How Puma’s director of people gets the best out of its global workforce

With 80 different nationalities represented at its German headquarters, Puma’s global director of people and organisation Dietmar Knoess explains how the sportswear giant goes about getting the best out of its global workforce

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Nestled in the Bavarian hills, in the valley of the river Aurach, lies the German town of Herzogenaurach. Beyond its Fehn tower and medieval cobbled streets, Herzo (as it’s affectionately referred to by locals) is perhaps best known as the hometown of Adi and Rudi Dassler – the two feuding brothers whose acrimonious split led to the formation of two sportswear behemoths, Adidas and Puma.

Since their founding in the 1940s, the two companies have held huge sway in the area, which was once referred to as “the town of bent necks” due to the fact citizens would stoop to see which brand of trainers a person was wearing before deciding whether to interact with them. 

Dietmar Knoess’s CV

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While the rivalry is no longer as fierce as it once was, the influence that both businesses have on the municipality remains. “It might not have the pull of New York or London, but so far we’ve succeeded in persuading people to relocate here,” says Dietmar Knoess, Puma’s global director of people and organisation. “Some people will come to Puma thinking they will work here for one or two years but they inevitably end up staying longer.”

Together, Adidas and Puma employ in excess of 6,000 people in their Herzogenaurach headquarters – equal to roughly a quarter of the town’s overall population. And Puma in particular has found success with a policy of recruiting people from all over the world. Some 80 different nationalities are represented in its HQ, and more than 50% are non-German. “We pretty much have the whole world represented in our office,” Knoess adds.

How to attract a diverse workforce

Building an international workforce has come with many benefits for the brand. Germany has a particularly acute recruitment challenge at the moment, with 86% of employers in the country reporting a talent shortage. Knoess believes that his company’s proficiency at importing talent has helped Puma to largely avoid this issue. 

“The positive for us is that Puma is well renowned globally and we’ve done a great job at developing the employer brand,” he adds. “We have an advantage in the fact that we recruit people from all over the world and we started that journey many years ago.” 

View Of The Puma Headquarters In Herzogenaurach
View of the Puma headquarters in Herzogenaurach

Puma’s history of hiring diverse talent has meant that the business has passed a “tipping point”, at which point Knoess claims it becomes easier to attract diverse candidates. “In my experience, if you hire enough people with different mindsets or from different backgrounds, it doesn’t require any effort anymore,” he adds. “The first step is the most challenging.”

He is reluctant to purely discuss diversity in terms of quotas and sees no need for employee networks, which have become common at other large organisations. “When you talk about real diversity, it shouldn’t be a discussion of gender or origin. It’s more about diversity of minds,” he says. “We could hire people from 50 more countries but that won’t make us more diverse as an organisation. Diversity only works if you have a psychologically safe environment that allows people to express themselves.”

As a company that sells its products in 120 countries, having a wide international representation within Puma’s workforce helps the business to understand the different needs of people across the globe, Knoess says. 

To illustrate his point, Knoess points to the fact that Puma was responsible for developing the hijab for Moroccan international footballer Nouhaila Benzina, who became the first player to wear a head covering at the women’s World Cup this year. He describes his company’s involvement in the breakthrough moment as “awesome”. “It’s important that your products reflect the diversity you have within the company,” he adds.

Puma’s method for talent retention

It’s not just an ability to attract overseas talent that makes Puma stand out, according to Knoess. It’s also about employee retention, which he describes as “the best hiring strategy a company can have”. 

“Hiring a foreign worker is an easy thing, everyone can do it. But making sure they are still with the business after five years, that’s the challenge,” Knoess says. “The only way to do that is to create a culture which accommodates all the diverse needs of your people.”

Diversity only works if you have a psychologically safe environment that allows people to express themselves

Being aware of diverse needs requires HR leaders to pay attention to the impact that international events – whether conflicts or natural disasters – have on their employees, particularly when they have a diverse mix of backgrounds. “Of course, people are affected by what’s happening in the world and this can be very stressful for them,” Knoess says. “That’s why it is important for us to reach out and let them know that we are here for them. It is important that we show empathy.” 

At Puma, Knoess has sought to create a workplace that celebrates people’s differences. In practice, this involves recognising different religious holidays and national days within Puma’s head office by serving the relevant country’s national cuisine. On Brazil’s Independence Day, for example, this involved offering staff a glass of the national cocktail Caipirinha. 

“We want to always appreciate the diversity we have, but that requires you to make the effort,” Knoess explains. “It’s a learning process; it doesn’t happen overnight.”

Regular sporting activities, including football, tennis, beach volleyball and night runs, also help to foster a sense of belonging among employees. “Many people who join us from outside Germany don’t have a social network here. That’s why we offer a range of sports activities, training sessions, music courses and cooking classes – whatever works to bring people together and to build up a social network,” Knoess adds.

His aim is to create an environment that people enjoy working in. “It means that coming to the office is not just about coming to work, it’s also about meeting your friends,” he says. 

Why the recruitment challenge is here to stay

Unfortunately, the recruitment problem is one that Knoess only foresees worsening in the years ahead. Germany is dealing with a skills shortage as its workforce shrinks and German labour minister Hubertus Heil has warned that the country faces a shortfall of as many as 7 million workers by 2035.

“There are not too many options that you have as an employer,” Knoess says. Beyond recruiting from outside Germany, as Puma already does, Knoess believes that German businesses can encourage people to work for longer; utilise AI to automate some processes and find ways to make it easier for women to return to work after having children. 

“We always have to explore a mix of these options, just to see what makes sense. This might also involve moving jobs to places outside Germany where you find talent,” Knoess explains. Puma already offers external childcare, but is considering expanding its campus to build a kindergarten and creche at its HQ, he adds. 

Despite these challenges, Knoess believes that Puma must stick to its values. “As a sports brand, we know the power it has to unite people from different backgrounds,” he adds. “We are convinced that diversity drives our success.”