Putting people first

18 June 2021
By Dr. Kunio Mikuriya, WCO Secretary General

The WCO has long been promoting Customs as a highly professional body, with specific knowledge, competencies and skills, which is fully committed to meeting the needs of governments and trade operators in terms of productivity, efficiency and quality of services. A key characteristic of such an organization is that it is people-centric. In order words, it takes care of its employees and values their happiness and well-being.

The challenge is not only to ensure that Customs administrations have the right person in the right job at the right time. Attracting talented people, enabling employees to gain new skills and advance their careers, ensuring that there is a free flow of information between staff at all levels of the organization, aligning their performance and behaviour with the administration’s missions and values, proactively shaping the future workforce, and retaining the top performers are some of the strategic issues that must be addressed by human resource (HR) departments. As the current health crisis reminds us, HR departments also play a critical strategic role in coping with disruption to services.

Given their role in dealing with such vital issues, HR departments should be considered as strategic players within administrations. The WCO Secretariat experts who, since 2014, have delivered over 90 diagnostic missions across all continents point out that, in many countries, such Customs professionals are still confined to an administrative role where they focus on handling HR matters. The experts’ main findings are presented in an article in this edition of WCO News, together with the tools and assistance programmes developed by the WCO to support HR departments. I will therefore not spend too much time on this issue, though I would like to encourage Directors General of Customs to ensure that their HR department acts effectively as a strategic partner and change agent in their administration and that they make use of the available tools and assistance programmes to that end.

We cannot talk about HR practices without mentioning leadership. Corporate culture, after all, starts at the top. According to experts, positive efforts and outcomes are largely the result of internal motivation. This raises the question of how leaders can truly motivate their teams. Some HR specialists question the use of the verb “manage” when referring to HR practices, instead advocating the use of “serve”. Leadership is about service. Such an approach requires a clear agreement on what each party must do, so that stakeholders share their leaders’ sense of commitment and back their plans.

During the most recent session of the Capacity Building Committee in February 2021, the WCO Secretariat presented a paper entitled “Leadership in challenging times and beyond”. To effectively lead, according to the paper’s authors, leaders must learn to implement three main elements: lead yourself, lead the organization and lead others (team and stakeholders).

To “lead oneself in times of crisis”, the authors recommend implementing the approaches and acquiring the skills identified by Dean John Quelch of the University of Miami Herbert Business School:

  • “Calm. Show command of the situation by staying calm and projecting composure that instils trust in employees and customers.
  • Add credibility to a calm demeanour and project a managerial bearing that boosts stakeholder reassurance.
  • Communicate relentlessly, but with strategy to cascade decisions in an appropriate order and promptly. Keeping all parties informed reduces misinformation or rumors and avoids silence that may hinder cooperation and engender discontent.
  • Tap into all resources and employee capabilities to extract best solutions. Managers best exemplify leadership when they allow team members to contribute their strengths.
  • Recognize an organization’s existence as part of a greater association of social units. Leading by example in the community, beyond the company, initiates a greater overall response and transmits a sense of humanity during a time of shared risk.
  • Look out for members of the organization or community that require extra accommodation. Show empathy and openness to adjust to their needs, be it by allowing remote work or extra time to look after their family members.
  • Give financial prudence as much attention as emotional guidance. Cash is king, especially during a crisis in which the leader must preserve funds and ensure the continuation of timely employee paychecks.”

When it comes to “leading one’s organization”, the paper’s authors note that even though, prior to the COVID-19 crisis, focus used to be placed on redesigning the organization to increase efficiency, the pandemic has clearly demonstrated the need for “Organizational Resilience”, namely the capacity to react in a proactive manner to unexpected and challenging situations and to develop the ability to recover quickly from a state of uncertainty, discontinuity and emergency. Such an approach requires the drafting of a crisis plan and a communication strategy.

The third point, “leading others”, means building a human-centric leadership culture within an organization and empowering local leaders to shape greater cohesion and build trust among employees. Current leaders should even encourage “emergent leadership”, a type of leadership in which a group member is not appointed or elected to a leadership role, but rather develops a leadership role over time as a result of the group’s interaction.

These concepts and practices are explained in a new e-learning module called “Leading Customs Administrations in Crisis Times” developed as part of the WCO Leadership and Management Development Programme (LMDP). Those wishing to enhance their leadership skills can also participate in one of the three LMDP activities: (i) Top Executive Retreat (TER), (ii) LMD Workshop for Senior Managers and (iii) Middle Management Development (MMD) Training. All these activities are still being held despite the situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, albeit it in virtual mode.

For this edition’s “Dossier”, we invited various administrations and organizations to discuss HR-related experiences, tools and practices. I hope this will inspire readers to take action and contribute to creating a work environment which enables people to continue growing professionally and learn new skills that will benefit their organization and the national and global community.