HR heads south – way south (Guest commentary)

Canadian delegation to Brazil undercovers HR practices in one of world’s emerging economies
By Diane Wiesenthal
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/13/2012

In September 2011, a small delegation of professionals from Manitoba and British Columbia journeyed to Brazil to study HR practices in a rapidly emerging country with a lot of high-tech industry.

It was the fourth Canadian HR delegation through People to People’s Citizen Ambassador Programs, an organization set up in 1956 by American president Dwight Eisenhower to unite professionals in various disciplines with international colleagues. The previous three visits took us to China, Vietnam and Cambodia, and Israel.

Even though we had all done our research, nothing prepared us for the sheer size of Sao Paulo — it’s the largest city in the southern hemisphere, boasting a metropolitan population of nearly 20 million.

Brazil is comprised of a complex mosaic of people, architecture and culture, and there is a stark contrast between wealth and luxury and poverty and hardship. Elaborate home security measures place mansions and apartment complexes behind a fortress of concrete walls, barbed wire and glass shards embedded in towering walls.

Many of the security measures were implemented as a result of terrorism and kidnapping that peaked in years past, but they now protect residents from rising crime.

Brazil is undergoing dramatic change and major cities are seeing intense growth. The country is holding major global events in the next few years, including soccer’s World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016.

It is now the seventh largest economy by gross domestic product (GDP), three places ahead of Canada. Yet it’s a country of extreme poverty, where people commonly sleep on sidewalks and people live in clapboard makeshift houses.

Meeting the business world

We met with Brazilian business leaders to learn about their HR programs and challenges. We saw that both business and society are very willing to take progressive approaches to complex issues. The foundation of all their solutions rests on fostering a sense of engagement and passion through learning and development — the nerve centre of HR.

The Canadian HR delegation met with the Rio chapter of the Brazilian Association of Human Resources (ABRH). Challenges faced by ABRH are similar to those facing Canadian HR associations — to provide relevant and value-added information and deliver professional development opportunities to a diverse membership base. Accreditation through a professional designation is one of its future goals.

We met with the leaders of GrupoJereissati, which runs a diverse mix of businesses that includes the largest chain of malls in South America and a grain company that buys Canadian wheat. It has a unique organizational structure in that it acts as a holding company but also has controlling ownership over the brand, corporate strategies and HR strategy in four distinct and diverse business ventures.

Of utmost importance was the brand recognition of the organization and corresponding quality control issues. Service standards play an integral part in delivering excellence that supports the brand and vision of this massive corporation, so much focus and attention is given to education and supporting employees to meet these core corporate objectives.

AGCO proved to be another example of business advancement. An international farm equipment manufacturer, it has five plants and 4,000 employees in Brazil. There is a significant investment in technology with leading HR practices. Its products are sold around the world, and aligning employee engagement and performance management with the company’s vision and mission are critical components of the HR strategy.

Visiting ChemTech, an engineering company with a leading HR strategy, was an inspiring experience. It developed a corporate university to help grow talent from within, which helps foster employee engagement and commitment, and boosts retention.A comprehensive orientation program ensures there is a good cultural fit between new hires and the organization’s values.

Since 1990, ChemTech has gone through tremendous growth and ownership change, and a robust change management plan is integral to its success, as are its leaders’ energy, ideas and dedication.

We also met with the president and owner of Groupo LET, a local HR consulting company. It’s an HR partner to many companies in the oil and gas, mining, publishing and television industries, as well as state- run institutions. They cite resourcing and developing talent as key issues for organizations in Brazil, along with retention of talented staff.

From all of our meetings with CEOs, HR executives and practitioners, there appears to be a good mix of seasoned, experienced people with young people equipped with the latest and greatest HR and business knowledge.

They share a few common traits and characteristics — they are all highly ambitious and very passionate, and optimistic, about their future.

Business challenges for these companies revolve around the booming economy and sheer scale of growth that has resulted in a shortage of senior leaders and highly skilled workers.

Companies are implementing a number of progressive measures to overcome this situation, including staff retention programs that focus on recognition, work-life balance and non-hierarchical and true open concept offices.

However, the professionals of Brazil have not completely shed their Third World perception of themselves. But there is no doubt Brazil will be a force to be reckoned with as we turn to the next chapter in the global economy.

The message from the country’s business leaders is clear: Strive to keep people engaged and passionate about their work amidst the distractions and turmoil of uncertainty and change.

The culture

As part of the delegation, activities are arranged to provide the team with a sense of culture and understanding as to people’s belief systems and values. A Jeep ride up — way up — to the Corcovado unveiled the sheer beauty of Rio de Janeiro and the enormous Tijuca National Park.

An evening trip in giant cable cars delivered us to the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain. This yielded yet another impressive view of this major beachfront city and business hub.

Tours of ornate churches provide evidence of a strong catholic religion. Of course, the towering presence of the infamous Christ the Redeemer statue is welcoming evidence of that.

Despite the huge growth, Brazil remains a country with massive crime and excessive taxation issues. We witnessed business people demonstrating in the streets to illustrate their belief the government is still corrupt and people are demanding a call to action and reform.

The city is a complex convergence of commerce and crime, with graffiti gang messages often covering the entire height of 15-storey buildings.

The solution to dealing with these monumental changes appears to be an underlying investment in education, development and skill-building. Although, as we’ve seen in the news of late, some strategic “strong-arm” tactics are being implemented to run drug and crime lords out of town.

As the nation moves to take its place on the world stage, it will undoubtedly be implementing sweeping changes and reforms that will eventually enhance the lives of all Brazilians, not just the wealthy.

To Moscow, with love

Plans are underway for a fifth Canadian HR delegation. This time, the destination is Russia, a country rich in history with a diverse political background.

We will examine population demographics; talent supply and demand demographics; attraction, recruitment and retention of a skilled labour force; compensation structures, cost of living and standard of living; learning and development infrastructures in both public and private education; organizational development; and understanding the HR and people challenges faced by the country and organizations.

We have delegates signed up from the Atlantic region, Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia. For more information, visit

Diane Wiesenthal is vice-president of people and organizational services at the Canadian Wheat Board in Winnipeg. She has led international delegations to China, Vietnam and Cambodia, Israel and Brazil for People to People’s Citizen Ambassador Programs. This article was prepared with the assistance of John Lyons and Candace Gauthier, delegates who participated in the trip to Brazil.

Globetrotting HR HR

Previous trips by the delegation

The trip to Brazil was the fourth trip undertaken by Canadian HR professionals as part of People to People’s Citizen Ambassador Programs. To read Diane Wiesenthal’s accounts from previous trips, see the following articles below:

• China, 6857

• Vietnam and Cambodia, 7610

• Israel, 9723.

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