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      "Corporate culture cannot be decreed, it always starts from the bottom" - Interview with Sandra Ottavi

      "Corporate culture cannot be decreed, it always starts from the bottom" - Interview with Sandra Ottavi
      Jean-Charles Samuelian
      Jean-Charles SamuelianCEO d'Alan
      Updated on
      12 October 2023
      Jean-Charles Samuelian
      Jean-Charles SamuelianCEO d'Alan
      Updated on
      12 October 2023
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      Sandra Ottavi has spent her entire career in the retail sector and is the HR Director of Courir, the leading sneaker retailer in France. Her objective is to reconcile the human side of things with high standards and quality of execution at all times. She believes this is one of the solutions to respond to the profound changes in the labor market.

      On the program: 

      • The importance of the reality principle at all levels‍

      • 'Care': a benevolent requirement for employee development‍

      • "The success of a project is always about the people, not the process"‍

      • Finding the balance between individual and collective‍

      • "Corporate culture should never be top-down"

      The importance of the reality principle at all levels

      Jean-Charles Samuelian: Hello Sandra! To begin with, can you present your background? 

      Sandra Ottavi : After general studies, chance led me to the retail sector. I worked as a manager of the checkout department of a hypermarket: I supervised a team of 70 hostesses at the age of 25. I discovered the reality of these low-skilled and essential positions. This first experience "on the floor", as they say, only lasted a year and a half, but it left a deep impression on me. 

      I was able to see for myself the role of social elevator that this sector could play. Even if it is hard, you meet some very nice personalities, people who are not formatted and who are really the actors of the company's results.

      Vindémia, the company I was working for, then offered me the position of deputy HRD for a new subsidiary based in Reunion Island. My view of the company naturally turned to strategic projects, but I quickly realized that it was necessary to keep a close relationship with the field, even in a strategic role in the company. 

      J.C.S: Why do you think it is important to keep this proximity at all levels of the company? 

      S.O .: When I took up this position as Deputy HR Director, I realized that even for strategic projects, the human factor is essential. You can't just use numbers, you have to take into account the different sensitivities, cultures and histories. Unfortunately, for this merger, this aspect was neglected and the integration was much more complex and laborious than expected.

      After this position, I held the position of HR Director at Franprix. This experience gave me the opportunity to participate in the transformation of the company, in particular the integration of a large network of franchisees whose HR processes had to be standardized.

      Later, I took on the role of Operations Manager for 70 stores. Once again, I was able to observe the impact of HR policies on employees. As most of them are low paid, I realized that we could have a considerable influence on their daily life by improving their well-being and working conditions and by supporting their progression.

      I have also noticed the gap that can exist between the announcement of major projects and their actual implementation. For internal reasons, employees in strategic positions sometimes tend to give priority to announcements, to the detriment of employees on the ground. Unfortunately, this attitude leads to dehumanized processes, without employee support.

      J.C.S: How did you get back to a strategic position as HRD?

      S.O : I then joined Buffalo Grill as HR Director, during a change in the management committee, just before the COVID-19. During the confinements, I obviously worked on the organization of work, which had to be adapted, but also on the support of employees in terms of mental health. Some employees who found themselves out of work because of the confinement were in situations of great psychological distress. 

      I left Buffalo in 2021 and took a year to think about what to do next in my career, which is a luxury! I realized I still wanted to do HR, but this time to support the growth of a company. An opportunity that suited me perfectly came up at Courir. I found there as much requirement as humanity "for real".

      Care: a benevolent requirement for employee development 

      J.C.S: I want to come back to the link between people and execution, which seems to be one of the common threads in your career. Would you say that some people have particularly shaped your vision of HR?  

      S.O .: I can think of two bosses that I have known that were diametrically opposed to each other. 

      The first was a self-taught man, a pure product of the field. At the time, I had a rather binary vision of management and he was the first to show me that high standards and humanity could work together.

      I then understood that management must allow the employee to progress. You have to give them a sense of pride in the work they do. For me, this is true "care": a benevolent requirement that gives the employee the desire to constantly improve. Challenging an employee must be a sign of confidence. 

      This is all the more important in the retail sector where salaries are low but where employees can really rise and make very good careers.

      Also, even if he sometimes pushed me around a bit, this boss also marked me by his great humanity towards all his employees, from the cashier to the regional manager.

      The second boss I can think of, I met when I was working at Franprix. He was a true visionary, with great values. He is one of those people who look at the stock market quotation of their company every morning, but who never lose sight of the social role of the company.

      For example, at the beginning of the Syrian conflict, he asked me very early on to set up actions to help refugees and give them a chance in our company. It seemed natural to him to offer them this help. So we set up a partnership with France Terre d'Asile. Also, when we moved our headquarters, our offices found themselves facing a Roma camp. Rather than trying to expel them, he asked me to think of a way to offer a job to those who were interested!

      J.C.S: Would you say that these examples have shaped your vision of the company?

      S.O : Yes, and that's why I still believe in the company. You can be demanding and want to be a leader, but you have to do it taking into account the context and the reality of the employees.

      We must not wall ourselves off in our ivory tower. It is only by being in constant contact with our employees that we can identify the "pebble in their shoe" and provide them with concrete solutions to help them perform better!

      "The success of a project is always about people, not process" 

      J.C.S: How do you find the balance between taking into account the problems in the field and the company's mission? How do you reconcile the two?

      S.O. : Once you have identified the problems of your employees, you have to formalize your proposals for improvement and demonstrate their ROI to the management committee. You can't just do the opposite and mechanically apply great managerial theories. It then becomes possible to implement HR project management as such.

      Also, in all HR projects, I would say that the most important thing is to get the information flowing at all levels. 

      Because our company is spread over several sites, execution at all links in the chain is sometimes a bit complicated. The teams working at headquarters sometimes have difficulty getting information down, which creates bottlenecks and prevents projects from getting done. I am currently working a lot on this aspect of internal communication.

      J.C.S: What do you think is the common denominator of high impact projects? Do you have any best practices to share? 

      S.O .: Whether it's large-scale recruitment or sharing the results of a study with our employees, the success of a project always depends on the people, not the process. 

      We need to rely on a maximum number of employees in the field. It is not a question of adding a level of management but of mobilizing the relays that are closest to the employees.

      In addition to facilitating the relay of information, these "foremen" also provide better support for employees. They know their working conditions and can take their time, unlike more "high level" managers. They can also react quickly and provide quick answers to employees.

      We have to keep in mind that our store employees do not have the same time frame as employees working at headquarters. Being in front of the consumer every day, they have to find answers and adapt very quickly. If they need support from the company, we have to give them an answer in a few hours, not a week.

      On this point, I sometimes criticize a lack of anticipation and a lack of consideration for the reality principle. We don't think enough about the day-to-day life of our employees, on whom the success of our projects depends. We often minimize this phase or only think about it afterwards, when it's too late.  

      Finding the balance between the individual and the group

      J.C.S: I would like to know your feelings on the evolution of the world of work. What are the major changes you have observed in recent years?

      S.O .: I think the changes we are seeing are profound and go back long before the COVID-19 crisis. 

      The value of work, for example, has taken a hit. The younger generations no longer believe in it because they have seen with their own eyes the consequences of certain abuses on their parents (unemployment, waves of layoffs, burn-out...). I don't think that there will be a return to this level.

      Work also has a much greater impact on the private sphere than before. I used to think that the company should not be involved in the lives of employees. But now they expect the company to take part in their health and well-being. 

      J.C.S: How would you define the notion of well-being at work?

      S.O .: I am convinced that well-being at work is conditioned by the feeling of usefulness. I have seen this through the results of studies carried out among our employees, but also in the field. 

      At one point, employees who had been doing their jobs very well found themselves having to perform tasks for which they were not trained. The company switched to a project mode, which confused them. They had the impression that they no longer knew how to do their job, they no longer took pride and recognition for what they were doing. 

      J.C.S: How can the company promote recognition at work? 

      S.O : It can be financial, but it would be very simplistic to reduce it to that. A manager can, for example, show his recognition to his employees by giving them more responsibilities, by offering them training to progress, by organizing more events for team cohesion...

      Each employee has his or her own definition of recognition at work, which makes the work of managers very complicated. You have to find the right balance between the individual (the need for personalized recognition) and the collective (the need to belong to the group), which is also called "being part of the company" in business.

      I also find that little is said about a subject that seems to me to be important: the management of the group through complementarity. Companies recruit people based on their skills and potential for growth, but very rarely think about the complementarity of the employees between them. I think that recruiters should be better trained on this subject.

      J.C.S: Beyond recognition, what are the other elements that condition well-being at work?

      S.O .: I think it is important to reinstate a sense of security in the company, because I think it has been lost in recent years. Employees must have the right to make mistakes and sometimes fall short of their objectives, without being pushed aside by the company. 

      It is not a matter of avoiding difficult conversations, because not saying anything does no one any good. The manager must be able to talk to his employees about their difficulties while trying to solve them with new tools or processes. For me, this is what security at work is all about: "I have identified your problem and I am helping you to be more comfortable in your work and to perform better".

      "Corporate culture should never be top-down"

      J.C.S: How important is the corporate culture at Courir?

      S.O .: It is essential because sharing a common vision cements life together within a company. 

      The main challenge is to allow each employee to take ownership of it. This is why it cannot be decreed. It must never be "top-down", it must come from the bottom up. We must start by talking to all employees, regardless of their hierarchical level, to gather their feelings and experiences regarding their work. 

      Then, it is necessary to formalize a common vision and practical actions. This is where the management team comes in. It is up to them to formalize the corporate culture into an action plan that can be applied at all levels.

      This is a time-consuming task, but it is only by starting from the reality of the employees that the corporate culture can become an asset.

      J.C.S: How do you ensure that the corporate culture is experienced in the same way by all employees?

      S.O .: Each employee should be able to cite 2 or 3 examples of situations that reveal the company culture at his or her level. I'm a big believer in little things like this that say a lot, rather than empty concepts that don't mean much to most employees.

      Also, the corporate culture should not only be found in the experience of the employees. It must also apply to our choice of suppliers and service providers, for example. We give preference to those who share our common values and who implement ambitious CSR policies. 

      J.C.S: How can we measure the proper application of the corporate culture? What KPIs do you use?

      S.O .: Data such as absenteeism, satisfaction rate, engagement or turnover can give us information but they are not sufficient.

      However, the evaluation of qualitative aspects such as the application of corporate culture or even mental health remains difficult.‍

      Published on 02/02/2023

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