People – not algorithms – still hold the key to successful innovation in business, according to Red Bull Australia managing director Jason Sargent, who explained that the business takes a “back to basics” approach to sourcing and developing talent to drive innovation and growth.
Innovation is a human process, and this is particularly important in a business such as Red Bull which is heavily reliant on marketing creativity and success, said Sargent, who looks for three specific qualities in potential recruits for the business.
“We have to have a pretty tight hiring process, because we need to hire the right people and the right people for us are people who can ideate and execute,” he said.
“We don’t have a lab for innovating; we go out and do stuff with people, we go out and do stuff in the marketplace with our brand on it, and that’s how we test and learn – you’ve got to get more of those right than wrong as there are brand reputational risks with this process.”
“It has its challenges, as the purpose avails us to so many opportunities – we have great strategic frameworks that are built up at a local level to ensure we stay focussed,” said Sargent, who explained that while there is room to be pragmatic, providing a safe-to-fail environment is important and having a culture of test and learn is critical.
To help minimise these risks and drive marketing innovation, Sargent said there are three things he looks for in candidates: (1) those who are prepared to take risks, (2) people who are creative, and (3) individuals who can successfully balance ideation, innovation and execution.
Red Bull relies heavily on referrals when it comes to recruitment, and Sargent said he prefers to look at potential candidates that come through this process rather than traditional approaches to recruitment.
“If you have the right people in your business, they are also naturally connected with the right people either in their personal or professional lives,” said Sargent, who explained that just over 60 per cent of all roles within Red Bull are filled internally.
“We need to hire the right people and the right people for us are people who can ideate and execute”
“We value word of mouth and networks much greater in our recruitment than all other recruitment streams, and we turn to LinkedIn, recruitment agencies or job ads only as a last resort.”
Sargent said he also likes to develop talent from within the business and hire candidates who can grow and progress their careers through Red Bull.
“We work a lot with young marketeers and people in university, so we graduate people through our business and that enables us to scope and mould innovation to the goals we have as a business,” he said.
“If we do hire people from outside, which we do, the first hoop you’ve got to get through is around values, behaviour and attitude.”
The technical components of personal, education or work experience are less relevant to Red Bull in the first instance, he explained: “If you don’t pass the idiot check it doesn’t matter what school you’ve been to.”
Red Bull puts all applicants through a behavioural assessment before they get to a first interview to discuss experience, and Sargent said he also likes to put both internal and external candidates through tests involving case studies and real on the job challenges.
“These are the three most important parts of the recruitment process for us: behavioural screening, that first interview and the case study,” said Sargent, who added that these steps are also supplemented by other processes to help round the process out.
The source of innovation
Marketing and creative innovation are critical to the ongoing success and growth of Red Bull, and product innovation is not a focus for the business as it only sells one product.
“We basically have two main streams of innovation, without going into too much IP – we have people internally who are involved in that insights to ideation process, where the innovation comes from our own people understanding what the consumer challenge is and then working out the solutions themselves,” he explained.
“We value word of mouth and networks much greater in our recruitment than all other recruitment streams”
“Depending on the team and the size of the challenge, we might run a hackathon, workshops with consumers, planning days, or even blue ocean days with customers. It really depends on what the business challenge is.”
The key to the success of this process is that an employee is in the room to gain insights, from the original of a problem all the way through to a solution.
A second source of innovation in the business comes from collaboration from both within and outside the business, including athletes Red Bull works with, as well as artists and musicians it supports, and the networks it keeps.
“When you are known as a brand for doing things others will not, either because of risks or budgets, or because partners are looking for a particular return on investment and they know that Red Bull looks at the value of those ideas differently, we are open to innovation from outside of our immediate network and world, and will try things no-one else will,” said Sargent.
As an energy drink brand, he said there are very few companies in the world that will own Formula 1 teams or football clubs, or have an athlete attempt to break multiple world records by jumping from the stratosphere.
“Such proposals can land on a thousand corporate desks and no-one would even give it a second glance to consider it,” he said.
“But those are the sorts of things that people are happy to send to us, and we evaluate those from top to bottom based on the criteria of the opportunity.
“The purpose of the organisation is to ‘give wings to people and ideas’; it’s a great filter for innovation as it allows for a limitless platform of achievement or problem-solving.”
The role of HR in innovation
Sargent explained that HR plays an important role in the process of innovation in a number of ways: “HR have a seat at the table, they are involved in the strategy creation, project teams, as well as supporting leadership team members with direct coaching or linking teams with specialist coaches based on needs,” he said.
“We need people who are able to quickly adapt to change and market forces – and who are also fun to work with”
HR is also an integral part of an internal or an external candidate’s performance at Red Bull, from providing tools and resources for them to on-board or develop, he said.
“Most of the solutions that we provide people in our business are Red Bull solutions,” said Sargent.
“We very rarely participate in external training, conferencing or other development options, as we tend to do all those things inside the business; we do that well and we train people in how to do that.”
Internally, HR is helping drive change as well, and Sargent said HR within Red Bull globally is at the centre of scoping, ideating and providing internal solutions for team members to be able to run those projects effectively using agile project management.
“Agile project management is something that’s new to Red Bull, as we’ve tended to do things departmentally in the past,” he said.
“So agile project teams are now in development in Australia and globally, and while HR may go outside to find support to help with these, ultimately they’ll craft those external solutions into very Red Bull-specific solutions so our internal teams can develop and prosper.”
On an operational level, HR is always involved in acquiring the right talent, from interviewing, behavioural screening as well as onboarding, according to Sargent, who said this process ensures consistency across the organisation.
When it comes to recruitment, he also believes in a more traditional approach: “As the leader of the business, which tends to offer a line of guidance for the rest of the business, intuition and gut feeling is still so important when you’re dealing with a lifestyle brand,” he said.
“We’re not a brand that is interested in flavour of the month technical skills or employees; we need people who are able to quickly adapt to change and market forces – and who are also fun to work with.”
“I’ve done 19 years in this one company, and there are a few things that keep me here – and one of them is I really enjoy working with the people who are here. That’s got retention value for me, and I’m sure it’s got a retention value to others.
“When you have a profile like Red Bull does, you’ve got to work hard to retain and engage people given the competition for talent”
“We’re not a stand-around-the-bar-on-Friday-and-drink kind of company, we don’t necessarily need that to have fun. We actually enjoy the process of working together.”
Key outcomes and results
Red Bull has experienced a number of benefits as a result of the above approach, and Sargent observed that business is growing faster than the energy drinks category itself in terms of growth, and has above benchmark performance in terms of engagement and retention, as well as Net Promoter Scores.
“Growth is rarely ever one thing, it’s always a combination of multiple factors,” he said.
“We’ve been selling the same thing for 20 years, so to achieve growth from that same product for 20 years says something – so to grow a business with this context doesn’t just happen.
“Because we continue to push and drive innovation, and HR’s role in making sure we have the right people and the right solutions, that all contributes to that growth that we have in our category.
“We operate in a really competitive environment for talent, and retaining, engaging and developing people is difficult in our world – particularly as we cross over marketing, content and communication streams from other beverage manufacturers, as well as talent from tech companies, marketing agencies or TV companies and stations.
“We don’t operate in one sphere or one dimension, we operate in several – and when you have a profile like Red Bull does, you’ve got to work hard to retain and engage people given the competition for talent,” said Sargent.
Sargent explained that employee engagement within the business is strong, and with a workforce comprising 83 per cent Millennials, he acknowledged that their career choices are largely based on their own immediate desire to grow and develop.
“There are lots of benefits and advantages in working here, and we pay people fairly for what they’re worth – but Millennials don’t stay for that; they want to grow and develop and be engaged, and we give them plenty of opportunities to do that,” he said.