Interview with Ian Wright, compensation and benefits director for Europe and Asia Pacific at Novell

Ian Wright, compensation and benefits director for Europe and Asia Pacific at Novell, values a healthy work-life balance to cope with a high-pressure role

Compensation and benefits professionals do not always take their own advice. But when it comes to areas such as work-life balance, Ian Wright, compensation and benefits director for Europe and Asia Pacific regions at US software firm Novell, advises other practitioners in the field to practise what they preach.

“This applies to any line of work as much as it does to compensation and benefits,” he says. “Having a healthy work-life balance means you can do your job more productively in the long run, rather than letting the pressures of work take over your life.”

Such advice is particularly relevant in the current recession, with compensation and benefits professionals facing tough challenges.

Having notched up nearly 20 years in the industry, Wright has developed extensive knowledge of the skills and attributes needed to succeed. He urges human resources professionals who are new to the world of benefits not to get too hung up on becoming a technical expert and to concentrate instead on developing effective working relationships with consultants.

“What I have found is that you do not need to be a technical specialist to be a benefits manager,” he says. “The main skill you need is to be able to manage consultants and brokers, and know what questions to ask them.”

Wright began his career as a human resources and compensation consultant for Watson Wyatt. In 1999, after nine years in the role, he left to become assistant vice-president for compensation at JP Morgan Chase. Wright, who became the bank’s vice-president for benefits in 2002, admits the transition into this new area of HR was a little daunting.

“Initially, I was a bit cautious about making the leap from compensation to benefits. This was because benefits seemed very technical in terms of the knowledge needed on taxation and the law.”

Despite his wide experience, Wright still finds his work can be challenging. In both his current position with Novell and his previous role as compensation manager for Europe at business service software firm SAP, he has become well versed in meeting the challenges of managing compensation and benefits on a global scale.

For example, he is currently embroiled in tough negotiations with Novell’s US headquarters over the firm’s fleet arrangements, which provide cars for staff in Europe. “While the US would agree with us that we need to provide medical benefits, which are a key part of their employees’ benefits package, when they see we are providing company cars, they do not always appreciate the value,” he says. “They think it is an unnecessary perk, whereas in Europe we see it as part of somebody’s salary.”

Under Novell’s European fleet arrangement, UK employees are offered cash allowances, while German staff are given company cars. But to reduce costs, the company is likely to reduce the overall number of employees who are offered cars.

Wright has also been working to adapt the company’s compensation planning tool, provided by PeopleSoft, to enable managers to manage performance salary increases alongside bonus allocation.

One of Wright’s biggest career achievements took place at SAP, where he took a leading role in delivering a salary review and bonus planning. He believes the key to implementing such projects successfully is to build up a robust business case from the outset, which can help to generate the resources needed to complete the project.

Wright says it is also important for reward professionals to ensure their finance directors understand the value of benefits-related costs, which can be particularly difficult to get across in the current economic climate. This can be achieved by ensuring finance directors fully understand any contractual obligation the employer has to offer specific perks or discuss the impact these can have on productivity.

Curriculum Vitae:

2008-present compensation and benefits director, Europe and Asia Pacific, Novell

2003-2008 compensation manager for Europe, SAP 1999-2002 assistant vice-president for compensation, then vice-president for benefits, JP Morgan Chase

1990-1999 senior HR and compensation consultant, Watson Wyatt Partners

Q&A:

What is your favourite benefit?

Because I have a young family, private medical insurance is the benefit I value the most. You never know when you might need it. Even if you are healthy today, you might not be tomorrow.

Who is your biggest source of inspiration?

It is not really business-related but I am a massive Liverpool fan. I grew up in the 1980s, so my role model has to be Kenny Dalglish, who is the only person who has been hugely successful as both a player and a manager of Liverpool Football Club.

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What is your career ambition?

I have spent most of my career working remotely for American companies, so one day it might be nice to work for a British company. One day I guess I would like to be managing compensation and benefits from a company’s headquarters rather than out in the field.