Take a chance on people, says Alexander Forbes Group CHRO Christian Schaub

One year into his new role, Christian shares his thoughts on his move from the US to South Africa and a more daring approach to talent management.

HR leaders should change their mentality when assessing whether a particular person is ready for a role and take more chances on people, allowing them to do jobs that they may have no experience in but are ready to learn more about. That is according to the American HR expert Christian Schaub, who has been at Alexander Forbes in South Africa since September 2017 CHRO.

"If you look at me for example, I have never been a CHRO before the role that I'm currently in, but I have knowledge and experiences that have prepared me for it,” says Christian. “The CEO and our board took a chance on me and it hasn't blown up yet, so let's cross fingers that things continue going well.”

Christian says the issue of competing with other organisations for a limited talent pool is one that is familiar as it has existed in every company that he has worked in, whether it was in the UK, Brazil and China. While South Africa is not like in the US, where there are few people who are not engaged in some form of employment, the problem of scarce talent will always exist by virtue of the need to find the perfect combination of people who you want to be in your organisation and can do the job.

The best way to deal with that is for companies to think differently in the way they approach succession planning and talent development as a whole, he says. Because, if organisations only want to hire people or promote people who have done the job already, they will always be going to be looking at a limited pool, particularly in the financial services industry, which is small and highly specialised. “It's all about challenging our own preconceptions and our definition of what the talent requirements for specific jobs are."

“Another thing to think about is, how do we make ourselves attractive to as many people as possible. At Alexander Forbes, that comes down to being very clear about our people promise. That is, what does it mean to work at Alexander Forbes and why should people want to work here. We need to define our culture so that we attract people that will thrive here and will want to work with us even if they are not particularly interested in the financial services industry.”

Working at Marsh & McLennan

Christian has worked in specialist roles in recruitment, talent management and organisational effectiveness before he worked as the chief of staff for the CHRO at Marsh & McLennan Companies, which is a global company with 60,000 employees. In 2011, the company acquired part of Alexander Forbes and that was when he first started coming to South Africa.

He then spent a few years working as a change management specialist, where he oversaw the organisation of high-performing HR functions. About a year ago, he met Alexander Forbes’ chief executive Andrew Darfoor, who asked him to consider joining the company to replace his predecessor Thabo Mashaba who would soon move to become the group chief empowerment and transformation officer.

“I’ve been working on the company’s Ambition 2022 business strategy, which involves defining our culture and finding out how we can be more deliberate in the way we reinforce it,” Christian says, talking warmly about his work. “The strategy also looks at the way we are developing talent both today and for the future and how are we rewarding performance and how we ensure that we are built in a way that ensures agility and collaboration. Those are the main areas that I'm currently focussed on, in addition to improving the change management muscle of the company and enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of our HR function.”

Christian calls working for a smaller company than Marsh & McLennan refreshing. “With the company having a little over 3,000 employees, it's not so big that there should be any major obstacles to us achieving our objectives quickly. That's very different from Marsh & McLennan, which is about 20 times bigger in terms of global headcount and involves a tremendous amount of complexity when introducing major changes in the organisation."

"The amount of time that is spent when coming with a solution, thinking about how it's implemented and then actually executing it, would generally take a couple of years. Here at Alexander Forbes, we move much faster. That said, working cultures here compared to the US means that things don't necessarily happen as quickly in South Africa.”

Adjusting to South Africa

Although he is American, Christian has worked in Europe, Latin America and Asia, and doesn’t tend to approach things with an American set of values. He says he has really enjoyed his time here thus far and is still adjusting to the working culture. In the US, for example, Christian says there is certainly a sense of urgency around everything they do and how they do it. When someone asks for something, it means that they want it already and they expect an immediate response. In South Africa, people are a lot friendlier and open to discussion, which means that there is more cohesion and collaborative spirit in the way things get done. 

“I have a lot to learn about this country. I think South Africa has a very rich history and is incredibly diverse but it also comes with a number of challenges that resulted from the legacy of apartheid and are far from being overcome. Issues of economic empowerment and socio-economic justice have not been addressed by society and that has an impact on what the role of corporates is in helping with these things,”

“But I definitely don't have a South African set of knowledge and values either and that's why I'm fortunate to be working with a team that looks like the society we operate in, who are born and bred here and whom I can bounce ideas off to get diverse perspectives if and when I need them.”

While the company is headquartered in South Africa, Alexander Forbes is a financial services company that looks across Africa. It’s a pan-African business and Christian believes that it should strive to bring in best practices around investments, management and organisational structures from elsewhere in the world without necessarily diluting the essence of what it means to be Alexander Forbes with decades of history in South Africa.