skip to main content
CHRO Conversations
ABB Out-Recruits Startups by Focusing on People, Purpose and Values
CHRO Conversations

ABB Out-Recruits Startups by Focusing on People, Purpose and Values

ABB CHRO Jean-Christophe Deslarzes

A Conversation With Jean-Christophe Deslarzes
Chief Human Resources Officer of ABB

From robotics to microgrids, smart-home systems to zero-emission transportation, the electrical, digital, robotics and automation engineering firm ABB has a progressive purpose: "to help run the world without consuming the Earth."

But ABB isn't a hip new company. It's a 130-year-old, 147,000-employee industry giant providing products and solutions in the utility, industry and transport, and infrastructure segments in roughly 100 countries and its revenue is more than $34 billion a year.

Yet ABB doesn't have trouble attracting the young -- or the talented. ABB doesn't have trouble attracting anybody. The company's CHRO Jean-Christophe Deslarzes says they receive about a million CVs a year.

In fact, he thinks leaders should be skeptical of the idea that highly talented candidates turn up their noses at established companies. As he explains in the following CHRO conversation, ABB built its business and its culture on purpose, values and pioneering technologies -- that is what wins the kind of workers every company wants, the ones ABB gets.

Emond: Your peers kind of accept that talent will always head for the sexiest companies and hot new startups. But you don't think so. In fact, you say companies like yours can out-recruit the competition. Why do you feel that way and how do you execute on it?

Deslarzes: Well, first of all, I dislike such preconceived ideas. I don't think the world is as black and white as sometimes we think. ABB has been the preferred employer among engineering students in Switzerland for several years. Secondly, ABB is at the forefront of the Energy and Fourth Industrial Revolutions. We are a pioneering technology leader in the midst of the digital revolution -- our purpose is "helping to run the world without consuming the Earth."

Look at electric mobility. In this segment, a lot has happened, thanks to ABB's pioneering technology leadership, in particular. Just a few years ago, you would have had to wait a long time for your electric car battery to be charged up. Today, our newest DC fast charger needs just eight minutes to charge a battery with enough power to travel 200 kilometers.

Earlier this year, we partnered with Formula E, the world's first fully electric international FIA motorsport series, to further push the boundaries of e-mobility. In August, we were named by Fortune magazine as one of the top 10 companies that are changing the world because of our leadership in fast-charging solutions for electric vehicles.

And take smart homes. We're able to help people live a better and safer life. And robotics -- we can automate entire factories and get rid of the boring, repetitive and often unsafe work. And we're not talking about the future; these are concrete technologies that exist today. We are changing the world with new technologies.

The high-tech companies you mentioned that may seem more attractive to talent than ABB? They may say they are, too. But they probably don't do as much as ABB to directly help human beings to live a better life. Our technologies help to create an environment that people want to be part of.

So we say to our employees, "it starts with you," because at the end of the day, the pioneering technology solutions that we're talking about are only possible with superb human beings.

To highlight the potential of science and technology to solve the world's greatest challenges, we recently partnered with the Nobel organization to promote innovation, education and scientific research around the world. By spotlighting the groundbreaking work of Nobel laureates, we want to inspire the next generation to value and pursue scientific discovery.

So we say to our employees, "it starts with you," because at the end of the day, the pioneering technology solutions that we're talking about are only possible with superb human beings. It is they who pioneer the innovations that are needed to run the world without consuming the Earth. We can tell our people that what we do starts with you -- and it is true. All companies say they're environmentally responsible but at ABB, that's our business.

Emond: And those two things -- "running the world without consuming the Earth" and "it starts with you" -- offer a clear sense of purpose?

Deslarzes: Yes. And our values. How we structure our values at ABB is highly important. Our values are part of our business strategy, obviously, but those values must be lived in everyday life. In fact, we carry cards with us with the values printed on them. There are five pairs that apply to all employees throughout the organization, and guide our thinking in both large-scale strategy and day-to-day operations. [Read ABB's five pairs at the end of the interview.]

We had to explain the behaviors that exemplify these values, the "values in action," as we like to say, and embedded these values into all of our people processes. If you look at our interview questionnaires, you will discover that the questions are geared toward finding out whether the candidate in front of you exemplifies these values, maybe without even knowing it. We also have our values embedded in our assessment processes, performance evaluations, training and promotions -- the whole hire-to-retire spectrum.

Emond: Do you use these five value pairs in your recruiting?

Deslarzes: Oh yes. They are clearly part of the selection criteria. But we define them more precisely and go into more detail for each different job role so that the expectations are clear for everyone. So yes, our values are in recruitment and in selection, but also in evaluation.

And to further develop the "values in action," we launched a cultural change program a year and a half ago. We call it "Come to the Edge." During this training we give a sense, a metaphor, to each of these values through experiential learning. It's a four-and-a-half day program for the top 200 people and now we're rolling out a two-day program for the top 2,000. The value pairs are at the core of this program.

Now, performance evaluation at ABB works on two axes. One axis is your objectives -- numerical or at least measurable if qualitative. And the other axis is these five value pairs. And they're equally weighted. So if you're the employee who couldn't care less about the values and you're focused only on the results, your performance evaluation will not be good.

On the other hand, if you incorporate values every day but you don't achieve your results, well, your performance evaluation will also be bad. You have to work on both axes to be considered for development or promotion to the next step.

But when both axes are really being lived, magic kicks in.

Emond: Explain that.

Deslarzes: The values trigger results and foster the culture. It is really striking how much mutual respect is present at ABB, how much listening is present, how trustworthy people are and, as a consequence thereof, how collaborative people are. Together with the company's purpose and its pioneering technologies, our values are what draws the best people to us. When people have the same beliefs, they are drawn to each other. And that creates a glue within the organization that is really great to observe.

Emond: What's the generational mix of your workforce?

Deslarzes: Roughly 40% of our workforce is 37 and younger. So think about millennials today. If you were to put the annual report and the sustainability report of the company you're working for in the living room, which one do you think a millennial would pick up first? It's often, if not always, the sustainability report. People truly connect to a company's purpose if it is genuine. And the great thing is that a strong purpose contributes to high performance.

Emond: Do you think you should message that purpose differently during the employee life cycle? Explain values or purpose differently to a year-10 worker than a year-one employee?

Deslarzes: Our message may need to evolve over an employee's years with the company. Perhaps the person who receives the communication may have a different sensitivity to the message than someone else and the discussions generated will slightly vary among employee groups. But we do not customize the purpose depending on the population. That is clear. The overall purpose and the core values, they do not change and nor does our brand promise: "Let's write the future. Together."

Emond: Gallup's research into millennials shows that, more than any other age group, they value purpose over paycheck. So when companies hire us to, for example, redesign their performance review and development process, we really advise defining your purpose and driving it through culture.

Deslarzes: I really like to hear this, confirming ABB is in a sweet spot. Talking about millennials, I have to say there are some preconceived ideas about millennials that are not supported by empirical research. The idea that millennials are less ambitious, for example -- they're just as ambitious, if not more so, than any other group.

But as you said, purpose is very important to them. In fact, I would assume that purpose matters to all workers. And, as stated earlier, purpose is also very important to ABB. You don't have to be the attractive tech startup to attract the best talent. But you do have to have a real purpose and live your values, make them part of your business strategy and your everyday life, to create a desire in really superb people to want to work with you.

ABB's Value Pairs:
A shared way of working

Safety & Integrity

"Don't look the other way!" means doing the right thing, taking responsibility for ourselves, our colleagues and our business.

Customer Focus & Quality

Putting our customer front and center of our work and delivering quality, every day in everything we do.

Innovation & Speed

Developing cutting-edge technology and processes ahead of the competition; innovation gives us the edge, and speed is essential.

Ownership & Performance

Taking responsibility for our work and pride in our success; raising our standards to the next level.

Collaboration & Trust

Working together to bring more to our customers. Trusting each other to make the right decisions.

Jennifer Robison contributed to this article, which was based on an interview conducted by Larry Emond.

Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
+1 202.715.3030