- Managing Me
- Big Ideas
- Managing People
GM Holden sits right in the firing line of the federal government’s agony over the declining manufacturing sector. The Gillard government’s manufacturing taskforce released its report yesterday with 41 recommendations for salvaging the sector. Many manufacturing companies are green with envy over the subsidies given to car makers such as GM. Last year, the Australian arm of General Motors reported a profit of $89.7 million – the same amount it received in government subsidies.
In this highly unionised and highly political industry, being GM’s executive director of human resources is not an easy task. For Mark Polglaze, it’s one of the best jobs in the field.
Unlike many HR directors, Polglaze is right at the heart of the GM Holden’s 13-member senior leadership. He’s at the table for every leadership meeting, commenting as much on the company's planned production schedules as on its latest workplace of choice initiative. When chairman and managing director, Mike Devereux, is out of town, Polglaze sometimes steps into the general management role.
What drives Polglaze? “What drives my passion for HR it is looking across the business,” he says. “That is one of the advantages of HR that I see and enjoy: you are not in a functional silo of the business. I get to look across every function, and work across the entire business.”
That puts Polglaze is at the forefront of a trend for the HR function to be intimately tied to business results. “What I have always been interested in – and what the field is getting more interested in – is getting closer business links,” he says.
“Everything we do is about looking for a business result, so you are not doing HR for the sake of HR. That doesn’t mean we don’t talk about employee engagement or being a workplace of choice, but we talk about that in the context that these things drive an outcome for the business.
“It is not an altruistic approach. We all have our roles as employee advocates, but at the same time issues like workplace of choice and employee engagement is about getting a better business outcomes … productivity and discretionary effort. It is about being able to link what you do to the business effort.
“And if you can’t do that, you should not be doing it.”
Polglaze insists on this priority for everyone in his 50-member team. “One of the things we talk about internally is that we are businesspeople first and HR people second.”
That means being on the front line. “I think about the HR director who works in Adelaide, and supports the manufacturing operation. He goes to the morning meeting every day, which is a production ‘download’. He is not there to talk about people issues; he is there to understand what happened in production the day before, the issues and what we should do about them. He is expected to comment on and have an opinion about what is being discussed.”
As a global subsidiary of General Motors, reporting lines can get complicated for GM Holden’s senior leaders. Polglaze reports directly to the local MD, but also has a “dotted line” to the vice-president of HR in GM’s international operation in Shanghai.
Polglaze says GM Holden has always had an inclusive attitude for HR executives, including HR in senior leadership team. In many companies, support roles are given less authority.
Polglaze says that HR professionals need to take responsibility for getting a seat at the table. “If you aren’t doing the business role you aren’t going to get that type of opportunity,” he says.
A big part of Polglaze’s job is maintaining the executive team. “Not only are you a member of the team, but I see one of my roles as maintaining that team and its functioning. So I am partnering with the managing director on what that looks like.
“At the moment, we are working on strategic workforce planning for the changes the business needs to go through for the next three to five years. We have a development day coming up for the senior leadership team that will includes personal development around what is our role as a senior leadership team will be. We have new members on the team, so what does that look like; how do we make sure everyone understands what their role is.
“We have done 360-degree feedback for members of that team and we work on principle that if we think that things are important for the organisation, we do it ourselves. Once we have done some development for our senior leaders we will do it for our executives as well. I spend a reasonable amount of time thinking about that.”
Polglaze trained initially in behavioural science and applied psychology. He was 10 years into his career before he decided HR was his chosen field, and completed a graduate diploma in HR.
It wasn’t easy to get into HR with a psychology degree. “I started my career in workers’ compensation – I worked for an insurer. Then I worked for myself for a little while and for a Big Six accounting firm. After that I made the decision that HR was where I wanted to be and found a job that bridged those two things – so I said if I fix your workers’ compensation problems, will you let me do HR?”
Polglaze joined GM 12 years ago and has been head of HR for the past three-and-a-half years.
The future of HR
Polglaze believes leading companies are going to review HR structures and outsource the general administrative side of HR – the payroll, contract, training and development. “I think we are going to see another push about how you get those highly-paid jobs out of an organisation, and get it done somewhere else.”
Polglaze says he also expects global companies to get better at shared services. “The push for globalisation is going to increase, not decrease. I don’t think many subsidiaries do a great job, including us historically, of leveraging their scale. We develop things here that are getting developed in China, in Germany and in the US all at the same time.”
And he expects the profession as a whole to catch up with GM Holden’s approach of ensuring HR people make a business contribution and not just take an employee advocate role.
A path to leadership
HR is not usually a path to the top role, but Polglaze says it should be, as long as the HR executive is involved in business. He would not rule out a go at the top job.
“I would like to do that at some point; I am certainly not closed to the idea. In our organisation, there are a couple of pathways … global HR positions, but something I would be open to is a GM position. As I said, one of the things I enjoy is that I see across the business, but if you are the head of sales and marketing you don’t really have much concern about what is going on in manufacturing.
“So I think we do come from a place that is underestimated in terms of the value it adds to general management. I don’t know if it is the quality of the people in the function or the attitude to the function as being soft, but I think it is under-represented in general manager roles.”