In the following interview, Sally Savoia, chief human resources officer for Praxair, Inc., sheds light on how one of the world’s largest industrial gases companies generated from a “pretty simple” culture and a hands-on approach to management.
With growing concern about an impending skills gap in the nation’s workforce, many companies have taken the initiative to bridge this gap themselves. What initiatives does Praxair have in place to reskill current or potential employees to ensure future growth? Most importantly, we have comprehensive talent management and employee development initiatives in place to ensure strong leadership and technical pipelines. One example of how we promote continuous skill development and information sharing is our Communities of Practice (COP) program that places employees into global networks where they can learn from each other, specifically in technical areas like engineering, operations and R&D. These COPs offer interactive tools to capture content expertise, as well as an intranet site where “ask the expert” advice is available.
Technology skills are among the most in demand skill sets right now. What is Praxair doing to recruit this segment of the workforce? This year, we doubled the number of Science, Technology, Engineering& Mathematics (STEM) interns we had in the U.S. to get a jump start on recruiting full-time employees for 2013. Because we have such a strong presence in Brazil, our Chairman & CEO, Steve Angel, has assumed a leadership role in the “Science Without Borders” program that funds STEM student exchange programs between the U.S. and Brazil. We have also partnered with several universities to enhance our on-campus presence and provide deeper connectivity to the college community. We have entry-level leadership development programs for engineers interested in operations. And, we are testing a program with a technical school in Buffalo, NY to develop students into future plant technicians for our facilities.
What strategies do you believe are most important for businesses to implement today to help create jobs and move this economy forward? Bottom line, the first order of business is to grow, whether through new customers or new products and services, and that growth creates jobs. But the reality is, many jobs today remain unfulfilled because candidates do not have the right skills needed to be hired for open positions. One potential opportunity is to improve coordination of businesses, governments and educational institutions to help companies develop the most in-demand skills in the workforce. The HR Policy Association’s “Blueprint for Jobs in the 21st Century” is a great resource that outlines a number of ideas to make American companies more competitive worldwide, increase the number of jobs in the U.S., and prepare students and the unemployed for the workplace.
There’s been a lot of discussion lately around “hiring for culture and training for skills.” Is this something Praxair practices? Why or why not? It’s not an “either or”, it’s making sure your candidates are the right fit from both a cultural and skills perspective. In a tightly resourced company like Praxair, we typically don’t have the luxury of on-the-job training, so new employees must come into the organization with at least the basic skills needed to perform the job. But, we also stress the importance of cultural fit—our organization is built on relationships and personal impact. Quickly building a network and working collaboratively to deliver results is key to one’s success at Praxair.
What soft skills do employees need to have to successful at Praxair? We look for people who are smart, self-confident, have excellent relationship-building skills and are authentic in dealing with others. Our top people are high energy, possess strong operational skills and are globally adaptable.
How do you describe Praxair’s culture, and how have you maintained that as you’ve grown? Praxair’s culture is pretty simple— it’s all about making an impact with your talent. It’s very non-bureaucratic and non-hierarchical. We have many long-term employees, so the culture is maintained through a very stable workforce and a hands-on management approach. Every manager, no matter what level, maintains deep knowledge of their business details and knows how to develop and motivate their people to deliver top quality performance.
Are there any industry leaders whom you admire or think are doing a particularly good job of driving economic growth? Our senior team at Praxair has one of the strongest track records of any management team when it comes to consistent, year-over-year growth. We stick with our core strengths and execute better than our competitors—as a result, our business has prospered.
What advice do you have for other industry leaders as they seek to grow their organizations? I have a fundamental belief that no one comes to work with the intent to underperform, we all want to do well. And it’s up to us as leaders to motivate our people do their very best. Listening to employees, trusting them to do their jobs and treating them with respect goes a long way in engaging and retaining great talent. Most employees flourish when handed accountability for driving growth and long-term results.
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