HongKongEcho: From mentoring to ‘Lunch and Learn’, retail giant A.S. Watson says people are paramount

The dreaded corporate training seminar. We’ve all been there, acknowledges Clare Forrester from A.S. Watson, who says the trick to training is in the delivery.


 

HongKongEcho: With such a diverse portfolio of activity, how do you approach Learning & Development for the whole business?

Clare Forrester: We offer a wide range of development interventions including structured group development programmes across Asia and within each of our business units, there is a dedicated Learning & Development team who look at specific product and frontline training based on the specific requirements of their segment.

Clare Forrester, Group Learning & Development Director (Asia)
at A.S. Watson Group

HKE: Is there a particular focus across the group despite the broad scope?

CF: Ultimately, we’re in the retail business, so whenever we design programmes, it’s always with a commercial application in mind. Like most companies today we’re undergoing digital transformation, so naturally we’re designing training to assist with that, whether it’s data management or better using various internal tools. At a management level, there’s a strong focus on leading and managing change, which are essential skills for today’s work environment. Adopting more agile processes doesn’t happen on its own, managers need to be equipped with the right skills.

Beyond that, staff have access to a range of development opportunities including anything from learning more about Corporate Social Responsibility to sharpening their presentation skills.

HKE: Retail of course has its own specificities…

CF: It’s a sector that is not always viewed as one with real career prospects for young talent. That’s partly why we set up ‘Retail Academy’ in 2018 – the first of its kind in Hong Kong. We have many people working in our stores that have demonstrated a great ability to progress in a retail environment. The Academy is a way of accrediting those people to recognise their skills and offer them further development.

Participants in the Agile Leadership Series
take time for a selfie on stage

HKE: How do you avoid the classic dreary corporate seminar?

CF: It’s all about the delivery. We try to bring in as many experiential activities as we can to engage our people in opportunities to learn through doing, and reflection on those activities, which empowers them to apply that learning back in their workplace. We work closely with Ivey Business School in Hong Kong for senior leadership development, but the majority of our development is designed and delivered in-house with a blend of online and classroom learning. It’s important to move to more digital ‘on demand’ learning and our learning management system ‘Recharge’ is the main portal for any employee to access online training, we also have an app called ‘PocketU’ where staff can access content on their mobiles for all manner of topics.

Although we’re becoming increasingly digital in our approach, we recognise there is still value in actually bringing people together in person which encourages cross business and functional collaboration.

HKE: Do staff need to be encouraged to get involved?

CF: We foster a learning culture within our organisation and to do this, we rely on managers using simple daily interactions to show employees that development is a priority. When managers are engaged in development, team members are more likely to be engaged too, and we encourage them to talk to their manager about development opportunities. They’ll feel that their development is valued and that their manager supports their growth. We believe that this approach together with relevant, effective training quickly translates to improved ROI, productivity, and overall employee engagement.

Learning about leadership doesn't always
need to happen in the classroom

HKE: Is that something you find is driven by younger members of the organisation?

CF: Certainly, we find that young staff in general are very hungry for learning opportunities. We organise ‘Lunch and Learn’ or ‘Bite Size’ sessions that are very popular, which again comes back to how you deliver information. We also launched a very successful reverse mentoring programme in 2017 to pair younger digital savvy team members with our senior executives. 

HKE: The flipside is that staff retention in Hong Kong can often be poor. Why invest in development for staff who won’t stick around?

CF: There is always that discussion. But here I feel our top-level management team has always been very committed to investing in people development. Retail is going through a big disruption and we believe that one way to manage this is to leverage and unlock our people’s potential through development – on this front as a business we have always been quite forward-thinking.

Of course, an important part of my job is also to demonstrate how Learning & Development impacts the business. It’s not always easy because there are many factors, but we look at indicators like staff turnover, the number of internal promotions, customer and staff engagement measures. We find that when people are engaging with development interventions, they give back more.

 


As Group Learning & Development Director (Asia) at A.S. Watson Group, Forrester – who reports into the A.S. Watson Director Group Human Resources (Asia) – and her team are responsible for designing, implementing, delivering, and evaluating development opportunities for their employees in Asia. A.S. Watson is the world’s largest health & beauty retailer and the parent company of well-known local retail brands - Watsons, PARKnSHOP, Fortress and Watson’s Wine.


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