Meet HR GIG 7 Speaker, Marisa Xuereb, President of the Malta Chamber of Commerce

Marisa Xuereb is an economist by training and a manufacturing specialist who runs a medium-sized manufacturing company that forms part of an industrial technology group based in Munich.

Posted on: Wednesday, July 6th, 2022

Over halfway through a two-year term as President of the Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise, and Industry, she is also a director on the board of Malta Enterprise and a governor on the board of the Malta College of Arts, Science, and Technology on behalf of the Chamber. HR GIG 7 will be her second time moderating the panel, and we sat down with her to get to know more about her thoughts on silos.

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I’m an economist by education, and I’ve been managing Raesch Quarz (Malta), a quartz fabrication company, for the past 25 years. At the moment, I’m President of the Malta Chamber of Commerce and Industry for a two-year term that started in March 2021. I was Deputy President during the previous two years, so I knew what I was going in for and the transition was smooth.

The role is very challenging and takes up most of my time, at all hours of the day including weekends, so it is even more demanding than my full-time employment. It’s a pro bono position in which you do as much as you possibly can, and there’s so much to do that you feel like you’re never doing enough.

I’m also a mother to two teenagers.

What is the work culture like?

At Raesch, we’ve managed to cultivate a family business culture even though it is not a family business. We employ fifty people, most of whom have been with us for at least 15 years, which in today’s world is quite an achievement. This culture did not happen overnight, in the sense that we started a cultural shift that many other companies are only getting to now, years ago: flexible work schedules, performance bonuses and perks such as health insurance and gym subscriptions for everyone irrespective of their role. I firmly believe this culture has helped us retain people and even encourage their children to sign on to work with us when they come of age.

We pay decent wages, but that alone is not enough. You need to have the right culture that makes people feel they belong, and encourage strong relationships between colleagues, and an open relationship with their superiors: it all contributes to people feeling as though they own their job and they are accountable.

We’re an export company in an industry that is very demanding in terms of both quality and value for money. The learning curves are long, the level of quality of work we require is very high, and therefore having high retention is very important for us. The fact that we are seeing a number of second-generation employees joining us, as people who work here bring their children onboard to work here too, is testimony to the fact that we have managed to create something that is rather special.

At the Chamber, the communication style is completely different. It is an organisation that has a strong legacy spanning 175 years. The culture was very formal until very recently. As a result of the process of renewal that The Chamber has undergone in the last couple of years, it has become less formal, more open to younger business leaders and more focused on results. I went in with a manufacturing mindset and a focus on improving productivity and building strong stakeholder relations. The Chamber employs 20 people, some of whom have worked here for many years. Most employees have embraced the new way of doing things, while others have struggled, and, inevitably, left because of it. However, I believe that everything we do at the Chamber is an opportunity to bring in new energy, new blood, and new mentalities, and I feel this is helping the Chamber to better align with a modern business culture.

This seems to be having a very positive impact on membership; our membership has doubled in the past two years, and we have seen a lot of female entrepreneurs join the Chamber, which was a rarity in the past. We’re developing very good relations with both local and foreign partners including other Chambers, educational institutions and embassies. We’re doing a lot of work on policy as well as on internationalisation, which is particularly challenging. Growing your business beyond the local market is a big leap, but local businesses are showing interest, which is an excellent sign. This also requires a change in culture; you need to take calculated risks to be able to grow beyond the limitations of the local market.

What are your thoughts on silos in the workplace?

I think silos limit growth potential both for the organisation and the individuals that work for it. We tend to think that career development is bottom-up, whereas in fact, it can go laterally, and not only can it be quicker that way, but also more exciting. If you work in an organisation that is highly siloed, it is very difficult to make these lateral moves because you have no visibility of what goes on in other departments.

From an organisation point of view, employees in a highly siloed organisation tend to hoard rather than share potentially useful information, stifling communication between departments. Instead of working together, there’s an element of competition that develops between departments. Many solutions will require a broad skill set which is difficult to find in the same department and therefore silos act as barriers to developing effective solutions.

At the Chamber, we are working hard to eradicate this. We’ve made a lot of changes in the organisation and have done away with a hierarchical structure, adopting a flat, flower-like structure with a number of relatively small teams feeding into the core, which reflects much better how the Chamber functions today and how it can develop further in future.

In a manufacturing environment, work organisation tends to be very process-based: all processes are clearly defined and everything can be measured precisely. If people are competent in multiple processes, they provide flexibility in the case of shortages or sickness. In an organisation that is not siloed, these kinds of allocations are not perceived to be some kind of punishment, but rather a way of pitching in towards a common goal. The mindset that we are one team, and that one department can pitch in to help another is a very healthy way of looking at it, and is very useful in a manufacturing environment.

Silos can also be created when people are overworked, and become snowed in under their workloads. So making time for regular meetings is important. When people are overstretched, there is a tendency to stop listening and to stop making time for others. Sustainable workloads need to allow space and time for people to follow what is happening in the organisation beyond the confines of their desk, and also to allow working on projects that run across departments. This method can avoid frustration and burnout.

A highly siloed organisation ends up like a dictatorship and people these days are less tolerant of such environments. In this kind of evolution of work culture, the more silos you have, the more difficult it’s going to be to retain people and grow.

As a country, we are intrinsically siloed. Every sector in Malta seems to be competing for its share of GDP. In reality, every sector of the economy depends on and generates activity for other sectors. The silo mentality can really limit our economic vision as a country

Could you tell us a little bit about HR GIG? 

I attended last year for the first time – I actually replaced a staff member who was meant to moderate a panel but could not make it. I’m used to being on a panel, but not moderating; it was an enriching experience. There was a really great vibe. The majority of the people present had a very broad outlook: they were HR people and CEOs who saw HR as a truly key function of the organisation but who wanted to explore how HR interacted with all aspects of an organisation, which I thought was very refreshing.

HR is one of the most important roles in an organisation today; we have very critical human resource shortages and customer expectations keep getting higher. HR professionals are facing challenges that they haven’t faced before due to a highly mobile, multicultural workforce, which in many cases works remotely or has hybrid work arrangements. All this presents significant challenges.

How can CEOs foster a better environment for communication and trust?

Every human relationship, including the one between leadership and team members, is built on trust. It is the single most important thing. Trust doesn’t come out of thin air, it’s something that you have to work on. Openness builds trust – open communication from leadership, even when it’s bad news, will build a lot of trust. This needs to be reciprocated. A very open leader will realise immediately when employees are not being open.

The biggest problem we face is retention. It is very difficult to make long-term plans when people don’t really engage with longer-term projects because they’re constantly on the lookout for their next job. This has been the biggest shift in work ethic that I’ve seen over the course of my career. It wasn’t always like this. People would join an organisation with the intention of growing within it before looking outside it.

What do you think causes these retention problems?

There is of course a lot of poaching going on, and if you stay too long with the same employer, it’s almost like there’s something wrong with you, which is not always the case. There is the influence of social media: people want to do what everybody else is doing; when people change jobs and put it on LinkedIn to accolades, others are more likely to be encouraged to change their job too. In today’s tight work market, one person changing jobs causes a domino effect, which is amplified by the shortage of labour.

Often enough, employees have a desire to be self-employed, because they have very utopian ideas about self-employment. The reality is that self-employment is very hard to pull off.

There’s also the challenges of what we call work-life balance, which I rather think of as work-life harmony. For me, work has always been an important part of my life. There have been moments when I wished I had more free time – but I wouldn’t change much of what I’ve done so far. The reason is simple: work has always provided me with a lot of satisfaction, and I work on things that I enjoy. If I’m not enjoying something, I will step out of it. Work-life harmony is particularly important when you have a family, or demanding hobbies and other interests, when you want to travel or pursue further education. It requires a certain degree of flexibility from your job that, in a lot of jobs, is not possible.

On the other hand, employees need to understand that a job is a commitment; you cannot organise the rest of your life, and fill in the blanks with your job. Especially now that people are working from home, some tend to make their own plans and do their jobs in-between. Employers and employees need to be fairer to each other, and flexibility demands even more trust and openness.

What are the benefits of attending HR GIG?

You’ll meet interesting people, and you’ll have the time and space to think about things that you don’t normally have time to think about. The way the event is organised allows for a lot of interaction. There are moments where it’s humorous, and I feel that’s a good way of approaching challenges in life. The fact that they manage to inject humour into a conference like this is really fantastic.