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HR: sometimes it helps to fly under the radar

4th, April 2016
0 Comment
by Tom Haak
in  Blog

Global Shapers

The Arcadis Global Shapers program was one of the best projects I have been involved in my career. Chantal Drenthen (Fresh Forces), Sylke Raymakers (Arcadis) and I have written a book about this iconic project (Building Powerful Networks, the Arcadis Global Shapers story).

The Arcadis Global Shapers Program

A very brief summary: in a few years Arcadis has built a global network of more than 1,000 young high potentials (Millennials) around the world. The starting question was: not what should senior management teach the young employees, but what can we learn from the new generations and how can they help to strengthen the organization. The global network can now be used for internal recruitment, for knowledge sharing, to staff challenging assignments, for business development and to give the organization an authentic face on the labor market. Each year 100 Global Shapers, as the group is called, work on concrete strategic assignments. For example: how do we improve the recruitment of young talent in Asia? Or can you design a toolkit for virtual teams? The Global Shapers represent the young professionals within Arcadis. First, they work virtually together, and then they meet somewhere in the world together to work hard and with great pleasure on new generation ideas.

Very cool, but impossible in our organization…..

If we present the program to HR and talent professionals, the reactions are often twofold. On the one hand: what a cool project, nice that you have been able to develop an innovative program with such a big impact. On the other hand: such a thing will never be possible in our organization. This is too large, too broad and far too threatening. The question then is: how were you able to be successful?

Of course, it is always easy to explain in hindsight. The program might as well have been killed in the first year. The most critical stage in the development of an innovative talent program is the first year. Fortunately, the first edition of Global Shapers in 2012 was a great success. After only one year Global Shapers had become a brand name for “young international staff with big ambitions who want to dedicate themselves 120% and get things done quickly.” How did we manage to start the program in 2012? What were factors that were important to a successful launch? Money is of course important. The largest shareholder of Arcadis is the Lovinklaan Foundation, which sponsored the program. Here I want to highlight two other factors: high implementation speed and flying under the radar smartly.

How to kill innovative projects

You often see that much time is spent on a comprehensive plan, which is discussed with many stakeholders. First, a note (“Elements of talent management new style …”), then a project outline, and then a detailed script. This approach is a proven way to kill innovative projects. Everyone has something to say about it, and the regression to the mean does its job. The program becomes smaller, more traditional and less risky. Or does not fly at all.

Have guts and fly under the radar

The alternative is more difficult and takes more guts of HR. Understand what is important to the organization. Have good insight into new trends. Formulate a vision where it is difficult to not to endorse (“A global network in which the new generations are connected to each other and are connected to the organization, a network that can be deployed faster and helps to better serve our customers”). From vision to a rough sketch and then work in an agile way to get started quickly. Fly cleverly under the radar, by not having to report on plans and progress. Occasionally show something beautiful, focus on the impact and give important stakeholders a role in the program. By working with a small team that aims high, dares to take risks and works hard, something great can be realized, which is then embraced by almost everyone.

In short, sometimes it helps to fly under the radar. Not to engage in political activity, but in order to increase the impact of HR.

Checklist Managing an Innovative project


Building Powerful Networks

The book: Building Powerful Networks, the Arcadis Global Shapers Story

A Dutch version of this article was published on the website of the CHRO Community NL. 

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About the Author: Tom Haak


Tom Haak is the founder and director of The HR Trend Institute. Prior to founding the HR Trend Institute in 2014, Tom held senior HR positions in companies as Arcadis, Aon, KPMG and Philips. The HR Trend Institute detects, follows and encourages smart and creative use of trends in the field of people and organizations, and also in adjacent areas.