From foundations in industrial psychology to accelerating skills in operations
Kitty: How did you end up in people and culture? And looking back now, was it what you expected?
Light: I studied industrial psychology in college. When I graduated, the BPO industry was booming. So working at the call centres were the highest-paying at the time. But I've always wanted a career in HR, so I did my internship in a hotel and really liked the work. It just happened that a friend of mine resigned from her job and I was the one who replaced her. so I started with Employee Relations and admin. A year after that, I got hired as an Employee Relations Specialist so I was dubbed as a “Terminator” ( not everyone would want to go into Employee Relations!). I was in Employee Relations for quite some time, then the role just evolved into being a consulting manager to HR business partnership. When I was at JPMorgan Chase, that was what I did.
When I shifted to another organisation, Employee Relations was separate, so I was purely a HR business partner and strategic partner to operations. That accelerated up my career and I went into talent management, OD, compensation, benefits and managing all this process end-to-end.
Looking back, this is what I've always wanted. Did I foresee the challenges? No, because you think you'll be part of an organisation for a long time, that's always the mindset, right? But with these booming industries, it got me to really want to experience these industries, to try out different roles in HR.
I've also been blessed to have good partners in operations. They had me be part of succession planning for operations and trained me for that so it really helped my career. I've also had a mentor in Operations, so I got a good grasp of how HR can support the business as a whole, not just an admin. That's how my journey has been in HR.
I've also been blessed to have good partners in operations. They had me be part of succession planning for operations and trained me for that so it really helped my career. I've also had a mentor in Operations, so I got a good grasp of how HR can support the business as a whole, not just an admin.
The crucial role of centralised data sources and dedicated, focussed teams to lead change effectively
Kitty: It's refreshing to hear you had people on the business side proactively involving you in the strategic planning process because that’s not the norm in Southeast Asia from what we’ve seen.
Let's talk about the difference between more structured, established organisations and startups. For nearly a year now, what have you observed with how startups do HR versus Continental or JPMorgan?
Light: Even if JPMorgan was established, when I joined it was really hyper-growth and I had to create processes as well. A large organisation’s payroll tends to run on Excel files and a lot of things are done manually. These are opportunities to make changes in the organisation so it’s more seamless, cohesive, etc. but because there are already some processes and tools in place, that was at least helpful. With Athena and some of the startups I have consulted, there are tools, but we had to make sure that it's really well thought out. For example, as a HR practitioner, I need a robust HIS and payroll tool. That's not available because we're still doing the canvassing and proposals.
When I joined Athena, they'd already been in operations for about a year. My main project was to transition them into the Philippine legal entity, so working with the government and making sure all statutories are done. It was not just paying people and that's it. Now with a lot of things we need to do, we had to make sure we had one cohesive source of truth, which is the HIS.
As a HR person, I need to be supported with tools to help me sustain growth and data is very important. As we grow, there's a lot of data I need, but I can’t get it from one source in a startup, at least for now.
As a HR person, I need to be supported with tools to help me sustain growth and data is very important. As we grow, there's a lot of data I need, but I can’t get it from one source in a startup, at least for now. With more established organisations, we already have those tools in place. You can just download data and use it to improve processes. Right now because you’re doing it manually, this means you have less bandwidth.
In changing organisations, people tend to get pulled in. Let's say a project manager gets pulled into an HR project. For good change management, it’s crucial to have a team that are experts in specific areas on these transformational projects. The concern I had was the long term strategy, but at the same time, I was doing the legwork building up the team. I started alone because I needed the right people on board and had to separate those that used to be under me. I was doing this project whilst onboarding people in my team and training them. The lesson learned was with these kinds of projects, you need a dedicated team to support you. That was not present in hyper growth organisations I've been in, we just pulled people from different teams.
If I were to change an organisation, I’d ask a team to just focus on this so timelines would be within our control. We'd think through the process and be held fully accountable because accountability can sometimes get too siloed.
We also had different data tasks we needed to do. If I were to change an organisation, I’d ask a team to just focus on this so timelines would be within our control. We'd think through the process and be held fully accountable because accountability can sometimes get too siloed and when there are roadblocks, there’s a lot of passing the buck around. It continues to be an area of support HR folks need during times of transition and change, even if you’re in an organisation that's established over the years. I love restructuring because it’s an opportunity to make changes. Sometimes people get too comfortable with the status quo and when they hear restructuring, they’re like “Oh no, there’s going to be change”. But to me, it's an opportunity and people don't have a choice when we restructure, they're forced to go through that!
I love restructuring because it’s an opportunity to make changes. Sometimes people get too comfortable with the status quo.
How specific training on change management skills can help set expectations for those leading the transformation
Kitty: Having structured data from a source of truth, intentional teams or resources allocated to projects, and just having the tools that you need, these are all internal to the organisation. Externally, do you see any gaps for support for HR, People and Culture, OD professionals like yourself?
Light: Personally, I didn’t get any training on how to manage change, I learned to navigate through it by learning from experience, learning from others experiences. But this exposure could be draining. So, if it were me, I’d want to develop people. This is how I mentor my team, they should be able to articulate what lessons they’ve learned, even in current projects. What have we learned here? How can we manage it differently? Because there's no intentionality in how this is going to be, as a change transformation agent. This is what you have to go through. You don't know what tools or processes to expect you’ll need. There's just a lot.
For example, a specific project I have right now involves transitioning from a remote work company that does not have a legal entity in the Philippines and pulling 1000 employees to join the new legal entity. You have to tell them now that we are a legal entity, we're not going to pay that difference in your taxes. It's going to impact them because the expectation when we hire independent contractors is that you’re paying your taxes, you’re paying your statutory contribution. So the burden shouldn't be on us.
But people were saying we don't want to pay the government, etc. So not everyone was able to transition and we weren’t trained to do these kinds of transitions. I've done mergers and acquisitions (which also has different learnings) but no one taught me what to expect. The CFO just wanted to open a legal entity, but we didn’t think through a lot of the HR things that needed to be done.
Good change management requires constant alignment with leadership, who influence their teams
Kitty: Speaking of collaborating with the business, you mentioned that you love restructuring. In an established organisation, change or disruption is ‘the thing that happens’ where the baseline is stability or BAU. But in a startup, change is the constant.
How do you keep pace with the baseline level of change? And then on top of that, a layer of restructuring or transformation. How do HR leaders in startups keep pace along with the business? Because it's like two layers of change happening. Your baseline change. Like every week something changes. But then on top of that, you might have a huge transformation project, like changing your entity.
Light: It was very difficult because in a remote work environment, you can’t gather people and announce hey, this is what we're going through right now. Not everyone has had experience in previous organisations with going through change or restructuring so it’s really new to them. While we're going through change, we're also trying to influence them, telling them the change is inevitable, how we will navigate this kind of environment. What could have been done differently was that it could have been done earlier, if there was already a plan to go through this. We did this change in October, but preparing people for change could have been done way back, because they’d already decided on this at the start of the year. If internally, this cannot be done, we could engage third parties on, for example, workshops on navigating change. Classroom training is not enough for me.
My focus was really leaders because if I cannot influence the leaders, how will I expect their team members to follow? It was constantly meeting with the leaders, constant explanation, repeating yourself over and over again. When you have a project that needs to be done, you have to manage mindset change at the same time.
In my experience, even leaders were resistant to change because there were a lot of things that we needed to do. My focus was really leaders because if I cannot influence the leaders, how will I expect their team members to follow? It was constantly meeting with the leaders, constant explanation, repeating yourself over and over again. When you have a project that needs to be done, you have to manage mindset change at the same time. With the transformation that we were going through, there were issues with the government, so we had to manage that. Because it was outside of our control, we had to explain it internally constantly, that we were still waiting for the government to issue this or that permit, why we could not apply for these statutory numbers, etc.
There’s a lot of layers and things happening at the same time. Could this have been avoided? I believe so (at least the part on preparing people for change). Yes, there are times we really have to make changes, I've experienced that in established organisations. But if you know the organisation is growing and there will be a lot of changes, make sure you set the right mindset in your people. That's the challenge and opportunity for us to be mindful as HR practitioners,when training and empowering people is at the bottom of the list. When I did talent management and OD, we made sure there was that support because that baseline holds the foundation together.
The role of learning in startups: identifying needs, communicating potential roles and prioritising areas for development
Kitty: You mentioned training and navigating change workshops as an example, where do you see the role of learning, just at a broader level in helping startups navigate this constant change and disruption?
Do you think startups almost feel like they don't need to, because we are a startup, we know how to learn, we're always learning and building. So then they might leave learning to the bottom of the list because there's a false sense of confidence that they are already a learning organisation.
Light: To me, learning is very important because the mindset of startups is to “learn along the way”. You can always start learning from others, then customise it for the organisation (because everything is not just about theories). Learn the basics, the best practice in the industry, this is where learning from others really helps because there's no one size fits all. If you’re part of a startup, this arms you with that basic knowledge. Startups need to understand the importance of having learning support in the organisation. For example, if you onboard people, how can learning support them?
Learn the basics, the best practice in the industry, this is where learning from others really helps because there's no one size fits all. If you’re part of a startup, this arms you with that basic knowledge.
People want open communication, to be involved in the process, to be involved in the success of the startup. They want to know what's in it for their career in the long run. This is where learning comes in when there's growth. You should be able to equip the people you already see as leaders in the organisation as it grows. This is a pitfall that I've had. I joined Optome at 2000 employees and then we skyrocketed. We grew by the thousands in a year and we just promoted managers. Then there was a lot of attrition, especially because I was handling the voice and clinical businesses. During that time, because our leaders were not equipped, I recommended a management training program, because we could already foresee where we're growing and not all good subject matter experts were good managers or leaders. We needed to make sure that the career path was really clear, that as a subject matter expert, you could go to this expert track if you're not really into the people manager track. It gives employees more drive, as a subject matter expert, because they know where they can go.
This is where startups could learn in terms of people, making sure you are equipping them with knowledge and letting them experience and helping them navigate. Identifying what other areas of learning needs there are per person. When I was at Continental, I’d sit through all their Talent Management Conferences where we discussed each person's achievements, weaknesses, strengths, readiness, and so on. What things need to be done? What training does this person need to do? What’s his role and the potential role we’d like to move him into? That's how I’d strategise in terms of training planned for next year, because we didn’t have enough budget to address everything. I had to prioritise and make sure these learning needs were addressed.
For example, something as simple as communication. Are people trained or knowledgeable of what “open communication” or “communication impact” means? This is where learning can help startups be intentional in educating leaders on the importance of investing in learning. Maybe a third party could influence the organisation and help them understand that though it may not solve every issue, it can help them navigate this startup journey and make it less painful.
The importance of communicating to employees about their future career pathways after a restructure, and the competencies needed to succeed
Kitty: Do you think with startups, there's a culture of certain competencies being weighted more heavily than others?
For engineers and product managers, the career pathing is clearer because hard technical skills seem easier to measure, whereas the so-called people skills, there's not as much precedent for startups. So if you promote an engineering lead to a manager, they'll magically know how to manage people overnight. We don't need to measure that. We don't need a benchmark or assess that competency.
Light: We know that leadership competencies are different to competencies as a developer. I've handled large tech teams and oftentimes, employees feel they should be the lead because they're good at this, but maybe they see their leader is not good at this. They probably see their leaders and think, “We're the same, why is this person my leader?” But they don’t realise leaders should have certain competencies and nobody's telling them that. It’s important that we cascade to them.
When I did a transformation in a plant, I reorganised them in a way that made it clearer how to get to the next level: these are the competencies, expectations, etc. I did a job evaluation/ job analysis project which helped them see that to be this, it required these competencies, this is the scope of the role, this is the basic requirement for experience and skills. Sometimes people believed that just because they had 5 years experience, they could move into the next level role. This shouldn’t be the case because you may have the skills, but technology changes too. You might be really good now, but in the future, it might not be needed anymore.
Even in the app development space, we need to be intentional in ensuring everyone is self-aware about the competencies needed for certain roles. This might upset people who feel they’re ready for the next level role. As management or HR, we must communicate enough to make sure they're aware.
Even in the app development space, we need to be intentional in ensuring everyone is self-aware about the competencies needed for certain roles. This might upset people who feel they’re ready for the next level role. As management or HR, we must communicate enough to make sure they're aware. We need to ask them, if you want to be at this level, how can we support you? In organisations, your career, your development is your responsibility. You have to be proactive. Just because you're not going to get paid to attend training, doesn’t mean you don't attend it anymore. This is not a growth mindset or a collaborative mindset. It's not a mindset that I would want to have in my team as well.
Kitty: It's these sorts of leaders that we need to identify and support so that they can spread their mindset to others, and build the culture one leader at a time.
Light: As a HR practitioner, I cannot influence 100% of the leaders. But I can at least influence most of them and then be intentional. My focus is on the change-makers, then those who are the negative ones, or those who are those sitting on the fence that I can convince to be more proactive and welcoming of the change.
Looking ahead to building up People & Culture for organisations who live and breathe their values
Kitty: What's in store for you in the year ahead? We're now halfway through 2023. Oh my god, where did it go? How are you thinking about growing professionally, personally?
Light: This is timely as I'll be finishing up with Athena. I want to be a part of an organisation that has a very strong culture and makes sure they’re living out that culture. When I look for opportunities, I’d really go into their mission and values, reach out to people in that organisation and ask, are your leaders living out the values? So it's going to be a career change perhaps, but I'm excited with what's ahead.
I've also been involved in leader impact as an organisation. It's a movement reaching out to leaders, reaching out to business people and helping them. How might they live a very cohesive life and stream it down to their organisations? Why I'm passionate about this is because as leaders, we have to really live out those values that we're preaching to others.
I definitely still want to be an HR practitioner because I can influence people to change and leave a positive legacy to these folks. Not everyone will appreciate you but at the end of the day, you put your heart into it and just work out of excellence and help these organisations.
I definitely still want to be an HR practitioner because I can influence people to change and leave a positive legacy to these folks. Not everyone will appreciate you but at the end of the day, you put your heart into it and just work out of excellence and help these organisations. Even my friends with businesses, I'm always willing to help them, even if it’s just housekeeping like making sure they give the right benefits to your people, managing them, etc. So impacting and changing organisations is something I really love. Also, you can always reach out to me for any other topics.