Empowering 3,500 people

Former Sage, HSBC and Sony executive Erna de Ruijter-Quist joined Westcon-Comstor as its first Chief People Officer in October last year, also bringing experience from time at Virgin Media, Liberty Global and GE Capital.

Now, she’s on a mission to empower 3,500-plus people around the world to innovate, learn and grow. Here’s how...

The Chief People Officer role is new to Westcon-Comstor, how are you going to make it your own?
It’s both exciting and daunting to step into a role that didn’t exist before. Being a member of the Executive Leadership Team and leading a team of HR professionals globally, my leadership style and experience will certainly influence the dynamic and the way Westcon-Comstor is run. While I plan to make the role of CPO my own in some ways, and either build from scratch, strengthen or change the HR capabilities the organisation needs in order to be successful, I also intend to nurture the great aspects that already exist.

What are your strategies for driving greater levels of employee engagement?
I see HR as the enabler, the facilitator, the challenger, with employee engagement being owned by every single colleague and line manager. I will be looking to explore ways to enable people managers in particular to create an environment where each individual in their teams can be at their best and feel a sense of strong personal connection. We want our people to feel connected to our brand, our values, our strategic ambition, the work we do and why we do it. A sense of connection with other colleagues, our vendors, partners, customers, and the communities in which we operate is also important.

What priorities are you focusing on right now?
I have worked in transport, electronics, banking, telecommunications and software. This variety and adaptability has been an advantage, and my priority is to fully absorb myself and learn more about the business and industry, connecting with as many different people across the organisation as I can to determine what Westcon-Comstor needs from HR in the years to come. I will shape the people strategy from there. It’s early days, but so far everyone I have spoken to talks about the highly supportive people-focused environment and the strength of our leadership. I’m also a realist and know that there will always be colleagues who have less positive experiences. As I come to learn about those experiences, it will be my job to listen and address pain-points as much as I can.

How will you take a lead on embedding a culture of DEI?
We have a DEI strategy in place which is also part of our broader ESG strategy. I will be looking to further develop it and I have already started to engage with several people on the topic to see what needs to happen to drive it forward. Pro-active senior sponsorship will be key, and I know from having discussed this with David Grant, Weston-Comstor’s CEO, that we will be working alongside each other.

How do you plan to implement programmes around innovation, internal mobility and learning?
This partially comes back to our culture. Innovation is one of our values and Westcon-Comstor is reshaping technology distribution for a new era in which the focus will be on providing increasingly complex solutions. Innovation is about being super-curious and not taking ‘no’ for an answer. It’s about maximising potential and creating a safe space where colleagues can experiment, trying out new ways of working and thinking (and acting) outside the box. A culture that fosters innovation is one where experimenting and not getting it always right is accepted as part of the learning curve.

We already have a strong Learning and Development platform in place and I plan to continue to drive the learning and development and internal mobility agenda. The pace at which technology is advancing and the world is evolving means we will have to help our colleagues to keep pace. Learning agility will be key. It’s early days to say exactly how I will do that and what programmes I may implement, but these are focus areas for sure.

How will you help drive the sustainability agenda at Westcon-Comstor as the business works towards Net Zero by 2050?  
A large part will be to fully educate myself more deeply about our ESG plans in more depth, having only just joined the business. I’m already in conversation with Kevin Brzezinski, our Chief Sustainability Officer, to explore our partnership in this space. ESG and DEI go hand in hand. My role will be to engage more than 3,500 colleagues with the topic and what each and every one of them can do in their role to contribute to Westcon-Comstor’s Net Zero ambition, as well as becoming advocates for a circular economy outside of work.

More generally, have you seen that one kind of ‘difference’ or diverse group may be prioritised over another?
Diversity is not a simple topic. If it was, all companies would have already nailed it. Do I see more and more companies educating themselves and taking this topic more seriously and taking more deliberate action? Yes. And we need to keep going. When a company says ‘we are diverse and inclusive’ – but have no neurodiversity strategy for example – I personally would not judge that statement too quickly. I would seek to understand where they are on their journey first. Neurodiversity may be next on the agenda for them. A healthy dose of realism and pragmatism on what’s possible needs to be considered. Making progress is key.

What have been your career experiences in terms of being female?
I’ve had a fair share of judgments thrown at me, not just from the business world, but also from the communities where I have lived. Anything from, ‘you’re a women so you won’t make it far in this company’; to, ‘when are you having children?’; to, ‘Oh no, you’re one of those career women are you?’; to, why can’t you come to our mums-go-for-lunch group? On your business travels again!’. I’ve not let such remarks define me and always pursued my own path and happiness. I have mostly had amazing support, great managers encouraging me and giving me opportunities, mentors in and outside of work, a partner and family who have supported me. These are the experiences that have shaped me.

When I gave birth to twins, my husband stepped back from paid work and stayed at home to look after the children while I went back to work. It’s been good for our children to experience a less typical family set up. I simply say that in our family things are a little different than most, and that I hope in years to come this would become more typical.

What’s the key to building and leading successful teams?
There are several things I pay attention to: Don’t just hire for the job, hire for complementing the team and the company. Pay attention to both functional experience, as well as for mindset, character and people leadership capabilities. Look for learning agility. Invest in dedicated team time, both work-related team time and off-work team time. Investing time in building personal connections is key. Work on what’s below the surface. And if you are in a position of leadership, know when you should lead and when you should allow your team to lead.

Be visible, be approachable, stay grounded – and be human first and foremost. Learn to debate and handle conflict within the team, but commit and speak with one voice ‘to the outside’ so that you own the message, collectively. It’s important to be clear on the intent, or purpose of a team, why the team exists and what it is seeking to achieve. For me, leadership is mostly about managing relationships, being authentic, building trust, showing vulnerability and knowing your craft. Actions speak louder than words.

What are today’s leadership priorities?
A big priority for leaders today is to learn to lead in the unknown. Leading in an increasingly fast-changing, unpredictable environment is hard. Keeping perspective and focus, paying attention to the stuff that will really make a difference and distilling out the noise is important. The ability to constantly adapt and course-correct is important; and managing a non-linear landscape is not easy, let alone doing so when leaders are expected to have a view on just about everything. Enabling and empowering teams to operate in an uncertain world is becoming an increasingly important part of leadership.

What is your biggest career achievement?
To build a fulfilling career in HR, working with some major international companies and supporting thousands of colleagues along the way.

In your career what would you have done differently with the benefit of hindsight?
I wouldn’t want it any other way. Has it been easy? No, not always. Has it been fun? No, not always, but mostly it has been! Embracing all experiences has made me the person and HR professional I am today. I’m passionate about HR, people and change, and my growth mindset pushes me to be better. Of course I beat myself up at times when things don’t go as planned and I feel responsible. But no regrets, only learning.
What talent do you wish you had?
Teleportation skills. Travelling is nice, but it’s tiring.

What motivates you the most?
When someone tells me that something I told them, a piece of advice or perspective that I’d once given, has been life-changing for them.
Tell us something about yourself we don’t know
I love animals and have a mini-menagerie at home, including four cats, two dogs, two rabbits, a terrapin and various reptiles.

What are your greatest strengths, and what could you work on?
People say I create trust, am approachable, direct and on-point. When a decision is made, or a direction set, I’m there living it and loving it. But I do need to look over my shoulder to make sure others, who may take a little longer to get there, can join the journey too.
One example of something you’ve overcome
Finding confidence, and finding my voice.
Were you destined to become CPO of a major company?
When I started out working for TIP Group, renting out lorries across Europe, I didn’t have the slightest idea that holding a CPO role was on my path. The role of a CPO wasn’t purposefully my ambition. I have never been motivated by job titles or leadership seniority. For me, it’s about whatever makes me fulfilled. Every role has a value and people should be proud of what they do. I always focus on being the best I can be and mastering my craft. That mindset has enabled me to have the career I have enjoyed to date. And who knows what’s still to come.

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