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Karsten Breum: A Human Touch on the High Seas

Wednesday, July 1, 2009
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Attending business school in his native Denmark, Karsten Breum felt particularly struck by two aspects of running a company -- leadership and strategy. Using that as a framework for his career, he took a job in the human resource department of A.P. Moller Maersk in 1998 ... and never looked back.

"I was intrigued," he says, "by the human element of it, the fact that whatever kind of organization you work in, the human aspect of it, the motivational aspect of it . . . will be there."

Eleven years later, Breum's hard work and natural curiosity about the people side of HR propelled him to his current position as vice president of human resources for Maersk Logistics/Damco in Copenhagen, Denmark -- and earned him a spot on our list of HR's Rising Stars.

On his journey at the international shipping logistics and solutions company, Breum spent some time as director of organization development in group HR. There he faced one of his most challenging endeavors -- helping to roll out A.P. Moller Maersk's newly announced key values:

* Constant care -- take care for today and actively prepare for tomorrow;

* Humbleness -- listen, learn, share, give space to others;

* Uprightness -- our word is our bond;

* Our employees -- the right environment for the right people; and

* Our name -- the sum of our values, passionately striving higher.

Breum was tasked with spreading the word to the company's 75,000 workers around the globe, making sure that the values are followed, rather than just posted on an office wall and forgotten.

"It was something that had to be the cornerstone of how we lead our organization," says Breum. "It had to be part of how we interact with each other."

To roll out the values, Breum conducted workshops with local managers from 100 different countries so they could go back to their offices and relate that information to their employees. In one of the exercises, workers discussed how following the values will impact how they do their day-to-day work.

"It has implications for how I do my job, how I answer the phone, how I interact in a meeting," he says.

Now the values are engrained in the minds of Maersk employees as they go about their work, he says.

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"We don't have the values on the wall anywhere in our organization, but I think if you ask an employee in our organization, they will be able to tell you what the values are," says Breum.

He also initiated the company's first employee engagement survey in 2006, getting participation from 75 percent of its global workers. In 2008, that number shot up to 89 percent.

"You can't manage an organization the size of ours without allowing employees to give feedback on how they perceive our organization as a preferred employer of choice," says Breum.

One of his superiors, William Allen, senior vice president of group human resources for A.P. Moller Maersk, says Breum "lives the [company's] values" and is "focused on the front line, where we make money."

He also hails Breum for quickly putting together a top-notch team after becoming vice president of human resources.

"Many times, executives get into jobs and they think they can do it all themselves," says Allen.

"You can't do it all yourself," he adds. "The business he's in, with thousands and thousands of people, you need to put together a team that's aligned, focused and excited, and [a team that] can execute. He did a great job with that and it made a big difference."

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