VP of HR Antonio Climent shares the secrets to building culture and a strong leadership pipeline for Laureate International Universities.
By Marta Chmielowicz
Expanding into new international markets is fraught with difficulties. From aligning cultures to ensuring talent gaps are filled, multinational organisations can struggle to adapt to the norms and realities of their many areas of operation. But with the shift of economic activity from Europe and North America to markets in Africa, Asia, and Latin America comes a renewed need to manage global organisations. In fact, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, 400 midsize emerging-market cities, many unfamiliar in the West, will generate nearly 40 per cent of global growth over the next 15 years.
Laureate International Universities, a network of private higher education institutions, is one organisation that continually expands its global footprint into these new markets. And the complex job of post-expansion integration is being tackled by Antonio Climent, vice president of HR for EMEAA. Once responsible for HR operations in seven European countries, his role evolved to encompass 17 countries in 12 different time zones and now focuses on Asia Pacific, parts of Africa, and the Middle East. This breadth of international experience makes Climent uniquely knowledgeable about the top challenges of global operations and the ways they can be tackled most effectively.
“Our company is in a constant portfolio review so we are always acquiring and merging with other companies and universities and, at the same time, selling businesses, so it’s a very agile, active, and changing environment,” he says.
In this interview, Climent discusses some of the barriers that his company has overcome to ensure cultural alignment, manage intense talent shortages, and develop the next generation of leaders.
HRO Today Global: What are some of the key business challenges that you’ve had to tackle in your current role?
Antonio Climent: The biggest challenge is operating strategically, effectively, and nimbly in a complex multicultural region with varied growth rates and income levels. As the for-profit education sector is a fairly niche segment in many of the markets we operate in, attracting and retaining the right talent to meet our organisational goals is always challenging. With the added complexity of operating in highly regulated markets, it becomes mission-critical to have the right talent in place.
My key focus in the past year has been building a strong pipeline of leadership in the organisation, which requires significant investments in terms of time and resources. This automatically helps motivate our employees and also boost engagement levels. I conceptualised and rolled out a plan to meet this goal in each country, and these initiatives were led by engagement champions who could manage and “own” the process in their respective markets. In the second phase, we identified 32 high-potential employees and developed a leadership acceleration programme called “Stars.” The programme is focused on three main areas:
- learning and developing leadership skills;
- learning with others -working on international and domestic projects with experts and colleagues; and
- learning from others through external professional coaches and internal mentors.
In parallel, we have exposed the 32 “stars” to global projects and initiatives, and also invited them to high-level global meetings where they can sit at the table with the organisation’s C-suite. External experts and leaders are also part of this initiative, and with their expertise, we are now putting together the content we have developed to share it with the next level of our talent in the region. This helps ensure continuity.
I think cultural integration has been another key challenge. We are constantly expanding, and we have had to adapt as we go along to ensure that we are able to work in the most effective and respectful way in each multicultural setting.
HROTG: How have your leadership development efforts differed by country or region?
Climent: Asia Pacific is the fastest growing region, so for us, leadership development has been essential. We have prioritised two main competencies: change management and diversity and inclusion with specific emphasis on multicultural awareness and management.
This region is a melting pot of cultures, religions, and languages. Being able to manage people who have different perspectives, ways of understanding life, languages, management styles, and beliefs is one of the challenges we have had to overcome quickly to ensure success. Education transforms lives and we need to ensure we understand the nuances in each market before we can deliver on our promise.
Our leadership development journey is based on three pillars: leading yourself, leading with others, and leading the business. This makes the journey a blend of professional and personal growth.
- “Leading yourself” is about helping our future leaders understand themselves better -to understand their motivations, their beliefs, barriers, and their potential. Our belief is that if they know themselves better, they will be much more effective as leaders.
- “Leading with others” entails interacting with people from different cultures and perspectives -how to be more open-minded about diversity, be more inclusive, collaborate better, and work with remote teams. In short, it is about dismantling barriers to work as one team.
- “Leading the business” is focused on understanding our business, our processes, and our culture with a special focus on managing complexity in a constantly changing environment.
HROTG: How did you create a unified organisational culture and what are some best practices for multinational organisations?
Climent: As the largest higher education network with a global footprint in over 20 countries, serving over 1 million students, we have an incredibly diverse set of cultures. To unify the organisation, we created our culture which we call “Here for Good,” as we believe society is best served when our students, faculty, and our entire organisation use our collective skills and experience to create positive and lasting change.
We also have a global “Positive Leadership” initiative which aims to re-energise our culture by focusing on the positive aspects of what makes us unique and extraordinary in the world of higher education. Positive leadership is both a science and an art that requires effort, time, and mastery, and local teams drive the implementation in their respective markets. Each team follows a common framework of positive leadership with the freedom to build specific models or actions depending on local needs and particularities.
Ultimately, all employees are bound by a common purpose. We believe in the power of education to transform lives and remain committed to making a positive, enduring impact in the communities we serve. Student outcomes are key, as when our students succeed, countries prosper and societies benefit.
HROTG: How did your role change when your responsibilities transitioned from EMEA to APAC?
Climent: Having worked in Latin America, Europe and the U.S., I find a certain magic in this region. This is the epicentre of growth, diversity, and convergence, and yields so much potential. Moving to Singapore was life changing and I am constantly amazed by the pace of change, the creativity, and the opportunities that abound. There is opportunity in every corner and everyone needs to be agile and connected to provide the right solution for each market or country.
Flexibility and innovation are also essential, as no standard formula can be rolled out across all the markets. Everything has to be carefully studied, developed, and customised. This is where the role of the HR business partner evolves from traditional descriptors of the function.
Due to the fast pace of growth, there is an acute shortage of talent at the top and middle level, which has resulted in a war for talent. With attractive opportunities luring our key people away and language barriers in some markets, we prioritised acquisition and retention in this region.
HROTG: How do you feel that the maturity level of HR differs in APAC compared to EMEA?
Climent: I believe geography does not dictate maturity levels -organisations do. What makes a difference is the HR strategy, priorities, and agenda. To give you an example, if you are doing HR in Europe, you’re usually working in an highly unionised environment, so labour relations is one of the pillars. Here in Asia, it’s a more of an entrepreneurial environment, so people are used to being incredibly connected and finding solutions very quickly.
Due to the fast pace of growth in these countries, employees want to see quick and tangible results in every aspect of their professional life, including work environment. Failure to meet these needs results in losing key talent. In Europe, for example, it’s common to have employees with 15 or 20 years of seniority. In this region, five to seven years is considered long! Mobility rates are also lower than in other parts of the world, so talent here is not something that can be easily replaced.
There are parts of Asia, like Singapore and Hong Kong, where you do have a good supply of talent. But there are also countries like India, Vietnam, the Philippines, or Indonesia where growth far outstrips the available talent. Creative and out-of-the-box solutions are required to narrow this gap, and our HR professionals need to be flexible and have a pulse on local and regional developments.
To succeed in this region, one needs to learn by doing and multinationals need to be aware that global templates are not always appropriate or advisable. Understanding local nuances and growth needs, cultural norms, and operating styles is key. HR professionals need to have a frame but remain flexible in the way that they respect and incorporate local trends or needs. Things change so quickly here that you also need to be more short-term oriented and very fast on the delivery side of the job. Being close to the business is critical, and understanding and appreciating the uniqueness and beautiful diversity of this region underpins everything.