#MeetTheLeaders: Pete Baker

August 22, 2020 | Hazel L. & Rachael L.

In the contemporary world where circumstances and business practices are ever-changing, Human Resources leader and Ergon Advisor Pete Baker shares his views on the development and future of HR, and how COVID-19 has established the new normal.

In the contemporary world where circumstances and business practices are ever-changing, Human Resources leader and Ergon Advisor Pete Baker shares his views on the development and future of HR, and how COVID-19 has established the new normal. 


Pete’s career growth journey has flourished in the span of 25 years, and he has gained valuable experience in a number of global and reputable organizations. From working in sales at P&G to being Chief HR Officer at First Abu Dhabi Bank, he is well versed in the importance of HR, and hopes to “remember what it’s like to be a non HR employee who is dependent upon good and bad service from human resources.” One of the more memorable projects Pete led was when he was the CHO for Damco, in which he “re-integrated the supply chain management part of the Damco business back into the Maersk mothership”. This further enhanced his interest towards the evolution of the supply chain industry. 


Hence, this motivates him as one of three Ergon Advisors. “The supply chain industry does have some good thought leadership, particularly in digitalisation and particularly around driving data and analytics, and so [Ergon is] perhaps maybe half a generation ahead of how organisations are working in financial services.” 

Across all of the businesses Pete has worked for, ranging from FMCG to logistics, and now to banking, he has identified more similarities than differences in the roles of HR. He argues that the fundamental principles of a good HR are the same across different companies and industries, and Pete puts great emphasis on finding the perfect balance between “high support” and “high challenge”. “Their job is to… give [the business] the support that they need to be successful, but also realising that often they can do that by being challenging, by being a courageous advocate,” Pete comments. 


However, as HR holistically manages aspects such as talent, culture, capability, and organisation design, one of the key differences is that “all of those elements look and feel different in different industries and different companies”. Nevertheless, the underlying concepts of “understanding who your customer is, having a strategy, culture and capability ecosystem” are similar across industries. The role of HR is to essentially be “the steward of bringing all that to life.” Pete says. 

The importance and role of HR has developed, not only across industries but across time. Over the years of Pete’s career journey, he has observed that “HR has moved up the value chain to focus less on the pure administrative part of the employee relationship”. He asserts that there is plenty of data and research nowadays suggesting “employees that are highly engaged will put in discretionary effort into their work”, showing how the involvement of HR can directly create an impact on the business’s success. In addition, with the development of technology and infrastructure, work is becoming more “cognitive and complex” because most processes are automated or done digitally. Thus, the work that remains in most organisations is “knowledge work”, and Pete strongly believes that managing these “knowledge workers” successfully is to understand that “bringing the best out of a human being is different to bringing the best out of a machine”.


Throughout implementing and executing this “high support and high challenge” as HR at multiple roles and levels, Pete has made a lot of tough decisions. “Partnering with the business to make that decision is always very difficult but it is essential…and it weighs on the mind of any HR person who brings a sense of humanity to their role”. Inspired by his first boss at P&G, Paul Johnson, who showed him a sense of humanity and compassion at a time when he most needed it, he ensures that every decision he makes aligns with his “values, that is consistent, that is human”. 


On the note of values, one of the core values that Pete embraces is to be strategic; he tries to “focus on doing fewer things really well rather than trying to do lots of things”. Pete believes that this approach has not only benefited him, but also can be “a good approach for organisations and functions to realise that the hardest part of the strategy is choosing”. In other words, he urges businesses to be strategic by saying no to certain ideas, so they can spend their resources and time elsewhere. “You know you’ve got a good strategy when you are saying no to good ideas, so you can spend those resources on even better ideas,” Pete says.

In the current times of the pandemic, being strategic is essential in tackling the challenges brought on by so. The first challenge Pete encountered was creating an “environment where [employees] can be effective but more importantly they can be safe”. The second challenge was the progression of the pandemic from “acute to chronic”. In the beginning of the pandemic, Pete saw the “energy and engagement levels spike” when the world was in an “acute crisis”. 


However he perceives that the main challenge in HR is to maintain the level of engagement and energy, as well as to “provide that environment where people can put in the right discretionary effort in any location”. To do so, Pete argues that merely “translating the offline way of managing by inspection”, such as tracking the employees’ log on or log off times, is ineffective. He further encourages “managers to think about different ways to measure and manage their people other than just inspecting how long they’re sitting at their desks.”


The pandemic has forced Pete to reevaluate his priorities, one of them being the identification of barriers restricting the firm and how the firm can use the pandemic as a way to “deliberately and structurally” remove those barriers. He recalls an example that occurred in his workplace. “We had many processes that often required multiple physical signatures to get decisions made, and it was one of the things our employees always tell us [is] a frustrating element, that it takes too long to get decisions that everyone is aligned [with].” This experience taught him to consider what protocols and ways of working could be changed in order to enable a beneficial transformation. 

The external environment has had a large impact on organisations, and in turn employees. Pete says in times of uncertainty business leaders should be transparent, but should not overpromise. As an example, he looks back at the start of the pandemic when organisations made waves in the press for committing to retain all staff; unfortunately those commitments were reversed as the situation escalated and employees were made redundant. “I think it’s the old maxim that the future is uncertain, but perhaps in the bull and bear markets it’s even more uncertain than we would’ve expected.”


Corporate culture is bred within the company’s environment, and Pete believes there are two strands of maintaining culture through the people. Not only should top leaders increase their communication and visibility, but line managers should also be equipped accordingly to reinforce values within their teams. “For most employees, their experience of being employed and their experience of values of the organisation, are actually through their line manager, more than through any corporate event or any member of the executive committee. It is important to be deliberate about that, making sure that line manufactures understand their obligations, making sure line managers are equipped with the tools that they need, so that they can continue to drive the culture, and drive values into the organisation.”


Pete is candid about his organisation’s struggle with retaining corporate culture and values while employees are mainly working from home. However, he is optimistic about their attempts at overcoming this hurdle. “The approach is company wide, but also individual manager-led as well. We run the same processes, the same awards, where we give people on a quarterly basis awards linked to our values, and we’ve moved it online.” He deems these initiatives important for preserving employee morale 


The current situation has presented a multitude of issues to firms all over the world, but Pete identifies a hidden opportunity. “The pandemic has enabled [firms] to accelerate some of the plans they already had, rather than completely developing new plans.” He argues that prior to the pandemic, many firms were already looking to digitalise processes for their customers and employees for “increased empowerment and flexibility”. “If they’re the right plans, stay true to them and realise it’s a chance to turbo-charge them,” Pete says.


Pete predicts HR functions in the future will revolve less around “transactional work” and instead focus on business partnering. “That creates the opportunity for people to use that time to properly partner with the business, to build talent, culture, capabilities, and to enable the organisation to be more effective.” The second element is that companies will be more data-based than now. “With the advent of big data and the advent of, frankly, more data available means we have more decision points to act on in relation to our decisions, and we’ll be able to measure the impact of our decisions much better than we would expect.” Pete looks forward to such an opportunity for HR to step up and increase its value within the organisation. 


Furthermore, HR is developing to become more efficient and effective as processes within the field are digitalised. Aside from helping an organisation make quicker decisions, the progression of HR technology allows for better decision making. “That’s why an organisation like Ergon is really impressive, because it certainly is addressing the efficiency element. There’s an element of speed and agility that’s going to help make things more efficient, but ideally it’s using the analytics, big data and insights to help effectiveness.”


With his invaluable experience within the HR industry under his belt, Pete is excited for what’s to come. “I think surrounding yourself and working with people who do good work is something that is inspiring for me, so I’m hoping to learn a lot myself as part of this process, as well as hopefully contributing and helping provide my own perspective on the challenges ahead.”