Developing forward-looking leaders: An interview with Peter Attfield, former chief talent and learning officer of Jardine Matheson
Leadership Development

Developing forward-looking leaders: An interview with Peter Attfield, former chief talent and learning officer of Jardine Matheson

Peter Attfield discusses evolving employee expectations, leadership development, and people strategy.
April 15, 2024
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In this next episode of The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ David Hui and Grace Gu speak to Peter Attfield, the former chief talent and learning officer at Jardine Matheson. Attfield shares how the Jardine Group has met the challenges of the last few years, how the company, the group, and the subsidiaries are preparing for the future, and what leadership skills or capabilities the group is focusing on in terms of both development and talent attraction. He also discusses the shifting of both employer and employee expectations, sharing his insights on the most effective way to communicate about those shifting expectations from both sides of the table, and what he sees are typical mindsets, attitudes, or reactions people should work on changing. Finally, Attfield shares the two or three things from a people strategy perspective he believes there needs to be absolute focus on.

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been lightly 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.

David Hui: Welcome to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. I'm David Hui, a partner in our Hong Kong office. I lead our CEO & Board Practice here in Hong Kong and I'm also the regional managing partner for the Industrial Practice for Asia Pacific and the Middle East. I'm joined today by my colleague, Grace.

Grace Gu: I'm Grace Gu, a partner of our Consumer Markets Practice in Heidrick & Struggles' Shanghai office, and also a member of our CEO & Board Practice. I also lead our consulting business in China.

David Hui: In today's podcast, we're very excited to speak with Peter Attfield here in Hong Kong. Peter is the former chief talent and learning officer at Jardine Matheson. He has a proven global track record in strategic business partnering and HR expertise in leadership roles across multiple sectors and geographies in developed and emerging markets. He has deep expertise and over 30 years of experience in both large-scale organization and cultural transformation, as well as HR functional transformation in both MNCs and large regional family-owned businesses. Thank you very much for joining us today, Peter.

Peter Attfield: Delighted to be here, David and Grace, and looking forward to the conversation.

David Hui: From a talent and culture perspective, how has the Jardine Group met the challenges of the last few years, and how do you feel the company, the group, and the subsidiaries are prepared for the future?

Peter Attfield: The shape of our business has been changing over recent years. We've been through various divestments. There's been some bets made on new economy businesses in parts of Jardines. Over the last few years with Covid, and so on, the geopolitical situation that we face in some parts of the business—some of our sectors have done well, some have done less well. But I think what's endured through all of that for Jardines is the focus we've had on innovation, digital transformation, being more entrepreneurial, on sustainability has not wavered. Indeed, I think the level of investment that we've been making on our talent and the development of our key talents in particular, has been unwavering during that period. One of the things that I talk quite a lot about over the last couple of years is the future of work.

Obviously, it's a topic that lots and lots of people have different opinions on. But I think the things that strike me from that sort of impact on people and those who are either in Jardines or who we would like to have join Jardines in the future, is that employee expectations of what is a job have just changed so much. There's been much more of a focus on treating people like customers, treating them like adults, human beings, etc., along with a much stronger focus on creating great candidate and employee experiences, a massive evolution in policies around agile working, well-being, inclusive leadership, things like that. I think now candidates are making very, very clear choices about who they want to work for based on that value proposition that companies are putting on the table. 

David Hui: What would you say today are the two or three capabilities or skills, from a leadership perspective, that you think as a group that you need to focus on in terms of developing your own people or when you're hiring externally? 

Peter Attfield: Let me answer that in two ways, David. I think this comment applies to everybody - in a world that is changing as rapidly as the world we're in today, the shelf life of skills has gone from ten years to five years to about four years, and in some technical areas, even two years. If you don't have a lifelong learning, upskill, reskill-type mindset today, you are going to get left behind. The way I like to frame that is around future employability. You will cease to be relevant if you don't have that mindset. I think a lot of the things that we do in Jardines to try and encourage people to think like that and to meet their reskilling needs, etc. is a testament to that. 

The other thing I'd say is at the more senior level, one of the conversations that we've been starting to have is around ambidextrous leadership, to give it a name. In terms of, not only do you need the core to perform, but you need to transform the future as well at the same time. I saw recently from a fairly large data set of senior leaders around the world said that about 12% of senior leaders have this ambidextrous capability—that's a really low number. That's a big challenge for senior leaders. It's not necessarily a muscle we have in terms of transforming for the future. I think both of those areas are really important. 

Grace Gu: You talked about shaping the business and shaping of the strategy, and you also mentioned about the shifting of employee expectations and also the expectation from the employer. What do you think is the most effective way to communicate such re-shifting of expectations on both sides of the table?

Peter Attfield: We use the term “future employability” quite a lot. A lot of the communication we make around our learning curriculum, in particular, it's in your hands. I think part of the frustration, that I often feel as the Head of Learning and Talent in Jardines is that I can make all of this stuff available, such as access to world class learning, access to learning journeys, access to mentoring, and access to coaching. I can make all of that available to people to help them develop their career. But as is usual, the adoption and the uptake of that is not what you'd expect. The overall messaging about the skills and leadership capabilities you need in the future is that you just need to keep banging away on that. At the senior level, there needs to be a clear expectation set. It feeds into performance management. It feeds into who gets onto succession plans and who gets promoted. All of those decisions that we want leaders who can manage today and transform tomorrow at the same time. And those of you that can will get the core jobs and those of you that can't, probably won't.

Grace Gu: It looks like there is a gap between the vision, versus the reality, the adoption from the employee or senior talent. What have you observed that are the major things that constrain or create such a gap? What are typical mindsets, attitudes, reactions you think would be encouraging for those people to change?

Peter Attfield: The easy answer to a question like that is time, but in the end, as we all know, that's just an excuse. The best people find the time, they find the opportunities. We run an annual event in Jardines called Learnfest, which is a week of learning that we curate for 20,000 odd people across the business. We ran a session and the question on the table was, how do you learn? We asked a group of senior leaders, and we asked a group of millennials or Gen Z, young people basically. And of course, we heard very different things about the way they learn and how they find the time to do it. But the common theme through it was people find a way. Whether it's listening to a podcast at their son's football on Saturday morning or whether it's printing off all the articles they want to read and taking them on a plane trip, or whether it’s making sure they go to two or three conferences a year. They all find a way to overcome this barrier called time.

I think the biggest issue for me is the point around accountability. How well do we hold leaders at all levels accountable for their own development? How often does your performance rating or performance review outcome, get impacted by whether or not you delivered on your development plan, which included learning X or Y or working with a coach or a mentor on something. And I think the answer to that is not very often. So I fundamentally think that's one of the big issues that most companies face.

Grace Gu: From your point of view, if you could summarize two to three most effective tips for those who have the passion to develop their leaders, in being forward looking, what do you think would help the most? From what you have achieved or done at Jardines?

Peter Attfield: I'm a big believer in looking at what the best companies in the world do—stories of progress in this space. Another thing we do with our key talent is we expose them to INSEAD and IMD, world class business schools, to not only world class academics, but other companies and guest speakers that come into those sessions to try and give them a perspective as to what good looks like. There are not enough people that know what good looks like in the business. Finding ways for leaders who you consider to have high potential to get out there and smell the roses I think is really, really important.

The other thing I think is self-awareness. You can only improve if you're open to feedback and open to insights coming from assessments. We're getting to a point where I think for many of our middle to senior leaders, we are much more feedback rich and data rich than we've ever been before through a variety of psychometric and other assessment type processes that we've been using. The Achilles heel in all that, though, is, how well has the outcomes from all of that data being reflected into development plans, and how well are those development plans then actually executed on? It's very easy to see those that are really invested in being better because they're hungry for that insight and that data. 

David Hui: You talk about learning, agility, listening, feedback, development plans. Those are kind of what we would look at from an organizational perspective as kind of the infrastructure of the organization. Moving the discussion to almost this next part of integrating all of that into being a daily part of everyone's life, is what people would generally refer to as culture. Especially in a conglomerate, one of the challenges with a group like Jardines is that you have a big group function, but you have individual operating units. Can you talk a bit about the practicalities of trying to make what you've talked about from a skill set perspective culturally the glue for the company?

Peter Attfield: I don't think there is one culture in Jardines at all. I think there's some underlying principles. We've been around for 194 years or something. We've got ten business units, at least ten cultures and probably within those, many, many micro cultures. Culture is largely shaped by leadership, in my opinion. And leaders are different everywhere. It's a truism, that culture eats strategy for breakfast. It's also a truism that it can be a force for good, or it can be a force for evil. 

I'm a big believer that it's an amalgam of the mindsets that people have around the business and those mindsets are significantly informed by key influencers around the business. They're not just senior leaders, by the way. They can be more junior people in departments. At the end of the day, the way I experience it and the way the person sitting outside my office experience it are probably different things. Just to give you a specific example in Jardines, we've been talking a lot about returning to our entrepreneurial culture roots. It was part of our heritage to buy and sell trade businesses and we were very entrepreneurial in doing so. The general perception was that as we got bigger, we were seen as a bit slower, bureaucratic and we'd lost that entrepreneurial edge. We managed to get the CEO to stand up and talk about what he meant by being more entrepreneurial, growth coming from new businesses. He talked a lot about the barriers that we had around our aversion to risk, our authority levels that we delegate people to take decisions, the authorization processes we have to get new ideas signed off. He talked about all those issues that he recognized got in the way. It's really, really hard in a big business like this to change across boundaries, change systems, processes, policies, across a conglomerate. We just don't work like that.

David Hui: That's one of the challenges that we're looking at for a lot of companies in Asia Pacific, the idea of this cultural uniformity it's quite hard to hold in a disjointed world. Clearly there is lots of tension between culture and skills, and skills and culture, and how you bring them all together. From a people perspective, people strategy, what would be the two or three things that you think there really needs to be absolute focus on, to thrive in an uncertain world?

Peter Attfield: Obviously things like power, hierarchy, face and all of those sorts of things are an important part of Asian cultures, and therefore of corporations in Asia. However, I just think these differences are overplayed. That said, if you're a leader in this environment, is to be culturally adaptable, sensitive, play the nuances, and that's not hard. You can learn how to do that. You need people that understand your business and also have the experience of adapting culturally to different places.

If people are not investing in their own development, they will get left behind. I can't emphasize that enough. I think the challenge for organizations, and we try and do this in Jardines, you need to hold people accountable for that. I think the other the other thing is, what's best practice? What are other companies that look like you doing? What does good look like? Once you've got a good understanding of what good might look like—how do you adapt that to your reality?

The whole talent learning and employee engagement, ecosystem, there's a lot of really cool practice out there in those areas. But the trick is integrating them and making it work for you, in your environment. But again, the demands of future employees are changing so fast that you can't afford to just keep doing it like you've always done it. You just can't. I can relate this back to the way we built our learning academy in Jardines over the last five years or so, is that we had a motto of “experiment, learn, and scale.”

So we completely rebuilt our curriculum. And we did that through experimenting with a whole range of different programs from different vendors. We learned quickly and if we failed, we moved on to the next one. Even more so today in a world where experimentation is really, really important—it's a key aspect of being an ambidextrous leader. You can experiment at the same time as you're running the current operation. You should have a series of experiments, and across this whole ecosystem going on at any point in time, as you seek to optimize and improve your practices.

David Hui: Peter, thank you so much for your time speaking with us. Thank you from Heidrick & Struggles.

Grace Gu: Thank you. Peter.

Peter Attfield: Thank you, Grace and David. 

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 interviewers

Grace Gu ( is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles Shanghai office and a member of the firm’s global Consumer Markets Practice; she also leads Heidrick Consulting in China.

David Hui ( is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Hong Kong office and the regional managing partner of the Industrial Practice for Asia Pacific and the Middle East. He also leads the CEO & Board of Directors Practice in Hong Kong.

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