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Last spring at HRM Night, Kristian Vandenhoudt’s HR colleagues awarded him with the title ‘HR Manager of the Year’. According to Kristian, who is Vice President Human Resources of the ‘Compressor Technique Service Division’ at Atlas Copco, this award is mainly a recognition of his employer’s policy. He dedicates his award to HR people who go the extra mile to achieve a higher level of HR. We spoke with Kristian about his vision on HRM and about how Human Resource Management can contribute to better business results.

The career of a HR Manager

Kristian Vandenhoudt’s career followed a rather quirky course, but his current position confirms that this is not a weakness. He finished law school and began his career as a lawyer, then worked for the legal department at Total, where, he was given the opportunity to transfer to the business side. Kristian: “Here I began to better understand customers and learned how to speak their language. At the suggestion of two of my superiors, I signed up for the Master Class HRM at Antwerp Management School to be able to make the transition to the function of HR manager.”

“At the suggestion of two of my superiors, I signed up for the Master Class HRM at Antwerp Management School to be able to make the transition to the function of HR manager.”

Kristian’s greatest insight in terms of HR is in the importance of business culture. “In many organizations, the “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” idea is underestimated. Culture obviously does not stand on its own, the strategies you decide on must fit that idea as well. Atlas Copco is a Swedish company that focuses strongly on sustainability, equality, consensus and transparency. Hence, this has a huge impact on how we handle stakeholders, relations, change management, long-term objectives, strategic partnerships, et cetera. We always choose sustainable partnerships with our suppliers.”

HR as a change agent

Over the past few decades, HR has continuously evolved. “In the sixties, the focus was on productivity; in the seventies it was quality; in the eighties flexibility was added to that; in the nineties, the focus was on innovation. At the turn of the century, sustainability was the new focal point and since 2010, workability is also on the agenda. “Workability has now become crucial, which is why HR has the opportunity to bring huge added value to the company. The same goes for transformation, by the way. Indeed, as a change agent, HR plays a crucial role in facilitating those rapid changes.”

"HR now has the opportunity to bring huge added value to the company, especially as a change agent transformation processes.”

Atlas Copco likes to implement this change bottom-up and asks employees what would make them happier as an individual in their job. “Executives often fear that unrealistic wishes might arise, but most of the time it only concerns very small changes that help people in their job.” Digital transformation has an especially big impact on organizations. “I do not believe that many jobs will disappear, but jobs will completely change in the coming years, which presents a huge challenge for organizations to support their employees in this change. By creating awareness and indicating that this process is inevitable and that employees have a shared responsibility in lifelong learning, this transformation becomes an opportunity rather than a threat.”

De marketing skills of HR

According to Kristian, HR departments still focus too much on processes. “If you look at the evolution in marketing and how their focus shifted from product marketing to solution marketing, HR still has a long way to go. We need to focus more on HR as a service. It needs to proactively come up with insights to help our internal customers with sustainable profitability. This type of insight HR is the ultimate opportunity to become even more business critical.”

"We need to focus more on HR as a service. It needs to proactively come up with insights to help our internal customers with sustainable profitability.

That added value consists, for example, in attracting the right talents via employer branding.  “Businesses need to keep changing the ways they look at talent. I am myself responsible for our global HR processes and I see a very strong parallel between, on the one hand, marketing and sales and, on the other hand, employer branding and recruitment.” Kristian believes that instead of choosing mass communication, you need to find a unique position on the labor market with a clever local strategy. “We use specific communication channels to translate the exact messages from our Employee Value Proposition to very specific target groups.”

There’s always a better way

Despite their high work pressure, Belgian employees don’t have it all that bad. “I often realize how good it is here, in terms of social safety nets and the quality of higher education, for example. We’re not always front-runners, but some of our businesses really are global players and Belgium still delivers a lot of CEOs for foreign companies.”

"My personal ambition lies in better understanding the business in terms of marketing and sales. What happens there, can be copied by HR.”

Belgians get plenty of space to develop themselves, but, at the same time, they have a strong work ethic. According to Kristian, complacency is a serious danger. “You have to remain critical. We have the right people, education and businesses but need to stay ambitious to keep pushing the boundaries.” Kristian himself consciously engages in this as well: “Atlas Copco is seen as a leader in the product market as well as in HR, but we cannot take that for granted. My personal ambition lies in better understanding the business in terms of marketing and sales. What happens there, can be copied by HR.”

"I want to advise people in less traditional sectors to choose HR and to consider lifelong learning. HRM is becoming increasingly more important: it is the job of the future.”

Kristian gets his inspiration and information for these best practices from travel, networking, monitoring international developments and following social media. “Very pleasant things are happening for HR. Therefore, I want to advise people in less traditional sectors to choose HR and to consider lifelong learning. Furthermore, I want to stress that HRM is becoming increasingly more important: it is the job of the future.”

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