The future of work: An interview with Eileen Burnett-Kant, CHRO at CLP Group
Human Resources Officers

The future of work: An interview with Eileen Burnett-Kant, CHRO at CLP Group

Eileen Burnett-Kant, the CHRO at Hong Kong–based power company CLP Group, discusses the transforming HR function and the skills and capabilities leaders will need in the energy industry going forward.
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In this next episode of The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Martin Xiang speaks to Eileen Burnett-Kant, the CHRO at CLP Group, an investor-owned power company in Asia Pacific. Eileen discusses the transformation CLP’s HR function has been undergoing, sharing what their needs have been and what approaches she adopted for the transformation. She also shares what she believes are the most important trends to watch out for in terms of the future of work; the skills and capabilities leaders will need in the energy industry, especially the power and utility sector; and how she is navigating the needs of a changing workforce, touching on the particular challenges of remote working, the gig economy, and a multi-generational hybrid workforce. And finally, she shares how she is working to shape a thriving culture across the different markets CLP is in and what she sees as the biggest challenges for talent management over the next three to five years.

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Heidrick is the premier global provider of senior-level executive search and leadership consulting services. Diversity and inclusion, leading through tumultuous times, and building thriving teams and organizations are among the core issues we talk with leaders about every day, including in our podcasts. Thank you for joining the conversation. 

Martin Xiang: Hi, I'm Martin Xiang, a principal in Heidrick & Struggles’ Hong Kong office. I'm here today with Eileen Burnett-Kant, chief human resources officer at CLP Group, one of the largest investor-owned power businesses in Asia Pacific. Eileen joined CLP in 2019 and is responsible for all HR-related matters across the group. Throughout her career, Eileen has held a number of senior HR and general management roles in the metals and mining, airline, chemical, agricultural and retail sectors. And earlier she was a management consultant with McKinsey. 

Eileen, very welcome, and thank you for joining us today.

Eileen Burnett-Kant: Martin, thanks so much for the opportunity.

Martin Xiang: For the past three years, CLP has been going through a transformation in the HR function. What are the needs you see and approaches you have adopted for this transformation?

Eileen Burnett-Kant: When people from outside of CLP in the utility industry talk to me about it, they tend to use words like “traditional” or “dependable,” “reliable,” and “so local”. And on the one hand, we're all of those things and we have to continue to be because our customers rely on us to provide affordable, essential services that support local communities. But then, on the other hand, the energy industry all around the world is going through quite profound change. We use the word “energy transition” you see that in the newspapers, but what we're really doing is playing our part in whole of system replacement. So, imagine whether we're in Hong Kong or any other major city, most or if not all, energy is being generated from zero carbon sources. Most of those sources have to be built. The grid has to be re-engineered to cope with all of that. Every vehicle, bus, cars, ferries, and trains, they're all electric or hydrogen; buildings are fitted or retrofitted, and they're all accessed through new digital technology interfaces and in new business models. That's becoming our reality as a major energy player in the Asia Pacific region. We have to not only engineer this transition, but also make it fair for our customers and for our people. So all of that means really big shifts in people’s capability now and over the years to come, attracting new skills such as renewable energy skills, smart grid, digital, retraining staff, transitioning to a new digitalized and more commercial ways of working, and supporting all of our people to thrive in that change. All of that's happened while we've got a war for talent going on with big disruptions in all of our markets, in demographics, health, wellbeing, migration, turnover and changing employee expectations. So we've got a bit [going] on in CLP and a bit to do from a people perspective. 

What we're doing in HR and the HR function mirrors these shifts and what we're trying to make sure is that the HR function is set up to deliver support to the business to drive those shifts going forward. What we've done over the past couple of years is strengthen our specialist capabilities in organization development, rewards and governance, wellbeing, return to work. We've set up an in-house talent acquisition team and now we're working on the back office to take full advantage of the digitalization of the function. We're also implementing a channel strategy to provide advice and support more effectively and efficiently to CLP team members, and that will enable our HR business partners to focus on more strategic work. 

But I would say that our transformation is not just about structure and about systems. It's about refreshing all of our policies to support the talent agenda, new ways of working and people's changing expectations. We've enhanced flexibility and wellbeing policies, and now we're implementing major changes to performance management and remuneration to reward business success from collaborating between Hong Kong and mainland China in particular, as well as demonstrating new behaviors. We’ve refreshed leadership competencies and our whole engagement approach to team members to make it two-way, not one. So we see this as a transformation of our HR capability in line with the transformation of our industry. And it's an exciting time to be part of HR at CLP.

Martin Xiang: Exactly. Thank you very much, Eileen, for sharing the essence and the different aspects of CLP’s HR transformation. I can imagine there must be a tremendous effort in navigating the company's future HR function. As we look ahead, the future of work has been a widely discussed topic, especially among the global CHRO community. Eileen, what are the most important trends to watch out for in terms of the future of work, the skills and capabilities leaders will need in the energy industry, especially the power and utility sector?

Eileen Burnett-Kant: For many years, CLP has had a leadership competency framework in that has emphasized things like balanced strategic thinking, thinking in the short term or long term, solid execution, risk management, continuous improvement, good people management, and cultural adaptability. That is very much the hallmark of the energy industry and we still want all of that.

When we looked at our capabilities, we started with the idea that maybe this would be evolution, not revolution, and that was what was on our minds. But what came out of the review was some quite big shifts in thinking about what we wanted from our leaders going forward. We wanted very much to focus on things like decision-making under uncertainty. The market is changing so much every day, every week, with policy changes going on all around us. So we need our leaders to be able to be more agile in making decisions and have less complete information and be comfortable with that.

Risk-taking change leadership was a very big theme to train and develop our leaders in and then what we call engaging for value, which is really about not just focusing on good organizational relationships inside the company, but how you form partnerships outside of the company and build an ecosystem so that we can create value for the business. And so those new shifts on top of the existing leadership competencies are what we're now embedding into our leadership assessment approach and into our development programs. 

Martin Xiang: So in the future, how are you approaching the needs of a changing workforce such as Gen Z and millennials, remote working, gig economy, [and] multi-generational hybrid workforce?

Eileen Burnett-Kant: Thank you, Martin. I think it's interesting because it's an area where perhaps the utility industry is a little different from other industries in that we have a very much older workforce generally. But over the past four to five years, there's been a very dramatic shift. Soon we'll have half of our workforce under 40 and obviously growing over the next period of time, so we need to look at how we support those younger people coming to our business, meet their expectations and reengineer basically all of our policies which are very much engineered to support people who are 50 plus. At the same time, we also have to look at how we engage our older team members flexibly to prolong their careers and allow the new generation to benefit from their deep expertise.

Because we take such a long-term view about people, we see then that we have a role to play in their progression and social progression, helping people feel like they can not only have a good career with CLP but also establish themselves in life. 

I think many young people in Hong Kong in particular, but also in our other markets, can feel a bit disheartened and perhaps losing a bit of hope around the widening wealth gap that they see around them and the fact that life has been tough for them over the past few years. So we try to help very directly with policies that we've got in place, with scholarships to help team members. Also, we have a home loan scheme for our team members in Hong Kong to help them get that first foothold on the housing ladder here, which is such a big factor here in the Hong Kong market.

We also want to create opportunities for people who might have missed out on entering our industry first time or getting the qualifications they need to join CLP. We have a fantastic institution called the CLP Power Academy, which is a collaboration between CLP and a number of different universities and training institutions. It runs diploma and degree programs using our facilities and using our staff as lecturers, but also university and technical college staff to run programs from diploma up to master's degree. 

We've graduated over 1,500 students from the CLP Power Academy and that lets them either come and work for us or work elsewhere in the industry. It also gives hope for the future and a second chance for people to come and join our industry. So what we're doing from a workforce perspective might be a little different to other people, but very much trying to expand at the top and the bottom, give people second chances, give them hope for the future, as well as tackle our talent needs. 

Martin Xiang: CLP owns assets and operates in several markets in the Asia Pacific region. Are there any market differences that you see with reference to planning for the future workforce?

Eileen Burnett-Kant: We do see some differences primarily because of the different nature of our businesses. In India and mainland China, we're building renewable assets, solar farms and wind farms. They tend to be quite remote, small workforces, and very local, so the needs of our team members there are sort of hyper-local in what they are looking for. On the other hand, Hong Kong is about infrastructure projects, digitalization and therefore, again, a different workforce with different expectations. In Australia, we have a big trading and a much bigger retail business. So we've got pockets of different needs, different workplace demographics and different profiles that we need to balance across the region.

Martin Xiang: How do you approach shaping a thriving culture across different markets?

Eileen Burnett-Kant: In a company like CLP, we've been in business for over 120 years. Across the region, people have joined us at various times. But there's a very clear CLP DNA, as I would call it that runs across the business and is incredibly strong – safety, reliability and integrity. I think that's embedded through our work on values, frameworks and all the reinforcement that you would expect through recruitment, assessment and leadership development. 

But then I think because we do run a business across the Asia Pacific region, our approach to it is freedom within a framework. So we don't have one CLP set of values that we say you have to talk to your people about CLP values. We have “Energy Australia” values that are linked to CLP values, “Apraava” values in India that are linked to CLP values. So we allow freedom within a framework, and we also allow our businesses in Hong Kong and in mainland China to express the values in ways that make sense to them.

We've invited team members to come and express the values in their language. The DNA will remain the same, but the language will be our team members’ language and it will respond directly to the feedback they gave us. Making it simple and making it practical and real for team members are the main things that I'm trying to do from a culture perspective in CLP.

Martin Xiang: Thank you very much, Eileen. How is CLP preparing for this future workforce? How are you ensuring you can attract, develop and retain the leaders you’ll need?

Eileen Burnett-Kant: Thanks, Martin. I reflected on this because we could probably talk for an hour or two about everything that we are doing. But in the end, I tried to boil it down into three big themes that we're really pursuing across all of our activities. I think the first theme is from the ground up. This is a market that isn't going to just give us the talent that we want. We have to build it. It's not the first industry on people's minds when they wake up in the morning “I want to join the utility industry.” A lot of people are not necessarily choosing mechanical or electrical engineering. They're looking at new engineering degrees, so we're competing with all of that. 

We have to build connections, dialogue with people from that very early age, talk about who we are, what we do, and work our way up through primary schools, through secondary schools. Girls go tech, sponsoring female engineering students through university, creating internship opportunities so that we do everything possible so that we have a pipeline of talent that comes in the door into our graduate programs.

And then I think the second thing is that the message for us really needs to be reshaped because if I go back to what I said at the beginning, people have this perception of the industry as safe and reliable. We have such growth, such a variety of opportunities to be involved with and the opportunity for people to innovate, develop new business models, and make commercial decisions. So we see it as being quite different. Particularly to the new generation, the message around being directly part of driving solutions to climate change is something that is very attractive and we need to emphasize. We're not talking about it, we're doing it. 

The last piece is something that I touched on before. We see that we need to build a talent ecosystem around CLP, so it's not just us and our own efforts to attract people, but also we're getting the support of universities, training organizations and NGOs, so that they all understand what CLP is trying to do and they can help us in our mission to find people. We're also not waiting for some of the structural problems like licensing issues between the mainland and Hong Kong to get in the way, because we're actively working with organizations between Hong Kong and mainland China to overcome those difficulties and make sure that we can bring and get the talent we need. We are definitely working beyond our boundaries to tackle the great talent problems that we've got.

Martin Xiang: What are the biggest challenges you see in terms of talent management, keeping a view of a median term of a three-to-five-year horizon?

Eileen Burnett-Kant: Thanks, Martin. I think when I was reflecting upon this question, the first thing came to mind was, of course, the short-term issues that all of us face, I think as CHROs, which is just stabilizing turnover and making sure that people want to stay. But because you've deliberately said 3 to 5 years, I'll dig myself out of that hole and say I think in three to five years, there're three big things that we're really focusing on. 

One is in our core markets here in Hong Kong and mainland China of taking a more integrated approach to the talent market. Really sourcing as one market, developing as one market and driving flexibility between the markets is a major theme. 

The second one in that three- to five-year timeframe, we will be making a big shift in terms of digitalizing our business. So training our people, retraining everyone in new skills, and then creating that nucleus of advanced digital capability is something that will be incredibly important. The change management that's needed around that is something that from a leadership development perspective we very focus on.

I think the last thing that we're doing is really working to expand our traditional workforce sources and helping the different generations work together as we've spoken about earlier. Expanding the traditional workforce is a major theme over the next three to five years. 

Martin Xiang: Well, I believe these challenges are also shared by [some] other major companies in Hong Kong, Eileen. So, what advice would you give to other CHROs on how to prepare for the future of work?

Eileen Burnett-Kant: For me, the future of work is not just one thing. I feel that you need to think about it broadly and very much from a business perspective. It's not a goal for me in itself. I'm not trying to prepare CLP for the future of work, rather what I'm trying to do is working with our businesses to agree on how we need to work in the future. Then with our people to understand their expectations and to come up with a range of policies and approaches to meet everyone's needs. 

The second piece of advice, if I may, would be about the two-way engagement. So make sure that what you're doing is really grounded in people's real issues and wants, and they may surprise you. 

And so listen, very simple. Listen, ask, and you may get surprised.

Martin Xiang: Thank you so much for making time to speak to us today.

Eileen Burnett-Kant: Thank you, Martin. I appreciate it greatly.

Thanks for listening to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. To make sure you don’t miss more future-shaping ideas and conversations, please subscribe to our channel on the podcast app. And if you’re listening via LinkedIn, Twitter, or YouTube, why not share this with your connections? Until next time.

About the interviewer

Martin Xiang ( is a principal in Heidrick & Struggles’ Hong Kong office and a member of the Industrial Practice and the Supply Chain & Operations center of excellence.

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