HR Leading in the Era of Digital Transformations – Podcast with Gerard Penning


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The HR Congress recently had the great pleasure of talking with Shell’s EVP of HR Downstream Gerard Penning, who provided some salient insights on how the company is dealing with the massive pressures presented by digital transformation, as well as some of the leadership requirements of the current business landscape.

As the conversation evolved, it became clear that there are a number of leadership competencies that are going to become more and more essential for HR professionals to possess (and of course, for many non-HR folk too). Because HR is uniquely positioned to lead a digital transformation, they have a great opportunity to influence the direction of the organization’s growth, and therefore the lives of all employees.

With new technologies, AI, robotics, blockchain, and a host of emerging tools irrevocably shifting the way work takes place, the future of the organization partly rests on the ability of leaders to pave a way forward. These technological changes are going to have a profound impact on the organization and the people that constitute it. Yet despite this, Penning suggests an optimistic view; all adaptations necessitate the development of a culture of constant learning, agility, and resilience.

“Whether you work in HR, legal, finance, in technical disciplines, in marketing, sales – you have to indeed constantly refresh your skills”

Gerard Penning

He argues that it is only with the correct synergy of tools, culture, and skills (as well as a bit of foresight), that organizations will be able to re-focus and create new opportunities for employees to grasp. His suggestion is that we must be curious and not fearful – for while it’s true that some jobs will become redundant, management can provide clear and viable alternative pathways. Employees and job-seekers must therefore also be open and resilient enough to take the opportunities as they arise.

Despite this, it is of course understandable that there is a certain level of anxiety and uncertainty in an organization undergoing any such digital transformation. Leaders must build trust through authenticity – starting with asking the right questions about fundamental needs. They must be both a source of trust themselves, and an honest broker about the changes that are occurring. This transparency will denote respect, and will help to build empathy throughout the organization by engaging everyone around common questions, fears, and future goals.

“Authenticity is about leaders who can provide deeper meaning, who can give people a sense of why we are doing this, what is the purpose of this activity – so that suddenly you build a foundation for people”

Gerard Penning

While leaders scan the horizon and prepare for conceivable scenarios, there are some core truths that remain. HR’s own role is changing as fast as any changes to the market. Constant adaptations to the way we work are only going to become more and more normalized as technologies expand their role in all parts of life. HR professionals need to therefore be not only a driver of digital business transformation; but a trusted and authentic partner to the very people in their organization who will remain the ultimate focus – in spite of whatever technologies emerge.

Listen to the podcast below on Spotify, or via Spreaker!

Gerard will deliver a keynote presentation entitled HR Leading Digital Business Transformation at The Digital HR Summit Amsterdam on April 2-3. Make sure you don’t miss the opportunity to join him there, especially if you are interested in learning more about leadership, digital transformation, and strategies to cope with the future world of work.


The 2nd Digital HR Summit Amsterdam, April 2-3 will feature a selection of sessions that will explore the implications of Digital technologies on HR and the business in general. Make sure you follow The HR Congress Blog to stay posted on all the latest news, updates and content from the world of work!

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