How DSM Develops the Female Leadership Pipeline

14/06/2017
HQ Asia spoke with Jan Anne Schelling, Vice President for HR, Asia Pacific about how DSM is developing female leaders, barriers that women need to overcome to get to global roles and how DSM supports the advancement of female leaders.

What is DSM doing to develop its female leadership pipeline?

At DSM, everyone has equal opportunities and we do not treat our female employees differently from the male employees. We do not have a distinction where we provide women with different programmes. Instead, we focus on balancing the groups so that both genders can be included in the programmes to hone their development journey. This also helps to build an inclusive environment from the start which will play a big role in shaping leaders’ vision in the future.

Starting from middle management level, we offer an induction management leadership programme where, in the first phase of their career, they will learn how to lead their team and set targets to achieve the company’s strategic intent. Moving to the director level, it becomes much more about cross-cultural, strategy-building activities. We cover team composition at a deeper level, particularly how they can work with and mobilise the team. We also have coaching on leadership skills.

Senior executives at DSM are now very much interested in women empowerment, as well as inclusion and diversity. For instance, we are running an executive leadership programme and our CEO makes himself available to have a lengthy dialogue with everyone. Having the face of the company involved in these discussions in playing a crucial role in steering the conversation around female senior leadership.

Across all of our programmes, we use active learning and participants need to work on a real business issue. We typically have four to six participants who work on their development programme on top of their jobs. In every group, there are at least two to three women so that it is balanced. Our participants have shared that having diversity in the team, in terms of gender and nationalities, makes the team more effective. Many participants go back to their normal work with the knowledge to fight for diversity in their own ways.

How has this changed from the strategy five to 10 years ago?

There’s a much stronger focus on training and development, especially tackling unconscious biases and better understanding of inclusion as the key to diversity in the workplace. All executives at DSM are trained and expected to further cascade down in the organisation. We’ve also adjusted the focus during recruitment processes: the interview panel should contain women to avoid biases, and the short list of candidates should include women talents to avoid a “like for like” selection. We now have clear accountability to change too – this includes a quarterly review of talent progression and monitoring clearly set targets. We’re also looking into having senior leadership role models, especially as our female colleagues have taken on top management roles, such as CFO and CMO.

 What  does DSM do to ensure that females are promoted and recognised fairly/as frequently as men are recognised?

We need to focus on two leading indicators to achieve this.

Firstly, if we look for new colleagues in our work environment, we must have a balanced amount of resumes from both males and females. At DSM, we have made it a point to ensure that in any recruitment process, the interview panel needs to be balanced, so we start to avoid bias that we may have from the very beginning. The second leading indicator is whether we are creating an inclusive environment which allows both men and women to strive and follow their passion. We measure that by the inclusion index, which examines how ready the environment is for inclusiveness.

For me, an important question we need to ask ourselves is – Should a women always have to prove a business case so that she can become a leader? If men do not have to prove that they are a good leader, why do females need to?

 How does DSM attract and retain talent?

We encourage our employees to participate in our development programmes, where we’re helping them to boost their “health” in the corporate space by doing something new and different to move them out of their comfort zones. This strengthens their talents, and speed of development and learning, and consequently, enables them to sharpen their leadership skills to make them better communicators within their teams and to immediate superiors. 

While we’ve set this up as a development programme, they also get opportunities to learn on-the-job, i.e. through “real life scenarios”. From an HR perspective, we continuously survey to keep abreast with changing demands in the workplace and find out what can be improved about these development programs. Our employees are free to voice their ideas and suggestions for the programme, and that also gives them a keener sense of ownership about participating in them.

What barriers currently exist for women to gain access to global roles? Do Asian women face additional barriers?

There is a clear challenge in balancing leadership with family life. Women have traditionally and predominantly taken a much bigger share in caring for children than men. The low levels of representation of women in top positions in boardrooms across Asia has been blamed in part on ingrained corporate norms (e.g. ethnic background / gender bias), as well as practices of extremely long working hours and childcare burdens that still fall on mothers.

At DSM, we encourage more open dialogue to get the discussions going on topics concerning women, such as how they should manage their finances when it comes to family planning, how they can progress in their career as well as managing their family life. Men are also invited and encouraged to participate – only then can the conversation be balanced.

What is DSM doing to support the advancement of Asian female leaders?

Many of our top management positions are held by females. We recognise that women in our company hesitate to take on complicated roles. For example, men will look at the requirements of a job position, and they will apply as long as they know at least 60%. But for women, should they be unsure about even one requirement, they would push back on going for the job.

What we need therefore are sponsorships and active role modelling from top managers to encourage women. We need to grow talents step by step. At DSM, we have started to do reverse mentoring, where a senior member gets to be mentored by a junior colleague. It is mind boggling how much the senior level can learn from a junior member. This provides them with the necessary coaching to become mentors themselves one day.

In a nutshell, the key focus area is dealing with the existing unconscious bias and growing an inclusive culture. We can talk a lot about creativity and innovation, but if we cannot mobilise every thinking mind in the organisation, it would ultimately be difficult to create such a culture. At the same time, people must also actively seek to remain included and not side-lined when they are working to develop themselves into leaders. My focus area is in driving this change.

What recent contribution to nutritional science has been made by women?

Mah Yi Ting, Food Technologist, DSM

  • Helped develop Hearty Mee (Instant Air Dried Noodles) containing different dosages of Oat beta-glucan. The most recent development done was on a prototype containing 3g Oat Beta-glucan per serving of noodles (80g). It will soon be tested clinically for Glycemic Index response.
  • Works on developing recipes to include DSM ingredients (nutraceuticals, micronutrients etc.) to create nutritious food with added health benefits, in an attempt to address health concerns (such as sugar/calorie reduction) while not having to compromise on taste. She also provide technical advice/support to customers on how to apply DSM ingredients, overcome challenges in different applications; and increasing their speed to market by working closely with them from product conceptualization to development and launch.

 

DSM is a Dutch science company.

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