Business oriented HR strengthens organisations, employees and management

Binne Visser

Robert Walters’ Executive Leadership Series brings you inspirational stories from fellow executive leaders. In this edition, Binne Visser, CHRO at Vion, talks about his personal experiences.

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After a long career in HR, Binne Visser joined Vion, a major international food producer, providing meat products and plant-based alternatives, as CHRO in 2018. His passion for change management and the development of organisations meant he could contribute to the transformation and repositioning of the company in a changing society.

  • What was your motivation when joining Vion three years ago?

“Vion is an organisation that plays a key role in our food chain. We buy livestock from farmers and process them with great care into various products for our customers. 

In talks with the CEO, the complexity of this position in the food chain became clear to me, as well as Vion’s desire to further develop towards a sustainable organisation within a changing society. To contribute to this organisation-wide transformation process, from more traditional ‘volume-thinking’ to ‘added value-thinking’, is what motivates me and why I joined the company.”

  • Before joining Vion, you had previously worked for several companies within the agricultural sector. What are some of the sector specific challenges you are faced with in this area?

“Facilitating change in companies in the agricultural sector, where ‘new’ and ‘conservative’ thinking go hand in hand, is challenging, but at the same time extremely rewarding. My experience in this sector is that stakeholders sometimes need a bit more time to acknowledge the need for change, but when they do, they are fully committed, passionate and stick to their promises.”

  • You have worked for many different organisations and previously also had your own company for over a decade. In your opinion, what do managers or executives need to do to gain trust when joining a new organisation?

“Trust isn’t a box you can simply tick. Trust is something you build over time by being authentic, consistent and transparent. By being open about what you are doing, why and how you are doing it and how you wish to co-operate with colleagues and stakeholders. 

The moment you remain consistent over a longer period of time, you’ll build trust as people will realise that ‘what they see is what they get’. On the other hand, if you change course often, people will find it hard to trust you or your ideas.”

  • If you are forced to change course, because of a pandemic or another type of crisis for example, how can you still retain the trust you have built?

“No vision or strategy is set in stone. It is always subject to for example crises, political, economic or societal developments, or simply becomes outdated. 

At Vion, we created a new long term strategy in 2019 which has since been influenced by several developments, including Covid as well as societal, climate, economic and political developments. If such developments force you to change course, withdraw or accelerate, the key is to be transparent about why this is being done and to actively engage people in the process. If you are open about progressing insights and the thought process behind it, it is my experience that you can still remain consistent and trustworthy.”

  • A trend often talked about within HR is that HR needs to act as a strategic partner to the CEO. Is this also your view?

“I have never seen HR as a self-contained part of the business. For me, HR has always been an integral part of the business to support and strengthen organisations, employees and management. 

That manifests itself first of all in an operational manner, where HR for example assists with people-oriented processes and procedures. But it also requires HR to add value on a more strategic level. Vion, for example, has around 25 production locations in the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium, sales support offices in many countries worldwide and over 12 thousand employees. In such a large organisation it is important to oversee the consequences of strategic ambitions for the international workforce, for the culture, for leadership and for change management. 

Matters such as organisational development, change management, people management, diversity management and talent management run like a thread through all of Vion’s business activities and all members of the Executive Committee fill in a piece of the puzzle and complement each other in different fields. The positioning of the HR teams in all layers of the organisation and the daily personal role they play in the execution of our strategy are paramount for the success of HR as a strategic partner and the accomplishment of our company goals.”

  • The labour market is currently very tight in many countries. As head of the HR department, how do you make sure your organisation can attract and retain talent.  

“The keyword is: attention. 

The new generation of professionals wants to be heard. They have different views on work and doing business and they want to feel valued. We have colleagues for whom it is completely normal that they have been with Vion for over 20 years. The new generation might also be with us fur such a long time, but we need to recognize their needs and employee journey expectations. HR needs to facilitate them and their management in this individual journey.

Concretely, we structurally invest in a Vion-wide trainee programme, in coaching, career growth opportunities and extensive training and educational opportunities via our Vion L&D Academy. But we also facilitate an internal Young Vion Club; a peer community to meet colleagues from different departments and countries in a more informal setting. This kind of attention results in a high score on internal mobility. We are proud that around 90 percent of professionals from our trainee programme stay to fill key positions within our company.

As Vion, we are in a continuous transformation process due to societal, economic, political and climate challenges. This attracts a lot of young professionals, because it is an opportunity for them to have a career in an important sector which isn’t per se considered sexy, but in which they can create a real impact.”

  • Many professionals these days also value their employer having a well-established diversity and inclusion policy in place. At Vion, what are some of the steps you have taken to create a diverse working space where people feel at home?

“We are becoming more and more inclusive, but there is still progress to be made. Gender diversity in senior management could be a bit more balanced, especially because we clearly recognize the added value of diverse teams in terms of different ways of problem-solving and cooperation. 

Throughout the company as a whole, diversity is less of an issue. We have colleagues from over 50 nationalities working for us. The complexity at Vion lies more in inclusiveness, as we work with many colleagues from Eastern Europe. One concrete step we took to boost inclusivity is continuously taking more (former) flex workers on our own payroll, to really become part of the Vion family. 

In addition to instrumental steps, we are also invested to better listen to the opinions and wishes of our workforce by conducting employee satisfaction surveys. One outcome of this was the introduction of so called field coaches in every plant, who speak the language of our colleagues and assist with very practical matters such as local procedures and guidelines. Their feedback helps HR to offer more inclusive support in the daily operations. The field coaches are really a linking pin between our international colleagues, HR and local management to gain better insights in what drives them and how we can improve. 

Furthermore, we’re starting cultural initiatives in order to create more mutual understanding between our eastern European colleagues and local colleagues. Last but not least we are also actively involved in country-wide initiatives in the field of integration and housing, all in order to get closer together, listen and talk to one another and value each other. Because every colleague working for Vion is equally important.” 

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