is as she says “lip service”:

“[Leaders] saying it is a priority for a greater good, but not standing behind it… not willing to make tough decisions.”

I confirmed with her that this kind of behaviour was happening even though she was hired to make the transformation happen. Talk of leadership incoherence ;o) So she further explained that:

“For diversity assignments, I’ve found on numerous occasions that for the sake of good PR, [they] start a diversity initiative, but they don’t really believe in it. They are not ready to invest in it, ready to make tough decisions. They are not willing to step up, because that’s what it takes, in every change small or large, it requires people to step up, it requires leaders almost behaving like a hero, even it’s not going to make you popular.”

Karin really puts the finger on where it hurts in organisations. We often talk about resistance, at lower levels, about employees not understanding the change, but it is also important for leaders to look at themselves and own the change they want to see. And owning it means being responsible, giving the means to achieve it, and being an example of that transformation. It is not about being popular.

“I can promise you that it will not make you popular at all levels, because that’s change and with change comes resistance. But when you do get that right person, a change maverick (I stole this word) that person who has that reputation, who has that commitment and is willing to drive, and willing to get others on board, no matter what, then it’s going to fly, and I’ve seen that and I’ve been working with them.”

Coherence is the key

To conclude I asked Karin for some final thoughts or words of wisdom and the first thing that came to her mind was not about tools, methods, or skills, it was about belief.

“Believe in the change”

She further explained that for her there needs to be a true connection between her head, her heart and her hands. This strong coherence between her understanding, her feeling and her actions is what she shares with her team and what she inspires in stakeholders so that she can truly help the transformation happen. 

This type of coherence, between values, vision and behaviours, is definitely what is critical in a cultural transformation. I’m glad to have met with Karin and discovered her rich experience of HR transformation. I look forward to learning more and maybe share some of my transformation tricks in further discussions. 

Published by

Stéphanie Mitrano

Insightful and open-minded, Stéphanie accompanies organisations in their cultural transformation to support innovation and business agility. She is one the few European expert both implementing and doing research on mentoring programmes.