An engineer who “had a knack for people” and an affinity for Learning
Kitty: How did you end up in People and Culture? Was it what you expected?
Aaron: I actually graduated with an engineering degree. I got a Master's in Engineering as well and worked as an engineer for three years… only to realise that I hated engineering. My first manager mentioned to me, he said that, “Aaron, you seem to have a knack for people. You seem to have a knack of connecting people.” He opened me to the idea of being HR at the time. Being in a large organisation, it was a nice thing to be able to have talent mobilisation and I was seen as a “talent” at the organisation. They saw there was this weird engineer who wants to do HR and that's how I was moved from engineering to HR!
They saw there was this weird engineer who wants to do HR and that's how I was moved from engineering to HR!
They tested it out at first because they weren't too sure whether an engineer would be okay to step away from the limelight. For context, the company was an engineering company, and all engineers were superstars. HR has always been seen as the background support. To me, I was able to walk away from those things because I really enjoyed the process of engaging people.
The first HR pillar I took on was OD, then subsequently a bit of talent management. As the organisation started to restructure, that's where they put the whole talent management team together. The Head of Talent Management felt I had a bit more affinity for learning, so that's where I moved into Learning. The learning team had been there for many years and needed a refresh. At that time, learning was evolving towards developmental programs, it was on journeys. It was not hybrid learning, more blended learning, not just face-to-face assignments, coaching, and so on. It was very new to the organisation and I was given the task to revamp everything.
That was fun, stressful, but good to at least see things from a different angle. I got to visit some learning centres across Malaysia, understand how things run and how they make learning effective for the organisation. So that was my first role, being the Head of Learning at that time.
I decided to see the world more, because I felt being in the same organisation for too long would not be good for my growth personally. So I went into another organisation purely to do L&D with HRBP. The role was quite interesting as we had to be advisors of our specialty, our pillars, but we had to learn the business partnering role as well. I was a specialist in the previous years so that was a very steep learning curve because I was advising the business leaders (especially those I was business partnering with) on a lot of their staff issues. That was when I understood more about our employment laws, how we deal with industrial relations, employee relations as well. I enjoyed myself and COVID was an interesting period. That was the switch of change, from SHR to what we can do as partners to the organisation.
Headhunted to join a startup, taking on challenges beyond L&D and talent management
Aaron: Fast forward a few years later, I was headhunted to a startup and that was my first inclination of what a startup is. It was mind blowing for me because going in, I constantly questioned, “Why are we doing this? What's the policy for this and this?” Most of the time they wouldn't have any policies and if there were, they did not reflect employment laws or regulations for the country or they just didn't make sense. So I was there to structure their L&D policy and I enjoyed the fast pace and the youthfulness (I’d always joke that I'm one of the oldest in the organisation). I was one of the casualties of restructuring. When it happened, I didn't feel sad as I felt this was just the nature of a startup. I got to explore other things and the organisation gave me a refreshed outlook of what HR can become and what HR can do.
Then someone introduced me to Homage, who wanted me to be Head of People & Culture for Malaysia, even though I did tell them “by the way, I'm very heavy on L&D and Talent Management…you do know that I have HRBP experience, but I wouldn't know payroll and stuff like that?”. In startups, it's difficult to be in a specialisation so soon because of how small the organisation is. I just took it as a challenge and it's been 9 months, so it has been a good ride.
There’s ups and downs, things change all the time. But, in terms of being able to experiment, it’s been quite fun in HR at a startup. Is this something I was able to do in larger organisations back then? Not at all, I wouldn't have experienced it. When you experiment and it fails, you can actually just quickly clean it up and start again.
In terms of being able to experiment, it’s been quite fun in HR at a startup. Is this something I was able to do in larger organisations back then? Not at all, I wouldn't have experienced it. When you experiment and it fails, you can actually just quickly clean it up and start again.
So that has been my journey so far.
Kitty: There's a unique culture of experimentation in startups which you may not get in more mature companies.
Why startups in Southeast Asia need more senior HR leadership and a strong network of practitioners
Kitty: So to contrast the two mature: an established organisation versus a startup, you've been through resizing or restructuring at both on the receiving end and also on the implementation. When it comes to startups, what support do you wish there was more of? Especially in Southeast Asia, where there’s not a lot of playbooks and frameworks compared to Silicon Valley startups. In Southeast Asia do you feel there's a gap?
Aaron: A lot of HR people in startups just stumble upon HR, they could be juniors, country managers or even expansion managers. They may not have any HR background so to them, we need to do this or we need to execute that.
Firstly, there should be more senior leaders. HR leaders in startups may not necessarily be very senior, but at least mid-level to above. Those who’ve worked in corporates before so they’re able to come in and give guidance and policy-making. That is something that I feel is lacking, because I’ve spoken to my counterparts in different startups and they’re also sharing similar challenges.
Number two (which is something I personally am trying to build) is a network of HR practitioners among startups, at least in Malaysia we don't have that. For me it's a bit sad because HR in larger corporates always have networking sessions, they always have connections and are just learning from one another. I feel that’s what we lack in Southeast Asia.
HR in larger corporates always have networking sessions, they always have connections and are just learning from one another. I feel that’s what we lack in Southeast Asia.
That’s something that I hope will come out of things like this. Not necessarily a playbook (because different countries will have different cultural nuances, etc.), but a framework on how we could do restructuring. In my previous startup, I didn’t have a good experience as an employee of being laid off, how it was communicated to me, and the subsequent events. A playbook would help a lot of HR practitioners know that when this happens, that is what we need to do.
Using restructuring to be more strategic with succession planning and low-hanging-fruit investment in L&D
Kitty: Agree, just capturing some of the basic practices when it comes to restructuring or change management. I guess that's on the tactical side (and I love that you shared about community).
If we just look at restructuring, how can HR use that as a moment to be more strategic or be even more involved with talent development? Restructuring is a pretty big trigger in the life cycle of a startup, so what are some opportunities there for HR to get a seat at the table?
Aaron: I think in most restructuring, what would happen is they’d suggest who takes over the position, right? More often than not, it comes from within. It's always better, it's more strategic that way.
For example, if the Chief Product Officer decides to leave, I would rather get his number one or his number two to take over, rather than hire somebody else. Strategically, that's actually cheaper. It sends the message that we are growing our people within the organisation. A lot of learning moments can be done for the next level. I'm glad to hear what NewCampus is doing. I've heard of you guys last year at my first startup, and we were talking about how we can work together. I totally resonated with you guys because of how you talk about first-time managers, and because most of these people were there because of how the structure is.
In terms of talent development, HR should think about how to help our team leads grow as leaders. They are good technically at what they do, but how do we help them grow faster? How do we engage them to think more like leaders and to tell them, “You know what? You get to fail fast as a leader here, because you start to learn new lessons of your own leadership.”
The second thing is, how might we share with management some budget-friendly ways to invest in people development that don’t involve expensive systems (of which there are alot in the market)? We can always get a simple LMS or simple programmes that help the whole organisation grow. It's not just the team leads that need to grow, but also the associates. They need to grow fast, because their team leads can be made into a manager or even a C-suite at any time. There must be some form of succession planning that happens quickly.
It's not just the team leads that need to grow, but also the associates. They need to grow fast, because their team leads can be made into a manager or even a C-suite at any time. There must be some form of succession planning that happens quickly.
Kitty: Succession planning is always interesting in startups, especially if things change every month or every week. It's like a different organisation every quarter.
Using restructuring to be more strategic with succession planning and tailoring learning modules to be more startup-friendly
Kitty: When things are always changing, where do you see the role of learning? L&D is pretty easy to sell internally to established organisations, but for startups, how should they be thinking about L&D or just learning in general?
Aaron: I actually believe startups have a leg up in terms of an environment where L&D can thrive. For example, the usage of communication platforms, like Slack or Discord, actually allows community learning very fast. Many big organisations may not want to invest in such systems, but since you are already investing, then you can do that. That's number one.
Number two, I think we can experiment in terms of modules that we would like to see in an organisation. When it comes to learning, we don't have enough modules that are very startup-centric. Lots of modules are very large corporate-centric.
We can experiment in terms of modules that we would like to see in an organisation. When it comes to learning, we don't have enough modules that are very startup-centric. Lots of modules are very large corporate-centric.
For example, condensing a first-time managers programme into half a day, rather than a full-day program. Or pushing certain skill sets like coaching, or how to deal with difficult employees. These are areas we can turn into something startup-friendly, which are not easily accessible in the market.
There's so much potential for startups. I was speaking to a friend who is an independent vendor as a trainer. I shared with him saying “Hey, you know what? There is a market for you if you’d like to develop modules for first-time managers that are friendly towards startups”. It's something we are still talking about and that's very exciting if it can be done. So much potential in that whole field.
Kitty: In terms of the content and the community aspect, it sounds like startups need something much more contextually relevant, especially in Southeast Asia.
Aaron: A lot of the content for startups focusses on the project management side, for example, a lot on Scrum, on Agility and so on, but we need content on how you deal with people, especially as startups have a lot of remote workers involved.
Kitty: Those technical competencies are much easier to measure and when it comes to people leadership or management, perhaps it's perceived as more fuzzy?
Aaron: Correct. Startups are very OKR-driven because it's much easier to quantify things that are output driven. Whereas a lot of this leadership stuff is a grey area. Perhaps that’s why startups struggle when it comes to this because they're OKR-driven.
A future that lies in experimenting and empowering startups to shift their mindsets and grow with their people
Kitty: Our learning team would love to pick your brain on that because they're always trying to crack how to measure behaviour, how to measure transformation, how to measure culture, you'd have a lot of valuable input there!
So for you, what's in store in the year ahead? What about your own growth professionally?
Aaron: There have been offers to go back to large corporates, yet I've always hesitated because I like the startup space. I’m a little spoiled with too much freedom! I don't think I’ll be going back into a large organisation in the near future because I really enjoy being able to experiment and try out new things.
I’ve come to a place where I really like to help people and connect with companies to assist and support startups / SMEs in how they are moving with their people. I had a conversation with an NGO recently. The CEO of the was telling me they have many people issues because none of their employees have worked in corporate before. There's this mindset of I need to give, I need to be loving and so on. I did say those things are important (because that defines the work that you do), but you still need proper processes to help you grow together.
That made me realise I want to explore more of this space, helping SMEs and startups. For me personally, I'm still learning about the cycle of startups. Understanding how funding works, how expansion works, how things grow, how things are restructured. From a personal and professional standpoint, I want to continue to shape more courses for startups that are not just Agility and Scrum, which is everywhere. That has been my thought process, at least over the last one or two months.
I'm still learning about the cycle of startups. Understanding how funding works, how expansion works, how things grow, how things are restructured. From a personal and professional standpoint, I want to continue to shape more courses for startups that are not just Agility and Scrum, which is everywhere.
Kitty: Thank you for sharing so generously, I learned a lot from this conversation. Some common threads I'm seeing from very different HR leaders. I think what keeps coming up is this need for community. It's something we saw and felt was needed since the start of the year. We wanted to learn from leaders like yourself to figure out if it’d be valuable if we connected people at least to support each other. NewCampus is not expert in any way, but there's a lot of expertise out there and we just want people to learn from each other and catalyse that.
Aaron: In Southeast Asia, or in Asia at least, we’re hindered compared to our Western counterparts, where they’re a bit more mature in this whole thinking of startups. I was speaking to a former colleague at a large corporate who shared with me that people look at your resume and question why you were in an organisation for only six or seven months. That becomes a red flag.
I guess that culture is also moving inside the startup space, especially in this part of the world. You see that someone has been in an organisation for 6 months and “jumping around” and that becomes a red flag. But I've noticed it’s a very different culture in the Western world, where people jump from one company to another very frequently, especially in startups.
That's very normal for them. People look at it as your experience being built, not a red flag. I hope that type of mindset does come over to this side of the world, but that will take time because the startup ecosystem is still very young, at least in Southeast Asia.