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Building Lego’s HR structure, brick by brick



Having a professional excuse to play with bricks every day might be the dream for many, but HR at Lego is far from child’s play, finds Beau Jackson.

In business, reputation is everything, and as one of the world’s best loved toy brands, selling in the hundreds of millions each year, a good reputation is something Lego has – by the brick load.

Despite rising anti-plastic sentiment, for the past three years it has ranked in the top three most reputable companies by RepTrak – number one in both 2020 and 2021. It has a brand identity that’s instantly recognisable and, though initial patents have now expired, irreproducible.

As someone who has dedicated most of his career to date to marketing and branding, it’s clear why a role at the brick-maker clicked for chief people officer Loren Shuster.

“I’ve worked for six other companies, but I’ve never worked in an organisation where people feel so deeply connected to the purpose, which is to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow,” he says.

“I can’t even think of the last time I met a person who didn’t at least smile when I mentioned that I work for the Lego Group.

Usually, you get a whole story about what the Lego brand means to them; they grew up with it or their kids play with it.”

Read more: Purpose-driven work vital to employee health

In a world where many employees are seeking more purpose from their careers, Shuster’s position is enviable. But it doesn’t by any means make his job any easier.

“Nothing in the world today is easy for any business,” he says. “The socio-political landscape is complicated, and post-Covid there’s a lot a lot of changes and there’s economic challenges.

“We face those like any other company but given our focus on long-term orientation it’s easier to navigate the stormy weather when it comes than maybe in other organisations where there’s less of a personal investment and connection with what the company is trying to achieve.”

A look at the company’s Glassdoor shows it rates a respectable 4.4 stars out of five. A friendly culture and generous discount are some of the highlights but, like other family-owned and well-established businesses, some reviews criticise the brand for being slow moving.

While public reviews should always be regarded critically, with a pinch of salt, Shuster’s moves in the people function are seeking to transform the way things are done. For the past two years he says: “We’ve thinking very hard about: what is the future HR model?” 

Rather than starting from scratch, Shuster and partners in HR and strategy collected ideas from the chief HR officers of several organisations revered for their people practices, including Nike and Adidas. 

They also spoke with external HR consultants and leading thinkers, such as Dave Ulrich and Josh Bersin, to create a new blueprint for HR. The result is a three-pronged framework which focuses on product management, communities of excellence and flexible business partnering.

The product management aspect deals mainly with Lego’s HR technology and building product orientation within the people team.

Communities of excellence, rather than centres as in a traditional Ulrich model, bring colleagues into initiatives from the start, rather than leaving HR to work in private, announce, roll-out, then review.

He says: “We get employees involved from the very beginning, so we design something that has a higher probability of being relevant, an installed base of individuals as change agents, and a strong narrative to the organisation that this isn’t just HR developing something, this was actually developed with your colleagues.”

The flexible partnering part of the model is the aspect Shuster says HR peers find most intriguing. It works by pooling the senior people partners from different functional areas that can be deployed based on business need.

“The logic behind this, which we’re still unlocking, is that you mobilise your partners to the most critical and strategic tasks at any point in time,” he explains.

“For example, two years ago, we went through a major digital transformation. We took 700 people in our former IT organisation, and we pivoted to an agile and product-led organisation so we needed a lot of resources to execute that. But then, last year markets and channels was doing heavy organisational change and capability building. So, we’re trying to build that fluidity into the system.”

Based on experience, Shuster deviates from what could be considered a ‘typical’ HR profile.

Before becoming CPO, he was Lego’s chief commercial officer, and prior to that worked in brand solutions at Google.

When he interviewed for Lego he was asked by the owner and CEO if he had CEO aspirations, but he says it was the role of CPO instead where he felt he could enact the kind of change he wanted to see in business.

Read more: Moving on up: Where next on the HR career ladder?

Stumbling on a holistic health retreat in Australia in his 20s was the catalyst for his move. He says: “I got exposed to different modalities of so-called human potential movement – mindfulness, yoga, counselling, group work, dynamic work, and it really wedged my eyes open. I was quite ignorant about all those things. That led me down a path of curiosity.”

After some personal development Shuster started bringing wellbeing practices into his leadership approach, which drew him to HR.

“I saw myself as a commercial marketing leader who was human-potential oriented,” he says, “And then, while I was at Google, I started to wonder: what would it be like to apply that interest of mine more full time and influence the organisation from the HR seat?”

Even after discussions with Laszlo Bock, who oversaw Google’s people function as it grew from a cool multibillion-dollar business to one commanding tens of billions in revenue, Shuster was uncertain. 

“I wasn’t sure because not all HR functions that I had experienced were aspirational,” he says, “Many were administrative, transactional, not influential enough.”

Lego HR has a so-called raison d’être, which is to be the architects of culture. And for now at least Shuster seems to have found his calling.

He says: “I really enjoy being in this position. I’ve learned a lot and hopefully I’ve had a positive impact.”

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