An interview with Susan Henderson, GE Europe- Structuring for success: how GE's employment team advises across Europe

Author: Laura Vosper, Head of In-house Portfolio, LexisNexis

In this interview, Susan Henderson of GE Europe shares how she has re-configured the way her pan-European team delivers employment advice, in less than 12 months.  She also offers some advice for other in-house lawyers considering tackling similar initiatives.

So Susan, please tell us about your role at GE.

I joined GE in 2009, after time with Lovells and then with Legal & General.  At the time I joined the business, our Labour and Employment teams sat within country business units.  At the start of this year, we decided to create one Centre of Excellence for Labour and Employment to serve the whole of Europe.  This means I now lead a team of eight and we collectively work with around 600 HR colleagues to look after employment matters covering 94,000 GE employees across Europe.

That must be a huge task; how did you approach organising your team?

I feel strongly that on any project of this scale, you need to have a very clear vision for what you are seeking to achieve."

At the start of this project, I spent a lot of time with my team mapping out what work we were doing, how much time it was taking and building a picture of what we thought we should be doing.  I summarised this work into an operating model for our team that set out our structure, objectives, scope and a clear governance model that set out in detail what work we should be involved in and what work HR should handle themselves.

How did you work out what you should do and what should be with HR?

We worked through every area of work we were involved in and broke it down into the main constituent parts.  For each of these, we then considered the level of risk to the business and decided whether that was something we needed to be involved in or whether this was something HR could handle alone.

We then termed these categories “above the line”, areas we needed to be involved in, and “below the line”, areas HR should be able to deal with themselves.

The “below the line” items we then split into two categories: those that HR had the right skillset to handle already; and those where extra training, processes or templates were required, and which therefore had to temporarily sit “above the line”. 

So once you’d designed this framework, how did you get buy-in from your HR colleagues?

In a word, chatting!  I spent about three weeks on calls to around 45 of our senior HR leaders and influential people in the HR community in Europe, explaining my vision and showing them how they would benefit.

For me, the cornerstone of this project is empowering our HR colleagues to take action when they can, while still providing extra support when they need it. I showed how the new way of working would grow HR’s skills and capabilities and give them the autonomy to manage those matters which really didn’t need legal input.

Once I had their support, it then took about six months to cascade the new model to the entire HR team, using their management structure and team meetings.

As well as rolling out the new model, what else did you have to do to make this work?

A huge part of empowering HR is making knowledge available to them, so we also used our internal IT resources to build an online centre which contains templates and information for each of our key jurisdictions, arranged by type of work.

This means that HR can self-serve for guidance on a topic like “grievances”, and find checklists, standard letters and other materials to take them through all the necessary steps. My team maintains this content, by writing or reviewing a topic each, every fortnight. We also included a directory of key contacts, so that everyone in HR knows who everyone in the team is, who does what, and how to get in touch.

As a team it was also important to be consistent with the new approach.  When someone in HR had the skills and tools to do a job themselves, it was important for us to direct them accordingly, rather than stepping into help.

It can be hard to break the habit of helping on everything, but you have to remember it’s your job to get the best result for the business from the resources you have."

Finally, it was important to me that my team felt empowered by the changes we were making, so I made sure that I understood what their individual aspirations for the project were and found ways we could make sure these were fulfilled.

What benefits have you seen so far from the new Centre of Excellence approach?

We have been able to free up a considerable amount of time that can now be used to create value in different ways.

We are able to spend more time on further up-skilling HR, through training and through designing new processes and templates, which in turn frees up more legal time.  Within the legal team, we’re able to spend this extra time focusing on more complex and challenging work and have reduced the volume of routine or monotonous tasks, which is improving engagement and satisfaction for our lawyers.

We’re also able to spend much more time on managing external counsel.  Every matter that uses external firm support now comes through the legal team, so we are able to design better instructions and also, in some cases, to avoid work going outside. This is helping us to manage our external spend more effectively.  The new model has also helped us get more value from our law firms.  For example, in the UK, we have piloted using some of our preferred partners to design and deliver training for HR colleagues.

Finally, we have increased the trust and engagement between legal and HR, which means that we’re better able to manage risks in this area and protect our business.

What advice would you give to fellow in-house lawyers tackling a similar project?

I have three main pieces of advice.

The first is engage, engage, engage – you cannot over-communicate!  Once you have a plan of action, come up with a couple of sentences that sum up your vision and then talk to key stakeholders and build their buy-in.  You also need to listen to feedback and make adjustments where you can and where you think they are necessary.

Secondly, once you have a clear idea of what you need to do, take the leap.  While it’s tempting to polish and perfect a project, you run the risk that people will become tired of hearing about it, rather than seeing action.

Accept that not everything will be perfect and jump in, you can evolve and refine as you go and you’ll learn more that way."

Finally, do not take feedback or pushback personally.  Not everyone reacts to change the same way and you can’t please everybody.  Show you’re listening to feedback that’s useful and accept that not all feedback will be constructive or positive.  You may need to be resilient in the short-term but the longer-term benefits are worth it.

What’s next?

We already have a list of areas that we think HR can tackle, with some extra training and guidance, so we’ll tackle those next.  I’d also like to be able to develop our online resources, with FAQs and more legal knowledge-sharing, both internally and with our firm partners.

I’m at peace with the fact that this project will never be finished – there will always be new ways we can evolve and improve!

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