Meet the Human-Focused Leaders of 2021: Sarah Stone, chief people officer at Konica Minolta

5 minute read

Sarah Stone, chief people officer at Konica Minolta, discusses how HR can prepare itself, and the business, for future disruptions and how to become an 'And Beyond' leader 

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About Sarah Stone, chief people officer of Konica Minolta 

Sarah Stone is responsible for creating and delivering a future-focused people strategy for the UK business of Konica Minolta including talent management and delivering an agile and inclusive employee experience. Together with her executive peers, she also helps steer the UK business. She is also a member of the Cluster North Leadership team, driving a cluster wide people strategy.

Stone has led the Konica Minolta people & culture team for over six years and before that held a variety of HR leadership roles across the finance sector including seven years as HR director for the UK commercial business at RSA, HR executive for UK & Nordics at AIG and 15 years at NatWest in a variety of positions.

She is passionate about creating an environment that enables people to be their best. This means building an environment that allows people to be their authentic selves with opportunities to help them continually learn and grow.

Edited transcript

Preparing for disruptors

I think in order to be sustainable it's critical that organisations prepare for disruptors and continually evolve.

I guess, there'll always be black swan events that you can't contemplate. But I think if enough thought and preparation has taken place, you can put some building blocks in place to ensure sustainability. And I guess the recent pandemic is probably going to fall into this category.

And I'm not going to pretend that Konica Minolta foresaw the catastrophic and far-reaching impacts this has had. But we did know we needed to be an evolving organisation and that was driven by the changing needs that we looked at in the workplace. Digital transformation and the changing customer needs we foresaw.

So at Konica Minolta we started to look at being an agile organisation. So ensuring that individuals could work from anywhere. And we looked a few years ago at saying that work is something you do, it's not somewhere you go to. And we wanted to get our people to have choice over when, where and how they worked.

We also want to make sure that we could overarchingly meet our customer's needs. This was heavily supported by a technology that allowed remote working: Skype and Team calls, cloud collaboration and Office 365. We also reduced out footprint over the last six years. We'd started off with some 21 physical locations where people went every day and we've currently reduced it to seven throughout the UK. And we looked at those as a place where people would meet each other and collaborate as opposed to going every day.

It's probably true to say that this wasn't readily adopted by everybody. We still have some traditionalists who wanted to be in the office and sit in loads of traffic every day.

So, I think it's probably a great example of where no one foresaw the extent of the pandemic, despite businesses looking at scenario testing, because we'd looked out and we'd look further on and looked at some measures to put in place like agile working, laptops for all, smart digital processes, it meant that we could continue to support our customers when something occurred that we hadn't foreseen.

Three big business disruptors

We start by doing a PESTLE analysis to look at disruptors that we could foresee. So let me talk about a few of them.

So the first one we look at is digital transformation. So, you know, I think we're witnessing a series of leaps which really has the potential to drive that revolution in how we live, work and connect. And I think that those principles of digital transformation have taken hold in every sector. As a tech company, we're leading the way to support companies with their digital transformation and in effect disrupting our own traditional business as print because we're driving automation, cloud and robotic processing.

And yes, we do use robots in our business. Some of our employees were fearful of job loss as a result of it. For us it's about having people to work on stuff that adds most value. So we've put some of our robots into our finance area so that it could do the crunching behind the scenes to enable our people to really do the 'what if?' analysis.

Another disruptor I talk about is workforce because when I look at the workforce I see it differently now. I think as I look at a people and culture function managing an ecosystem that's made up of paid employees, temporary, outsourced and robots, all of which the people function should be looking at what do they need and how do they flex it to work together? So one of the big things that we need to focus on is workforce planning and it's becoming more and more critical to prepare for the future. This is particularly thinking about preparing for the evolving skill need and ensuring that people don't get left behind with outdated skills.

The next area to talk about is inclusion and diversity because this sits behind the UN Sustainability Goals. And we always start with inclusion because I think there's no point in having difference if you can't be yourself and feel included.

I always describe it a bit like an organisation filled with penguins. So go with me on this one. The organisation is filled with all people in their little black and white suits. So organisations think about that we want some difference in the organisation. So let's recruit a peacock with lots of different colours because it's important to have different thinking. However, if we don't let the peacock be themselves and show their different colours and be a different way, as soon as we bring them into the organisation before we know it we'll end up putting a little black and white suit on and they end up like the rest. So in terms of our I&D agenda, if you recruit a peacock, so if you bring in difference, you've got to let it be one.

So what we've done is through some of our talent programmes, we've built together cross-functional teams. So we've brought together people maybe from people and culture and finance and sales to work on business problems. And we've found that's really been great for two reasons. One is they start to understand that people think in different ways, but they also look at the power of the solution.

We surrounded that by some learning as well so we had different profiling to help people look at and understand themselves but also to understand different brains as well, so that you could understand that OK, when you think like that and work like that, I understand why you do that so now I can adapt my style to work with you.

So overarchingly, if I look at disruptors we have to be agile as organisations. We have to be ready for change.

Leadership skills for today

If I talk about curiosity I think that's the key ingredient in an evolving organisation and it links so neatly to innovation. But research has shown that it's only possible to have curiosity and innovation when your engagement's high. So the starting point has to be a great employee experience: making sure that people have got a clear purpose, making sure people can be themselves and add value, that they've got the tech so that they can do a good job, and that they're recognised for what they do.

And once you've got all of that in place, you've got to make the environment safe to try and suggest stuff. So a trusted environment. And let your people be heard because nobody wants to feel silly because as soon as they do the close back down again. So it's about creating that climate and then creating channels for suggestions.

It's important to fail fast, continually evaluating whether things are working and not being afraid to admit and change course.

It's no longer OK for people to say I'm not good with tech and I think we've hidden behind that a bit in people functions as well. We've left that to the technicians. And linked to that we've got to be good at looking at data. We've got to make data-driven decisions as leaders. We've got to think a bit more like finance, use those data-driven decisions rather than just relying on gut.

Humbleness, honesty, empathy, respect - those qualities I talked about earlier. Self-awareness is an important one as well. You've got to know you, understand you, and accept you because I think it's only by liking yourself that you can help and support others.

A big one for me is agility including reevaluating how things are done. Just because you put something into the organisation, it doesn't still mean it's the right thing. You got to get out of that pet project mentality.

Influence both in and out of an organisation. Communication is also a big skill. It always has been, but it's becoming more and more important. And I think as we've seen in this remote working the clarity and regularity of communication is important to help everybody.

And finally, we've got to listen and learn from all. It's through encouraging, listening, and working with difference that I really think leaders are going to get the best solutions and be ready for the future.

Practical tips for a sustainable business

Three practical tips for a sustainable future: well I think probably the first one, and it's probably flowed as you will have seen through the whole of this interview is building an agile organisation.

The world will keep evolving and as organisations we need to as well and individuals. It doesn't matter what industry you're in, it doesn't matter what job you do. The organisation has to be agile. We only need to look at examples in the past of organisations that are no longer with us to see that maybe they haven't been agile enough and they haven't looked to the future. So agility flowing through everything you do and the way you think.

The second one I'll talk about is understanding your customer. So a little bit linked to agility. The time you stop being relevant to your customer is the time that you have no business. So you've got to keep talking to your customer, understanding what they want and adapting your business to support that.

And the third one, and probably the most important one to me, is take care of your people. Put them first, they are your most critical assets. Mental health is going to be one of the biggest issues for organisations and societies, not least because of the pandemic that we're still going through. Organisations have got to take care of their people. And, and as the phrase goes, if you really take care of your people, they're going to take care of your organisation and your customers.

Published 5 May 2021
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