A Q&A with Mariana Merino, Corporate HR & Kaizen at Abdul Latif Jameel

People are today, and have always been, at the very heart of Abdul Latif Jameel’s strategic vision.  But in an increasingly fierce, and uncertain global market, competition for the best talent is intense and candidates are looking for much more than merely an attractive salary.  Abdul Latif Jameel boasts more than 11,000 employees – or Associates – as we call them, of some 65 nationalities across 35 countries.

Engaging and empowering our Associates to enable them to thrive, grow, perform at their best and realize their potential, is essential for long-term success.

We spoke to Mariana Merino, Head of the Centre of Expertise in the Corporate HR & Kaizen, about the business’s talent-centric ethos and the changing nature of HR in a global market.

Can you tell us about your career before joining Abdul Latif Jameel in 2021?

I’ve always worked in Human Resource (HR) management.  I started off working for an American multinational in Madrid, Spain, where I’m from, and around 10 years ago I moved to the UAE to work for a multinational construction company.

I was there for four years, then I moved to a Dubai-based conglomerate for three years, before joining Abdul Latif Jameel just over two years ago as Head of the Center of Expertise in the Corporate HR and Kaizen department.

What attracted you to the opportunity with Abdul Latif Jameel?

I knew very little about the business, to be honest, other than the name.  I was aware it was a multi-nationally active, diversified, family business originally from Saudi Arabia, but that was all.  When this role came up and I did some more research, however, I was very impressed with the vision and mission for the business.  Specifically, I was attracted by the opportunity to make a difference by shaping the development and operation of HR across Abdul Latif Jameel.

My role has a very wide remit that touches every aspect of the business, and that was very interesting for me.  There is a clear focus on people and a strong aspiration to be a people-centric organization that lives by our core brand values of Respect, Improve, Pioneer and Empower, but as with most businesses on this scale, there is sometimes a gap between aspiration and reality.  My challenges is to design best-in-class and fit-for-purpose policies, processes and programs to help bridge that gap.

How does the Center of Expertise fit into this picture?

The main responsibility of the HR Center of Expertise is to bring some standardization and harmony across all of the business units in the Abdul Latif Jameel network, when it comes to HR best practice.

The Center of Expertise is a team within the Corporate HR & Kaizen function.  It consists of different areas that fall within the scope of HR, such as workforce planning, talent acquisition, talent management, talent development, total rewards, digital HR, and HR in mergers or acquisition, (here we support our M&A colleagues in due diligence and post-integration processes).

Across everything we do, our objectives are to create a unified, consistent HR experience for the whole business.  So, no matter if you’re working for Abdul Latif Jameel Motors Saudi Arabia or China, for Almar Water in Spain, or Abdul Latif Jameel Finance, the experience is consistent from an HR perspective, while at the same time reflecting local cultural nuances, and of course regulatory compliance requirements.

You’ve been in the business for over two years.  What were the biggest challenges during that time?

There have been many challenges in this two-year journey so far.  One of the first was the communication of our vision.  We wanted to ensure everybody in the business knew what our objectives were and to seek some sort of agreement on what we’re doing and why.  This has to be the starting point of our journey.  Another big one was the infrastructure, putting in place the ecosystem, the technology, the practical systems we need to enable us to achieve our ambitions.

Part of your role has been to develop and implement the business’s HR strategy.  How far into that strategy are you?

The starting point for the strategy was to look at the history and heritage of Abdul Latif Jameel.  We are a business with almost eight decades of achievement behind us, and we needed to understand how we had developed over those years, including lessons learned, best practices, success stories.  We also needed to engage with our shareholders and understand their aspirations, the vision, the strategic goal of Abdul Latif Jameel as an organization.

Allied to this, we sought feedback from our Associates, using a variety of channels and tools, including our annual ‘Cultivate’ surveys.  These give us invaluable insights into how we are performing, what can be improved, gaps that need filling.  We also looked at what is happening in the global HR sphere more widely, to see what we can learn and draw inspiration from.  Having considered all these different inputs when developing our HR strategy, our first step was to put the foundations in place to deliver it.  We estimate this stage will take two-to-three years to complete.  Throughout this time, we are reviewing the strategy every year – changing, learning, adapting – as part of our ethos of continuous improvement (or Kaizen).

A big part of our vision is about nurturing a consistent culture right across the business; one that all our people buy into and live by – because ‘culture’ is not owned by a department or a team, but by the people themselves.  This is one of the most important strategic goals for Corporate HR & Kaizen, to instill this common culture across Abdul Latif Jameel network of businesses.

The wider Corporate Human Resources & Kaizen and business unit HR teams at a recent off-site conference in Istanbul, Türkiye. Photo Credit © Abdul Latif Jameel.

You are part of the Corporate HR & Kaizen department – so where does Kaizen fit into this picture?

Kaizen – or continuous improvement – is embedded in everything we do.  We believe it is a capability that every Associate needs, in order to be successful in their role.  If you apply a Kaizen approach, you will thrive in your job, because you will be able to assess any situation, identify the ‘problem’ or gap, design the action you need to address the problem, and then apply it to your situation, and in doing so, learn and grow through this empowerment.

This is embedded in absolutely everything we do, from our values to our competencies – which we call ‘learning through reflection’ – and it is embedded in all areas of our daily work.

We believe in a ‘bottom-up’ approach, where the people who are actually doing the job are the ones best placed to improve it.

It’s not about big new inventions or reinventing the wheel, but making small and big practical improvements, positive and incremental changes that, when combined, will make a much bigger difference.

There are significant demographic trends transforming the labor market.  What are some of the recruitment challenges facing global businesses like Adul Latif Jameel?

One of the biggest challenges we face is the challenge of attracting and retaining talent, which is a problem for virtually every organization around the world.  Our labor market is no longer local, it is global, and therefore competition for the best candidates is also global.  This particularly affects certain industries or skills, for example, technology or engineering positions, or leadership roles.  It is very challenging to find suitable talent for these kinds of positions.

The global pandemic was a further complicating factor.  People’s expectations of their working environment have changed.  We had to upgrade our technology to facilitate remote working, for example, and ensure compliance with local regulations on things like talent mobility.

Cultural diversity is another issue we need to continue making progress on, ensuring Abdul Latif Jameel’s business reflects the diverse communities it operates in – we have some 65 nationalities working together.

How have the expectations of candidates changed during the years you’ve worked in HR?

Today’s candidates are at the center of the recruitment process.  Applicants are usually much more informed about the company, and since they are more informed, they are also more demanding.  How do you convince the best candidates to choose your business and not a competitor?  Your value proposition as an employer becomes of paramount importance.  That’s where you can explain your vision, engage candidates with your mission and show what makes you different as an employer.  Because the demands and expectations of candidates are higher, we need to come up with different strategies to attract the best talent, especially younger people, Generation Z and Millennials.  They are much more interested in things like career growth, flexible working, or social responsibility, and the ethics and purpose of the business, than used to be the case.

These issues can make a big difference in their decision-making.

Another big change has been in the use of data in recruitment.  The process is much more data-driven today.  We have technology, artificial intelligence tools, automation that help us source and filter candidates much more quickly and efficiently.

Does Abdul Latif Jameel have a strong message around things like social responsibility, diversity and equality?

Yes, I believe we do; at least, that is our aspiration.  The way we communicate it to candidates is to explain our HR philosophy of ‘mutual trust, respect and responsibility’ (between the Associate (employee) and the business itself), which, in turn, aligns with our values of Respect, Improve, Pioneer and Empower.

Giving back to society is a key priority for our shareholders and this sense of shared responsibility is very much embedded in our culture.  In addition, the Jameel family also has a number of non-for-profit activities and philanthropies including Community Jameel, Community Jameel Saudi, Art Jameel and Bab Rizq Jameel.  It is a strong message that we share during our recruitment process.  Candidates are often excited when they understand our shareholders’ commitment to making a positive contribution to society . . .  or as we say, working towards a more beautiful tomorrow.

Do you find that today’s candidates have the skills you’re looking for as an employer?

It depends on the position, but for young recruits in particular, we have to be aware they may not have the skills required to do every aspect of the job from the very beginning.  That’s why we invest in training and development programs to equip our associates with the skills to perform at the level required.  From an opportunity perspective, we recognize that attracting young talent gives us access to a larger talent pool of candidates who tend to be more adaptable and more tech savvy – skills that are a great advantage to a business-like Abdul Latif Jameel as we navigate our own digital transformation.

How important is it for you to attract and retain a diverse workforce?

Building the diversity of our workforce is a key strategic goal.  We are currently developing a female leadership development program, for example, to help female associates transition into leadership roles, including tools like coaching and mentoring.  As well as helping to strengthen gender representation across the business, this fits with our culture of supporting and developing others.

We are also starting to track and monitor the effectiveness of our programs to measure the outcomes and assess the return on investment.  It is still too early to draw any strong conclusions, but we are already seeing some successes and lessons to learn.

For instance, we are continually requesting feedback from different stakeholders to measure the effectiveness of our Management Trainee Program and gauge whether it is achieving our objectives.  In the case of management trainees, we want to accelerate their career growth via a two-year program of continual training, development, coaching and mentoring.  So we are putting in place certain KPIs to verify if this objective is being achieved.

How fast do they progress in their careers with us after completing the program?  Are they promoted within two years, for example?  Understanding the effectiveness of these programs enables us to continue revising and improving them in line with our goals.

The Jameel Management Training Program was recently awarded a Gold Stevie® award for Innovative Achievement in Human Resources, which I was privileged to collect on behalf of the cross functional team that contributed to this.

Looking ahead, what are the biggest challenges and opportunities you see for Abdul Latif Jameel in future?

Once we have completed the first phase of our HR strategy – to communicate the vision and put the necessary frameworks in place to deliver a consistent culture and experience – we will start focusing on the next phase.  This is about developing more mature programs, discussions, and initiatives to enable HR to become a real strategic business advisory function that can make a valued contribution to long-term strategy, and which enables our associates to thrive and achieve their potential, in line with our values as a business.  If we achieve that, we will have done a good job.