The Art of HR Diplomacy

By Bill Leonard Jun 1, 2004
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HR Magazine, June 2004 World Bank's Ann Rennie meets the challenge of managing a truly global workforce.

If you believe diplomacy is one of the most important skills a human resource professional can possess, then Ann Rennie, director of human resource operations for the World Bank in Washington, D.C., was destined to excel in HR management. Her father had a long, distinguished career in the British Foreign Service, and talent for diplomacy seems to be in her blood.

“Ann is simply the best HR professional I have ever met,” says Rita McGee, president of RMG Consulting, an HR consulting firm in London, and Rennie’s longtime friend and colleague. “She has this amazing ability for providing feedback and getting right to the heart of the matter. As long as I have known her, she will make excellent observations about complex situations and then [she] can make suggestions to resolve the problem in terms that people instantly relate to.”

Rennie admits that her father has been a major influence in both her professional and personal life. His skill for finding peaceful solutions to complex political situations was something she came to appreciate more as she grew older, she says.

“As a diplomat, my father was chief negotiator and a behind-the-scenes influence for many peace negotiations, and he really has been a role model for me,” says Rennie in her soft-spoken British accent. “And the lessons I learned from him growing up serve me well in my job now. Conflict resolution and negotiation are a large part of my job, and I believe those are things that I do very well.”

Her boss, Kathy Sierra, vice president of human resources for the World Bank, appreciates Rennie’s ability to manage tough HR issues and resolve problems. “Ann truly excels at what she does, which makes my job so much easier,” Sierra says. “We both bring different skill sets to the job. My background is in operations. Ann’s career has been largely in HR management, and she’s so incredibly knowledgeable about HR issues that I’ve come to rely heavily on her advice and her ability to understand a situation and find solutions that work.”

Rennie clearly enjoys working with Sierra, too, saying they have built a level of comfort and trust that she had never experienced in her 25-year professional career.

“I do consider Kathy a mentor, and I have learned quite a bit from her about how this bank works and how to deal with the politics of the organization,” Rennie says. “Our skills, experience and personalities mesh really well together. Kathy is American and has a bit different business perspective than I have. But we understand each other and we make a very good team, and that makes it a joy to come to work each day.” An organization as diverse and complex as the World Bank requires a special type of HR professional, and there could be no better person to run the bank’s HR operations than Rennie, Sierra says.

“She has a way with handling people that I truly admire and is a tremendous asset to the World Bank’s HR function,” Sierra says. “The HR function currently is in a transition to align itself better with the strategic direction of the entire organization, and Ann has been a very key figure in helping rethink and reshape the role of HR at the World Bank.”

Over the past three years, the bank has used video conferences, “town hall”-style meetings and one-on-one interviews to get staff feedback on key HR issues identified by employees. These include strengthening strategic staffing, providing more support to the global staff, promoting and recognizing both managerial and staff excellence, and mobilizing diversity.

While the World Bank may be the most diverse organization on the planet, its employees want improved succession planning for ethnic minorities and more opportunities for women. The bank is also working to ensure that the executive level reflects the makeup of the organization.

Core values

The World Bank’s staff members number 10,500 and come from all 184 member nations. More than 7,500 work at the bank’s headquarters in Washington, while nearly 3,000 work in field offices spread across the globe. While the diverse nature of the bank is one of its strongest assets, it also presents the organization with its biggest HR management challenges, Sierra and Rennie agree.

“When you deal with such a wide scope of cultural differences and backgrounds, there can be quite a few misunderstandings and conflicts,” Sierra says. “It requires a lot of understanding, sensitivity, and respect for other cultures and personal backgrounds, which Ann definitely possesses.”

In short, it takes a good diplomat. For example, Rennie’s gifts were helpful recently when two employees who had worked together for several years suddenly had a falling-out. The trouble began when one received a promotion.

“They had been good friends to that point, but suddenly they weren’t speaking to each other, and the problem affected not only their work but also the productivity of their co-workers,” Rennie says. She was asked to investigate the problem.

Rennie discovered that the two women were from different social classes or castes in India, and that the woman from the lower caste had been promoted above the other. It definitely was a sticky situation, but one that Rennie eventually resolved by relying on the core values of the World Bank, she says.

“We have a set of core values about how we must work together and support the World Bank’s mission, and these core values must transcend all cultural and ideological differences,” Rennie says. “Our employees must believe in those values and the mission of this organization; otherwise, it won’t work. To resolve the problem, I reminded them of their commitment to those core values and asked how they might use that commitment to overcome their differences.”

An Uncommon Path

Rennie’s background helped her to quickly size up the situation between the Indian co-workers and find a solution. As a teenager, she had lived in India with her parents, where she learned to speak Hindi. Due to her father’s career, Rennie lived in nine different countries before she reached the age of 18. During her childhood, her father was stationed mostly in developing African and Asian countries, which has given her a different perspective on the world.

While in India, Rennie was looking for a bigger challenge than a typical summer job, so she volunteered to help Mother Teresa give aid to the desperately poor. That usually involved climbing onto the back of a truck before daybreak to deliver powdered milk to hungry children. Then Rennie would go back to the mission and prepare pills for distribution to leprosy victims. She would spend the remainder of the day teaching English at Mother Teresa’s clinic for young mothers.

The chance to help people and make a real difference in their lives drew Rennie toward a career in HR management. She readily admits that she didn’t set out to pursue a career as an HR executive, but she discovered she had a real knack for the profession as she moved through a series of jobs with National Westminster Bank plc in London.

“My career at NatWest was fairly typical for a large organization,” she says. “I worked in a variety of roles which included both operations and what was then called the personnel function. When I started my career [in September 1979], personnel was much more an administrative and supportive role, so it wasn’t something that I had much interest in. However, HR definitely has evolved over the years into a much more strategic role and something that I now find quite intriguing.”

Rennie spent 14 years with National Westminster, and for two years she served as the bank’s head of equal opportunities. In that role, she helped reshape the bank’s recruitment strategies and develop a succession planning model for women and ethnic minorities. She also developed some innovative work/life practices and benefits for the bank, such as some groundbreaking telecommuting and job-sharing policies.

“And this was no small task because I was working for one of the largest banks in the [United Kingdom], which just by its very nature tended to be a bit more stuffy and wedded to certain business traditions,” Rennie says.

Next, Rennie became HR strategy director for Reed Executive plc, the largest executive recruitment firm in the United Kingdom. While there, she began to work as a volunteer with the Prince’s Trust, a charitable organization headed by Prince Charles that helps troubled and disadvantaged youths. Rennie and the prince developed a personal friendship, and she proudly displays several photos and handwritten notes from him in her office at the World Bank.

“I greatly admire Prince Charles and consider him a mentor,” Rennie says. “He gets bad press because he doesn’t come across very well in the media, but he’s actually a very caring, humble and kind individual who truly cares about people. I loved working for him.”

Since the Prince’s Trust did not have an in-house HR director, Rennie took on the role as a volunteer and worked closely with Prince Charles for more than three years. Her dedication and passion for both her volunteer work and her profession is evident to people she has worked with.

“Ann has considerable energy, which clearly helps her to achieve as much as she does. She also has a strong social conscience,” says McGee, her colleague and friend. For example, Rennie was a volunteer board member for an urban revitalization project funded by the Prince’s Trust and private developers in a depressed area of Southeast London. Rennie took public transportation through risky neighborhoods to attend late-night board meetings there after putting in a full day of work, and she never complained, McGee recalls.

Rennie’s wide-ranging background—from volunteering with the disadvantaged to working in London’s financial sector—seemed to align perfectly when the World Bank offered her a job as a personnel manager with the International Finance Corp., one of the five institutions of the World Bank Group, in Washington, D.C. There she could support the bank’s mission to combat poverty and promote economic development.

“My husband and I were thinking of moving out of London, but we hadn’t considered the States as a possibility. However, the job did appeal to me quite a bit, and it was definitely the right choice because we very much enjoy living in the [United States], and I absolutely adore my job.”

Rennie and her husband live just across the Potomac River from Washington in the Old Town section of Alexandria, Va., a name she finds a bit amusing, since the town was founded in 1749, and anything less than 300 years old is considered relatively “new” by British standards. Rennie’s home has views of the Potomac River and its sailboats. Sailing is a passion for Rennie and her husband; as a hobby they serve as crew members in long-distance sailing competitions—such as races from Marblehead, Mass., to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and from Newport, R.I., to Bermuda.

“It’s a way to truly get away from it all, and we just love being crew members in these races,” she says. “It’s a wonderful way to spend our vacation time and really revitalizes me. I can’t just sit on a beach and do nothing—that would drive me mad.”

A Wide World of HR Issues

The intellectual stimulation of working with the wide range of nationalities and cultures at the World Bank does keep Rennie engaged and focused, and that is why she loves her job. Many of the unique HR challenges at the World Bank stem from its independent status, much like that of its sister organization, the United Nations in New York. Neither is subject to U.S. workplace laws and regulations.

“Our independent status does make managing HR issues a bit more interesting,” Rennie says. “It also means that we must be much more rigorous in making sure all employees are treated fairly. And we do deal with some interesting issues that many organizations may not have.”

The World Bank’s Washington headquarters draws finance and economic development professionals from around the world. A job there offers people from war-torn or impoverished nations a chance for a better life in the United States. The employees from abroad receive special U.S. visa status to work only at World Bank headquarters, and employees who lose their jobs must return to their home country.

Turnover is fairly high at the bank headquarters, Rennie says, because the type of work and how it is performed are changing rapidly due to technology. Many employees work in the headquarters on temporary three- or four-year assignments.

“Many employees come here relying on the fact that they can stay. However, when their job ends or their term runs out, suddenly these people are in a state of shock because they must leave,” Rennie says. “The challenge we face is that many will use the bank’s grievance processes to fight to stay. This can present us with quite a moral dilemma, because here you have someone using their job to protect their family. And it is a very hard decision to make, because the impact on a family can be quite overwhelming.” HR must make it abundantly clear to employees that they may have to leave the States, she says. “It is a fact of life working for the World Bank, and our employees must understand and accept that.”

Also, the bank is pushing to decentralize and place even more of its staff into field operations. That has created an interesting strategic issue for HR professionals as they recruit, hire, train and create compensation plans for employees throughout the world, she says.

“We are truly becoming a global organization and moving away from the hub-and-spoke or foreign-service model where you send people from the headquarters office to work out in the field. We are now recruiting and hiring people all over the world to work in the field offices,” Rennie says. “So the key issues we are facing are how do we make sure their job qualifications are the same as they are here in the [United States] and how do we compensate these employees fairly?”

The effort to decentralize and recruit employees locally for field offices means the World Bank now has two distinct groups of workers—the headquarters staff and locally recruited staff. The locally recruited workers have the same job qualifications and education level as their counterparts in the Washington headquarters office. However, locally recruited employees are compensated on a comparative basis according to their nation’s standard of living.

“An employee who is based in Zimbabwe will be paid a fair wage for that country, which is much less than a person in an equivalent position makes in the headquarters office,” Rennie says.

In this system, you can have two professional-level employees who hold very similar positions but are compensated at much different rates. The key question then becomes: “How do you set the standards and justify these differences?” The differences between the traditional hub-and-spoke model and the global model are clear-cut, she says.

“In the hub-and-spoke model, the distinctions between senior headquarters staff and junior staff in the field are well-defined. What we have at the World Bank are a bit more fuzzy distinctions. We have the headquarters staff and the field staff, and while they have the same qualifications and are the same professional level, they are compensated at much different rates. We have been trying to find some benchmarks to see how other global corporations handle this issue, but we have yet to find an organization that has reached the level of globalization that the World Bank has.”

The bank’s HR function is doing groundbreaking work on this globalization issue, Rennie says, but it will take a radical overhaul of how the bank recruits, hires, compensates, trains, develops and evaluates its employees. While they don’t yet have all the answers, eventually the bank and its HR function will be able to help other organizations that face these issues, she says.

“It’s fascinating to figure out all the ramifications of this process. We are just trying to figure it all out right now, but I think the globalization process is going to make radical changes in the way that we do everything.”

Bill Leonard is senior writer for HR Magazine.


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At A Glance

Ann E. Rennie

Personal: Born April 26, 1956, in Lahore, Pakistan. Lives in Alexandria, Va.

Current Job: Since June 2000, director of human resource operations for the World Bank in Washington, D.C.

Previous Jobs: Manager of personnel for the International Finance Corp. in Washington, D.C., 1995-98; HR strategy director for Reed Executive plc in London, 1993-95; head of equal opportunities at the National Westminster Bank plc in London, 1991-93. She began her career as a personnel relations assistant.

Education: Received an honours degree (equivalent to U.S. master’s degree) in psychology from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

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