Podcast: 'Focus on ambitions' - written version

22 June 2023
Lesley Arens Founder #ZigZagHR Connect on Linkedin
Key Messages
  • How to map and measure ambition
  • Dealing with changing ambitions (inside and outside your organization)
  • Ambition in HR
  • Key tips for HR professionals

In this ZigZagHR podcast, TriHD and Ethias HR discuss growth and personal ambition in organizations. Listen to the podcast or read the written version here below:

Growth, it's a matter of wanting, daring, being allowed, and being able to grow. An organization grows when its people grow alongside it. In a series of three podcasts, #ZigZagHR talks with TriHD about sustainable growth. 

In this episode, Lesley Arens sits down with Jana Wittemans, Care Lead at TriHD, and Syl Arnols, Head of HR at Ethias, to explore the significance of personal ambition, its evolution, and how it can be integrated into an organization's culture and work processes. 

They also let HR professionals take a look in the mirror: how ambitious are HR professionals themselves?

1. In Latin, 'ambitio' originally meant striving for favor, honor, fame, or to make a career. However, that negative connotation has evolved over time, and it may not be how you view ambition at TriHD. Jana, could you share your interpretation of ambition and how it is manifested in your HR processes?

Jana: True, the perspective on ambition has evolved over time, and the definition has changed for many. While in the past, ambitions were often tied to climbing the corporate ladder, today's responses vary widely. Ambition is now viewed as dynamic, reflecting individual aspirations for self-actualization and growth. Some seek autonomy by being their own boss, while others value continuous learning and work-life balance. The workplace now embraces these diverse visions of ambition, and its evolution remains uncertain over time.

We, at TriHD, define ambitions as pursuing personal growth, and it’s in our DNA to guide every employee to reach their personal ambitions. That in itself is an ambitious claim, and to ensure this, we integrated this objective into our company culture and processes long ago. Our specially designed tool guides employees through the process of identifying their ambitions, communicating them to the company, reaching alignment between personal ambition and company objectives, and creating an action plan.

Clearly, it all starts with having a clear view of where your ambitions lie. Therefore, we included a wide set of self-reflection exercises for the employees to go through. They delve into their values, desires, sources of motivation, and areas of learning and growth. The tool allows them to seek targeted feedback from colleagues and external parties, obtaining comprehensive 360 feedback.

We value ambitions not only in terms of job titles but also at the competency level. To facilitate objective discussions, we developed the BSK model (Behavior, Skills & Knowledge framework) with over 360 competencies. At least bi-annually, employees and management engage in open dialogue based on this information, leading to a joint plan of action. 

Our focus is on aligning ambitions with practical steps, which may include taking on new roles, but, more often, it’s about recognizing growth in the current positions. We consider tasks, responsibilities, necessary training, and support through mentoring or coaching, ensuring that individual aspirations remain at the forefront of our approach.

2. Syl, you have a very enthusiastic CEO who has focused on sustainable careers for over 20 years. How does your HR department support employees in achieving their ambitions, and how do you ensure that this ambition aligns with Ethias' ambition?

Syl: At Ethias, we are committed to providing our employees with sustainable career opportunities, fostering an environment where everyone can contribute their best towards our business objectives. 

In recent years, we have dedicated significant efforts to develop our HR policy and refine our mission, vision, and strategy. Rather than being a mere support service, we aim to be a comprehensive partner in driving success. Our HR initiatives revolve around four major pillars: employer branding, fostering a collaborative work environment (together @home and @the office), enhancing competencies through re- and upskilling, and promoting sustainable career growth.

We ensure clarity by actively communicating these focuses to our workforce, and we track our progress using self-imposed Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). Our strategy is firmly anchored in the business strategy. We prioritize listening to both the needs of the business and our employees, striking a delicate balance between the two. We call this our Business2People and People2Business approach.

We value ambitions not only in terms of job titles but also at the competency level. To facilitate objective discussions, we developed the BSK model with over 360 competencies.

Jana Wittemans, Care Lead at TriHD

3. Ambitions are dynamic and subject to change. Both in employees and in the company. How do you react if an employee's ambition changes (drastically)? And can you anticipate this in some way?

Jana: In my mentoring experience, I've noticed that ambitions often evolve throughout one's career. Various factors, such as life events, can prompt these changes, both positively (like family expansion) and negatively (like illness). For instance, some individuals initially aspiring to managerial roles find greater satisfaction in other positions.

We anticipate that ambitions will evolve, and to address this, we foster an open and supportive environment where there are no taboos. We keep bringing the topic to the table and continuously invite our employees into dialogues on the status of their career objectives. Yes, we conduct annual exercises involving the entire workforce, but more importantly, we integrate these conversations into daily interactions. Our performance management, for example, also includes objectives related to the learning process, ensuring continuous growth and adaptability. By embracing these practices, we encourage employees to freely express their evolving aspirations.

Syl: At our organization, we firmly believe in encouraging our colleagues to take control of their own career paths. While we are here to support and assist them, it is essential for them to work towards their goals proactively. To foster this approach, we have implemented an internal mobility policy and conduct regular career interviews with our employees. The aim is to empower them to take the initiative and not solely rely on us to provide opportunities.

A good illustration of this is evident in the way we handled the situation during the pandemic. When our kitchen operations were affected by the lockdown, we presented our cooks with the option to explore other roles within the organization, enabling them to adapt and continue their professional growth. By carefully listening to them, we discovered that these people had the right skills and intrinsic motivation to care for customers. This resulted in many of them joining our customer care department.

4. Ambition is closely tied to reskilling and upskilling, especially in the financial sector. However, as Frederik Anseel pointed out in his recent blog, “we are wildly unprepared” for the impact of automation on many individuals. Although we acknowledge the importance of lifelong learning, the responsibility is often placed on 'the boss' rather than the individuals themselves. What is your perspective on this issue?

Syl: We strive to offer not just a job but a career. To stand still is to go backward. Embracing progress is essential for any entrepreneur, and we encourage forward-looking perspectives. When we hire new employees, we assess if their profiles are future-proof, taking our corporate social responsibility seriously. Our commitment is not to hire someone only to let them go after a short period – we seek long-term partnerships with our team members.

Via the methods used in Design Thinking, we have shaped extensive training programs, including partnerships with universities, that are focussed on developing these skills in our people that we know they will need in the future. Some of them are technical, but many also address human skills that will become more important in the future. We don’t impose these programs top-down, but in building these tracks, we really listened to what and how our employees needed it and co-created these tracks with them.

Jana: A mixed vision is at play here, involving both employers and employees, each bearing responsibility. You can’t force someone to effectively learn, perhaps in the short term, but not sustainably. Learning for someone else is also not possible; individuals must be self-motivated.

As an employer, you can take several steps to encourage the desire and willingness to learn; we genuinely view this as our responsibility. Employers know the trends and evolutions ahead often in more detail than individual employees, who don't always have the full picture. It is up to us to anticipate the skills required today and in the future. Through newsletters, events, awareness sessions, and workshops, we keep our colleagues informed about technological trends in the sector and their specific roles, as well as the overall labor market, making them aware of the ongoing changes and the impact they will have on them and their roles. Furthermore, we provide the necessary support, space, and recognition to get started with their learning journeys.

The insurance sector provides a great example of a sector that has turned a challenge into an opportunity. Yes, they struggle with their image and with reaching specific profiles in data and technology, resulting in a challenge to hire the right talent they need to be future-proof. But they have converted this challenge into something positive and are really orienting themselves towards reskilling and upskilling their current workforce. There are many innovative and progressive programs and campaigns launched by Financial Institutions out there as examples.

We strive to offer not just a job but a career. To stand still is to go backward. We encourage forward-looking perspectives.

Syl Arnols, Head of HR at Ethias

5. What are the potential pitfalls or risks associated with making ambition a central focus of our organization? We get people excited to grow, but what happens if the expected growth opportunities don't materialize fast enough, or if, for some time, we cannot fulfill that ambition from within our organization?

Jana: That situation definitely occurs. There should be no taboo surrounding the fact that every company has its limitations, and not all positions may be feasible. Our approach involves engaging in open conversations: what comes next? Where can you fulfill your ambitions? Are you prepared for that? Is it achievable now, or are there areas where you can still learn and develop with us to better prepare for your goals?

Currently, the focus often centers on retention, with an emphasis on increasing 'tenure'. However, we believe in ‘economies of motivation’. People perform better when they do what they love and are passionate about. Retention in itself, therefore, cannot be the goal.

We consider ourselves 'destination finders', guiding individuals towards their next destination that aligns with their ambitions. Ideally, this destination is within our company, but we recognize that an employee's aspirations may eventually lie outside the organization. In such cases, daring to let go becomes the answer – a win-win scenario.

6. How ambitious is HR itself? Do you have tips for HR professionals to maintain their ambition?

Syl: As HR professionals, we need to secure our position by clearly defining the projects we are working on and not merely being a support team. Instead, we should strive to be full partners in realizing the business objectives. This involves striking a balance between catering to the needs of employees and aligning with the management/business requirements.

The HR strategy must be in harmony with the overall business strategy; otherwise, HR risks losing its significance, and the business might not perceive us as an added value. Our ultimate goal is to support the business in achieving its objectives effectively: We are here to assist the business in realizing its goals.

7. To conclude this podcast, what is your ultimate advice for fellow HR professionals who aim to prioritize ambition, growth, and "furthering people" at the heart of their organizations?

Syl: In HR, we have access to a wealth of valuable numbers and data, which are the new gold. Utilizing this data is crucial to support our initiatives and enable the business to make informed decisions. However, we must strike a careful balance to complement this data-driven approach with a personal touch. We should never lose sight of the human aspect; after all, we are HR!

Jana: Integrating the principles of identifying, communicating and following through on personal ambitions into your organization's culture and processes is essential. Additionally, leveraging suitable tools can serve as a powerful enabler to foster ambition, growth, and development among the workforce.

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