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HR in the fast lane

Nike, appearing at 25 in Interbrand’s Top 100 Brands of 2011, is the world’s leading sporting goods company, employing almost one million people globally. Nike’s Italian HR director is homegrown, Pierfrancesco Vacca.

Vacca took a law degree and intended to follow a career as a diplomat, but was offered a job in HR in Italy, in 1985. He says: “I was hired by a big Italian firm as assistant to the head of personnel. I learned everything about administration and did a lot of recruitment as well, interviewing thousands of people.”

Vacca says he learned everything on the job, as there was no formal training scheme in place. Eight years later he moved to Nike, as HR manager, where he has remained almost 20 years and got involved in coaching others.

“When I joined Nike, I was the only HR person in the company and I did a lot of administration and recruitment, as well as organising several training and learning sessions. Later I had a team of six. In retrospect, most of my work has to do with using diplomatic skills, so I did not land too far off from what I had in mind.”

Vacca says his law degree only helps from a technical point of view when it comes to employee relations and legal issues, but it gave him the basic legal mindset needed to manage any organisation.

In 1999, he moved to work at Nike’s Dutch headquarters, in Hilversum, as HR director for EMEA, for footwear, equipment, outdoor and golf. His main focus was to extend and evolve the different organisations and become a business partner to the VPs managing those units.

He enjoyed living abroad and the cultural experience shaped his career and the way he interacted with people. He says: “Before working in Holland, I was like a medieval painter with no sense of perspective, while afterwards I was able to see things in a very different light. It’s true the world is becoming more globalised, but cultural differences, even if you are only 1000 km away from home, are still very big.”

“Moreover, I was working at the regional headquarters, alongside people from over 40 different nationalities, and you learn there is no real right or wrong, but just many ways of dealing with the same situation; being able to acknowledge this is very important when it comes to developing as a person and your career, because if you do not have the ability to understand and connect with others, then your career will always be at risk.”

“I interview people who work in marketing and do not want to move from Milan to Bologna to work for Nike in marketing, when Nike is one of the best career opportunities in the world for someone interested in this particular field. How can they think of building a sustainable career?”

Vacca has recruited countless successful business people into the world of Nike over the years, but believes his biggest achievement, is opening Nike’s famous ‘Shoe School’, a four-day intensive European training programme, developed to give employees a deep overview of the company’s overall product process; from ideation, straight through to delivery.

Vacca says: “It started with me talking to the GM of Footwear EMEA because we wanted to develop a programme which would show the ‘hands on’ product process to all participants working in the footwear business; they could have been product, sales or marketing focused employees in that business unit.”

The footwear product director would explain the whole production process, they took the class to Montebelluna, near Venice, to show them the research and development lab, responsible for developing and testing the football boots, so they could see how a shoe is actually made and they flew to Laakdal, near Antwerp, to see a huge distribution centre.

The distribution centre is essentially a warehouse where participants could see how the shoes arrive from factories in Asia, how they are stocked and assigned against the order, how the delivery is scheduled and ultimately placed in sets of big boxes to be shipped off.

He says: “It took a lot of work because we only used internal resources to deliver the training, the presentations and the rest. Throughout those four days, you could really see the whole product process live. It was a very nice programme and people were always thrilled to be selected.”

In 2003, Vacca moved back to Italy, as HR director. The Italian organisation and business had grown significantly in his absence. He took on the role as the so-called ‘voice of two territories’, working with his colleagues in other markets to represent and define the role and significance of HR from a common point of view to the reginal headquarters.

Central to Nike’s mission statement is to recognise and support young potential across the world and Vacca says: “Nike is a company that gives opportunities to young talent, differently from, for instance, many Italian companies and the Italian society and political environment as a whole.

“I believe the secret is to help today’s youth have their own experiences, make mistakes and develop a sustainable career that leverages their energy and willingness to achieve as well as the knowledge and culture that the older generation has.”

As Nike’s HR director, he has interviewed the best and the worst in the business world over the years and, determined to continue Nike’s legacy as investor in the young through the power of sports, Vacca knows exactly what to look for in prospective candidates eager to make a name for themselves in the footwear business.

Top of his list, is the right attitude. He says:” Above all we are looking for people who want to develop themselves, who are creative and who have a good basic education; if I see people, especially young people with little experience who act as though they were entitled to something great just because they studied at such and such university, then for me they are not a good fit; their technical knowledge will not help them develop in a sustainable way.”

“At the end of the day, I still believe people need to get their hands dirty before they can manage other people; after all, only experience teaches you something about yourself and others.”

Yet in the fast-paced era of globalisation, Vacca fears very little is being done to teach students the importance of relationships in business and the ability to communicate with one another in the workplace.

“In the private sector companies are in business to make money and so everything that has to do with the mechanisms of a company becomes very important; how to read and interpret numbers, how to predict the future and so on – in the globalisation era, however, there are also huge simplifications going on, whereby companies apply a certain model suggested by consultants and believe it will work no matter what.”

“We are heading towards a world of extreme thought simplification, of basic assumptions, of Pareto Rule applications and if universities teach only that, then we will lose the potential of imagining a better world, of crafting something useful, of improving society and, ultimately, being able to establish a real connection with our fellows. My point is, we should focus on developing the intuitive/connectivity side of our relationships more, and, therefore, of the way we do business.”

Nevertheless, relationships in the work place are often complicated and difficult to sustain, especially when a company is in crisis, or when certain circumstances lead to strong clashes of opinion. For Vacca, the biggest challenge to his work is whenever someone simply imposes decisions.

He says: “It happened often in my previous job, it still happens sometimes now with big projects coming in from global headquarters; in these situations, you rationally understand what the circumstances are and your work ethic ensures you do what is asked of you at the best of your ability; however, you do not feel comfortable with yourself.”

As Vacca points out; personal drive and passion make a huge difference. “To work at Nike, for example, you need to have the passion for sports as either a participant or a fan; if you play sports, then you probably already know that you can either win or lose but that if you do lose giving it your best, then it is fine, because if you are humble enough to listen to yourself and learn from your mistakes then tomorrow you will win.”

“To be an HR director, you have to practise listening to others and to yourself, otherwise you will just be applying theories or models, reducing HR to simply managing numbers and forgetting that behind the numbers there are people and it is the people who make the difference.”

No wonder Vacco fits in so well at the company whose motto is ‘Just Do It’.

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