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Lafarge Africa is a Nigerian-run company with brilliant prospects – HR Director

GBEMIGA OWOLABI, Organisation and Human Resources Director says the giant building solutions manufacturer – Lafarge African PLC is one of the very few multinationals operating in Nigeria that has more than 99% indigenous professionals and experts as part of its workforce who are doing great work to ensure that the firm, which started production in Ogun state, Southwest on December 3rd, 1960 before expanding to other parts of the country, remains competitive in Nigeria, Africa and the world at large.

The 1988 graduate of Industrial Relations & Personnel Management from the University of Lagos, who has worked in various sectors of the economy from Fast Moving Consumer Goods, Oil and Gas, Telecommunications to Building Materials and Building Solutions in Nigeria, some African countries, and the United Kingdom, speaks with RAZAQ AYINLA, Regional Editor, on technological control and systems being deployed to fight COVID-19, winning awards and remaining in business. Excerpts:

It is a fact that you joined Lafarge Africa PLC as Human Resources Director during the heat of the Coronavirus pandemic, how did the company fare during the lockdown?

I have been with Lafarge for more than seven months now. I joined from the Telecom industry and the journey so far has been very amazing and fulfilling. My role is to provide leadership in general and to the HR function specifically and I have met very amazing people that have continued to make a difference in terms of what we have been able to achieve during the period.

Recall that I joined during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, which made it somewhat challenging to hit the ground running. Over the past seven months, apart from providing leadership for the HR function, my focus has been to ensure that we get the business ready for the future. You will agree with me that the strategy we used before and during the lockdown must be different from that of the post-pandemic period which we all refer to now as the ‘the new normal’ or a ’better normal’.

During the lock-down earlier in 2020, we more or less tested our resilience and we satisfactorily handled the challenges of the period. The business is now well prepared for the future.

In engaging with our business leaders and our people, the employees, on a regular basis, we have been able to develop a robust HR strategy that is linked to the overall business strategy especially one that is predicated on a very high growth agenda.

When you look at the employees who are going to drive that going forward, you must keep them connected and informed to ensure that they are all ready for the high growth agenda. During the year, we have worked on keeping our employees engaged and we launched Project One in collaboration with the Communications, Public Affairs and Sustainability Development team to drive the One Team, One Direction agenda, in order to further entrench a culture of oneness built on trust and collaboration.

Can you explain Project One a bit further outlining the business benefits?

Project One focuses on building a high performing organization, with one team all moving in the same direction. We leveraged the benefits of this shift considerably during the lockdown and post-lockdown phases of the pandemic, projecting us to be ready for the future. The essence of it is that you have people with a common mindset to collaborate and lead successfully. How do you go through such a period? First and foremost, the foundation of trust needed to be established, then preparedness, and the setup of a Resilience Team to manage the situation.

During the lockdown, we also activated our Business Continuity Plan and remote working arrangement ensuring our employees and their families are safe and healthy.

Did the COVID-19 pandemic affect your productivity in any form at all?

The effects of the Pandemic are felt all around the world, in different sectors, business and so on, however, on the contrary, and due to our business resilience, our productivity levels increased.

We increased employee engagement, ensured we shared structured guidelines and briefed line managers on how to engage with employees remotely. We also encouraged employees to also check-in on each other.

You talked about internal management, what about external relations, what did you do for communities, governments, and people at large to cushion the effects of COVID-19?

Lafarge Africa Plc committed N500million towards the COVID-19. We donated one of our facilities in Ashaka to be used as an isolation centre during the first wave of the pandemic. In addition, we donated equipment for facilities, product donations for infrastructural support including generators, ambulances and critical personal protection equipment (PPE) for professionals at the forefront of the battle against the Coronavirus pandemic. In addition, interventions that support water sanitation and hygiene (WASH) initiatives were enabled for the host communities. Our host community engagements and sensitization programmes on COVID-19 directly impacted thousands of people at the grassroots level.

Read Also: Buhari seeks stronger global cooperation to tackle COVID-19

Is this why you are winning awards for effective management despite COVID-19 or what?

We won an award for the best strategy deployed during the crisis period – Leadership in Crisis Strategy by the HR People Magazine. They were specific about the pandemic, reviewing how companies survived and ensured sustainability. We submitted our entries alongside other nine multinationals in Nigeria. We described what we have done towards bringing the company and our people together during the lockdown. The award was not because of our donations to the community but it is about the process, the strategy that we put in place and how we were able to manage and because we were able to demonstrate the results in terms of our performance, the preparedness and actions. Also, a key outcome of our actions during the period was the mindset and behavioral change that we quickly caught up to which led to the Project One- one team, one direction which helped us to drive more productivity.

What was your interest in Lafarge Africa, why did you join Lafarge?

I have worked in FMCG, Oil and Gas, Telecoms and now in Building

Materials. I remember, when Lafarge approached me, what I did was to go and check the published Annual Reports. I wanted to know more about the company. I knew Lafarge before so I wouldn’t deny that, but I needed some more information. So, when I started talking with Lafarge, I think it was the sincerity that was brought to the table, clarifying what needs to be achieved that made me feel connected. I looked at it all and I said yes, this is the kind of challenge I want. I was looking for a well-suited organization that is ready to take opportunities and receptive to new ways of working. The excitement of even the employees themselves is also a motivating factor for me. In all organizations, you need to continuously excite people. It is not about paying people money; we are competitive when it comes to remuneration, but also about the experience the employee goes through in the organization. People are excited about the new changes that are happening and the opportunity that is there that we can catch up on to make this company a great place to work. I’m particularly interested in the employee experience. It’s more than handing over money because any organization can attract anyone with money but employee experience has to be unique to organizations.

People believe that many expatriates are still working in Lafarge Africa at the detriment of the indigenous professionals and experts, as HR Director, what is your reaction?

When you look at the whole company, we are all Nigerians with 10 to 12 expatriates, apart from our technical contractors who come in once in a while. We are about 1,400 plus full-time employees, so this is a company run by Nigerian leaders.

As the head of HR, do you see any prospects in this company, in Lafarge Africa?

This business is going to expand and grow with the quality of the employees that we have. The employees are also growing with the business because there’s more provision for upward movements, change of roles, and others. Therefore, the growth opportunity for the business and the employees are very clear. It’s the role of HR, and I don’t see HR as a support organization; I see HR as a partner, a collaborator in ensuring employees partake in the growth agenda of this organization. This business is going to record more growth in the next foreseeable future.

How do you define gender equality across the board, being an organization as a major campaigner of gender equality?

I think it’s work in progress essentially coming from the kind of industry we are in. The good news is that Lafarge in the past 3 to 4 years, has already defined and seen that there is an advantage in getting more diversity and inclusiveness into the organization. There are opportunities there, and with our graduate trainees’ technical trainee programmess and other targeted talent acquisition programmes, we will have more women.. As an organization you need to be deliberate for you to promote gender diversity. At the interview stage, we have more women at the interviewing panel because if you have more men they are probably going to take their likes. We are also looking at our policies. By January 2021, we will be improving our maternity leave, paternity leave and other offerings to be given to women for them to be more comfortable. Even in adverts, sometimes when you look at adverts you will see that the tone favours the man, you will know that the company wants a man. So, how do you ensure there is gender neutrality in our recruitment adverts? We also want to talk more about diversity and inclusiveness in the business because most times, there are unconscious biases that we need to keep our people aware of. The more we talk about it, the more we clear the air.

One good thing about Lafarge is the diversity, the differences that we have, either you are based in the North or South, due to the fact we are different people of different tribes. The strength is in the diversity that we have. We are building on our gender diversity at Lafarge Africa. Currently, we are at 33% at the Executive Management Level and plans are in place to increase the numbers in the medium to long term.

How good are the women employees compared to men?

It is not about the distinction of gender but more about the quality of the leaders irrespective of being male or female. At Lafarge Africa, we reviewed our data to ensure equitable pay prevails. Every employee has the same opportunity, irrespective of gender for them to excel. That’s what I like about Lafarge, everybody has the opportunity to grow. I have worked across other sectors, but the kind of empowerment I see in Lafarge is amazing, and I believe we can still build on it. When I look at Lafarge, we have people who are allowed to make decisions as long as they are accountable. That’s one good thing about diversity, because the more you are diverse, the more successful your organization is. Mckinsey and Forbes have research to support this claimdiversity brings many advantages to an organization: increased profitability and creativity, stronger governance and better problem-solving abilities.

Can you define and analyze the Lafarge Africa Corporate Governance and Management Strategy?

At Lafarge we embody best practices and execute diligently otherwise strategy is nothing. You can sit and write a good strategy, but if the management and execution is not there you are wasting your time.

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