"We need to stay fresh as an employer. We need to open up the barriers"

Published on 21 June 2017

Hahnemann, the new Head of HR at T&L, is shaking up the way we approach employee engagement at Maersk – with friendship, trust and dialogue placed right at the heart of his new people strategy.

“Who is your best friend at work?” It’s not a question you might expect to be asked by the Head of HR at Maersk - but according to Ulf Hahnemann, friendship in the workplace is one of the best possible measures of business performance there is. 

“We are all social animals and we crave a sense of belonging,” explains Hahnemann. “We thrive when we are part of something that we really enjoy, and as a result so too does the company.” 

Just eight months into his new role, Hahnemann is bringing a fresh perspective to what makes our employees tick; and with it some big plans to shake up the way we approach employee engagement at Maersk – something he sees as being crucial for the future success of T&L.

“Every employee is important and makes a difference to our results – whether you are in Søren Skou’s team, in a Damco depot in Long Beach or in the Shanghai customer services team. 

“As T&L Management Board (TLMB) we are finalising our People strategy and we want to create a new energy around engagement which focuses on a sense of belonging, care and ambition in every team, at every level across Maersk.”

In the future, this means adapting the annual employee engagement survey to get to the heart of what’s really important for employees - as well as tailoring the way we act on it. “We should be using the survey to improve the working environment in a way that’s relevant for each individual team, and that means asking the right questions.”

And as the new head of HR and the TLMB roll out their ambitious agenda, this is not the only change employees can look forward to.

A company rooted in values

Hahnemann joined Maersk last year, following a 27-year career at Mars. He returns to Copenhagen after 25 years living outside of his native Denmark - first in Australia and then in the US – for the last 10 years in Nashville, Tennessee.

It was the emphasis on company values that ultimately attracted Hahnemann to the job. He saw many similarities with Mars which - contrary to the common perception of ruthless American corporations - is a strongly values-based organisation, consistently recognised as one of the best places in the world to work.

“What struck me most about Maersk was how strongly the business is rooted in the values of its founders, and its commitment to being extremely ethical in pursuing business goals. This is really unique. There are not many companies where such strong values exist, and even fewer that make an honest attempt at living by them.”

A new approach to leadership

Hahnemann brings many lessons from Mars to his new role, one of which is the “relentless focus on people.”

“Being a people leader entails huge responsibility - and it should be seen that way, not as a career step,” he says. “That means high expectations. The leader’s role is to foster an environment of engagement, trust and dialogue - to be an enabler of the team.”

“What I’ve learned is that building trust in an organisation is the core challenge. If there’s trust between employees and the company, problem-solving follows. People will use their intelligence as they feel supported, not judged. They are not worried about being shut down or intimidated so ideas can thrive.”

We want to create a new energy around engagement which focuses on a sense of belonging, care and ambition in every team, at every level across Maersk.

Ulf Hahnemann, Head of HR at Maersk

He sees that there is work to be done to foster a more trusting, open culture at Maersk - and it begins with training leaders.

“People stay for leaders and they leave because of leaders, so we need to train them properly. It’s a massive task - there are 8,000 line managers in T&L.”

While the focus on leadership development should result in a more inspiring workplace for all, Hahnemann encourages all employees to take their career into their own hands.

“At the end of the day it really comes down to you as an individual. Very few careers are planned. Most are opportunistic – there’s a job opening, I’m interested, I grab it and it leads to something else. So I would encourage people to be curious and look for exciting opportunities – but at the same time focus on being excellent in their current role as that’s always the foundation for a successful career.”

Being ‘stronger together’

Having been thrust into his job at Maersk during a time of great transition, a major priority for Hahnemann will be to support the integration of the brands under the new T&L division.

He sees a huge role for HR – not least in guiding employees through this time of uncertainty, and motivating those in T&L to work towards a common goal, rather than being married to their individual brands.

An important solution could lie in the way in which people are remunerated. Currently bonuses are allocated according to performance appraisals which measure people on detailed KPIs (Key Performance Indicators).

Hahnemann sees this as counter-productive and a major barrier towards fostering a more collaborative approach.

“It drives siloed focus. If my bonus is linked to a set of KPIs for my division or my team, it is only natural that I will focus on that, and that alone. I would like to see us all measured on the financial results of T&L, so we get a bonus if we succeed financially. This means all of us in the same boat, working towards the same goal – growth, profit and cash.”

In fact, the T&L Management Board has already started this on journey and is today measured on overall performance of T&L, rather than individual brands or functions.

Hahnemann believes this change will increase the incentive for employees to deliver on strong business results.

“It’s a misunderstanding that you have to guide people in every single little detail. It assumes you only do what you are paid to do, but great people don’t work that way. People are intelligent and if you give them the context of what we want to achieve – they will always do the right thing.”

This means communicating openly about the new strategy. “When we make changes, it’s very important that we are really good at explaining why. I think we could be more transparent. We need to be straightforward about both the sweet and the sour.”

Communicating our employer brand

The strategy change brings with it a need to attract new people to Maersk from different backgrounds. A priority for Hahnemann will be developing Maersk’s employee value proposition (EVP) – which means explaining why Maersk is a great place to work. This is also key to retaining current employees during a time of upheaval.

“We have not been great at communicating our EVP,” says Hahnemann. “Especially in Denmark, Maersk doesn’t have the employer brand it deserves, and we have work to do to change that and be stronger at explaining what it means to work at Maersk.”

We want a work environment where everyone feels they can be who they are, so that they can be their best self.

Ulf Hahnemann, Head of HR at Maersk

One challenge lies in how to attract a new generation of digital and technology millennials into the somewhat traditional shipping sector. But according to Hahnemann, potential employees are far more likely to be excited by an engaged workforce, than by pool tables and beanbags.

“I think a lot of people mistake the concept of ‘a great place to work’ with cool benefits or new features - but that’s not what really keeps people at work,” he explains.

“When Google won the best place to work in the world – one employee was asked what it meant to work there, and she said ‘I know that my line manager’s line manager cares about me.’

“At the end of the day, the most important branding exercise for Maersk is that we have proud employees. It comes down to creating an ambitious, caring, trusting and engaged environment – that’s not easy and a lot of businesses struggle with it, but at Maersk we have the foundations to build this.”

Inclusivity is everyone’s challenge

Another top priority is improving diversity and inclusivity. Hahnemann acknowledges that Maersk has not made satisfactory progress, especially when it comes to gender diversity at leadership level – currently only 10% of Vice Presidents in the company are female.

From now on, there will be a more structured approach, which includes ensuring a diverse slate of candidates to choose from when a leadership appointment decision is made. 

“It’s not completely prescriptive and we won’t have ratios - that’s not the point. But this will only happen if we are deliberate about it. We expect leaders to look at diverse candidates when filling a position and that is a non-negotiable.”

However, far from simply being a leadership issue, Hahnemann is determined that improving diversity and inclusivity is “everyone’s challenge”.

“I'd like all colleagues who are committed to this - women and men, alike - to make themselves visible and to help and push each other. This is not just a ‘female’ issue, this impacts on us all in different ways, and I am convinced we will only make progress by working together on it. We must hold each other accountable and help each other with our biases."

He encourages employees at the grass roots level to be more proactive in celebrating diversity. “It’s as much about creating an inclusive environment for everyone and to accept and celebrate differences, as it is to create a more diverse leadership. We want a work environment where everyone feels they can be who they are, so that they can be their best self.

“We can’t have this hierarchical culture where if it doesn’t come from the top it doesn’t happen - so my challenge to everyone is to take ownership of inclusion and diversity – don’t sit and wait for HR to come with a solution.”

First impressions

It seems there are some barriers that have yet to be broken down, but there is no doubt that the new head of HR is already making an impact. Does he view Maersk as slightly old-fashioned perhaps?

“No I don’t,” says Hahnemann. “There’s nothing at all old-fashioned about strong values and heritage and pursuing business goals in an ethical way. In fact, this is very trendy today and is something that is in short supply around the world.”

His first impressions are of a company “that’s very ambitious and is relentless at being ambitious and setting new standards - and I love that.

“But having said that, we need to stay fresh as an employer, we need to stay up to date and we need to provide a modern experience for all our employees. If there are some barriers that still exist, it’s time to chill, open them up and relax.”


Who is Ulf Hahnemann?

  • From Holte, Denmark
  • Married to Lise
  • Three children - Anders (23), Christian (21) and Pauline (17)
  • Studied economics at the Copenhagen School of Business Administration
  • Was an export consultant at the Royal Danish Foreign Ministry; joined Mars, Inc. as management trainee in Norway in 1989 where he held various executive roles in Denmark, Norway, Australia and USA during 27 years with the company
  • Interests: Reading, biking and kayaking
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