Ever Improving The Systems

Maria Pejter is one of HR's Rising Stars for 2011.

Her greatest challenge: Assess the existing HR initiatives and find ways to connect talent management with the business strategy.

Her greatest achievement: Created strategy sessions for leaders and an expansive online learning and development site.

Monday, July 11, 2011
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When the new sheriff rolls into town, there's bound to be some changes. That's exactly what happened in 2008 when William S. Allen became senior vice president and head of group HR at A.P. Moller Maersk.

As part of the changing of the guard at the Copenhagen, Denmark-based global transportation and energy conglomerate, Allen tasked Maria Pejter, the company's senior director, with assessing its existing strategic HR initiatives, then developing new programs that could better connect talent management with business strategy.

A tall task for sure, but Pejter came through in fine style, earning her a place on HRE's 2011 HR's Rising Stars list.

Pejter discovered that learning and development at the company featured mostly live, in-class sessions serving only a small portion of the employee population. Her vision? A robust online program where finding the right development opportunities would be as easy as shopping for clothing online.

The result was the Development Shop, an online learning center offering a wide array of materials, including talks from experts, courses from Ivy League professors, webinars and articles. The site helps employees by providing easy navigation and course descriptions that not only discuss the material from an academic point of view, but also tie it to people's everyday jobs.

"The DSHOP [as the company refers to it] makes people want to come back," says Pejter, "and it's actually enabled our leaders to take more responsibility for personal development."

The DSHOP reaches 40 percent of the employee population on a regular basis, much better than its predecessor, which only reached 5 percent. And it's been well-received so far, with employees rating the business-school courses a 4.2 out of 5, and the learning resources a 3.9.

Pejter's analysis of Maersk's HR processes also led her to believe that the company needed to figure out its most critical business needs, something she calls "must-win battles." One, for instance, would be to ensure new employees are properly integrated into the larger company after an acquisition.

She also believed the company should frequently assess and help develop the people holding jobs that are critical to company success.

The result was People Strategy Sessions, annual meetings where leaders examine their workforce, asking questions such as: Do those employees need more learning and development? Should the company replace those employees with more talented candidates? It's required for director-level and above but is often used by lower-level managers, as well.

In the sessions, each group of leaders discusses the people at the next level down in the company. Then those leaders discuss the level below them.

Before Pejter instituted the PSS, the company identified its high performers through a nomination/reward process. But that put too much emphasis on their future potential, which was not adequately measured once they got into key positions.

"As a company, we're not a philanthropic institution. We need the potential of our people to materialize into actual business performance," says Pejter. "Potential is only valuable if it's coupled with actual performance."

She believes the high-level discussions are an important and effective way to develop people -- which brings her back to the whole reason she got into HR in the first place: because employees are often the ones who determine success and failure.

"The guys and gals in the organization make all the difference," she says.

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Pejter has also been working on promoting gender diversity throughout the organization. In 2009, she found that the vast majority of Maersk leadership was male. So she created a diversity portal called diverse@maersk, which features discussion forums, tools and diversity role models. She also implemented a Diversity Council tasked with recruiting more gender-diverse candidates.

"This is the most difficult project we have on our plate today," she says, citing socioeconomic norms in the different countries of operation.

But she's been seeing some early success -- now, 9 percent of directors (previously 7 percent) and 21 percent of GMs (previously 17 percent) are female.

Aside from her work at Maersk, Pejter is a respected speaker on the Scandinavian conference and guest-lecturer circuit. She participated in the Think Tank on Talent Management sponsored by the Danish Business Research Academy and says speaking engagements help her find fresh thinking from outside the company.

"In a very large company, it's easy to be internally focused," she says. "Get that outside-in perspective from business schools or conferences where people challenge what mistakes we've made. I really appreciate the pushback."

Allen, Maersk's CHRO, touts Pejter for being results-oriented and producing great results without creating complexity or bureaucracy. He also says she meets the needs of a diverse set of stakeholders.

"Maria achieves this by listening carefully, adjusting where appropriate and working toward win-win solutions that meet the needs of the business while being systematic and pragmatic," he says.

And he doesn't mince words when talking about her potential.

"She could, with continued performance," says Allen, "sit in my chair in the foreseeable future."

See all of the 2011 HR's Rising Stars.

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