“People want to do interesting work that helps them grow”

“People want to do interesting work”

In an interview, Daniel Sommer talks about the shortage of specialists, diversity and also explains what is so special about talent development.

Director, Head Human Resources

KPMG Switzerland


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In the audit and advisory business, employees play a pivotal role. What is your top priority as Head of HR?

I chose KPMG more than eight years ago because during the recruitment process, I got the impression that everybody can achieve something here if they put in the effort, and that ideas are welcome. I was also able to identify with the values of KPMG. On top of that, I was impressed by the reliability and professionalism I encountered from the very first moment on. That initial impression has been confirmed and since joining the firm, I've seen many people carving out fantastic careers for themselves on the fertile soil offered by KPMG. As Head of HR, I devote my efforts to ensuring that this motivating and attractive environment remains intact and that many more employees have similarly positive experiences. At KPMG that takes top priority – creating the environment and conditions people need to maximize their performance and advance in their careers.  

What does a modern HR strategy look like?

The HR strategy is considered a vital part of the corporate strategy. If you had asked about the market strategy instead, the answer would have been clear to many people: Which markets do we operate in and how do we approach them? What are our products and services? Which pricing strategy do we pursue? Who are our clients? These – and of course a whole score of other questions – are answered in the market strategy, typically with a time horizon of three to five years. The HR strategy does exactly the same, only on the employee side of things. Here we ask: Which employees will we need in the future and how can we recruit these human resources? What kind of environment is it that makes the best people feel comfortable, lets them develop to their full potential and makes them willing to enter into a longer-term commitment? Only when we are capable of answering these questions can we deliver on our promise to be the “best person for the client”. Our HR strategy therefore ensures that we make the most out of our investments in employees and create added value for our clients.

How do you succeed in attracting the best talent and employees?

There are many aspects to that and the answer differs depending on the target group. When it comes to university graduates, it's almost like an onslaught on a freshly-opened buffet – many companies swoop down on students at university events or other occasions and try to snatch up the crème de la crème for themselves. That means that a speedy recruitment process is one vital ability for companies to have. Another key characteristic in this highly competitive environment is a clear, distinct profile that helps us set ourselves apart from our competitors. The substance of what you're offering needs to be right and credible – students compare, make conscious decisions, and then promptly tell their community about any negative experiences they've had. 

The situation with experienced professionals is different and the market has been drained completely dry in many different areas. The traditional approach of seeking employees by placing ads is one that hasn't worked for some time now and even searching for talent through recruitment agencies frequently doesn’t yield the desired results. The trend tends to be toward networks and relationship management. That's a multi-year process, however, and not just a matter for the HR department. The systematic inclusion of networks by our employees is becoming an indispensable tool in our search for these specialists.

And how can the loyalty of these people be engendered over the long term?

It's simple and difficult at the same time: Simple, because it's actually clear what we, as a company, have to do. People want to do interesting work that helps them grow as well as promising, reliable career prospects. If you add a bit of flexibility so they can strike a balance between their professional and personal commitments and an inspirational corporate culture, then you've assembled nearly all of the ingredients. Implementing this ambition, however, isn't always that easy and here, too, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, the company must know the goals and skills of each individual employee and harmonize these with the needs of the business. The term used in HR jargon is “talent development”. Reliability and honesty are essential to this, just like active listening. Managers need to internalize the fact that talent development is one of the most important leadership tasks that will help them contribute directly toward the company's long-term business success.

Which trends are the most important?

Here I'd like to emphasize two topics: One of these is unfortunately an issue that is affecting HR work to an ever greater degree, namely increasing regulation and bureaucratization. Cross-border passenger traffic is facing a growing number of governmental requirements. Supposed simplifications often turn out to be cumbersome, bureaucratic crutches that are only being used to treat symptoms. It's not only the government, though, that's coming up with more and more requirements. There's a general increase in the complexity of both business activities and society, as well. Paired with the growing need of all market players to increase their security, this is a dangerous and expensive mix for our economy. Granted, the ability to master this complexity presents client advisory opportunities for KPMG, as well.

The second topic is growing cost pressure together with increasingly powerful technologies. Over the medium to long term, this combination will have a lasting impact on the world of work. In our environment, we will be even more reliant on experienced people. These people need to be able to assess situations correctly, make appropriate decisions in a timely manner and lead flexibly assembled teams to create added value. The keyword here is “workforce on demand”. Talent development is extremely challenging in this kind of environment because the options you have at hand are constantly changing and even diminishing in some areas.

Is the topic of diversity still current?

Yes, diversity is still on our agenda. It's important that our staff reflect the makeup of our client base and target markets. When talking about diversity, I also think it's important to not just talk about gender, even though the ratio of women at higher hierarchical levels remains a challenge. It's just as much about cultural diversity, after all. For instance, do we have enough employees from the target markets where our clients operate? In the area of talent development, we'll have to start focusing more on ensuring that our employees can gain experience in the key economic zones of today and tomorrow.

Which other HR topics are you dealing with?

My list is long and varied. Increasing demands regarding time-tracking rules, which I already mentioned, and cross-border passenger traffic account for a whole group of topics. There we're working together with industry and trade associations to find solutions. We're also working on relaunching our alumni program. Employees that have left us are and will always be important ambassadors of KPMG.


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