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This article was published 31-07-2019

Take control of your career and work happiness at A.S. Watson

A good conversation. What if that were all it took to make employees aware of how their career is developing? Sounds simple enough, but it’s something that managers and employees have to devote attention to every day. That’s what retailer A.S. Watson has decided to do.

‘Treat your employees like customers, adults and individuals.’ It may not be written on the wall, but this motto has served as a guiding principle for the HR team at international health and beauty retailer A.S. Watson in all that it does. It’s a perfect fit for our modern culture of participation in which we are taking on more and more responsibilities as consumers and members of society. Even at work.

A gentle nudge
‘Take a look at your employees. They are adults who take ownership over their work’, says Hedser Nijland. Hedser is head of HR for ICI Paris XL and Trekpleister, two of the retail giant’s five high-street brands. ‘You have to let them decide for themselves what that means, even when it comes to their development. The old model, in which the employer was a father who punishes and a mother who nurtures, is long gone. Often all it takes is a gentle nudge.

But what about the customer? Retail is all about working with people. Customer-centricity is the name of the game. ‘Putting the customer first’ also applies to HR. Except in this case, it’s employees who are the customers. Catering to their individual wishes and needs in the workplace is crucial. Employees may have many things in common, but each one is a unique individual. An individualised approach is not just a nice thought—it’s also a necessity. After all, it’s currently harder than ever to attract new employees.

Self-management and an individualised approach are the order of the day. But how can you be sure your employees will actually take responsibility for themselves? It all starts with raising awareness. This is no longer just a question of ‘taking a step back to reflect on what you want to achieve.’ Sounds simple, but it's not a skill that everyone is born with. ‘A large portion of our employees are working in the shops’, explains Hedser. ‘Some of them just fell into that job and found that they enjoy it, but they’ve never really thought about questions like, “What gives me energy? What am I doing now, and will it make me happy in the long term?” Some of them have plenty of ambition, but perhaps they’ve put some things on cruise control.’

That’s why the HR team at A.S. Watson is working on its pilot programme called ‘Taking Control’. By developing this programme, the organisation is giving its employees an opportunity to think about questions like these. ‘The programme might show you that you’ve got some work to do’, explains Hedser. ‘But it may equally show you that you’re actually quite satisfied with where you are right now.’

‘Is my job on the line?’
Nevertheless, there are some misconceptions. Terms like ‘long-term employability’ and ‘taking control over your own career’ may be met with some scepticism. For some, it’s hard to see why you would ‘work on your career’ unless your job is on the line. ‘I understand where those people are coming from, but that’s not what we’re talking about here’, says Hedser. ‘Above all, we look at it from a perspective of growth. If you want to be a good employer, it means that your employees need to take responsibility for their own development. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have to change to a new position.’

‘It all depends on how you frame things.’
Surveys have shown that employees actually want to work on their own development. Most of them have been working at A.S. Watson for a long time. Hedser says, ‘Ultimately it’s up to people to do it themselves, but of course it’s our responsibility as an employer to help them.’

Leaders as coaches
Helping employees to develop on their own is largely up to  management. For many people a good conversation can be a true eye-opener. Managers have a responsibility to create the right environment for that and show people what the possibilities are. A.S. Watson has made great strides over the past few years. Instead of leaders focusing on knowledge, the organisation is asking them to focus on conduct. Their leadership style must be flexible enough for them to cater to individual needs. A crucial part of this is having open, honest and sometimes tough conversations with their team members. Managers must learn to keep questioning, give feedforward and dare to ask challenging questions. In other words, they must act like coaches.

Step two is to rethink the feedback cycle. There’s currently a pilot programme focused on shifting from ‘assessment’ to ‘development’. Hedser says, ‘Managers must give their employees space, but at the same time give feedback more often. If something goes wrong, don’t try to take control immediately—rather than say, “You didn’t do it right, this is how to do it better”— ask questions: “What’s is it that’s keeping you from succeeding? And how can you do it differently?” That’s what we mean when we talk about development.’

Identifying target groups
Of course, some employees will always know how to find their way into development programmes, with or without a manager involved. For other groups, this isn’t so easy. But Hedser would rather not divide people into groups. ‘Sure, you could generalise about them, but then you’d be overlooking the differences between people. It doesn’t change the fact that managers need to be able to identify how one employee’s needs differ from another’s. After all, as a team, you’re all working towards the same result. However a new manager may want a development meeting every few weeks, and a more experienced manager may only want one a couple times a year.’

Framing development
There’s also such thing as ‘learner’s anxiety’. For some people, words like ‘development’ and ‘training’ have negative connotations. If you weren’t terribly fond of going to school, or had difficulties learning, you probably won’t be thrilled by the prospect of your manager starting a ‘course’. ‘I think this is something we also have to take into consideration’, says Hedser. ‘It’s also part of our survey, when we ask: “Do you find it stressful to attend a training course?” This is a good example of where we think of employees as customers. It all depends on how you frame things, and that’s something we’re aware of.’

More attractive on the job market
The ‘Taking Control’ pilot programme has just started. Time will tell what kind of an impact it will have. How will Hedser know if it is a success? ‘One of the goals of our CSR policy is to make people more attractive to the job market than they were when they started working for us. I see that as a commitment to investing in people and their opportunities. Encouraging them at the right moment to make the right choices in their career.’ A.S. Watson has already started doing just that. ‘One good example is our annual graduation ceremony in which each year 150 of our employees  earn their vocational training diploma. We would love to see that number continue to grow in the years ahead.’

A learning culture in your organisation
AS Watson co-created a brand new training with Schouten Global. It’s theme ‘Take control in your work happiness’ has been completely imbedded in the culture of a few of their brands. The training helps employees to actively work on their development and growth.

Would you like more information on such learning culture projects? 

Contact us for a consultation

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