Behavioural science

A best-case study of strengthening company culture through competencies



How can you ensure the implementation of a new strategic direction that is reflected in employee and management behaviour?

In 2014, Merck began using its Competency Model to not only describe general desired behaviours (such as improve lives, be entrepreneurial, work with agility, give feedback, include others, give vision), but more specifically the key behaviours needed to drive our strategy and desired culture. The behaviours – as defined by the competencies – can then be used as a framework for both individual and team development, as well as articulating the desired cultural elements needed to implement the company strategy. 

As Merck accelerated its transition from a pharmaceutical and chemical company into a vibrant science and technology company, the need to specify what this meant on a behavioural and cultural level became even more important. In this context, the need to expand the mindsets needed to drive innovation, respond to digital trends and foster a collaborative and inspirational environment became critical themes, calling for an explanation of what this requires from employees and managers. Therefore, in 2016 we updated our Competency Model to:

1. Articulate key themes required to support Merck’s new strategic direction 

2. Define the behavioural implications of those themes throughout the hierarchy

3. Strengthen the embodiment of the new brand and employer brand by anchoring brand behaviours in the core behavioural framework

Our brand and competencies are highly important in order to differentiate us from our competitors and enable our leaders and employees to confidently communicate with each other and our partners about who we are. They enable us to build trust and loyalty with valued customers, partners and our workforce.

What constitutes our Competency Model?

What makes a brand? What is a culture made of? Culture is defined by the employees of the company, how they act, what ways they have to get work done and interact with each other. The employees represent Merck and by interacting with our stakeholders and by acting according to our new Competency Model, we live up to our brand promise and enable ourselves to deliver our targeted strategy. Overall, six new competencies form the Merck Competency Model which puts a stronger focus on the future of the company:

  • It emphasises our contribution to improve the lives of our customers, as well as acting ethically and entrepreneurial (“Purposeful”). 
  • It underlines strategic objectives such as the application of new technologies and the support of digitalisation (“Future-oriented”). 
  • It lays the foundation for innovation by defining behaviours like taking calculated risks and learning from mistakes as necessary requirements (“Innovative”).
  • It provides a basis for the future of a profitable business in which achievement-orientation and taking responsibility is vital (“Result-oriented”). 
  • It ensures a successful cooperation across businesses and hierarchy barriers (“Collaborative”) as well as a strengthened orientation on the development of employees (“Empowering”) are explicitly listed in the new competency model.

As can be seen, the behaviours are very specific to Merck as a company and the strategy we try to execute. In the development process, careful consideration was given to the most important elements of the current culture we wanted to keep and therefore emphasise, as well as elements that are more aspirational and therefore needed clarification and reinforcement. 

The content was sounded throughout hierarchies and countries, leading to one global model that defines specific behaviours for employees and different levels of leaders for each of the dimensions. 

How to integrate a Competency Model in the company? 

The new Merck brand and Competency Model were launched at the same time, reinforcing the change in direction in the company strategy and culture. In essence, the behaviours of the Competency Model serve at the same time as brand behaviours and are also reflected in the employer brand which we launched this year. This correlation ensures, for instance, that we attract talents that already model their actions on behaviours that are closely aligned to our competencies or are willing to further develop them. We then sought to implement the competencies on both the individual and team level. 

To support the roll-out on the team level, as well as providing marketing materials and communicating internally, we developed a company-wide training on both the competencies and Merck’s new branding. Managers can use the workshop toolkit to facilitate an active dialogue on the competencies and their behavioural dimensions, and strengthen the identification with the new brand.

The advantage of using the Competency Model in a workshop is that concrete actions can be developed on how to bring the brand and Competency Model to life among teams and start translating the topics into day-to-day work and thinking. Some teams may also decide to prioritise certain competencies or dimensions based on their current contribution to the strategy. To measure our team and organisational capabilities along the Competency Model attributes, we have integrated them into our annual employee engagement survey in addition to standard categories.

This provides us with organisational and team data to both track progress and examine correlations between the competencies and for instance engagement or diversity parameters. 

To ensure the alignment of individual behaviours to the organsational strategy, the Competency Model has been integrated into all human resources processes and tools. The competencies are reflected in our recruiting process, where we already want to make sure potential candidates are assessed regarding our competencies. The model is the key behavioural framework of our employee development and talent management process through an integration in multi-rater feedbacks (a 360 degree feedback which is now based to a large extent on the competency model), employee-manager dialogues and development plans.

All our learning offers at Merck have been mapped to the new competencies so employees and managers can develop competencies identified to be strengthened in the development assessments and discussions. Recruiting and individual assessment data, in aggregate, also provides a key data source to measure where further support may be needed for particular workforce segments. 

“The Competency Model has been integrated into all human resources processes and tools.” 

It will be critical to continue bringing the Competency Model to life within our organisation, tie it to other initiatives and topics and establish it as a common practice when we speak about the development of managers and employees as well as our next priorities as an organisation.

Jennifer O’Lear

Jennifer O’Lear heads the engagement and inclusion team in HR at Merck as well as serving as chief diversity officer. She joined Merck in 2001 and has held various positions within the company, such as portfolio manager, executive committee coordinator, head of HR communications and head of learning and development. In her current role, she is responsible for a wide range of cultural and development topics, such as the Merck Competency Model and topics tied to employee engagement like the Engage! Surveys taking place across the entire Merck group.

Jana Latzel

Jana Latzel is currently heading the global HR marketing and communications team at Merck. Previously, Jana worked as an HR marketing expert at Merck. Before that, she worked as an HR marketing consultant as well as a manager for strategic employer branding and business development at Bertelsmann AG, a large German media corporation.