Over three decades in Reward across top multinationals, Sandrine Bardot has gathered plenty of insight into the changing nature of this ever-critical area of business.
Sandrine Bardot, now a consultant, trainer and speaker, has been working in reward long before it was a named concept. “I think I was one of the first people in Europe to have the title Head of Compensation and Benefit, as we called it then!” she laughs.
It was a role at France Telecom in her early career that finally attributed the nomenclature, and subsequent jobs within reward saw her at some of the top multinationals in the world – Apple, Phillips and Microsoft, to name just a few – and travelling extensively, living across Europe but jetting further afield regularly. Her wealth of global reward experience has given her insights into a profession and its evolution that are invaluable as we look ahead to the future of this function within a fast-changing world of work.
Looking out to sea
It all started with the Atlantic. The young Sandrine, from the window of her home in a small French town, would watch the international boats swapping the ocean for the Loire river. “I watched those boats and decided very early, I will not finish my life here,” she recalls, “and I was already travelling as much as I could as a teenager, offering to help with language exchanges so I got to spend my summers in the UK.”
She studied HR at university, mainly because the other choice was finance “and I hated that immediately”. Sandrine became one of the first students on the Erasmus exchange programme at her business school and studied for a year in the UK (in Bath), where her nascent intrigue about different cultures was further developed.
Her career has bounced her around bases including Rome, Turin, Milan, Paris, London and currently Dubai, although her jobs involved travelling for up to 70% of her working life. She recalls that “in France, when based in Paris, I was taxed as an expat because I was away so much.”
The international moves – and the open-minded mentality – were surely an inheritance from parents she describes as “pioneer”. They had travelled for her father’s work as an engineer and whole-heartedly supported their daughter’s adventures. “With every move, they would come visit me for the first few weeks to settle me in, explore the area, put up shelves,” she explains. “They have always been my anchor and my safety net. Even now, my dad has passed and my mum is 78, but I know I could always go home to her if everything went wrong.”
That seems unlikely. Sandrine has thrived for thirty years in the profession, worked in top roles at leading global businesses and created enough contacts to make a leap into life as an independent consultant in a country where there weren’t any, where visas needed a sponsor, and the local approach to reward was stuck some years behind the international approach. It was a leap of faith taken ten years ago, but with hard work and persistence, Sandrine has once again succeeded.
There were various reasons for taking her reward expertise out of the corporate world and going it alone as an independent consultant. “I was in my 40s and it was a moment to reflect on what I was doing,” she admits. “I loved reward but I felt like I wasn’t learning anything new, I was only working for bigger and bigger companies, responsible for more and more people.”
She was also based (happily) in Dubai, her first base in the Middle East and working for local companies where she saw both a lack of independent consultancies (“unlike places like London where there are many”) combined with “somewhat traditional” mindsets when it came to pay and compensation.
“Anything exciting or innovative in reward was happening at the international companies, not at local ones,” she explains. “I found organisations would end up focusing on the day-to-day more than looking ahead. Organisations need to be looking at the mega trends, not the small technical blips like high inflation rates. Those things don’t last.”
The challenge of persuading companies that they needed her reward advice has been softened by the pleasure she has found in escaping the “internal politics you get whenever you work for a company”. Importantly, she is relishing the opportunity to help more people and have a wider impact, rather than the “deep-dive” that internal roles provide. “For me, this is a way to have a legacy, to leave an imprint, I suppose.”
Insights and future-thinking
Sandrine is well-established and works as a consultant, trainer, speaker and educator with and for companies across the Middle East, Africa and Asia. This provides her with an interesting perspective on the non-Western needs, cultural quirks, approach and challenges that rub alongside the ubiquitous global pressures and trends, all of which need to be responded to in reward.
“It’s not completely different in each place, it’s more the global trends with a local or regional flavour,” she explains. “You have to understand that and work with it.”
For example, in the Middle East she has observed how the pandemic effect – facilitating more hybrid approaches to work and a rise of gig workers – has been interpreted for the local mindset and historical context.
“It wasn’t previously seen as something important, the gig workers,” explains Sandrine. “Here in UAE most people who work are foreigners and so they have always been seen as dispensable and replaceable.” This approach prevented the gig economy growing in the same way as other places, but that is changing now. The laws have also changed, facilitating a growth in this approach to work that is seeing a fragmentation of the workforce which, of course, requires different approaches to pay and compensation.
There is also the undeniable impact of digital technologies like automation and AI, which Sandrine is trying to open local eyes to. “I think the mindset is a little behind some more international companies here in UAE. People often stick their heads in the sand about this but it’s coming and will impact everything.”
“Too many organisations are still prizing the hard skills, being able to do technical things in Excel for example, and I try to explain that all this will be automated. In five years, ten years, the machines will do all that. It will be the softer skills that last longer and those are what we need to value and pay. Things like communication skills, analytical thinking, interaction and collaboration,” she stresses.
Looking across the Gulf, Asia and Africa – the regions she works most with – Sandrine notes that the fact that populations are far younger than in areas such as Europe or the US is going to have a huge impact on reward. One example is pensions; Government pensions won’t be sustainable so one solution she is seeing in the UAE is to encourage citizens to work in the private sector where their costs will be covered by someone else.
Interestingly, Sandrine has noticed the cultural impact of an increase in young, local Emirati people gaining experience in the private sector when they would previously have worked in government. “They think differently and they approach work differently, which will impact so many things in life,” she explains.
In Africa, by contrast, there is also a younger population but as many countries are in the midst of moving from an informal economy to a more formal one, the approach is different and the challenges will be unique. “But I’m not an expert on that region,” Sandrine adds, “I am more familiar with the Middle East at the moment.”
Ambitions and satisfaction
For now, Sandrine is happily settled in Dubai and maintaining an impressive consultancy, continuing to work in a role she enjoys immeasurably:
“Reward really offers the right mix for me. I like all the technical aspects and having to be analytical, but also that its people-orientated and really creative. I need the creativity. I always create new, unique solutions for everyone, I never copy-paste, even if I’m inspired by things I’ve seen and done before. Everyone is unique and I like the challenge of being creative.”
Her career has certainly delivered the childhood ambition to travel in addition to the day-to-day enjoyment, and it’s likely that this intrepid French woman hasn’t planted her roots in the UAE just yet. “I’m considering moving to Malaysia,” she confesses. “I love it there and would be really interested in getting deeper into the local flavour of reward in that country and the region.” Watch this space.
Find out more about Sandrine and her consultancy work on her website.