Iconic toy brand LEGO is renowned for encouraging dreamers, but it’s HR strategy is a carefully crafted mix of structure and creativity. HR Director Pieter Brummer gives HR Grapevine the inside scoop...

Words by Kieran Howells | Design by Matt Bonnar

Words by Kieran Howells


Design by Matt Bonnar

 

Picking up the pieces

2020 has been a challenging year for HR resulting in the function’s leaders having to make difficult choices about where to invest limited bandwidth. Whilst certain elements of the pandemic cycle forced HR’s agenda – for example, many have had to react to, and implement, the coronavirus job retention scheme or remote working structures – one issue that might not have been on the focus list in the short term is certainly worth paying attention now: employee development.

There are multiple reasons for this. Primarily, a strategically implemented learning and development scheme can help with staff engagement and retention as well as the employer brand. In fact, a recent LinkedIn study found that almost all employees are likely to stay with a company longer if it invests in their learning. Separately, 68% actively believe L&D to be the single most important quality a company can offer. With the vast majority of the workforce now operating remotely it follows that an engaging development programme could prevent employees from becoming disillusioned as they spend this extended period isolated from their colleagues.

 

In fact, during a time of financial volatility and changing customer behaviours, many businesses are ensuring that they’re strengthening and making resilient their core functions as much as possible. With separate Harvard Business Review and PwC researching showing that CEOs now concerned about getting the skills they need in the business almost as much as anything else, learning is making its way back to the top of the agenda. It’s importance to the executive follows on from an understanding, as data shows, that those who invest in L&D enjoy better business outcomes than those who do not.

We see learning and development as very much the responsibility of the individual to monitor. They are the ones who need to drive it and be on top of it, and it’s the managers’ responsibility to make the path to development as clear as possible.

Yet, 2020 has been a curveball for L&D. Many traditional learning methods, such as learning in classroom, are unavailable. This puts the onus on HR to find workable solutions to providing such services remotely. If they manage to do this successfully though, Pieter Brummer, HR Director, Partnering & Operations, at The LEGO Group believes it is one of the many ways that the function can show that it has evolved from more transactional roots. HR Grapevine was lucky enough to catch up with a HRD at the famous firm to find out how.

Little bricks with a big history

  1. LEGO was invented by Denmark resident Ole Kirk Christiansen, who began making toys in 1932. The LEGO Group began manufacturing the interlocking toy bricks in 1949.

  2. 1,300 LEGO pieces are made per second, 78,000 per minute and 4,680,000 per hour.

  3. In February 2015, Lego replaced Ferrari as Brand Finance's ‘world's most powerful brand’. According to Fox News, at certain points, investing in Lego sets was more valuable than investing in gold.

  4. The word “LEGO” is a fusion of the two Danish words “leg” (play) and “godt” (good).

  5. LEGO sells over 400 million tires each year, which makes LEGO the world’s largest tire manufacturer.

  6. There are over 400 billion LEGO bricks in the world. Stacked together, they are 2,386,065 miles tall, which is ten times higher than the moon.

  7. LEGO’s Danish motto is “Det bedste er ikke for godt,” which means “the best isn’t too good” or “only the best is good enough.”

 

Laying the foundations

Brummer arrived at LEGO in 2014 after cutting his teeth in the NHS, as well as other private sector roles, and explains that he was bowled over by the company’s inclusive culture and focus on development across the employee lifecycle, whilst keeping an analysis-driven approach to targeting key areas of development. “I would describe LEGO as a very paternalistic company,” Brummer notes. “That hits you quite hard from the start.”

He continues: “As a result, the company puts people first and upholds a promise to their people to work together for the greater good in the long-term. Nothing they do is short term or one sided. When hiring, they ensure that people have the potential to grow inside the company and when having to make redundancies, they’ll ensure that the person is as looked after as possible. If that means the process takes longer, then that’s just the way it is, in order to keep that promise of care to the people.”

We’re still searching, discovering, trialling and testing.

This ‘long term’ approach is clear in LEGO’s approach to learning and development. Quick to denounce short-term ‘tick box’ learning, Brummer believes that personal development is very much championed within LEGO, and emphasises that he sees the concept of forcing employees to adhere to a schedule of evidencing such development as overly idealistic, and a hindrance to their mission. “We see learning and development as very much the responsibility of the individual to monitor. They are the ones who need to drive it and be on top of it, and it’s the managers’ responsibility to make the path to development as clear as possible. We’re not here to badger you into learning. We’re here to remove obstacles and do whatever we can to spark that passion,” he explains.

Building back up

Yet LEGO, like many other companies, are currently unable to welcome their entire workforce back to a central location. Whilst Brummer notes that the company is well placed to make the move to an almost entirely digital infrastructure, development has inevitably been altered to fit employees many different living situations and wide-ranging needs. Brummer is the first to admit that, as of yet, LEGO hasn’t found a solution that it feels adequately services its people. But it is in the pursuit of it.

He explains: “We’re still searching, discovering, trialling and testing. We gave everyone IT kits to ensure people could operate, and we’re trying to make sure that people can work from wherever they see fit. But communication is still absolutely essential to how we work, and so we’ve just moved all the initiatives that we had in person to online. And of course, we see our employees not just as workers but as people. Their work-life balance is so important and some people are really struggling with child care or their rigid working hours so we allow people to work at whatever times suit them, and we trust them to do that, and if you’re a parent, we completely understand if you can’t always be around in the working day. So it’s not ideal, but we know that our employees need to do what’s right for them, but so long as they feel that their moving forward, that they’re bringing their best selves to the table and striving for greatness, that’s all that we ask.”

Constructing within the culture

Therein lies the crux of LEGO’s ethos. Hesitant to do anything rash, or disrupt the carefully crafted culture of reliability, stability and trust that it has built up over numerous decades, Brummer notes that any new HR initiatives must be rigorously justified to ensure that it meets employee needs, and won’t negatively impact staff with unnecessary changes. “LEGO is a company with a lot of internal heritage,” he notes. “We know what works and what doesn’t and we’ve built an amazing culture – that does mean that anyone who wants to change things up really has to justify it – we don’t want to mess up what we have.”

It’s clear this stability – an iterative not revolutionary approach to culture and business building – has, in turn, impacted on transactional, developmental and growth mindset within the firm. As Brummer intimates: LEGO’s people are acutely aware that they are part of a community that is built on communication and collaboration. This is something that he says is one of the first things that new recruits learn in their introduction to LEGO. “People are just generally super helpful. Every person I’ve ever met who has joined the company has commented to me on just how helpful everybody is. They want to help you because they recognise that everyone is on the same page and working toward a unified goal. I think that speaks to the culture.”

 

‘Everyone is awesome’

Whilst one might assume that, being a company literally fuelling the imaginations of children the world over, LEGO is comprised of off-beat creatives and unchained artistic minds, Brummer explains that their development is geared towards ensuring that a broad range of minds feel like they have a future at the firm. As such, that championing only those with conventionally ‘creative’ minds goes against the company’s inclusive culture.

I would describe LEGO as a very paternalistic company. That hits you quite hard from the start.

He explains: “I could tell you that our motto is that children are our role models and that we should think like them, but ultimately people’s strengths lie in completely different areas, and we want them to develop as much as possible without feeling tethered to ‘creativity’. If you’re amazing with numbers and consider yourself an analytical person then that’s fantastic, leave the imaginative stuff to the creatives and do what you do well! That mindset can be liberating.”

‘The only thing anyone needs to be special is to believe that you can be’

Yet whilst Brummer’s approach to LEGO’s HR strategy is grounded in logic and analysis, this doesn’t mean that he doesn’t consider LEGO to be a fun place to work, or that the small bricks that made the company’s name all the way back in 1949 don’t feature in HR’s strategy. In fact, Brummer strongly endorses employees taking the time to enjoy LEGO’s products as much as possible. “In all of our meetings we have bowls of LEGO and people play whilst we talk. That’s very normal for us. It’s a great stress-relieving tool, it can take your mind away from issues your having and help you find solutions.” Staff even get a bespoke LEGO gift for Christmas, Brummer adds.

Ultimately people’s strengths lie in completely different areas, and we want them to develop as much as possible without feeling tethered to ‘creativity’

Brummer continues that at any given opportunity, the company will use their toys to pay homage to a major celebrations and national holidays, noting that when he was showing HR leaders from other firms around when the PG Masters was taking place and as such, a LEGO golfing challenge was erected in the office. “I explained to our guest that it was a fun opportunity to take a break for our employees. They responded that if they tried to get my employees to play golf with LEGO no one would take them seriously. I told him that whilst that may be true, here not taking yourself too seriously is almost an expectation.”

Whilst that may be true of the superfice of the LEGO culture, its clear that at its heart is a serious approach to development. Understanding that learning needs to be at the core of what the business is doing if it is to survive as well as being geared towards the different skillsets LEGO needs now as well as going forward whilst also being delivered in a way that suits different people and, as of 2020, in a way that is uncertainty-and-volatility proof. If it does this, not only will organisational outcomes be more likely to be positive, HR can also prove itself as a central business function. It might even, as Brummer describes, be able to get to a point where “you almost can’t make decisions without having HR in the room, taking part in those conversations.”

The function isn’t quite there yet, but, at LEGO, strong foundations are certainly being laid with learning a core brick of that.


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